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. 

Intern Spotlight: Sahiyo Social Media Intern Farhan Zia

Farhan Zia joined Sahiyo’s team as a social media intern in 2019. He is an undergraduate student reading the law at Jindal Global Law School, in O.P. Jindal Global University, India. He researches the intersections of law with human rights, gender and religion, and has a deep interest in engaging with theology and religion from a feminist and modern perspective. He is a student researcher at the FGM Project which seeks to draft and present a bill against female genital cutting in India, a member of the Legal Aid Clinic of Jindal Global Law School.

When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

While I had heard bits and pieces about female genital cutting (FGC) in college, I was not exposed to the full magnitude of the issue. In August 2019, my friend Kavya Palavalasa, who was an intern at Sahiyo, told me about the organization. Following this, when I went through the Sahiyo stories and resources, I came to understand the extent and nuances of FGC. I decided that I must work on this issue, and joined Sahiyo in October 2019. 

What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a social media intern, I help create, schedule and manage content for the social media handles, for the daily feed, as well as specific campaigns. I also watch out for any news about FGC that Sahiyo should write on.

How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

As a student of law interested in religion and gender, I often notice how activists and authors trying to bring about legal or social reforms end up alienating the very people they seek to help by not understanding their culture and values. It is very difficult to speak against institutionalized cultural practices like FGC. But at Sahiyo I noticed how their advocacy is respectful and compassionate in its language and not condescending in any manner. The Sahiyo resources were a great help for me to grasp how effective reporting of an issue as nuanced as FGC must be done.

I am always in awe of the solidarity and bravery of the many women involved with Sahiyo and who share their stories in its various storytelling campaigns. It really brings into clear focus how patriarchal practices harm women and how too few men try to understand this or contribute to the feminist cause. It has prompted me to read and explore FGC more and work toward contributing to legal reforms in India.  

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

Sahiyo is a wonderful organization to work and learn since the people here are incredibly helpful and understanding. I believe that fighting for equality is not just women’s responsibility. I implore more men to support Sahiyo’s cause against FGC. If you are passionate about working toward gender equality, I really encourage you to get involved.

The movement to end FGM/C: Looking back at the 2010s and looking forward in 2020

By Sahiyo

2020 is here, and we at Sahiyo are excited. 2020 brings with it not just a new year, but the dawn of a new decade of hope and hard work for our global movement to end female genital cutting (FGC). This is the decade in which we must give it our all, because we have pledged to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting by 2030

As we look forward to the 2020s, we cannot help but look back at the 2010s for inspiration. The last decade has been game-changing, not just for Sahiyo or the movement against FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras, but for the anti-FGC movement in Asia as a whole. 

At the start of 2010, FGC was still considered an “African” problem, and Asian countries were barely on the map of the places where FGC is prevalent. Today, we know that FGC is truly and disturbingly a global phenomenon putting 3.9 million girls at risk every year,  as you can see in this map created by Orchid Project:

Nearly half the countries on the map above are not yet included in the UN’s official list of 30 countries where 200 million women and girls have undergone FGC. In the 2020s, let us work to ensure that this information gap is bridged, so that Asian survivors of FGC are officially recognised. 

In fact, you can start now by signing Sahiyo’s petition asking the global community to invest in research on FGC prevalence and advocacy and support services to end FGC in Asian countries. 

But first, let’s take a look back at the biggest milestones of the 2010s from Sahiyo’s perspective.

The birth of Sahiyo:

In late 2011, ‘Tasleem’, an anonymous Dawoodi Bohra woman from India, started a Change.org petition asking the Syedna,  the religious leader of the Dawoodi Bohra sect, to call for an end to FGC in the community. Although there had been scattered attempts to call out the secretive practice of FGC among the Bohras in the 1980s and ‘90s, they drew limited attention and the practice continued to be shrouded in silence. 

Tasleem’s petition, however, received nearly 3,500 signatures, triggered a spate of media reports on FGC in India, and inspired a few Bohra women, like Aarefa Johari and Farida Dariwala, to speak out publicly about their experiences of FGC. 

