SEVEN, the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community, releases this month

SEVEN is being released in North America this September (Sept 5 Canada/Sept 29 U.S.). The novel sensitively addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity, intergenerational violence, religion and healing sexual trauma within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra (sub-sect of Shia Islam) community. This is the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community. Farzana is an engaging speaker on all of the above themes and issues.

About SEVEN: When Sharifa accompanies her husband on a marriage-saving trip to India, she thinks that she’s going to research her great-great-grandfather, a wealthy business leader and philanthropist. What captures her imagination is not his rags-to-riches story, but the mystery of his four wives, missing from the family lore. She ends up excavating much more than she imagined. 2016 is a time of unrest within her insular and conservative religious community, and there is no escaping its politics. A group of feminists is speaking out against khatna, an age-old ritual they insist is female genital cutting. Sharifa’s two favourite cousins are on opposite sides of the debate and she seeks a middle ground. As the issue heats up, Sharifa discovers an unexpected truth and is forced take a position. In an era of #MeToo, Doctor brings us a soulfully written book about inheritance and resistance. 

Sahiyo is giving away a copy of SEVEN to a lucky recipient! Sign up for our newsletter to find out how!

About the author: Farzana Doctor is an award-winning writer, activist, and psychotherapist. She is the author of four novels: Stealing Nasreen, Six Metres of Pavement, All Inclusive, and the forthcoming Seven. Farzana was recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now.” She is a founding member of WeSpeakOut.

SEVEN has already received excellent advance praise: “A brave and beautiful novel.”—Judy Rebick, author of Heroes in My Head

“Seven is an intimate, gutsy feminist novel that exposes the lasting, individual impacts of making women’s bodies fodder for displays of religious obeisance.”—Michelle Anne SchinglerFOREWORD Reviews

“Penetrating and subtle, SEVEN deftly explores loyalty in changing times, what it means and what you give up to be a part of a community, a marriage, and friendships. Sharifa is a sympathetic everywoman; her relationships fully realized and deeply felt in this immersive, absorbing portrait.”—Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster and Trickster Drift.

“A defiant and engrossing novel.”—Sarah Schulman, author of Conflict is Not Abuse.

“In her grand tradition, Farzana Doctor once again pushes us forward with nuanced, layered, inter-generational prose, to bring visibility to an important social issue. An urgent and passionate read.”—Vivek Shraya, author of I’m Afraid of Men and The Subtweet

Sign up for Sahiyo’s newsletter to win a copy of SEVEN!

To my surprise, my friend defended khatna

By Anonymous

Having decided to pursue law at the age of 15 years old, I was excited yet unprepared to know about the society that we live in. For the past four years, I have gathered enough evidence through lectures, presentations, and discussions over coffee about the horrors of which any society is capable. One such day one of my professors decided to speak about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and asked two of my peers to give a presentation on it.

The projector was switched on, lights were switched off, and my two peers took center stage to introduce the class to the topic. At the end of the presentation in a class where several hands routinely raise eager to question presenters, there was pin-drop silence. The professor smiled at the horrid, silent expressions of my classmates and broke the silence to facilitate a discussion. Gradually, all of us formed a consensus that FGM/C is harmful and needs to stop.

After class, I went home and started researching the practice and ended up watching a documentary, The Cut: Exploring FGM by an Al Jazeera correspondent. I read various articles where I learned FGM/C was practiced widely among the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, and this practice was known as khatna. 

My heart sank as I realized that a very close friend by the virtue of being from the community must have undergone FGM/C. As a concerned friend, but with pre-conceived notions and as a judgmental being, I went on to tell my friend that I would always be there to support her through the injustice inflicted upon her. To my surprise, (but should have seen it coming) my friend defended it, stating the various reasons that she had been fed through the years of why it was important for girls to undergo it in the Bohra community. I was shattered. However, I tried not to force my opinions about the practice on her. 

While speaking to a few more (girls and boys) I concluded that the reason behind the practice not being spoken about is because it mainly revolves around female sexuality and religion. The reason that men/boys in the Bohra community did not talk about it or oppose it was that they thought it’s a girl’s issue; whereas the girls who went through it might have felt the need to defend it. And to speak of it publicly, would mean that they would be betraying their religion, especially if they talk about it to an outsider, a Jain like myself. 

Gradually, I started reading stories about FGM/C through initiatives by organizations such as Sahiyo. Fortunately, it made me realize that as an outsider to the community,  it is easy for me to be outraged and criticize any practice which is detrimental to the well-being of girls and women. However, when one grows up with the practice being justified, it takes a lot more than common sense to defy and disobey the practice that has been ingrained in the community for generations

Now my friend has condemned the practice and shared her plight due to khatna, which is when I decided to write my dissertation on harmful practices like FGM/C, where women need to be uplifted without antagonizing the communities which uphold these practices.

Sahiyo hosts first virtual Thaal Pe Charcha

In July 2020, Sahiyo hosted a Thaal Pe Charcha (TPC, loosely translated as discussions over food) with thirteen participants from the Bohra community. Thaal Pe Charcha (TPC) is a flagship Sahiyo programme that brings Bohra women together in an informal, private space, so that they can bond over traditional Bohra cuisine while discussing female genital cutting (FGC) and other issues that affect their lives.

Due to COVID-19, we had to cancel all our on the ground events and organize an online TPC this month. To make the virtual event successful, we incorporated creative activities so that participants could connect and bond with each other despite the physical distance. 

Since the virtual event could not incorporate an actual shared meal, we asked participants to share creative pictures of the food they had eaten that day. Many participants enthusiastically shared these photos to recollect the memories of the in-person TPCs. 

During the web session, we started with describing why we choose to wear a particular color that day inspired by Carl Jung’s color psychology theory. This encouraged us to dress up even though we were in our homes. Then we proceeded to discuss how COVID-19 is impacting our personal and professional lives. Some of the experiences shared included how it is difficult to manage work and caring for young children; some of us lost loved ones during this time; and others shared they were concerned about their finances. We acknowledged that this is a difficult time for everybody.

