Saved by a lie: A story of female genital cutting

By Zainab Khambata

Age: 17

Place of residence: Mumbai, India

My maternal grandmother prides herself on being the perfect blend of modernity and religion. But when it came to her own daughter who is my mother, in spite of her misgivings, she still fell in line and got my mother circumcised or cut. Ask my grandmother why she did it and the reasons are numerous. Her mother asked her to do it. She lived in a joint family and all the cousins were cut. She didn’t know how to openly defy social norms and say no. The oddly mystifying voice of reason: if everybody is doing it, maybe it is the right thing to do. That is how Bohri women still continue to be cut in this day and age by their mothers and aunts and grandmothers. 

My mother still remembers the day she was cut as a child very vividly. She wasn’t told anything at all, simply pounced upon by her aunts and a “maasi,” or auntie, who used a razor on her. Then she was asked to rest to let the bleeding stop, given a bar of chocolate, and as a bonus, no school the next day. Life went on for my mother as usual without any mention of the incident or what had transpired. 

All was good and forgotten until my paternal grandmother started hounding my mom to get me cut. It was this whole maahol, or social environment, where mothers of girls my age were more than happy to play reminder and ask if I was cut yet because they had already had their little girls cut. My mom read about it and realised the physical repercussions of it, the bleeding and scarring, emotional repercussions and trauma, and in some cases, even sexual frigidity. You may never really forget what happens to you even though you are not informed about it at all. Upon inquiry, my mom never got a satisfactory answer as to why girls are cut besides the fact that it’s Sunnat, or encouraged. Some moms said it was for hygiene purposes; others said it would keep a girls’ potentially “sinful” thoughts of a sexual nature at bay. But the final straw was when she was told it may heighten mental and physical intimacy between couples. She realised then that many people have a myriad of confusing reasons to justify cutting.

When the pressure became too much from my grandmother and the other moms around her, my mother resorted to the only way she knew to keep me safe, by telling everyone that the deed was already done.

My paternal grandmother, who was hell bent on getting me circumcised like all my cousins to uphold her own religious morals and beliefs, made it a point to cross-check with my maternal grandmother whether I was truly cut. My maternal grandmother was smart enough to say yes, mostly to atone to my mom and not let history repeat itself for the sake of my bodily autonomy. In this way, my paternal grandmother was satisfied and she let it rest once and for all.

My mom had actually managed to prevent my cutting by telling everyone I had undergone the practice. Ingenious or devious? No matter what, I am grateful.

Dear Maasi: “Did khatna impact my sex life or is it all in my head?”

Dear Maasi is a column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi, 

I find that many survivors of female genital cutting (FGC) either have not experienced or been vocal about the negative impact of FGC on their sexual experiences. Am I in the minority? It feels that some of the impact may be in my head and not real. How can I explore that aspect of my personal experience?

Anam

Dear Anam,

Sex and khatna can be considered taboo subjects, which means that people can be very shy about sharing their true experiences. Let’s change that!

In previous columns, I’ve referenced recent research done by Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, that estimates around 30-35% of khatna survivors report a negative impact on their sexual lives:

  • fear, anxiety, shame, and difficulty trusting sexual partners 
  • low arousal, inability to feel sexual pleasure and over sensitivity in the clitoral area 

In conversations with women, I’ve also heard about sexual pain, which I addressed in depth in October’s column. In my own process of healing, I’ve needed to understand freeze responses and how to address them through mindfulness.

In the Sahiyo study, another 32% said they “didn’t know” if khatna had an impact on their sexuality, which raises questions for me. I think that most of us are not trauma-informed or sexuality-literate enough to answer this question because we often don’t know how to interpret and trust our feelings and sensations. All of this can lead to confusion and feeling like we’re imagining things.

For example, consider that trauma memories can be inaccessible, or fuzzy, or surreal-feeling:

“Trauma memories are often implicit, because trauma floods our brain with cortisol, the stress hormone, which shuts down the part of our brain that encodes memories and makes them explicit. Our implicit memories can be like invisible forces in our lives, impacting us in powerful ways.” (https://www.psychalive.org/making-sense-of-implicit-memories/)

These invisible forces are the living legacy of trauma. The traumatized part of us can remain on guard even if our adult self intellectually knows we’re safe. 