The media reports on FGC at the time also inspired Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami to make A Pinch of Skin, the first documentary film on FGC among Dawoodi Bohras in India. As Goswami’s film won the 2013 National Award for the best documentary in India, the taboo topic of FGC remained alive in the media, sparking private conversations between like-minded Bohra women all over the world who were keen to see an end to FGC.

In late 2014, five of those women banded together to create a formal platform that would work to end FGC among Bohras and Asian communities at a transnational level. That platform — Sahiyo — was eventually founded in mid-2015. 

Breaking the silence, once and for all:  

In 2015, the private conversations on FGC among Bohras also burst into the public sphere with the launch of WeSpeakOut (known as Speak Out on FGM at the time). 

WeSpeakOut started as a private women’s WhatsApp group spearheaded by Masooma Ranalvi. In October 2015, the group launched a Change.org petition addressed to the Indian government, seeking a legal ban on FGC in India. Seventeen Bohra women publicly put their name to the petition, and the response was huge and immediate: media all over India began writing about FGC among Bohras, community leaders were forced to respond, and the silence about FGC among community members was broken for good. More than 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.  

From 2015 to 2019, we have watched the movement against FGC snowball into a global force that communities have not been able to ignore. There are now dozens of Bohra women fearlessly speaking out about their FGC experiences, signing up as Sahiyo volunteers, attending our events and pledging not to cut their daughters. Women and men have faced backlash from their families and communities for speaking out, but the movement has only grown stronger. 

Research and investigations:

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the results of the first-ever research study on FGC among Bohras: an online, exploratory survey that found an 80% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohra women respondents. Among those who were cut, 98% women reported feeling pain when they underwent the ritual. Interestingly, 81% of respondents did not want FGC to continue in the community. 

In 2017, a Sahiyo investigation also revealed that FGC is being practiced by some communities in the South Indian state of Kerala, leading to furore in the region. Before this, it was believed that the Bohras are the only community in India practicing FGC. 

In 2018, WeSpeakOut published a seminal field study on FGC among Indian Bohras. The study found FGC prevalent among 75% of the daughters of the respondents. At least 33% of the respondents who were cut reported that FGC negatively impacted their sexual lives. 

More research on the FGC in Asian communities is the need of the hour, and we are aware of several studies that are currently underway in various parts of Asia. Continuous research can help us better understand not only the prevalence and impact of FGC on women and girls, but also the needs of survivors and trends towards abandonment of the practice. 

Developments on the legal front:

The 2010s were a landmark decade for FGC on the legal front, particularly for the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Australia: In 2015, three Bohras — a mother, a nurse and a community leader — were convicted for performing FGC on two minor girls in Australia. This was Australia’s first case under its 1997 law banning FGC. However, the legal ups and downs did not end with the conviction in 2015. 

In 2018, an appeals court overturned the convictions and acquitted the three accused Bohras, on the grounds that the girls’ genitals did not show any visible scarring after the ritual, and because the Australian law did not clearly define what kind of rituals qualify as FGC. In 2019, however, an Australian High Court once again flipped the verdict, overturning the acquittals, convicting the three Bohras again, and asserting that all forms of genital cutting are illegal. 

India: In 2017, an Indian lawyer filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India seeking a legal ban on the practice of FGC. Other FGC survivors also joined in the petition and to counter it, a pro-FGC group called the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom filed a petition defending the practice of FGC on the grounds of religious freedom. 

The Indian government responded to the petition by stating that FGC would be considered a crime under Indian laws dealing with child sexual abuse. However, the Indian government has made several contradictory statements about FGC since then. 

The Supreme Court has now referred the FGC case to a larger bench that will look into matters of gender equality versus religious freedom. Will 2020 be the year in which India’s highest court picks women’s right to bodily integrity over religious freedom? We will have to cross our fingers, wait, and see. 

United States: In 2017, two Bohra doctors from Michigan were among eight Bohras prosecuted for carrying out FGC on several minor girls. This was the first prosecution under the U.S.’s 1996 federal law banning FGC. In 2018, however, a U.S. district court judge ruled that even though the practice of FGC is “despicable” the federal law itself is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that FGC is a “local criminal activity” to be regulated by individual states rather than by the federal or national law. 

Currently, 35 out of 50 U.S. states have laws against FGC. Among them, 17 states introduced anti-FGC laws in the 2010s, including Arkansas, Florida and Iowa.

