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 the most clicked-on story for Broadview Magazine in March of 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:

Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra Community

The Clitoral Hood A Contested Site Khafd or Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in India

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.

A Reflection on Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting

By Cate Cox

On Thursday, October 22nd, Sahiyo partnered with three award-winning and multi-talented speakers Farzana Doctor, Sarian Karim-Kamara, and Joanna Vergoth to host Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from these speakers about the mental and emotional consequences of FGC, how FGC can impact sexuality, and how survivors may be  working toward healing. Passionate, honest, and bold, this webinar explored some of the most difficult and taboo subjects surrounding FGC, and allowed survivors and non-survivors alike space to better understand the process of healing after FGC.   

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and U.S. Executive Director, guided our speakers through conversations about the psycho-sexual impacts of FGC and how they have worked to help survivors heal. Vergoth, a trained psychoanalyst, gave the audience a detailed and uncensored explanation of how the physical and mental impacts of FGC can make it difficult for survivors to experience sexual pleasure, and what methods survivors can use to move toward their own emotional and sexual healing. Karim-Kamara boldly explored her own experience with sexual healing, and spoke of her struggles and victories in a way that moved many in the audience to tears. Finally, Doctor also explored her own process of sexual healing and how her latest novel, Seven, gives readers a greater view into the complexities and struggles of sexual healing for survivors of FGC. 

Certainly, one of the most powerful and enjoyable moments of the webinar was the opportunity the audience had to ask the panelists questions at the end. We spoke to two audience members about their questions. The first audience member, who was a survivor herself, asked the speakers for advice on whether or not one should undergo the surgical process of clitoral restoration. Each speaker had a slightly different answer to this question, but the heart of each of their messages was the same: explore your own body first, find a trusting partner to help you, and read up about healing before you make a decision — but ultimately the decision is yours alone to make. Our second audience member asked the speakers to explore how to create a safe and educational space for young people to heal from FGC and continue activism to end the practice. The speakers explored their roles in their organizational and activism efforts. For those who are interested in learning more about their work, our speakers helped to found forma, Keep the Drums and Lose the Knife, The End FGM/C Canada Network, and WeSpeakOut

From exploring the intricacies of sexuality and mental health, what it means to heal from FGC, and how to mobilize a healing movement, Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting was a powerful and radical event. With guests hailing from the United States, the Netherlands, India, Canada, Iran, and other countries, it is clear this event is part of a global movement that is pushing for FGC activism to expand outside the realm of ending this practice to include a movement focused on helping survivors move toward healing.  

For those who were unable to attend, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the transcript and recording of this event are attached below.

Watch the recording of this event here.  

Read the transcript here.

Fiction, Truth, and Female Genital Cutting: A reflection of the fireside chat with Farzana Doctor

On October 4th, Sahiyo partnered with acclaimed Canadian author and WeSpeakOut cofounder Farzana Doctor to host Fiction, Truth, and Female Genital Cutting: A Fireside Chat. During this intimate conversation, we had the opportunity to hear from Doctor about her latest novel, Seven. Compelling and passionate, Seven follows the journey of Sharifa, a woman trying to better understand her past of having undergone female genital cutting (FGC) in order to move forward. The first of its kind, this novel takes an unflinching look into the reality of the fight to end FGC, or khatna, as it is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

During the conversation with Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo, Doctor explored how the book was influenced by her own family history and experiences, and the delicate line she had to walk while trying to discuss such a difficult topic. Particularly powerful was her explanation of how writing the book, and her activism in general, has helped shape her understanding of khatna. While Seven certainly condemns the practice, Doctor also works to show the complexities that come with practices like khatna, such as the fact that the perpetrators are sometimes victims of the practice, as well. While the book specifically looks at the practice of khatna, its overall message about the importance, albeit difficulty, of trying to end the cycles of shame and violence that burden women speaks to the reality of women everywhere.  

After the formal Q&A, the guests had the opportunity to ask Doctor questions about her writing process, activism, and to share their own experiences. While Farzana Doctor was the main speaker of the event, participation from all who attended was really what helped the chat flourish. The fireside chat proved not only to be an opportunity for guests to learn about Doctor’s work, but a chance for them to expand their community and share their experiences in the fight to end FGC globally. Attendees were from the United States, India, and Germany.

From exploring the intricacies of sexuality, marriage, female friendship, cultural norms, and the ongoing fight to end khatna, Fiction, Truth, and FGC: A Fireside Chat with Farzana Doctor was an eye-opening and educational event. For those who were unable to attend, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the link to the event recording and transcript of the formal Q&A portion of this event is attached below.

Listen to the formal Q&A portion of this event.

Read the full transcript of the event.

