I was impressed with the courage of young women at Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat

By Rashida Rangwala

In March 2019, I attended my second Sahiyo Activist Retreat. For me it was an occasion to meet friends I had made last year at the 2018 retreat, share the progress I had made as an activist over the course of the past year, and demonstrate how much the first retreat had helped me in achieving that progress. My anti-female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) activism has involved talking to reporters and young students ranging in age from high schoolers to college students about the practice of FGM/C in the Bohra community. I have also counseled and educated young mothers and girls on FGM/C and its harmful impact on the girl child. 

I learned at the retreat to take a step back, slow down and listen to the pro-FGM/C people. Don’t make them so angry that they won’t talk to you and you reach a zero communication status. Give them a fair hearing, educate them, dispel misconceptions, break—slowly, but surely—break whatever resistance they have and poke holes in their thinking process until it completely falls apart, until they think for themselves, “Oh, wait a minute, I think I’m not going to do it to my daughter.” Start talking to the mother early and make her strong with knowledge about the harmful impacts of the procedure, so that when her child is seven years old, she makes an informed decision.

I spoke to a high school student that Sahiyo connected me with. She was writing a paper for her school project, interviewed me, and cried a little bit with me when I shared my story with her. I sent her pictures of myself to be used when she made her presentation. In the past, I would only give a name when I shared my story. But I realized that unless you have a picture to associate with the name, people can’t relate to your story on the same personal level. I’m now able to give my picture and have become more public when I share my story, something I didn’t do before the Sahiyo retreat because I was afraid to do so. 

Right at the beginning, on day one of the Sahiyo Retreat, I was happy to see that we had nearly doubled the number of anti-FGM/C activist participants attending the retreat from 11 in 2018 at the first retreat to 21 in 2019. This time around, I had the chance to become acquainted with women from ages 21-28 years old. Talking to them over the course of the 3-days was very insightful. What amazed me was how self aware these young girls were about FGM/C. For me, FGM/C was vague knowledge that was always there in the back of my brain, but these girls knew exactly what had happened to them and were so aware of its consequences and so vocal about sharing their stories and being against it. That was a big insight for me. Perhaps this generational change could be because of social media; it’s in the news. They do have that advantage, which my generation did not. They have more sources of information today,

I was impressed with their courageous resolve to bring about change in thought in the Bohra community. To me, these young women were simply brave souls. Some of these young FGM/C survivors had opened up conversations with their mothers about performing the procedure on them. While others had yet to speak to their mothers about FGM/C, they were in the process of building up the stamina they needed to take up that challenging task. I had a chance to tell them, “Don’t delay it.” It’s too late for me. My mom passed away and I never got to talk to her.

It was amazing to see the collaboration between generations of women at this year’s retreat. We are certainly making progress in creating awareness in our community about how harmful FGM/C is to the girl child and we are bringing about a change in the thought process of the new generation so that they will abandon FGM/C. I am looking forward to the 2020 retreat and how it will spread our message slowly, but organically, one activist at a time. 

Female Genital Cutting Diaries: Addressing the chief in Mali

by Jenny Cordle

[This is Part 2 in a series of posts about Jenny’s experience of learning about female genital cutting happening within the Malian community in which she lived. Part 1 details her stumbling upon the aftermath of a cutting in Konza.]

As the editorial intern at Sahiyo, I’ve been reading the stories of women who’ve been sharing their experiences with female genital cutting with the world. Each story is so important, and reminds me of the stories of girls and women who shared their experiences with me during my time in Mali, West Africa. I lived in Mali from 2006-2009, but I went back in 2014 to work on a project about FGC within my community.

Five years after my Peace Corps service, my old mud brick house in Konza was occupied and Mali was hotter than I remembered. I flew back to visit friends, but I also wanted to explore the impact female genital cutting (FGC) had on community members. Cutting in Mali is as ingrained in society as pounding millet for dinner. The Sikasso region of Mali in which I lived maintains a 90.9% prevalence rate of FGC.

Konza
photo by Jenny Cordle

I had Kodak prints with me taken on the day of the cutting in Konza that I’d been privy to years prior. There were 21 girls of varying heights who gathered under a tree for a photo — all barefoot, and all wearing long fabric over their heads with colorful patterns of stripes, leaves, acorns and sunbursts. The girls in the group photo were adorned in head wraps, a symbol of their new status in the community as having been cut. They stood in a crescent shape in front of a mango tree. Only one adult woman out of the four present was wearing a long piece of solid white fabric covering her head. There was a lone silver tea kettle sitting in the dirt in front of them. Even though I can hardly look at the prints because of the emotion that’s palpable on their faces, it doesn’t occur to me that showing them to others during my search girls may be triggering for the girls in the photos.

I remembered a meeting I held with the community elders in a round mud brick structure near the end of my time in Konza during Peace Corps. Women hardly ever attend these meetings, let alone call them and set the agenda. About ten men sat on the floor ready for my monologue. I’d worked for a year with Binta, the midwife and the only health practitioner in the community. She hadn’t been paid in six months. The community had given her grain for sustenance, but didn’t give her monetary compensation. Binta was in Sanso, a mining town with her husband, and wasn’t present for the meeting.