In the 2020s, we must campaign for laws against FGC in every U.S. state, as well as in countries across the world. 

Community engagement in 2020: 

It is now globally acknowledged that laws alone cannot be effective in ending FGC. A deep-seated social norm can be changed only if law enforcement is preceded and constantly accompanied by rigorous community engagement, education and dialogue. 

At Sahiyo, we have launched various campaigns and platforms to nurture this dialogue: the Each One Reach One campaign, the I Am Bohra photo campaign, our storytelling blog, Thaal Pe Charcha, Sahiyo Stories, Faces for Change, the Male Ally campaign, and of course, our annual Activists’ Retreats in India and the U.S. to train community members on effective methods of engaging with the community. 

In 2020 and in the years to follow, we have many more advocacy campaigns planned. The first among them will be launching next month, in February 2020: Digital Stories from the Global Voices to End FGM/C program. 

Follow @sahiyovoices on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to stay updated about the movement to end FGC and to join in our efforts.

And so, here is wishing all of you a happy and hopeful 2020!  

Asia Network to End FGM/C calls for your participation

Malaysian NGO Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and British charity Orchid Project are jointly developing a new Asia Network to End FGM/C, to strengthen movements to end the practice of FGC in Asian communities.

To shape this network and its priorities, all interested organisations, activists, and stakeholders working in the region on FGM/C or related issues in Asia are invited to fill out this consultation survey. The closing date for this survey will be 22nd December 2019.

Understanding the Supreme Court’s latest judgement mentioning female genital cutting in India

On November 14, after a year of silence on the female genital mutilation/ cutting (FGM/C) case pending before it, the Supreme Court of India mentioned that the case will be referred to a seven-judge Constitution bench. It is likely that the case will now be heard in conjunction with three other petitions dealing with women’s rights and freedom of religion: cases about Hindu women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple, Muslim women’s entry into mosques, and the entry of Parsi women married to non-Parsis into fire temples.     

Previously, in its September 2018 order, the Court had referred the FGC case to a five-judge Constitution bench. Since then, the case had been pending. 

On November 14, however, the Supreme Court brought up the FGC case while hearing a batch of review petitions in the case about Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, where women of menstruating age were traditionally not allowed to enter. The review petitions challenged the Court’s 2018 order which lifted the ban on women’s entry into the temple. 

In its November 14 judgement, a five-judge Supreme Court ruled that the debate on women’s entry into the temple overlapped with other cases about gender and religious rights that are pending before the Court, including women’s entry into mosques and fire temples and female genital mutilation/cutting among Dawoodi Bohras. It stated that a larger bench first needs to rule on the interpretation of the very principles governing the fundamental right to freedom of religion in the Constitution, before passing judgement on all of those cases from different communities.   

The implications of clubbing these various cases under one umbrella are yet to be seen, but the Court’s judgement does raise some concerns. 

Although these cases share the common theme of women’s rights within religion, the cultural ritual of cutting minor girls’ genitals is very different in substance from the rules restricting women’s entry into places of worship. It would be ideal if each of these issues are evaluated separately, on a case-by-case basis.

Sahiyo believes that the matter of FGC needs to be treated with a little more urgency. Fourteen months have already passed since the Supreme Court first referred the FGC case to a Constitution bench last year. That bench was never formed, and now the Court’s decision to first adjudicate on larger questions of law is likely to stall hearings that may have been scheduled in the FGC case. 

Since the practice of FGC involves causing bodily harm to young girls, every delay puts more girls at risk of being cut. 

A quick recap of the FGC case

In April 2017, Delhi-based lawyer Sunita Tiwari filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the practice of female genital cutting (also known as khatna, khafz, sunnath or female circumcision) in India. FGC is practiced among the Dawoodi Bohras and other Bohra sects in India, as well as among certain Sunni Muslims in the state of Kerala. Tiwari’s PIL, however, refers only to FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras.

After Tiwari’s PIL was admitted in the Court, other intervention petitions were also filed in the case, some supporting a ban on the ancient practice, and one party (the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom) defending FGC on the grounds that it is an essential religious practice for the Bohras. The Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association demanded that the matter of FGC be heard by a Constitution bench since it was about the Constitutional right to religious freedom. 