Purchase Seven via the following links:

United States: bit.ly/orderSevenUS 

Canada: bit.ly/orderseven

Audiobook: bit.ly/sevenaudiobook

Is legal action against female genital cutting enough to end the practice?

Understanding the impact of a Sahiyo co-founder’s documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, in India

by Priya Goswami

In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court referred a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the prevalence of female genital cutting (FGC) in India to a five-judge constitution bench. My documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, was quoted as evidence by the Supreme Court of India to establish the prevalence of the practice. As the filmmaker, I was overjoyed with what my film had managed to do and become – the first audio visual evidence on the practice of FGC in India. 

There is no law in India against FGC. The PIL had been filed in 2017 by a Delhi-based lawyer seeking a ban on the practice of FGC in India. While other survivors of the practice joined in the petition against FGC, they were opposed by a counter-petition filed by a pro-FGC group within the Dawoodi Bohra community. That group claimed that FGC is not harmful and should be considered a part of their constitutional right to religious freedom. Accordingly, they demanded that the practice be scrutinized through this lens by a larger constitution bench of the court – an appeal that the court finally granted

With that said, a small part of me shrank hearing the news. I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change. As an activist on the ground, I understand change requires sustained conversation. A law against the practice of FGC may become a mandate, but may also end up hindering the progress made by activists on creating a room for dialogue by years. 

“I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change.”

A broad evidence base for this is how some Dawoodi Bohra community members in the United States (U.S.) and Australia have hushed the practice, pushing it further underground, as the community members were charged in both countries with practicing FGC, or khatna as it is known in the Bohra community, and publicly spoke about it in the media. A federal judge dismissed all of the FGC-related charges in the U.S. case; whereas Australia’s High Court ruled all forms of FGC are illegal. While the cases against the community members in the U.S. and Australia have opened up the dialogue on the issue and more survivors have come forward, it has also instilled fear in the minds of some community members. This has, in turn, supported the movement toward medicalization of khatna, which is an equally dangerous trend. As an activist and a communication designer, I ask myself often – is pushing people to abandon the practice because the law says so ever a complete solution? 

Nine years ago, if you would have asked me what my goal with A Pinch of Skin was, I would have said to convince people to abandon the practice. Today, I say the same, except with the awareness that change requires time and persistent and effective communication, which involves the community from within.

Key points to understand the situation in India:

  • The conversation of female genital cutting in Asian communities is a relatively new one, as it is still largely believed to be an African problem.
  • The subject was brought to public attention in India as an anonymous petition under the pseudonym ‘Tasleem’ was launched in 2011 or 2012. This was followed by media attention to A Pinch of Skin in 2013.
  • In 2015, two collectives were formed to speak about the subject: Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, both being the only organizations worldwide working on the subject of khatna prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
  • In 2017, the two organizations, Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, were invited by the National Commission of Women and Child Development to speak with Menaka Gandhi.
  • The Indian government, after gathering first-hand evidence from survivors (also the co-founders of the two organizations), did a u-turn denying the evidence against the practice until this landmark judgment by the Supreme Court. Read this detailed report.
  • The Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom continue to discount efforts against FGC under the umbrella of religious freedom. 
  • Following the PIL, the Supreme Court of India ruled that FGC could be charged under The POCSO Act.

Sahiyo and StoryCenter host virtual storytelling event on the intersection of race and female genital cutting: A reflection

By Isabel

I began interning with Sahiyo in June. A recent graduate into the fields of cultural anthropology and human rights, I was eager to learn how Sahiyo used participatory media and community-based advocacy to end female genital cutting (FGC) and break down the culture of silence that surrounds it. Daily, I grew more exposed to the collective healing fostered among survivors and advocates against the practice. As I listened to the many voices of women – and a few men – speaking out against the practice, I felt the strength, resilience, and bravery that empowered them to tell their own stories. 

I realized I could never understand the full extent of their vulnerability and power after I participated myself – for the very first time – in a Sahiyo storytelling workshop. On September 17, Sahiyo and StoryCenter co-hosted “Intersecting Stories,” a virtual event bringing together survivors and advocates against FGC to ask questions of race, identity, and privilege, and what it means to be an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. My role in the workshop began as back-end support – helping draft the event description, supporting outreach – until Mariya and Lara invited me to attend as a participant. 

The truth is, I wanted to say no. I felt uncomfortable, like I had no story to tell and no place telling the stories I could. Who was I – a white, cisgendered woman who spent most of my life ignorant to the global practice of FGC – to speak on the intersection of the practice and racism? But I didn’t want to disappoint so I agreed. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate, but rather felt I shouldn’t. So, in the days leading up to the workshop, I wracked my brain trying to prepare a story. I asked friends for advice, and family members, too.