We also discussed FGC during COVID-19. Ideas about studying what happened with the FGC trend in Africa during the Ebola crisis were shared. Also, interesting thoughts such as how people are following other cultural rituals like the mundan (a ceremony where a child receives their first haircut) during this time might give us insight into the practice of FGC during the pandemic. Worry about the rise of non-medical cutters was shared. It is a known fact that summer vacation sees a rise in the number of cuts and many people from abroad bring their children to India, in what has been classified as vacation cutting. One of the participants confirmed this by sharing how Udaipur (her hometown) sees an influx of diasporic Indians bringing their daughters for the cut every year. However, because of COVID-19, that has not happened this year. 

It was also pointed out that there is a need to have conversations like these and to participate in more webinars because raising awareness can curb future incidents of FGC. We encouraged participants to try and find out if there have been any cuttings during the pandemic, and some of our participants will be getting back to us with the information they receive from the community.

At the end of the event we performed a mirroring activity where we copied each other’s feelings and actions to give us a sense of togetherness.

Protecting the girl child: The need for an anti-FGM law in India 

By Anjali Shah

“Girls are not property. They have the right to determine their destiny.” – Anthony Lake, Former Executive Director, UNICEF

Religious dogmas have gained focus with women coming forward to challenge the subversion and repression that they have been subjected to for decades. This has brought into the limelight the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which thrives in the shadows of our society with little recognition. It is the fear of social exclusion that has prevented women from lifting the veil of secrecy, resulting in more girls being victimized. 

Some women of the Bohra Muslim community, where FGM is widely practiced, have justified FGM to be their religious and cultural right. However, a practice that demands such standards of purity from girls and women so as to remove a part of their body to curb their sexuality raises important questions pertaining to their right to live with dignity, equality, bodily integrity, and also their right to freedom from inhumane treatment.

It may be argued that FGM can be practised under Article 25 of the Constitution of India that guarantees the right to religious freedom. However, this is not an unfettered right but is subject to the constitutional restraints of public order, health and morality. The content of morality is founded on the four precepts emerging from the preamble, i.e., justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, which assures dignity for human life. The test of constitutional morality is to bow to these norms. FGM is a practise that reduces a girl child to chattel. It makes her right to live with dignity conditional upon actions beyond her control. Moreover, it is a practise which can cause life-long impairment, including difficulties with urination, kidney damage, infertility and psychological problems. Thus, taking into account the consequences of FGM on the life and well-being of a girl, FGM may not justify itself to be a practice validated on the basis of any religious tenet. 

While some people categorise FGM as discrimination against women, it is often the women of the community who are the perpetrators of this practice. It thus boils down to FGM being a facet of religion governed by individual belief. Autonomy is the premise for religious freedom and only stands legitimised when applied to one’s own choice to undergo FGM. It cannot be used as a blanket protection to permit actions, which can be categorised as a crime causing grievous hurt under the criminal statutes of the country. The Supreme Court of India has observed that depriving freedom to choose on the basis of faith is impermissible. Given that FGM is largely carried out on girls, who have little or no knowledge of the atrocity they are being subjected to, this results in an implicit denial or deprivation of the freedom to make a choice to undergo cutting. This appears to be in direct violation of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The focus on elimination of FGM by international organizations has driven several countries to enforce laws against FGM. Sadly, in India, neither the political leaders nor the judiciary is playing its part to ban FGM.  The Public Interest Litigation filed in 2017 before the Supreme Court of India to enact an anti-FGM law is still pending after being referred to a larger bench. Additionally, the Minister for Women and Child Development in 2017, who once sought a ban on FGM, later released a statement to say that there is no data in existence of FGM in India.

From the surveys conducted on FGM in India, it is apparent that girls and women are willing to raise their voices against FGM, but are prevented many times from doing so due to the fear of expulsion from the community. To ensure effective support, a specific anti-FGM legislation is of utmost significance. Such a law may play an important role to instill fear in the minds of the people who allow FGM or are indifferent towards it. It may serve as a tool for community members to combat societal pressure in regard to FGM. An anti-FGM law may reinforce confidence among the girls and women to report cases of FGM. It may also help to put in place a mechanism for mandatory reporting of cases and also adequate protection measures. A strong political will is the key to end the practice of FGM in India. It is only when the political leaders are sensitised about the consequences of FGM to women and girls, that there may be a positive change towards enacting an anti-FGM legislation. The next key element will be the capacity building of lawyers, judges, police personnel, and social workers, who will be the driving force to identify and prevent cases of FGM in the country by systematic enforcement of laws and policies. 

However, one needs to be mindful that while a law may serve as a deterrent, the perpetrators are almost always mothers, grandmothers and other family members. Thus, the fight towards abolition of FGM requires a sensitised and a holistic approach. This includes awareness programmes that stress on the issue of FGM, framing comprehensive policies and guidelines and also education about the consequences of FGM to overcome religious barriers and give importance to human life.

Finally, societal change also requires a strong opposition from the men in their roles as fathers, community leaders and husbands who many times in the past have had a passive role in encouraging FGM. If they were to make the decision to abandon the practice, it would have widespread impact and help shift the mindset around FGM, thus aid to abolish the practice.

There is a need for a change in the way people think and perceive others and their rights. This change will allow breaking the barriers of the age-old customs and traditions that allow subjugation of women, and will aid in protecting the girl child.

 

Farzana Esmail hosts fireside chat on FGC with co-founder of Sahiyo

By Hunter Kessous

Mariya Taher, U.S. Executive Director and co-founder of Sahiyo, and Farzana Esmail, survivor, mother and advocate, sat down together to have a virtual fireside chat on female genital cutting: part interview, part sincere exchange of stories, and part education. Upon introducing Mariya’s background, Farzana asks her to call on her expertise to explain female genital cutting (FGC) to the audience, using World Health Organization classifications and statistics regarding global practice. Throughout the chat, Mariya provides essential background on FGC, making this a great video to watch for people of varying knowledge levels on FGC. 