One way to explore this further is to learn more about trauma and sexuality. Review some of my past columns and peruse some of the short videos and article links. 

Many people find it helpful to talk with a trauma and sexuality trained psychotherapist who can help you to notice, understand and shift your responses. (Check out January 2021’s column for details on how to find someone with those skills.) 

Anam, I hope you’ll offer yourself the gift of this exploration and sexual healing. Sexual pleasure is our birthright!

—Maasi

About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor: Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at http://www.farzanadoctor.com

Disclaimer: While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

Four women who were pivotal to the movement to end female genital cutting

By Megan Maxwell

The movement to end female genital cutting (FGC) has been in effect starting as far back as the latter half of the 19th century through the voices, writing, and research of women who have worked for the rights of women and girls. FGC is present in 92 countries. In honor of Women’s History Month, Sahiyo is honoring four women from Egypt, India, Senegal, and Austria who changed the world for women and girls.

Nawal El Saadawi & her brutal honesty

Nawal El Saadawi, a doctor, feminist and writer, who was born in a community outside of Cairo, Egypt, was a survivor of FGC. She campaigned against FGC and for the rights of women and girls throughout her life. She started by speaking out against her family’s preconceived notions about the trajectory of a girl’s life and then used her voice to condemn FGC and women’s rights abuses through her books. 

She wrote many books including The Hidden Face of Eve, a powerful account of brutality against women, and saw women live those realities detailed in the book within the communities in which she worked as a medical doctor. She was a crusader but her work was banned. She was imprisoned and suffered death threats. Through her work, she championed for the rights of girls and women globally for decades. She died on March 21st at 89 years old

Rehana Ghadially & All for Izzat

In 1991, Rehana Ghadially wrote an article entitled All for Izzat in which she examined the prevalence of female genital cutting and its justification. For this article, she interviewed about 50 Bohra women and found the three most common reasons given for FGC: it is a religious obligation; it is a tradition; and it is done to curb a girl’s sexuality. 

Through these interviews, Ghadially revealed that the procedure of FGC was anything but symbolic. “The girl’s circumcision has been kept an absolute secret not only from outsiders but from the men of the community,” she said.

Ghadially experienced FGC when she was very young. Her research allowed her to share with the world the reality of what Bohra girls and women go through as a result of FGC.        

Ndéye Maguette Diop & the Malicounda Bambara community

The community of Malicounda Bambara in Senegal, West Africa, was substantially influenced by the Community Empowerment Program (CEP): a program established by Tostan that engages communities in their languages on themes of democracy, human rights (including female genital cutting), health, literacy, and project management skills. In July of 1997, the CEP empowered the women of Malicounda Bambara to announce the first-ever public declaration to abandon female genital cutting to the world. Ndéye Maguette Diop was the facilitator for the CEP in Malicounda Bambara. She guided them through the program, which is designed to not pass judgment on the practice, but simply to provide information regarding FGC and its health risks.

Diop used theater, a traditional mode of African communication and arts, as a means to better facilitate the exchange of ideas. “The women didn’t have any knowledge of these rights beforehand and had never spoken of FGC between themselves,” Diop said. As the result of reenacting a play, these women started to talk about FGC frequently with Diop and she said they “decided to speak about the harmful consequences on women’s health caused by the practice with their ‘adoptive sisters’ [a component of the CEP], as well as with their husbands.” 

Thanks to Diop, the conversation on FGC was opened up to the women of Malicounda Bambara. They took it upon themselves to investigate within their community until they concluded that the practice should be abandoned.