The case was heard by a three-judge bench which observed during a hearing in July 2018, that the “bodily integrity of women” cannot be violated. However, in September 2018, the bench referred the case to a five-judge Constitution bench. This meant that the practice of cutting a girl’s genitals — which the United Nations classifies as a human rights violation — would now be scrutinised through the lens of religious freedom. 

In light of the latest Supreme Court judgement, this will continue to be the case, except that now a larger, seven-judge bench will first examine the interpretation of Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution pertaining to the right to religious freedom, before adjudicating on matters of FGC and women’s entry into places of worship.

What the Court said: Majority and Minority judgements

The Supreme Court’s judgement on November 14 was not unanimous. Three of the five judges on the bench delivered the majority judgement, in favour of referring the Sabarimala, FGC and other cases to a seven-judge Constitution bench. This 9-page majority judgement was authored by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi

The other two judges (Justices Nariman and Chandrachud) authored an elaborate 68-page dissent, insisting that there was no merit to the review petitions in the Sabarimala case and that the other cases of FGC, mosque entry or fire temple entry should not be clubbed together with the Sabarimala issue. 

The majority judgement stated the following:

“The issues arising in the pending cases regarding entry of Muslim Women in Durgah/Mosque;…of Parsi Women married to a non-Parsi in the Agyari;…and including the practice of female genital mutilation in Dawoodi Bohra community…may be overlapping and covered by the judgment under review. The prospect of the issues arising in those cases being referred to larger bench cannot be ruled out…The decision of a larger bench would put at rest recurring issues touching upon the rights flowing from Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India.” 

The majority judgement specified that the larger bench would essentially have to answer seven questions about the principles of Articles 25 and 26. These questions include these four points:

  • What is the interplay between Constitutional freedom of religion and other rights granted in the Constitution, particularly the right to equality and prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religion, sex, race, caste, etc?
  • What exactly does “constitutional morality” mean?
  • To what extent can the Court determine whether a practice is essential to a religion or a religious denomination?
  • To what extent can the Court give judicial recognition to Public Interest Litigations questioning religious practices if the PIL has been filed by someone who does not belong to the religious denomination in question?
    (The original PIL in the FGC case in India was filed by Sunita Tiwari, who does not belong to an FGC-practicing community.) 

In their dissenting minority judgement, however, Justices Nariman and Chandrachud pointed out that the meaning of “constitutional morality” has already been defined by the Court in several other Constitution bench judgements, and that it is “nothing but the values inculcated by the Constitution, which are contained in the Preamble read with various other parts, in particular, Parts III [fundamental rights] and IV [fundamental duties] thereof.”

This means that the fundamental right to equality is a part of constitutional morality, and as per Article 25 and 26, freedom of religion is subject to this morality. 

The minority judgement also argued that the review petitions they were addressing specifically dealt with the question of Hindu women’s entry into Sabarimala, and that the cases pertaining to other religions or religious sects should be examined on a case-by-case basis, instead of clubbing them together.

Launching Global Voices to End FGM/C – An Online Digital Storytelling Workshop

On June 1, Sahiyo and StoryCenter launched a pilot online digital storytelling workshop – Global Voices to End FGM/C, which is supporting ten women impacted by female genital cutting in sharing and audio-recording their stories. 

During June, storytellers attended a series of webinars that helped highlight the storyteller process and how to go about drafting their story scripts as well creating a storyboard for their digital story. During July and August, the storytellers will continue working on their digital stories by collecting illustrations for their stories. The stories will be illustrated with a combination of personal images (photos and video clips) provided by the storytellers, and images contributed by participating women artists. 

The storytellers come from a variety of countries including:  Tanzania, United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Singapore, and Bahrain. “As a survivor of FGC, it is empowering to be able to share my story in my own words, with my own choice of visuals, as opposed to my story being told by someone else,” said Aarefa Johari, one of the participants of the workshop. 

All participants’ digital stories will be released in late September.