 

Farzana described her experience of discovering through Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C that FGC is practiced not only in the Bohra community, but in Africa as well. Mariya explained that this misconception exists only because Africa is where the bulk of the research on FGC was occurring until recently. FGC has been recorded as being practiced in at least 92 countries. Sahiyo conducted research on the Bohra community and discovered 80% of women from their sample had been cut. 

Another finding of that same study was that 81% of women did not want FGC to continue for the next generation. Farzana asked the important question of why FGC continues to be practiced if so many women feel this way. Mariya used the concept of pluralistic ignorance to explain: the tradition lives on because nobody in the community talks about FGC and therefore, nobody knows that other women are also suffering and do not want to cut their daughters. Sahiyo’s social change platform was born to amplify the stories and voices of survivors. Mariya references a study finding that in order to achieve social change, 25% of a community is needed to reach a certain tipping point, which is slowly happening within the Bohra community. 

Mariya also discussed the shift from the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an important global health policy. The MDGs were a UN framework created in 2000 that enlisted all countries who signed on to put an end to various issues globally and to measure their achievement towards these goals. The MDG goal to abandon FGC only applied to 29 or 30 relevant countries, which were mostly within Africa and the Middle East. The issue here is that FGC is a global issue. It is prevalent in South Asia and is practiced in at least 92 countries. The SDGs, which followed the MDGs, finally recognized that FGC is a global practice. The fifth SDG specifically calls on countries to decrease FGC globally and measure the prevalence rates within their communities. 

In a similar vein to the importance of recognizing FGC as a global practice, Mariya shares the importance of involving men in the movement to end FGC. Sahiyo amplifies not only the voices of survivors, but also of fathers, brothers, and husbands of survivors. The goal is to show that FGC negatively impacts entire communities, not only the women who undergo FGC. This is an important action toward abandoning FGC. Revealing FGC to be more than just a women’s issue or a cultural issue means every single person has the right and responsibility to get involved in the movement to end FGC. 

Many are talking about the very important issue of an increase in gender-based violence as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown. Mariya has not noticed an increase in FGC within Asian communities or within the U.S., but instead notes the distress that the lockdown causes many FGC survivors. The isolation makes it harder to seek help, and the sense of a loss of control can trigger a trauma response for survivors. It’s important to draw attention to this issue in order to provide survivors with the services they need. Read the full transcript here, and view this eye opening discussion here.

 

Let’s Talk FGC: A fireside chat with Mariya Taher and Farzana Esmail

Mariya Taher, U.S. Executive Director and co-founder of Sahiyo, and Farzana Esmail, FGC survivor, mother and advocate, sat down together for a virtual fireside chat on female genital cutting (FGC): part interview, part sincere exchange of stories, and part education. Farzana and Mariya intertwine pieces of their personal experience with the facts and information they provide on female genital cutting. This webinar explores FGC as a global practice, the many ways in which it is performed, how it impacts survivors, and related legislation. Mariya and Farzana share the progress toward abandoning FGC that has been made to date, the impact of COVID-19 on this progress, and Sahiyo’s theory for social change. 

Farzana: Mariya, thank you so much for doing this. Before I go on to introduce your illustrious background, if I could take just a few minutes to set the context of our conversation. This is a subject that is extremely personal because I have lived through this. I have long fostered the idea of bringing my story and sharing it in the hope that it triggers conversations, and, in time, banishes the fear and discomfort that surrounds it. We are discussing female genital cutting. 

Mariya, you have been named one of the six experts on female genital cutting by News Deeply. You have worked for over a decade in the anti-gender violence field, from research to policy, program development, and direct service. You have attained your masters in social work from San Francisco State University and went on to pursue a qualitative study titled, “Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the United States.” You have been diligently working on the issue of domestic violence within a number of organizations. In 2015, you founded Sahiyo, an internationally recognized, award-winning organization, to empower Asian communities to end female genital cutting. You sit on the inaugural Steering Committee to end female genital cutting with the U.S. End FGM/C Network. In Massachusetts, you work with The Women’s Bar Association to pass state legislation that would ban FGC and create education and outreach programs for survivors. The Manhattan Young Democrats named you 2017 Engendering Progress Honoree and ABC News did a special feature on you. You have been a prolific writer in fiction and nonfiction essays and short stories that have appeared on NPR, The Huffington Post, the Fair Observer, and a number of credible publications. 

Mariya, the first time that I spoke about FGC with a group of friends I experienced a sense of relief. It was almost cathartic, but I also sensed disbelief, despair, and huge discomfort. There are those who have perhaps never heard of this practice, then there are those who have heard but choose not to speak about it, and then there are those, like us, who have lived through this. So if we can begin today by you just defining for us what in fact is female genital cutting?

 

Mariya: Sure, well, thank you, Farzana, so much for inviting me to speak and for that wonderful introduction. And, this is an incredibly important topic for me as well, as you have spoken a bit about my background. It is also one because I grew up in it, and I underwent it myself when I was seven years old. I wanted to just give that context first before I explain what female genital cutting is because I think it is important to recognize that many girls who have undergone it actually don’t know what they have undergone or even realize that what they have undergone is female genital cutting, or another term that it’s referred to as is female genital mutilation, but for the purposes of our conversation I will tend to refer to it as female genital cutting or FGC. 

So, according to the World Health Organization, female genital cutting involves all procedures involving cutting or removal of part [or all] of the external female genitalia for nonmedical reasons. There are various forms of it. The World Health Organization has actually categorized it into 4 types, but each of these types are very broad in itself. So, type 1 is something that usually involves cutting or excision of the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, but it is very broad and could also include removal of all of the clitoral hood and also part of the clitoris. Type 2, which is considered more severe, involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora – so it’s the inner and outer lips of the female genitalia. Type 3 is narrowing of the vaginal orifice by creation of a covering seal, so it is generally the most severe form. It is also known as infibulation, and it can involve removing all of the labia minora and labia majora as well. Then there is type four which is considered the “other” category, and this is really something that involves anything that doesn’t fit in types 1 through 3 which can be pricking, piercing, cauterizing. Those are the 4 broad categories defined by the World Health Organization. Just to give you a little more information of the statistics that we have on female genital cutting, about 90% of women and girls who undergo it undergo types 1 and 2. So, type 3 which is the most severe form only really accounts for about 10% globally, and I think that is really important to recognize, too. 