I began by telling them that she works all hours of the day birthing their babies and burying placentas, as well as taking care of other ailments and injuries outside of her purview. They understood but expressed that they simply did not have the money to pay her. Paying her would involve pooling a small amount of money from every household in the community monthly. I paused. And then I let the words roll off my tongue in Bambara. “When cutting season comes, you find the money to pay the cutter to cut your girls, but you won’t find the money to pay the midwife.” The chief of the village, nearing 100 years old, had been lying on a cot. I was sitting on the edge. He bolted upright next to me and said, “Crazy woman!” to the men in the room. I laughed. I told them if they didn’t pay her they would not be receiving another volunteer. A few weeks later, they paid Binta for the full six months.

They welcomed me into their community and I threatened them by conjuring one of their most sacred traditions. I felt powerless that young girls in the community were being violated and no one was doing anything about it to my knowledge. I also could not understand how you could avoid paying the midwife for birthing your children. I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that the community members live in one of the poorest countries on Earth. But my reasoning was simple: if you can pay a person to inflict pain in the name of tradition, then you can pay a midwife to ensure your wife and children have access to safe delivery.

I had brought the printed portraits of the girls I photographed the day of the cutting in 2007, in hopes that I could interview them about their experiences with FGC. None of my friends could identify the girls. My translator suggested we try to interview the girls I photographed in a different series I also had with me called The Chair Portraits. Since the girls in that series lived in close proximity to me, my friends knew who they were and and where they could be found. Most of these girls were now teenagers who worked in the field all day. They too had all been cut years before.

One had moved to another community to work in a gold mine. Another, Yaya Kone had gotten married and moved to a nearby village. Jemani Kone moved five kilometers away to Kouale, a nearby community on the main road to Sikasso. Several were still in Konza.

Jenebou Kone was the first to agree to talk about how and where the cutting took place, and how it affected her. We walked to the northern part of the village for privacy and sat under a tree. I pulled out my RCA digital voice recorder and after she gave me her consent, I pressed record.

(This blog is the second in a series of blogs meant to inspire a larger, global conversation about girls’ and women’s health and rights, cutting as a practice, and ideas for positive change. The third blog will unpack my conversation with Jenebou and other community members in Mali. A series of conversations about cutting in my community in Mali led me to advocacy work at Sahiyo. My hope is that collectively we can gain understanding of the practice, and in doing so, encourage abandonment.)

Why female genital cutting still continues: Exploring the reasons behind its sustenance

By Debangana Chatterjee

The reasons why female genital cutting (FGC) continues are multifarious and overlapping. Complex and interconnected sets of reasons for FGC are woven into the faiths of the communities. Thus, faith becomes the genesis of these reasons, making FGC considered to be beneficial by the communities. These reasons can be broadly grouped as traditional, socio-cultural, sexual and hygienic, but are also closely connected with each other:

• Traditional: According to Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia, authors of Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide, for a number of communities FGC is considered a rite of passage to womanhood and is driven by traditional beliefs. This womanhood is often believed to add to the marriageability of the circumcised women. The practice is carried forward by the women belonging to these communities for generations. Though there is no direct mention of the practice in the Quran, hadiths became a traditional source of its justification. At this juncture of faith, tradition paves the way for the socio-cultural reasons behind the practice.

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Dogon people of Mali / Photo by Jenny Cordle

• Socio-Cultural: Among practicing communities, the practice in many ways becomes a hallmark of communal identification, as it garners acceptability and induces social conformity within communities. Some communities are also believed to have adopted FGC due to contiguous cultural influences. Considerable communal pressure for performing FGC involves the threat of social ostracism. Local structures of authoritative forces ensure the continuation of the practice by implementing these measures on the basis of their social norms. As the practice remains one of the sole sources of income for traditional cutters, economic reasons as a corollary to the socio-cultural ones also drive the practice.

• Sexual: FGC is believed to control women’s sexual behaviour. There are claims of it restricting women’s sexual urges. Extreme procedures, such as infibulation, are used as mechanisms to keep women’s premarital virginity and marital fidelity in check. Due to the extreme pain that intercourse typically causes in infibulated women, women do not get sexual pleasure. FGC is frequently claimed to be used as an impediment toward the “promiscuous” nature of women.

• Hygienic: Many believe the removal of a part of female genitalia amounts to cleanliness. In this regard, cleanliness in the hygienic sense results in physical purity, which is ultimately believed to pave the way for spiritual purity. This understanding of purity becomes closely entangled with the cultural beliefs of femininity and modesty.

Despite creating this broad rubric of prominent reasons, the reasons noticeably overlap and are distinct in manifestation when it comes to the customs of specific communities. In certain cases, there are multiple driving factors, whereas in other cases the manifestations of these reasons are even more particularistic. For example, as Laurenti Magesa, the author of African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, explains among the Kikiyu people of Kenya, FGC is celebrated as a mark of womanhood. Among the Bambuti and Thonga community, during the procedure girls are shown no mercy and are treated with ruthlessness as a sign of their gallantry and bravery. Among certain groups in Tanzania and Somaliland, infibulation is believed to form a “chastity belt” around the skin of female genitalia.