Thankful to be connected with so many incredible Bohra women

By Zehra Patwa

I wasn’t a newbie, I had attended this retreat last year and I recall the immense healing power and strength of spending over two days with ten other Bohra women sharing our deepest feelings about a secret practice that had touched all our lives. When I had the opportunity to help organize the 2nd Annual Sahiyo Activist Retreat, I jumped at the chance! This year the number of attendees had doubled from 11 participants in 2018 to 21 participants in 2019, with many first timers. The retreat seeks to build upon the growing network of Bohra women in the United States who want to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). 

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Sahiyo Activist Retreat 2019

Being in the activism field to end FGM/C for a few years now, I have had time to work through my experience and define how I feel about it. What was interesting to me was hearing women speaking out about this practice for the first time as they worked through their personal experiences. It reminded me so much of how I felt when I first started to talk about this issue, yet these women were so eloquent and inspiring in the way they talked about it. It gave me strength to hear so many women express so many different viewpoints. 

IMG_1255Although we all had similar khatna (FGM/C) experiences, we all came from different kinds of families, with differing attachment points to the Bohra community and yet, we related so easily to each other. I felt like I could really be myself in a very honest and open way which is not how I always feel when I attend community events. I am so thankful to be connected with this incredible group of strong Bohra women, and I am grateful to Sahiyo for providing a platform to meet in person.

(Editor’s note: Zehra attended last year’s retreat and was on the planning committee for the retreat this year.)

My mother thought she was saving me with khafz

By Rashida

I can recall with crystal clear memory my mother taking me at around age 7 to a dilapidated old Chawl style building in a Bohra Mohalla in Bhendi Bazaar. My mom wore a dark orange saree with a green, white and light orange geometrical design. We climbed up broken wooden steps to go to the first floor on which there were several rooms with closed doors. We knocked on one of those doors and a lady quietly let us in.

grayscale photo of man woman and child
Photo by Kristin De Soto on Pexels.com

We sat down on the bare carpet and my mom greeted her with a salaam. The lady disappeared behind a curtained door. I know she came back with washed hands because my mom made me do the traditional salaam that we do to the elders, and her hands were wet and smelled of soap as I kissed them.

The lady sat down across from us and I kneeled down to do the salaam. As I was finishing the salaam the lady pulled my pants down. My mom pulled me back, held my hands and covered my face with her sari and put her face in the sari folds so I could see her face, too. I felt a searing pain between my legs and I began to cry, and my mom made big scolding eyes (that’s how she always silenced me to show me her disapproval), and I reduced my crying to a slow whimper. I was very frightened and had no idea what was happening.

The lady squeezed the tip of my clitoris firmly with a ball of cotton soaked in red mercurochrome as a final move. She told me to keep that ball of cotton in place and not to touch it until it remained stuck to my clitoris. My pants were pulled up and I sat in my mom’s lap sobbing. The lady appeared again from behind the curtained door and was drying her hands now on a napkin. She pried open my clenched fist and forced two Parle G glucose biscuits into it, and I clutched them while clinging to my mom in a petrified state with the other hand. My Mom did salaam to the lady with an envelope filled with money and we began to leave.

I walked out very slowly holding my mother’s hand and we began to descend the staircase. My mom picked me up and carried me down. I remember that moment most vividly today because my mom had stopped carrying me since I was so tall and grown up. I was relieved and happy that she was carrying me because she had not done that in a very long time.

Mom then called for a passing taxi cab. We took taxicabs only for special occasions like a wedding or if we had too many people in a group. I looked up and asked her, “Mummy, we are going in a taxicab to uncle’s home? It is only half full?” And she just smiled and asked me to eat the biscuits.

The taxicab drove us to my uncle’s home (my mom’s brother) and as I was playing outside a few hours later, I overheard my mom talking quietly to my aunts (her sister and sister-in-law). “Oh, I thought Rashida would cry and scream,” she said. “She was so good, and look she is already running around. You cannot even tell it has happened. I was told she would shout and kick her feet. But she is all okay.” Mom said she was relieved that the deed was done.

Later that afternoon, I told my mom about the bloody ball of cotton that was still loose and lying around in my underwear and she threw it away for me. My brothers were playing around and my 11-year-old brother asked me, “What happened to you? Did somebody do something to you?” He must have overheard the adults talking. He does not remember this incident. I just ran away too scared to answer.