Farzana: Sure, Mariya, you know when I started to follow Sahiyo, I also got acquainted with a lot of survivor stories, and some of these stories resonated, and I could identify completely. For most of us, the impression that I gathered was that it happens between the ages of 7 and 9. It’s almost something that is led on by either your grandmother, or an aunt, or your mother. The backdrop is a dilapidated dimly lit building where an elderly aunt answers the door and performs the practice. Immediately after that, there is a celebration. While the survivor has gone through an incredible amount of pain, confusion, and almost a sense of betrayal. However, as I went on to read and follow Sahiyo over the years I learned that this practice isn’t skewed to a community or culture, but in fact is being practiced around the world, in many geographies, by indigenous communities. How right is that assessment?

Mariya: That’s correct. What’s interesting is that when people have heard of female genital mutilation/cutting, they have often heard of it in relation to it happening within the African context or amongst African diaspora communities. It’s a myth actually that it only happens within African communities or contexts. I think what you’re bringing up is the opposite because of where you grew up knowing this is something that happens within South Asian communities and the Dawoodi Bohra community, which is the community we both grew up in, but it wasn’t publicly acknowledged that it happened within this community. 

I think that the stories you are describing are very typical of the stories that we hear from survivors who have experienced it within the Bohra community, but there are elements that also ring true for survivors from various different communities. One of the reasons Sahiyo engages in storytelling, and a lot of work is around collecting stories and making this subject that was for so long known as taboo come out into the public, so that we are recognizing that it is okay to talk about that. It’s important to talk about that, to share your stories, and to recognize that there [are] a multitude of stories out there. So, we have heard the stories of girls who are taken by their mothers or aunts under false pretenses, and the dilapidated building you spoke about is an element of a story we hear girls who have gone to Mumbai and had it done often talk about. But, we have also had stories of girls who have been taken to health care professionals and had it [done]. We have other stories of girls who are older and have had it [done]. In the Bohra community it’s typically done around 7 to 9, but globally it’s done in many different communities. There is evidence now that it’s being performed in over 92 countries globally, and it can be done anywhere from birth to adolescence. Even adult women undergo it. So it’s very much a global issue. It is found in every continent of the world, except for Antarctica. It’s something that just in the last few years that we are really recognizing how global it is. 

Farzana: It’s interesting you say that, Mariya, because in one of the surveys I was reading on one of your webinars there was mention that there was research done with 400 women where about 80% of them said that they had undergone FGC and 81% of them, in fact, said that they would not want it to continue, and they wouldn’t do this practice on their own daughters. Then why is it that we still see the prevalence of this practice?

Mariya: That’s a good question. Sahiyo, one of the first things we did when we came together, was we realized that we needed to do a larger scale study to understand how prevalent it was in the Dawoodi-Bohra community. Previous to that there were a couple of small-scale studies, but we wanted to do something to get a larger number. We did this small study where we had women who grew up in the Bohra community globally take part, and we had over 400 women take part in it. About the statistics you referred to, we analyzed, I think, about 384 women’s data after we collected it all. We found that, out of that number, 80% of the women had undergone FGC, which confirmed for us that it was prevalent. That’s something that we anecdotally knew but didn’t have evidence. We also found that 81% said they did not want it to continue onto the next generation. That was surprising to us, and, at the same time though, what it made us realize is that female genital cutting, or khatna as it is called in the Dawoodi Bohra community, is a social norm – meaning it has been justified in all these ways, and that one way in which it is continuing is that, because it has been justified, there’s a sense of belief that even if you don’t want it to continue, you think others in your community are continuing it, so it is being continued. There’s a term in psychology called pluralistic ignorance, and that is basically what we found happening, and part of it was because nobody was talking about this. And if nobody is talking about this then, of course, nobody knows that people are suffering the physical, sexual, emotional consequences of undergoing this. People don’t know that other people don’t want it to continue. So, the first step in terms of combating that pluralistic ignorance is storytelling. It’s coming out in the open. It’s speaking about that, and that’s really the basis of our work and why we do storytelling was because of that research, because we found that there was this huge population that didn’t want it to continue, so we were like how do we break the silence. So that’s really our theory of change; that’s what we recognize and need to work towards. 

Farzana: That’s very, very interesting, again, Mariya, because I personally believe that these kinds of practices go back institutionally in terms of legitimizing fear. There is a shame around it, as well, that makes it difficult for people to have conversations on this. In fact, we are discouraged– systematically discouraged– to have any kind of discourse. What I also found interesting is the reference you made in terms of it being more than just a physical violation, because primarily this practice, that does come across as a violation of physical well being, but, in fact, is almost like an onion peel where there are so many layers that you can keep peeling and those are so deeply entrenched with fear, with purity culture, patriarchy, gender roles, promiscuity, shame. It’s, therefore, so important to be able to see this with a much wider prism, more holistically. This is not just a physical violation, but an emotional violation. It’s a mental violation. In your experience of working with survivors, what do you believe is one of the biggest challenges to overcome?

Mariya: That’s such an important question, but a very hard question. I think it’s important to also recognize that the repercussions of FGC vary from survivor to survivor. Of the stories that I have heard, personally, through our blog and in support groups, I think what I always come away with is the emotional impact that it has regardless of a person’s background, the severity they have undergone, how they underwent it – that emotional impact is something that lasts a lifetime. It comes across in many different ways: we have stories from women who don’t remember being cut, which is actually very common, because with trauma, the way your brain protects you, it switches it off. We have had stories of women who do not remember they were cut, and, sometimes, until somebody else told them they were cut, didn’t even realize it. But in determining that information it’s almost like going through PTSD again, too, and for some women it is almost like piecing together pieces of a puzzle. They are recognizing or wondering if certain impacts on their sexual lives are a part of it. It is something that, unfortunately, there’s not enough research around the sexual impact, particularly amongst Type I, we don’t really know. But, again, sexuality is very much connected to your emotional state and to your mind. So that’s one thing across communities and individuals that I come away with is that emotional impact. But, again, this is something that affects people physically, sexually, in many different ways. It’s important to recognize every survivor is going through their own journey in terms of what they are dealing with. 