The morning of the workshop I had yet to come up with a story – I was anxious, nervous, and really clueless as to what to do. I felt caught between my desire to step up as an intern, and my desire to respect the safe space I had seen Sahiyo work so intentionally to create. Just an hour before the virtual start time, I texted Lara, the Communications Coordinator and also my direct internship supervisor. I told her I was nervous and that I felt uncomfortable inserting myself and my story in a forum meant for those directly affected by FGC. 

Just minutes after reaching out to Lara, I received back a voice message set to a soundtrack of New York City honks and horns. I listened as she told me she understood where I was coming from and encouraged me to participate only to the extent I felt comfortable. But after easing my self-inflicted pressure, she continued to say that she believed I did have a place in the workshop and a story to tell. As an advocate against FGC, she told me, my story was my story no matter how my entry point diverged from the other participants. Ending the message with an offer to hop on the phone to discuss, I readily accepted. 

By the start of the workshop, I had decided that if I were to share in the story circle, it would only be if there was still extra time after the other participants had shared. The workshop began, and I listened in awe as each participant shared their stories – stories about the experiences of nature, of childhood, of immigrating that formed who they are today. I was humbled and inspired as I watched a community form through vulnerability and story. 

When there was no one left to go, I made a decision. I spoke up and I told my own story. I spoke of my small town, of my time in middle school, and of who I see myself to be today. I was still scared, but I felt something else: a desire to share, to divulge the same way I had been divulged to, and to honor the community that had taken shape in only a couple of hours. When I reflect, I realized through our stories we found places of unity – ways to both share our complex individuality, and engage in the collective experience of a racialized world – no matter our entry points or backgrounds. We told stories of childhood, our school years, nature, and immigrating. We told stories of bullies and friends, family and strangers.

So, where does this bring me? I will never feign to know what it is like for those affected by FGC to share their often intimate stories of what it means to speak power to silence. But participating in the Intersecting Stories event gave me the slightest glimpse into the strength of so many women who have bravely made themselves vulnerable to protect others. More so, as a participant I witnessed firsthand the magical nature of storytelling – how words weave friendships, trust, and respect.

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

Dear Maasi is a new 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. In the Bohra context, Maasi means auntie. We welcome you to send your questions to info@sahiyo.com. Please feel free to use a pseudonym if you’d like.

Dear Maasi,

I’m 26 and have had three serious relationships in my life (two guys, and most recently with a woman). I like intimacy, but penetration (with anything) often hurts. I sometimes have avoided sex altogether and this has caused tension in my relationships. I saw a doctor who said everything ‘down there’ was normal. But honestly, I feel really abnormal.

I had khatna, and I’m wondering if it had an impact on me. But this makes no sense to me because they cut my clitoral hood—they didn’t harm my vagina, right?

—Freaked-Out Fatema

Dear Fatema,

First off—I want you to know that everything you’re talking about is normal, and not uncommon.  

There are many reasons why penetrative sex can hurt, including dryness due to hormones, vaginal infections, injuries, and conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids or endometriosis. 

Other common reasons for pain are vaginismus (where the vaginal or pelvic floor muscles spasm or clench upon penetration) or vestibular vulvitis (inflammation around the nerves around the vaginal opening). These can be linked to trauma. More on this in a bit.

I recommend that you get a second medical opinion. Many doctors are not comfortable with sexuality, and as a result, are not thorough enough in their assessments. Look for one who has experience with sexual difficulties. I highly recommend listening to Episode One of the Bodies Podcast for a deeper dive into this issue. 

As for your question regarding the links between khatna and your pain, khatna does involve cutting the clitoral hood, and sometimes also the clitoris, rather than the vagina. Still, there is research to suggest that this cut can affect sexuality: 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. I highly recommend reading some of their quotations that describe pain, triggers, and trauma (pages 47-60) — it might feel validating.

Trauma is the outcome of a distressing event that overwhelms our ability to cope and make sense of the experience. Most survivors describe khatna as a distressing, confusing and painful experience that sometimes involves a significant amount of denial, gaslighting or lies from older, trusted relatives. 

I’d say khatna fits the definition of trauma.

Our minds and bodies can hold trauma in ways that sometimes feel indirect or confusing. Take a look at this comic to understand what I mean. It makes sense to me that our vulvas and vaginas might hold tension from khatna. Speak to a trauma-informed therapist to understand if khatna might have impacted you in this way. 

Fatema, I want you to know that it’s possible to recover and heal from this. You have a right to a pleasure-filled sex life! 

—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.  

Order her newest novel, SEVEN, which addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity and khatna within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

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.