Fran Hosken & her ideas of global sisterhood

In 1975, Fran Hosken began writing her newsletter, Women’s International Network News where she reported on the status of women and women’s rights around the globe. The tagline for her newsletter was, “All the news that is fit to print by, for & about women,” and it featured regular sections on Women and Development, Women and Health, Women and Violence, and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Every issue of her newsletter had a section on FGM, including names and addresses for her subscribers to get more information on activities surrounding FGC around the world. Hosken was an American feminist and writer, but she was very involved in the livelihoods of women and girls around the globe.
Her newsletter became popular for its research into female genital cutting and she ended up writing The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females in 1979. In her book, she reports on the health facts, history, The World Health Organization’s Seminar in Khartoum, The Politics of FGM: a Conspiracy of Silence, Actions for Change, Statistics, Economic Facts, and case histories from several African and Asian Countries as well as the western world. Fran Hosken’s writing and research were extremely influential in the movement to end female genital cutting and continues to be in the modern movement.

Dear Maasi: “How do I tell my husband I haven’t enjoyed sex for 15 years?”

Dear Maasi is a column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi,

I have been married for 15 years and my husband is a decent, caring man, but we don’t talk about sex and I have not talked about my khatna experience with him. I don’t enjoy sex and am always on edge during it. I feel that I should cater to his needs as a loving wife, but this leaves me feeling empty. How do I start a conversation about my lack of enthusiasm for physical interaction without making him feel like he has done something wrong?

—Bilkis

Dear Bilkis

Thanks for writing in. Here are a few things I’d like to convey upfront:

  • You’re not alone. Women are given the message that it’s their duty to self-sacrifice and to defer to men’s needs. 
  • For many women, khatna has had a negative impact on their sexuality. See February’s column for more info. 
  • Many couples have trouble talking about sex. We don’t get enough sex education to allow us to speak neutrally or frankly about sexuality.
  • Talking about khatna is hard for most of us. Check out September’s column for more info. Consider using that as a guide for talking to your husband about it.
  • Trust your body. Those feelings of emptiness and being on edge deserve your attention. 

Here are some guidelines for initiating difficult conversations about intimacy: 

  • Start with finding a good time to talk when you are undistracted and relaxed.
  • Next, use a “love sandwich”. (Loving statements are the bread, the filler is the “problem”). Here is an example:
    • “I love you so much, and there’s something I want to tell you with the goal of making our bond stronger. I’m feeling nervous to say it but I want to tell you that I’m having difficulties with sex connected to khatna [and the fill in the problem.] None of this is your fault. We’ve been through so much in our relationship, and I’m confident that by sorting through this, we can solve this problem together.”
    • Consider putting it in writing if that is easier. Watch this video. At the 4.5-minute mark, Esther Perel, a psychologist, offers an example.
  • Allow your body to guide you as you move forward. Do you want to expand your sex life? Which sexual experiences (with or without your partner) have you enjoyed or might you like to try? Make a list of these so you can communicate them. 
    • Psychologist Esther Perel encourages us to offer invitations versus complaints. For example: “I really loved it when we [fill in the blank]. Want to do that again?” Or “I think if we [fill in the blank], I’ll feel more relaxed. Would you like to try that?” instead of “I don’t enjoy sex with you.”
    • Use mindfulness to help you pause when something doesn’t feel right and to deepen pleasure.
    • If you need some guidance on how to sexually “start again”, read or listen to the book Come As You Are. Do this together. Consider seeking a couples or sex therapist who is trauma-trained to help you further the conversation and help you brainstorm new approaches to sex.

Bilkis, it can feel vulnerable to open up this conversation, but vulnerability also builds intimacy and connection. Your decent and caring partner might initially feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. He might even question why it took you so long to say something. He might also feel incredible relief that the two of you are talking about something so important. Perhaps he’s wondered how to have this conversation, too. Remember sexual pleasure is natural, normal and our birthright!

—Maasi

About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor: Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at http://www.farzanadoctor.com

Disclaimer: While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

Dear Maasi addresses questions about the clitoral hood and sexual pleasure

Dear Maasi is a column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

This month we received lots of questions through our anonymous form. Dear Maasi will  answer two interrelated questions for February’s column about the clitoral hood and sexual pleasure:

Dear Maasi,

Can you please send us links to see how actually a circumcision is done? What part is snipped? The hood or half of the clitoris? 