Farzana: You know, in my case, if I could just use my reference, just for a few minutes here. Perhaps this analogy will sound a bit absurd, but I will go with this analogy. It’s like childbirth: you forget the physical pain, because the emotional sense is so heightened with joy. Similarly here, the physical pain is forgotten. I don’t remember the pain, but the sense of deceit at the hands of my mother has been huge. But again, I completely recognize that my mother came from a generation that was less educated, less informed, less encouraged, perhaps not encouraged at all to speak their mind. But again, it is the same woman who today hasn’t enforced on me or has expressed those views for me to practice it on my daughter. So I do believe there is a huge hope of change, and because Sahiyo is so dedicated to ending FGC. In your opinion, how far are we from the day that this is something that we won’t see happen? I know you don’t have a crystal ball but…[laughs]

Mariya: Social change takes time, it takes a lot of work. There is a lot of work to still be done, but…

Farzana: How far perhaps– sorry to interrupt– if perhaps you could tell us how far have you come from the time that you started?

Mariya: I want to recognize also that there have been women and researchers even within the Bohra community that have been bringing this to the world’s attention prior to Sahiyo, as well. I want to also just acknowledge the women from past generations and men from other communities that have been working on this topic in various cultures and communities, too. Just to recognize that is something that’s been ongoing and there has been a lot of amazing important work being done for decades. Having said that, I do think that we have seen a lot of progress in the last five years, as well, in terms of acknowledging that this happens within many Asian countries and communities. And that is something we are seeing from the largest levels from looking at systematically, even looking at the UN in terms of measuring FGM/C. There is something called the Sustainable Development Goals which have come out from the UN. The Sustainable Development Goals are a framework which every country who signs onto the SDGs they are responsible for making progress towards those goals. Then there’s SDG number 5 which is specific to FGC and decreasing FGC globally. I am bringing that up because prior to the Sustainable Development Goals, there was a platform called the Millennium Development Goals that was a similar framework towards measuring achievement towards various social ills globally. Within the MDGs they did have a target to decrease FGC globally, but it was only amongst what they considered relevant countries, so countries that had prevalence rates, which was mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. So at that time, it was only amongst, I think 29 or 30 countries. The SDGs, this new framework, actually accounts for the fact that it is global. It is no longer just counting the estimates within those 29-30 countries, it’s actually globally. It’s a huge, huge deal because it’s recognition that this is a global issue. That is progress within itself. I just want to mention that in terms of the highest levels. 

In terms of the lower level, the communities and individuals, we are hearing more stories. More survivors are sharing their stories. More people are coming out to publicly say we shouldn’t do this. That’s huge, and I do think that we are getting to that tipping point that we need. There’s research that shows once you get 25% of a community to reach a certain tipping point, that’s when you see change within social norms. I feel like we are getting to that tipping point. I want to recognize that I don’t think that– I want to be hopeful that it ends in my lifetime. But, I also want to recognize that change is happening, and I think we need to celebrate that change and those small wins along the way. 

Farzana: Sure, of course. Legislatively, what does it look like? Are more and more countries warming up to the idea of putting a ban to this practice? Is that something that is a huge hurdle to cross?

Mariya: That is. I think legislation is important because it is a framework in which countries can, and it is a tool you can use for prevention. We are seeing more and more countries passing legislation. Within the U.S., it’s a very long story, but our federal statute was actually challenged, and so our Congress is working on a stronger piece of legislation. Individual states have been working on state laws. So, that has been amazing to see the past few years. Within Africa, most countries have it banned. It’s challenging within Asia. That is because Asia has only recently come on the map in terms of FGC being performed, and it is a very different circumstance where it is actually protected in various countries. We are seeing people challenging those social norms and that legislation. In India, we are seeing groups working towards passing a state law and are really urging the Supreme Court in India to have a ban on FGC. In that context it’s being challenged as, ‘Are we protecting girls from harm versus a religious minority right?’ You’re seeing different challenges, but you’re seeing overall that the conversation at a global level is increasing. Again, that is a first step in the right direction. 

Farzana: Apart from [countries in] Africa, are there any other countries that have gone ahead and banned the practice?

Mariya: Yeah, there are many countries that have laws against it. I don’t know off the top of my head the number. But, for instance, in Europe there are many countries that have legislation against FGC, recognizing that it happens in various countries there. Australia does as well. There was a court case that really brought it to light a few years ago. There’s attempts to strengthen the legislation within Australia, too. It is something that you are seeing in many different countries.

Farzana: In one of the stories that led me to further read was khatna [as FGC is called in the Bohra community] packages, travel packages. It was almost as if you could do a khatna tour. So if it was a practice that was forbidden in the country of residence, you could actually take a trip down to India for four to five days, have this practice done, and then come back again. So that was extremely disturbing to know that they were actually selling it is a package for tourists. 

Mariya: I had not heard of the khatna packages, but it is very common to hear. There’s a term I don’t really like using, but it’s vacation cutting: the idea that girls are taken to various countries and countries of origin to have their FGC done. It sounds like this is the khatna package that you have heard of.

Farzana: Yes, yes, that’s right. 

Mariya: I wasn’t aware of that term, but it can be more complicated than that, too. In my circumstance, it wasn’t that my parents took me to India to have it done, specifically. It was that we went to India to visit relatives and it was the summer that I was 7 that it happened. But it is a growing concern that, as countries are creating laws and policies, that might be a repercussion or unintended consequence that they might be taken to other countries. There also are laws. For instance, in the U.S., there is a vacation cutting provision, where if a girl is taken out with the intention to have that done in another country, a person can still be prosecuted. So that’s one thing to be aware of. As we are talking about legislation in general, I think law is an important framework, but I dont think law alone will end this practice. I do think it is really important to recognize that we need community education. We need to work in a very multi-sectoral approach. We are really looking at changing against social norms, and you really need to have community dialogue and education. It is much more important than legislation, but legislation does help to reinforce that something is not acceptable within a community. But, it is really that changing of a mindset that is what we are trying to do. 