The community is getting regressive and male-dominated and under the influence of clergy clout. Despite FGM/C education, the social pressure to follow the diktats is palpable, real and fearful. Social boycott and fear of Laanat holds back the followers in shackles of complete submission.

The issue of equality is a blatant cover-up. The clitoral hood is clearly called “Haram ni Boti” in all sermons and all discussions that are held privately in the community. “This piece of flesh has to be taken out or the girl will be sexually promiscuous.” The Sabak or lessons given by the priests and their wives at the mosques, preach to the parents and especially to the mothers that “your daughters will have an extramarital affair or pre-marital sex if you do not do this. Save your family’s name by doing khafz.”

I do not hate my mother for doing FGM/C to me. She was an educated woman of her times with a BSc, B.Ed., and an M.S. in Chemistry. She was a teacher and retired as principal of her school. She was a victim of this procedure, too.

My mother thought she was saving me. I am sure there was a lot of social pressure from the family and community. My only conversation with her was a casual single comment she uttered as she overheard my friend complaining about health issues her young daughters were facing. My mom quietly said, “We do a procedure to our girls that prevents urinary tract infections in young girls.” I was embarrassed and knew she was referring to FGM/C. So I said, “No, mom, that is wrong and not true!” Mom just walked away. My friend had no idea what we were talking about.

We had no conversation about FGM/C or what happened to me at all thereafter. My mom passed away very young at 61 years of age and I will never have my questions answered. I love my mother dearly and she will be the strongest woman I will know in this lifetime.

I do know that my mom would support my anti-FGM/C stance today if she were alive, provided that my father would not stop her. My dad would be very angry with me today if he knew I was opposing the Syedna in any shape or form.

I run in full marathons and ran my first marathon at age 46. In total, I have run seven full marathons, including those in New York, Chicago, and Washington, and plan to continue running until I die. Running brings me peace of mind and strength. I truly believe I am the oldest woman of Indian heritage still running in marathons and the only Bohra woman my age running, yet I do not feel that the community acknowledges this accomplishment. I am considered a rebel for this act of running as well as for my stance against FGM/C. I will turn 51 soon and will be running the Philadelphia marathon in November of this year, and it will be my eighth full marathon.

My mom used to say, “There should be hope in life. If there is no hope, there is no life.” I hope to see a law banning FGM/C in India. There is no mention of this practice in the Quran and it actually predates Islam. I hope to see the practice of female khatna/FGM/C stopped globally.

 

Sahiyo Hosts ‘Thaal Pe Charcha’ Iftar Party in Mumbai

On May 11, Sahiyo India hosted a special Thaal Pe Charcha “Iftar” dinner in Mumbai during the holy month of Ramzan. The event was attended by 24 women and men from the Bohra community, who came together to break their Ramzan fasts and also mark two years since Sahiyo launched its flagship programme of Thaal Pe Charcha. 
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Loosely translated as “discussions over food”, Thaal Pe Charcha provides community members with a safe and intimate platform to share their stories, experiences, and feelings about the practice of Female Genital Cutting, while bonding over traditional Bohra food. At least 50 community members have participated in Thaal Pe Charcha events over the past two years, and the Iftar dinner on May 11 saw five new participants join in, with several questions about the nature of the practice of FGC in the community, the arguments for and against it, and the work done by the movement against the practice. 

Two of the participants also brought their children for the event, including the seven-year-old daughter of Zohra, an FGC survivor. Girls in the Bohra community are typically cut at age seven, and Zohra expressed pride in the fact that she would not be continuing the practice on her daughter. 

The first Thaal Pe Charcha in Pune city

Earlier, in April, a Bohra FGC survivor and activist from Pune city hosted a small Thaal Pe Charcha lunch at her own home. The survivor, who identifies herself with the pseudonym Xenobia, had participated in Sahiyo India’s 2019 Activists’ Retreat in January. One of the workshops at the retreat was about hosting one’s own Thaal Pe Charcha in order to expand the conversations about FGC to more people. Xenobia was one of the first participants to volunteer to host her own Thaal Pe Charcha after the workshop, and the lunch she hosted at her house had 7 participants. 

Read about Xenobia’s experience of hosting the lunch in her own words, by clicking here.