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous

Khatna, aka female circumcision, aka Type 1 FGM/C, involves cutting the clitoral hood. Other Types involve cutting or doing harm to other parts of the genitalia. Have a look at this diagram

However, there isn’t standardization because 1) each body is different 2) most khatnas are done by amateur cutters 3) khatna often happens under duress (think about how precise a cut would be if the child squirms or resists).

I’ve heard of survivors who have scars on their hood, no hood at all, or a partial hood. Some khatna survivors report that the nub of the clitoris was cut. Learn more about the parts of the clitoris here.

The best way to understand what parts of your genitals were cut is to use a hand mirror to have a  good look. If it’s hard to see, you might ask a trusted medical professional, partner or family member to describe what they see. For example, under bright lights, my gynaecologist was able to detect a thin scar on my hood. But do keep in mind that some survivors have no detectable scars at all.

—Maasi

Dear Maasi,

It’s said that khatna increases the sensuality of the clitoris, and it directly affects the sexual appetite of the female subject in a positive way. How true is it? How does FGC impact pleasure and orgasm?

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

I have heard pro-khatna advocates sharing the opinion (or shall I say myth?) that a cut to the clitoral hood improves pleasure and orgasm. 

Some survivors have said that khatna has no impact on their pleasure. I haven’t heard of anyone who thinks khatna improved their sex life, but I wouldn’t argue with them if they felt this way. Psychosexual functioning is very individual and impacted by physical and emotional factors, including trauma.

For many survivors, khatna was a sexual trauma. Sexual trauma can impact a survivor’s ability to trust and to experience sexual comfort and pleasure.

—In a Sahiyo survey conducted in 2017, 35% of respondents reported that FGC had affected their sex life, and of those, 87% felt that it had been impacted negatively. 

—In a 2018 WeSpeakOut study, nearly 33% of respondents said the same. They experienced many different emotions: 

  • Fear, anxiety, shame, depression, low self-esteem, difficulty trusting people 
  • “Low sex drive, inability to feel sexual pleasure, difficulty trusting sexual partners, and over sensitivity in the clitoral area were some of the problems identified by several women.”

The clitoral hood has an important function. It protects the sensitive clitoral tissue from over stimulation and irritation. There are also glands in your clitoral hood that produce a lubricant that helps the hood move smoothly over your clitoris.

Globally, one of the main arguments for FGM/C is to control sexuality. In recent years, those who resist the #endFGM movement have come up with all kinds of arguments about why it is “good” for girls and women. I’ll bet that this “increased pleasure” argument is one such fiction.

—Maasi

About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor:

Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at http://www.farzanadoctor.com

Disclaimer:

While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

Why one Bohra woman shared her experience with female genital cutting publicly

By Jenny Cordle

On February 5th of last year, one day before the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), Zahra Khozema, 24, shared her deeply personal story of having been cut as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra sect in Pakistan.

“Being part of the Bohra community is feeling like a part of something,” Khozema said. “Though we are scattered around the world, we’re tightly knit. You can find a Bohra person in a crowd because of the colorful ridas women wear. And I promise you even if you don’t know them, they will approach you. I could be stranded in any city, and if I saw a Bohra person (from their clothing) I would sigh in relief because I know they’d let me in their home, or help me in any way they could. We’re a big family and we refer to everyone as brother and sister.”

Despite being considered a progressive community, many members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Islam still prioritize female genital cutting, or khatna, for girls as young as 7 years old. The Dawoodi Bohra population comprises up to one million people in countries such as India, Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, Egypt, Tanzania and South Africa. Diaspora communities also live in Europe, Australia and the United States. 

“I hate that even though our community does so much good work, it’s small and not mainstream, and we’re only going to be remembered for this practice by people who don’t know Bohras in real life,” she said. 