Farzana: I completely agree. I think it becomes even more incumbent upon us to be able to come out and share these stories. Change can only come out if there are conversations happening around it. We have got to somehow muster up enough courage to share our stories and hopefully that should bring change. Mariya, you also touched upon something that I have questioned several times, and that is the role of men. How important is the role of men in this practice of FGC? 

Mariya: Involving men is very important, and something Sahiyo really tries to do, as well. We really look at FGC as a community issue, and we are really trying to show that FGC affects obviously the survivor, the women who undergo FGC, but it also affects the entire community. Particularly, we have stories from men who talk about hearing how it impacted their mothers. We have stories from men who have talked about how it impacted their wife and their own marital relationship. We have stories from brothers who have talked about learning that it happened to their sister and wondering if that is part of what divided them in terms of their relationship. It is something that we need to recognize as a community. We have to come together to work to make sure nobody is harmed – future daughters, future sisters, future mothers are protected from this form of gender-based violence, which can impact their lives in many different ways throughout their lives. It’s something that we work very hard to make sure that men’s voices are heard, that they are allies, and that they also are sharing their stories. Particularly, for a very long time within the Bohra community (and this isn’t true for every community, but is in an element that you find often). But for a long time within the Bohra community, men were not aware of this issue or it was something that was considered a women’s issue. That is changing. I think it is changing because of social media, because of technology, because people are just talking about it more, and, so now, in the younger generation, everybody knows about this issue now, it seems like. That’s a huge cultural shift, too, where you see, just a decade ago, men not being very aware of this to now recognizing that men are aware and can be allies and help protect future generations. 

Farzana: And that’s reassuring. Again, here if I can use an anecdote of my personal story where my father was an extremely protective father. He was extremely careful about the way that we were brought up. But, this was one of those issues where he was almost sidelined by my aunt, by the women in the family, because this was something that men did not get into. Like I said, systematically this is devised to be so patriarchal in nature, and that’s why it’s thriving. It’s also sprinkled with fear. It’s almost, you can’t be questioning the establishment and, therefore, you can’t be questioning the practice. That, I think, is intrinsically one of the reasons men don’t know enough about it, don’t know about it at all, and those who know about it perhaps couldn’t say very much. But, it is reassuring to know that’s changing because that is important. They are also stakeholders in this process of change. 

Mariya: I agree. 

Farzana: Mariya, we possibly cannot reflect on the times we are living in, which is the pandemic. It is really, really disheartening when one reads that across the world we are seeing a huge surge in domestic violence during this period of lockdown. There are some estimates that the UN has put out saying they are expecting about 31 million new cases to emerge if the lockdown continues another six months. That’s a hugely staggering number. How does FGC fit within the spectrum of the pandemic?

Mariya: That’s a great question. I was actually listening to a webinar the other day and right now it seems like there might be a difference in terms of the impact of COVID within African communities and amongst Asian communities. I think last week even there was a headline that came out with some initial findings from an organization in Somalia. FGC had increased significantly there because people were at home, so they were taking advantage of the fact that girls were not at school, so they would have the time to heal. Cutters were going door to door. Their economic well-being depended on this business, so they were looking to see if they could cut girls. So you are hearing that happen. Anecdotally within Asia, you’re not hearing that as much. The speakers on the webinar, one of them was my fellow co-founder Aarefa (I should mention I co-founded Sahiyo with four other women) – so, Aarefa was on that webinar and me and her have had some conversations on this issue about what we have been hearing. Anecdotally, we are not hearing an increase of FGC amongst the Bohra community at this time. I think there might be several reasons. One part might be that it tends to be more medicalized now, and so as hospitals and health care professionals are overwhelmed with COVID, that’s sort of becoming secondary. But also the fact that within the Bohra community it doesn’t have to happen at seven. Seven is sort of the minimum age, so people could potentially be waiting a few months, or however long, to have it done. A couple of the other guest speakers from countries within Asia were saying that they feel it might be being postponed, too. I think within Asia, too, we do see it happen as a more medicalized version, and we do see Type 1 and Type 2 much more often than we see Type 3. Again, there is no official high level data on this, but anecdotally it might be actually halted right now due to the pandemic. So it’s interesting to see the difference in how it is emerging amongst different continents. I think we will really see the impacts after the pandemic is over and once we are really able to collect more data on this. What I do want to say though, is even if the prevalence rate might be different, the fact that there’s survivors seeking out support – that is something that is having a huge impact right now. Sahiyo has had a few support groups and some of the things that we are hearing is the sheltering in place, the pandemic type atmosphere that we are having is actually triggering some trauma responses by being in lockdown, and feeling like having a lack of control. And the fact that it’s harder to seek out support right now in terms of mental health professionals or being able to chat with others. That is an impact that we are seeing, in terms of being able to receive services if you need it, as a survivor. 

Farzana: Yes, this pandemic has been unprecedented for many reasons and this is something perhaps that if we can reach out with more and more stories hopefully we will be able to give comfort. Mariya, we can go on, but I am also cognizant that we have a time limit. Thank you so much for doing this. Kudos to your team, to you, for having done such wonderful work. May you continue to make a difference, change lives, and hopefully come to that point in our lifetimes where we could probably see the end to this practice. If I can just end the conversation on a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”

Mariya: That’s a wonderful quote to end with. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Farzana: Thank you, I really appreciate this. Thank you so much.

Sahiyo co-founder gives keynote address at festival

Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami gave a keynote speech at India’s first student-run online festival, Intesaab Fest 2020, supported by Ishaan Trust. Discussing change as an onground movement, she attributed Sahiyo’s growth to the sustained efforts of anti-FGC advocates and increasing community engagement. 

Her address titled, “Bringing Change through an on-ground movement,” also underscored the need for respectful communication and collaboration with the community. She spoke of fact checking not just the content, but also checking the visuals that accompany news reports, to avoid any sensationalist images and text. While also acknowledging the role and support of digital activists and media, she highlighted the importance of the stories keeping the interest of people who have undergone the practice at the forefront of all communication. 

The keynote address was met with resounding support for Sahiyo from the students who had joined the festival online.

 

How I learned female genital mutilation is happening in India

By Thirupurasundari Sevvel

Country of Residence: India 

How do I start? How do I explain my first realization that there is a practice called female genital mutilation? It was a typical day. During my master’s program in France, I was working with a couple of my friends talking about so many different random things. The topic shifted to sexuality, human rights, and how the female body is viewed. I said as long as the female body is looked at as property or a commodity, the problem won’t be solved. Everyone wants to take ownership. Anyone can talk about bodies or sexuality. They can try to shut us inside the doors of the world. But what we as women do with our bodies is in our hands. 

“What if that essense of your body is taken from you?” a friend asked. “What if there is a sense of ugliness thrusted inside your mind about being sexual, and your sexual organ is scrapped and sewed up?”

Silence filled the room.

That’s how I learned about female genital mutilation. It was shocking to realize it is happening in India. I realized it has actually happened to someone I personally know, but someone who was defending the practice and saying, this is our culture and it’s not wrong. It was shocking that something I thought was happening in different parts of the world, has happened in the state I lived in. The friendship with her became strained because she felt I was talking against her religion, her faith, her family, and her community. For a second I thought–am I doing something wrong, am I intruding on someone’s faith? But her sister gave me another point of view of how it affected her emotionally, and I started meeting other women. That’s when I understood. It was social conditioning at play–being made to believe it is right and has to be done. There has been a lot of backlash, but even if one child could be spared or saved–the struggle would be worth it. 

My friend has a daughter now and has taken a stand that she won’t do it to her. Our friendship isn’t public anymore since her family feels I am the reason for her becoming a rebel. When will they understand that it is a human rights violation? 

In 2015, I started doing storytelling for adults and children on the topics of body positivity, FGM, the human body, understanding the body, and consent in the Tamil language. This is a very small way to create awareness and a basic step to change the social construct and mindset. The storytelling resonated with a lot of participants. We realized many wanted some time to talk to someone who could listen without judgment.

When we have a discussion, we start with this quotation from the book Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, who is a Somali model, author, actress, and human rights activist in the fight against FGM, and let each participant share points on what they feel about it. I feel that God made my body perfect the way I was born. Then man robbed me, took away my power, and left me a cripple. My womanhood was stolen. If God had wanted those body parts missing, why did he create them? I just pray that one day no woman will have to experience this pain. It will become a thing of the past. People will say, “Did you hear, female genital mutilation has been outlawed in Somalia?” Then the next country, and the next, and so on, until the world is safe for all women. What a happy day that will be, and that’s what I’m working toward. In’shallah, if God is willing, it will happen.

The impact of organizations, books, movies, videos, social media campaigns, study materials, and awareness posters is huge. The problem is that it’s a secretive ritual. As children, they may also think that it happens to every girl, or they may try to block the painful memory.

Sahiyo, which means female friend, started to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution toward ending FGM. The materials, information, and stories shared created a lot of change and awareness. A video that came out in 2018 of three firsthand accounts of khata in India created an impact on social media. The work of Masooma Ranalvi, an FGM survivor and activist from India, founder of WeSpeakOut, has also created a lot of ripples and change. In February 2019, a group of women from the community urged political parties in India to take steps to end FGM in their community and made the issue part of their poll manifestos. 

The collective works of these organizations and individual voices can put an end to this practice. There may not be many official records about FGM in India, but that does not mean it is not happening. It is a practice everyone should be against so that the girl children from the next generation do not undergo FGM. Speaking up is the only way forward.

Voices Series: Why I keep sharing my personal khatna story, again and again

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Aarefa Johari

I have shared my story of undergoing khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), dozens of times in the past seven years. I have written about it in blogs, described it to journalists during interviews, shared it on camera and also narrated it on stage, before live audiences. 

For each medium of storytelling, the first time has always been difficult. But with each retelling, I have grown more confident and articulate, not because I am now used to talking about the day I was cut, but because I have seen the tremendous positive impact of sharing my deeply personal story. 

Talking about one’s khatna publicly involves describing an invasion of one’s own person, in the most intimate part of one’s body. It requires opening oneself up to vulnerability before one can become strong. It involves bracing oneself for criticism, dismissal and vicious trolling from those who seek to defend the cutting of little girls’ genitals. It is difficult, and contrary to what our detractors often claim, it is never a means of getting “publicity”. 

When I chose to share my khatna story, it was triggered by sheer rage. I was angry about being violated and I wanted to voice it, in the hope that it would somehow prevent other seven-year-old Bohra girls from being cut. I did not know, at the time, how powerful storytelling can be. I did not know that each story told is like a pebble tossed into unknown waters, creating ripples that continue to radiate long after the pebble has settled down. 

Speaking out helped me realise that I was not alone in my rage and indignation about being cut. It helped me connect with others who shared my feelings—fellow sisters who also wanted to end the practice of khatna—and soon, a group of us founded Sahiyo. 

At Sahiyo, we created safe spaces to enable others to share their own khatna stories. For many, the experience of story-sharing has been cathartic, liberating and empowering. Women have told us they feel less isolated when they read or hear the stories of other survivors. Because storytelling focuses on emotion, self-reflection and the nuanced complexities of personal experience, it has been far more effective at inspiring parents to abandon khatna than didactic advocacy. 

This is why Sahiyo constantly seeks to create new platforms for storytelling, and teaming up with StoryCenter for the Voices to End FGM/C workshop has been one of them. Despite having shared my story several times over the years, I chose to participate in Voices to End FGM/C’s global webinar-based workshop because this time, I wanted to share the story of my journey so far, and the role that my decision to speak out has played in it. 