Khozema, who currently resides in London, said this in reference to the 2018 U.S. case of a Michigan doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, who was initially charged with performing FGM/C on at least nine girls with the alleged help of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, his wife, Farida Attar, and five other residents of Michigan and Minnesota. Judge Bernard Friedman dropped the FGM/C charges, declaring the 1996 federal ban on FGM/C as unconstitutional, in what pro-khatna people may have considered a victory. But on January 5th of this year, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law criminalizing FGC in the U.S., stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice.

It was in reading about the 2018 case that Khozema realized that what happened to her was a source of buried trauma. 

“I will never stand by the practice, but I’m glad the case was an awakening for many Bohras like me to really think about the way we treat girls and women and why — because so many men didn’t even know about it,” she said. “A couple of my Bohra guy friends told me they stopped coming to the mosque after they read this story because they only found out about it then. These are men in their mid-twenties. That alone says a lot.”

Because of the secrecy surrounding the practice, Khozema was hesitant to share her experience with anyone. Her younger sister discouraged her from writing it altogether. But Khozema felt an urge to share it, despite potential repercussions. Many outspoken FGM/C activists face significant backlash within the Bohra community. This backlash can entail being ostracized, shamed, or having internet trolls harass those that speak out, claiming that speaking out is a “defamation of the faith, its leader and those who practice” khatna. Her piece was one of the top 50 stories of the year for Broadview Magazine in 2020. As she suspected, many women sought her out to share their stories of having been cut. 

“I wasn’t that surprised because 90% of the women I know have been through it,” Khozema said. “I was surprised that they just responded to my story positively. Non-Bohra friends assured me that this happens a lot in their own countries like India and Egypt.”

“A lot of people called me brave and strong for putting such a personal topic out there, but I honestly didn’t think it was,” she said. “I felt quite small and vulnerable, and even petty for not sharing it with the people who needed to see it the most — Bohra people my parents’ age.”

Khozema does not encourage women to share their stories if they are not ready. Instead, she encourages women and men to open up dialogue about khatna within their communities.

“I would encourage Bohra men and women to talk to their parents, and most importantly, new moms of girls,” she explained. “Ask them if khatna is something they’re considering and really ask why. ‘Do you really know why you’d do it to your daughter or are you just following blind tradition? Are you really willing to take your child to someone with scissors in a dark basement?’”

She said writing and sharing the piece did help her to heal in a sense.

“I spoke to so many people who assured me it was okay to write this,” Khozema said. “I also learned to face that some people will always be okay with it, and to know when to stop fighting with people who have made up their minds.”

After having written and shared the piece publicly, Khozema is in a better place and feels “lighter.” But psychologically and physically, the harm remains. “Intimacy, unfortunately, will always be difficult for me,” she said. “The shame I feel about not fully having control of my body will always be there.”

Dear Maasi: a sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships.  We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi,

In an October 22nd webinar about sex and mental health after khatna, you talked about different kinds of psychotherapy that are helpful for survivors. I think I might want to see a psychotherapist to talk about khatna (FGC), but I don’t know where to start.

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

There are many paths to healing, and psychotherapy is one of them. I’m a big believer in its efficacy, and not just because I am a psychotherapist—I found psychotherapy very helpful in working through my own khatna-related emotional and sexual trauma.

None of my psychotherapists had heard about khatna, or had been trained in counseling survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) before working with me. Only two had a basic knowledge of FGM/C from their own reading, and this was about Types III or IV. I expected that; it’s only since 2015 that there’s been any widely held public discourse around khatna. While more therapists are getting better trained, it’s fairly rare to find an experienced FGM/C trauma therapist. Therefore, it was up to me to take some initiative in my own therapeutic journey. 

Here are some tips:

  • Seek out a psychotherapist who has at least five years of experience working with survivors of sexual trauma. 
  • Of these, look for someone who has training in a model or approach that goes beyond standard “talk therapy,” which tends to focus on cognitive understandings. Because trauma gets housed in the body, it’s important to directly address the unconscious and the body. A few examples of approaches that can be helpful to trauma survivors are (but not limited to): Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, Mindfulness, and EMDR.
  • Interview a few therapists. (Most will offer a free half-hour consultation for this purpose). Besides asking about their knowledge, experience and approaches, tune into your gut regarding “match” or how connected you feel with the person. Your relationship with a psychotherapist is an important part of the process.
  • Gather information about khatna for context around the practice. Send some links so the therapist can do their own reading and learning. It’s good for them to process the information and their own reactions before working with you so that you can feel free to open up. 

Here’s a piece I wrote to share with people: Seven Things Not to Ask a Khatna Survivor.

Here are two deeper dive khatna resources:

Resolving the trauma of khatna can help us live happier, more fulfilling lives. Anonymous, I wish you well in your healing journey!

Maasi 

Reflection on Addressing FGC in the Clinic: A Dialogue between Survivors and Healthcare Professionals

By Sandra Yu 

On December 8th, 2020, Sahiyo hosted a webinar featuring several health professionals and  survivors of female genital cutting (FGC) to discuss the necessity for trauma-informed care and cultural competency. The event was an eye-opening and invigorating conversation as the panelists discussed the failures of the current medical system and necessary next steps to improve systemic care for survivors of violence. 

Renee Bergstrom and Sarata Kande, two outspoken advocates against FGC, provided unique and moving perspectives about how cultural competency and vulnerability are key to providing better care. The juxtaposition between their Voices to End FGM/C videos and their spoken statements on the panel about their past experiences with healthcare professionals was truly powerful. 

“Once it’s done to you, you are forbidden to ever mention it to anybody,” Kande said. “But when you share your story, it feels good.” 

In response, Deborah Ottenheimer, M.D., detailed how she identifies and speaks with survivors of FGC in an inclusive, vulnerable, and caring manner. Karen McDonnell, Ph.D., a public health specialist and creator of the The George Washington University FGM Toolkit, also addressed the critical need for providers to learn about FGC from a public health perspective, expanding on the treatment of FGC as a subsector of gender-based violence. Mariam Sabir, a Sahiyo volunteer and 4th-year medical student, gave an unsettling glimpse into the current state of medical education surrounding FGC as she described her interactions with peers and faculty on the topic. 

The central theme that arose was the importance of communication, whether it’s between healthcare providers, communities, the general public, or patient-doctor interactions. McDonnell speaks to the creation and normalization of the language used to describe genitalia. Having the right vocabulary to communicate about female genitalia is the first step to having genuine conversations about FGC. Communication between a patient and their doctor is even more crucial for building trust. Knowledge is not enough to make a person feel safe and comfortable.

Bergstrom and Kande alluded to their individual experiences grappling with healthcare providers that fail to embrace vulnerability. Building trust and allowing for vulnerability in the clinic are learned skills that are often overlooked in medical education. The culture of silence surrounding the practice of FGC is pervasive, but we are moving toward a future where silence does not need to be the norm, especially in the clinic where trust is paramount to care. 

Watch the recording of this event here.

Read the transcript here.

Dear Maasi: a new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a new column about everything you wanted to know about sex and relationships but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, and is for all of us who have questions about khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexualities and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi,

How do you navigate being a public advocate on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) while being so exposed and having your identity conflated with such a deeply personal issue? This is particularly tough in the world of online dating.  

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

This is a great question, and I think many survivors who have chosen to be “out” in the public realm have had to grapple with this situation. To be clear, it is a choice to be a public advocate, and everyone has to make the choice that’s best for them.

People assume so many things about us FGM/C survivors, don’t they, Anonymous? It’s such a stigmatized issue, that people don’t understand that we are all different. We remember differently. We have different symptoms. We have different sexual functioning. We have different religious beliefs and connections to our families and communities. In other words, you can’t assume anything about an FGM/C survivor. And yet people do. These assumptions create shame and can be entirely inaccurate.

Many of us, at the time of the original trauma, were told, “This is nothing; don’t cry,” and “This is a secret; don’t talk.” Therefore, speaking publicly about how FGM/C is harmful can seem wrong or shameful.