Through my video story, created with the help of designer Esther Elia, I hope that I can inspire viewers to keep sharing their own stories, because their voices are needed more than ever today. Every voice counts, and the more our stories rain down on the world, the more we are likely to prevail in our efforts to end khatna.

An ode to every woman fighting social norms around the world

By Geethika Kodukula 

Country of Residence: USA

(This month, Indian news reported three disturbing incidents targeting women and girls. In the first, 68 students at a women’s college in Gujarat were forcibly strip-searched to prove they were not on their period because the college’s religious administration does not allow menstruating women to enter temples or kitchens or even touch other people. Days later, female college students in Maharashtra were forced to take an oath that they would never marry for love — instead, they would only marry husbands chosen by their parents. In a third shocking incident, 10 women applying for a government job in Gujarat were stripped and subjected to a “two-finger test” to check for pregnancy.

This essay is a cry of outrage against such acts of oppression in the name of social norms; it is an ode to women all over the world, who are forced to fight the norms of patriarchy every day in order to simply survive.) 

What makes a woman?

Is it her kindness, generosity, friendship, ability to work for a living, or take care of her family? Men can do all these things just as well. But a woman can give birth, while a man cannot. We revere this ability, celebrate it and encourage girls to want it for themselves.

But not on their terms. We want to control it and shepherd it. 

At an age when girls have no idea of sexuality or reproduction, we invade their bodily boundaries in the name of purity and tradition to cut their genitals. We call it khatna, sunnah, khafz, female circumcision, and practice it in more cultures around the world than we’d like to admit. We do this to our daughters in spite of the physical and psychological pain it caused us, ourselves. Girls and women who have undergone the procedure tell us that it does more harm than good.

At an age when biology decides that she becomes a woman, we likely celebrate menarche, the first period. In many cultures, we make a fuss, invite people over to bless our little girl who can now bear children and buy her new clothes, jewelry, and gifts. But she’s shocked at the blood between her legs. All her life, television commercials have shown the liquid that goes on pads and tampons as a soft blue. What is this business with blood? Is she dying?  We don’t talk about that. We call the process various euphemisms. We treat these girls as impure, make them sit and sleep separately, wash their clothes and any bedding they may have touched, and essentially quarantine them every month because of this “curse” that gives us the “blessing of a child.” 

We may subject her to strip searches in an institution dedicated to education, no less, to prove that she is not bleeding and can, therefore, sit, eat and mingle with her friends. What is at threat of being stripped is her dignity, which we say we value the most. We treat nearly grown adults as impure, untouchable, and stigmatize and hide all of it from the males in the house. Imagine the anxiety and resentment these young women may build toward their bodies over a completely normal biological phenomenon. We speak to females in hushed tones about how to dispose of evidence and pretend as if nothing changed.

If a woman cannot give birth due to any reason (choice being the least respected one of them), we worry, berate, label, and shame them. There is no pleasing us.

We don’t want her to look at or talk to boys for the first twenty years of her life. Then we want her to magically know how to live with a man and anticipate his wishes and whims. We want young schoolgirls to formally pledge that they will not marry for love. Let’s consider that. Even if a woman found another human being she considers compatible and wants to spend her life with him, she should reject him and marry a stranger selected by her parents based on the family he was born into, his religion/state/caste/creed, occupation, and the family’s assets and holdings. How many of these things have a real bearing on the partner he will be?

Let’s say she does marry the male her parents chose for her. What if her husband or his family wants to test her “virginity”? There are sects in India who take this very seriously. Amazon sells a product to fake your way into being a virtuous bride if you are one of the millions of women whose hymen tore while bicycling or dancing. Or if you didn’t bleed profusely the first time you had sex because–to borrow an idea this HuffPost article offers–the hymen is not a plastic wrap stretched over the Tupperware of your virginity. Imagine the disorientation this young girl may experience after being shamed and humiliated for intercourse she may not have had. 

We urge newlyweds to get busy. We urge the woman to not put her career before her family and have many children. Television and movies keep showing childbirth as a briefly excruciating, but ultimately, a gratifying experience. No one says anything about postpartum complications, anxiety, or depression. Millions of people watch the Oscars but an ad about new moms’ preparedness will never reach our women since it was rejected by ABC to air.

In her homestead our woman lives as happy as one can be in her place in society. But according to Krushnaswarup Dasji, she cannot cook for her family for five days a month, (longer if she has reproductive issues). Her husband’s family never got around to teaching him how to cook. This is a dilemma, indeed. Her husband and sometimes her children resent her for making them eat take-out. 

As she enters menopause, she is viewed as less useful than she was, no longer able to bear children.

Having lived a life carrying back-breaking gender norms, she dies to finally be at peace from societies’ expectations.

Our loud proclamations that we celebrate women and womanhood while silencing everything that makes one a woman is sending mixed signals to young girls. We celebrate the arrival of periods, then treat it like a disease and put young girls at risk by asking them to stay outside a village in a hut while on their periods. We say God (any interpretation of Him/Her), who created all of us, deigned that women are impure if their bodies are behaving the way human bodies should. The all-knowing, omnipotent God who many of us talk to on a daily basis, decided that cisgender females were going to be powerful enough to create and carry life themselves, but the body’s reaction to not doing that every year of their lives is to be treated as impure and icky. Virginity is an outdated, if not meaningless, concept. We should look at what we are subjecting our living mothers, sisters, and daughters to in the name of a God who never even said all menstruating women should be shunned. 

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.”

― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists

Norms and rules are necessary for any society or group of people. Cultural and social norms are dynamic, shaped by the people who follow them or stop following them. If things didn’t change, many of us would still be wearing gowns and suits and curtsying or bowing every time we met an acquaintance. We Indians would be doing what our fathers and grandfathers did, potters trapped in doctors’ bodies or the other way around. We have to normalize menstruating so that we can then address period poverty — many young women are unable to access the supplies they need to manage their period. They may resort to means that can give them infections and reproductive diseases. It’s high time that some gender norms change. Thank goodness they are changing, slowly but surely. Women should not be treated as less than men and as mere vehicles to carry generations forward. They possess the same consciousness, conscience, and essence in a different body.