At the same time, as kids, we probably didn’t understand what was happening to our bodies; and as a coping strategy, children tend to blame themselves rather than the trusted adults. Thinking it’s our fault creates shame.

All of this to say that FGM/C can leave us with a lot of shame. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

I’ve been an activist since 2015, but I was super nervous about being public. I admired and envied my activist sisters who could openly discuss their survivor experiences. While they were the best role models and supporters, I couldn’t follow their examples. When I tried, I’d dissociate, feel exhausted and unwell; my body signaled a big “no” to me. I wasn’t ready.

The hitch was that I was finishing a novel about FGM/C in my community, and I knew that I’d be asked about my personal connection to the issues at festivals and in media interviews. Despite the dread I felt, I knew I had to work through my anxieties and become ready. But this wasn’t a simple process. I returned to therapy. I did mock interviews where friends asked the most intrusive questions, and I had to sort out my boundaries and decide how to answer. I had to challenge my own beliefs and stereotypes about what it means to be a survivor. I wrote Seven Things Not to Ask A Khatna Survivor, both for myself,my friends and readers. Still, I was nervous.

And then something unexpected happened at the beginning of my book tour. I didn’t feel dread. My body began to say yes to public speaking. I saw the questions that came my way as opportunities, not intrusions. I haven’t stopped talking about it since I started, over three months ago. And I’ve been fine. Better than that, I’ve felt liberated from the shame. 

This is a long way of saying that people will continue to make assumptions about me—and to conflate khatna/FGM/C with my identity, perhaps for the rest of my life—and because I have no shame about it, I no longer care. 

I have a feeling that this works similarly with any marginalized identity or experience we hold. When we surface and work through our internalized shame about being racialized, or women, or Muslim or fat or poor or disabled or queer or older or depressed or chronically ill, we liberate ourselves.

The process of moving from shame to liberation will look different for each of us. I think the first step is acknowledging any shame you might feel. Here are a few questions to ask yourself (and while doing so, notice your emotions and your body’s response):

-What myths or assumptions exist about FGM/C survivors? List them. Which do I believe, even a little bit?

-Is the cut to my genitals shameful? Are my genitals shameful? In what ways?

-How do I feel if a neighbour or a colleague or a stranger knows I am a survivor? 

This brings us to online dating. It’s standard practice to Google a potential date and to scan their social media profiles. There’s probably no way to escape people knowing about us before they meet us.

Mariya Karimjee talked about her experiences with dating, sex and being a public advocate on the Sex Gets Real podcast (Jan 29, 2017). At about the 48-minute mark, she describes the two kinds of men she’s met through online dating: the first who is “totally freaked out” by what they assume to be her “baggage,” and the second who imagines himself as someone who can “fix her with his magic penis.” We can assume that both these types of men are not worthy of anyone’s attention, Anonymous! 

A third type of date might be someone who understands that psychological and sexual trauma is common and their aftereffects varied. They don’t make any assumptions about us. This is the sort of person you can have interesting, complex and intimate conversations about your experiences, including those about being an FGM/C survivor and advocate. Check out September’s column for some tips on how to have these conversations.

I’m hopeful that as we continue to do our advocacy, we’ll normalize conversations about FGM/C, and more people—including our neighbours, colleagues and potential dates—will be this kind of person. While you search for them, I hope that you will be shameless in the best kind of way.

Maasi

About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor:

Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at www.farzanadoctor.com.

Disclaimer:

While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

Crying out our mothers’ grief: How we allowed female genital mutilation to flourish in our communities

By Tamanna Taher

When I began writing an article on female genital mutilation (FGM), I was adamant that my research be thorough, and my opinions be carefully articulated. However, I did not realise the mammoth task the latter would become. It has been two years since I started writing this article. I was a sophomore in college when I began, and I sit here as a senior, writing to pledge my solidarity to end FGM. My parents had managed to shield me from the hushed conversations that I always knew were happening.

I was 14 years old when I was finally let into the discussions recounting personal experiences and stories from survivors in the family. I remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, asking what they were whispering about. My father said it was okay to tell me, and explained FGM, or khatna, as it is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community.

“It is when a female is circumcised.”

“Circumcised? How? What?”

“They (carefully separating us and them), believe that for a woman to be pure, she must undergo a surgical procedure in which she is circumcised.”

“Oh.”

At this moment, I was as any teenager finding out about such an issue would be – very uncomfortable. Deciding not to ask anything else, I sat back and wondered what exactly was there to be circumcised down there. This went on for a few very silent weeks. However, I finally mustered enough courage to ask the question that had been haunting me. Had it been done to me?

I remember awkwardly questioning my mum one day, asking whether I was so young that I did not even remember. She informed me that she was vehemently against it, and neither me, nor my sister, had this procedure done. She said she would never, as she was a victim of it herself: a victim of family traditions and beliefs, and another one of the countless victims of groupthink. She said that she remembered her experience, and it was not something a woman forgets. She was seven years old.

My mum never called herself a victim. She told me that she had never understood it fully. At the time she drew a parallel between being cut and getting an ear piercing. That is why, she explains now, she never questioned her mother. That is why she believes her mother never questioned my great grandmother. She thought of it as a necessity of growing up – not a religious doctrine, but a cultural tradition. 

I have chosen the words victim and survivor very purposefully. I believe if this had truly been something she did not feel was an injustice to women around the world, my mother would have chosen us to carry the burden of the tradition. But she stepped back, separating herself from the powerful clutches of “Log kya kahenge?” (“What will people say?”) She saved her daughters from the injustice she was too young to save herself from. 

I will forever be grateful to my mother, for being so brave and standing up against members of the family she loved and trusted, fighting them and protecting us from the practice that she had to suffer from herself, of which countless others still have to suffer the consequences.

I began asking the women around me whether they had been subjected to any form of FGM. I was appalled at how many of them said yes. I was even more revolted when I found out that my family had been divided by this issue. There were people around me that agreed with what was happening, so much so that they decided to boycott all the members of the family who saw FGM for what it was – child abuse. This was a confusing time for me. I was very close to a cousin of mine who defended the right to have been cut. She saw it as something that should be a choice. I was almost swayed by her.

I regret that I allowed that to happen, and I am embarrassed that I did not realise sooner the repercussions of staying silent in such situations. I see now that khatna is not a choice. The girls who are cut are not consenting. They are usually ignorant about what is being done to them – realising the effects only in adulthood, and at which point they must silently bear the psychological pain and trauma. A girl, in the moment, might only feel the excruciating pain of the instrument being used to perform the procedure, but when she becomes a woman, she will realise that the cuts run deeper than what she previously thought. 

This is why so many people have begun to speak up. This is exactly why Sahiyo – United Against Female Genital Cutting as an organization exists. Children cannot make these decisions, and you cannot legally call them consenting beings. They do not have full knowledge, and they do not realise the gravity. To anyone who argues otherwise, I would like to present several stories. One of the women I spoke to told me that she had been promised ice cream if she went. She was only 8 years old; an adult would recognise that as manipulation. Another told me that her mother said she was going to see a doctor because she was sick. That is universally recognised as deceit. I even had someone tell me that her mother had slapped her and told her that she was doing this for God. That is plain and simple coercion. But, most importantly, all of the above is child abuse, manifesting in its verbal, emotional and physical forms. 

You might be thinking, but what will speaking up do? We need you to understand that every voice matters because we are speaking for those that had been stripped of theirs. You may also be thinking there is so much awareness. The number of girls subjected to this must be falling. That is far from the case. The number has been steadily rising, and is projected to rise to 4.6 million girls in the year 2030. Anything more than zero is already too many.  Speak up against injustice and pledge to fight for all the little girls around the world being dragged into apartments or doctors’ offices and having their bodies permanently changed. Speak up for your daughters, your sisters, your cousins, your mothers, and your aunts. Speak up because this is not a choice; it is oppression.