Magesa underlines a few reasons for FGC specific to diverse African communities. Primarily, it is conceived as a mark of valour and of enduring physical pain within the community. This pain is thought to teach girls about sacrifice for the community as well as a sense of belonging. Finally, many believe that the practice strengthens the community bond among generations and knits the community together. Among many communities, girls are prepared for the practice through an initiation ceremony. But among the Zaramo people of Tanzania, the girl is secluded for a substantial period after circumcision. During this particular period, girls are trained and informed about obedience in general, conformity to social norms, fertility, and childbirth. According to Kouba and Muasher, the Dogon and Bambara people of Mali believe that a child, born with both male and female souls, is also possessed by wanzo. Wanzo is believed to be evil residing in both the male and female genitalia and thus, cutting as a process helps in getting rid of wanzo.

In India, Bohra Muslims are evidentially the most significant community practicing FGC, which is termed as khafz. As per the believers of the community, Da’i al-Mutlaq, also known as Da’i, hold an authoritative, infallible status in the community. Da’i or Syedna (as referred to by the Dawoodi Bohras) is considered to be the sovereign leader, spiritual guardian and temporal guide of the community. As Da’i considers Daim-ul-Islam as the binding religious text for the Bohras, diktats of the text are taken as truth by the community members. It is a text written by Al-Qadi al-Nu’man who served from the 11th to the 14th Imam of the Shia lineage. In this text, the Prophet is believed to advise for a simple cut of women’s clitoral skin as this assigns purity on women and may make them more “beloved by their husbands”. The community mostly puts forward religious reasons based on their faiths in support of the practice. There are multiple narratives justifying the practice among the Bohra community members. A substantial number of community members believe that the practice tames women’s sexual urges and preserves modesty. Many claim that the nicking of the prepuce helps increase women’s sexual pleasure by exposing the tip of the clitoral hood. In this regard, it is often put forward in the same breath as the genital altercation procedures of clitoral un-hooding. Similar narratives espouse that the practice induces purity among women. For them, if it is well within the rights of Muslim men to be spiritually pure by performing circumcision, it is unjustifiable to prevent women from attaining equivalent purity. In fact, in certain cases, there are convictions by the pro-FGC Bohras toward the futuristic scientific revelations about khafz’s perceived benefits.

When faith becomes a part of people’s everyday life, life needs to get enlightened from its core not by denying faith but by striving for incorporating elements of rationality to it. Although these reasons for the continuation of the practice may not seem justifiable to some in the present context, the incomprehensibility of these reasons may not be countered with outright rejections. In fact, forcefully drawing the private matters of women into a public spectrum may be a source of those women feeling alienated. Rather, holistic approaches and educational campaigns may be useful tools to win the trust of the communities. The chasm between the opposing sides (those who believe FGC to be harmful and those who claim it is a religious right) can only be bridged by generating mutual respectability and building conversational engagement.

 

More about Debangana:

Debangana is a doctoral scholar at the Centre for International Politics Organisation and  Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. Through her research, she is trying to locate the existing Indian discourse surrounding the practices of FGM/C and Hijab into the frame of international politics. If you would like to connect with Debangana, you can reach her at debangana.1992@gmail.com. 

Female Genital Cutting Diaries: My first encounter with the tradition of female genital cutting

by Jenny Cordle

A decade ago I lived in a practicing, rural community situated in the lush, southern region of Mali, West Africa. Out of nearly 2,000 inhabitants living in mud-brick houses, a dozen were Christian. The rest were Muslim, and remain among the loveliest people I’ve ever met. Out of love and many other complicated reasons, the Sunni Muslim community members cut their girls, as is the case for why many Shia Muslim Dawoodi Bohra mothers and fathers perpetuate the practice 5,000 miles away in India and among diaspora communities such as the one in Detroit, Michigan.

I am struck by how the impetus to cut has no bounds; how an impoverished Malian community that runs out of grain in the cold season finds the money to pay a cutter; and the lengths an educated, wealthy community such as the Dawoodi Bohras will go to protect the practice.

My first encounter with the longstanding tradition of female genital cutting in Mali punctuated my Peace Corps service in Konza. The local midwife reluctantly confessed that a mass cutting was occurring; I’d made her promise to tell me the next time it happened. I ran to my house, grabbed my camera, and navigated the maze of mud bricks until I stumbled upon several elderly women and a group of girls in the midst of lining up for washing. I was visibly furious and knew I needed to calm down. I didn’t know what I expected to see, or if I would be capable of stopping it, but I had to go.

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photo by Jenny Cordle

There’s a particular kind of hush that falls over Konza during a ritual cutting of girls. The pounding of millet is stifled by a thick silence. What is typically a loose order tightens its reins over a large pocket of the community, with children scattered along the edges.   

At least a dozen girls sat shirtless on the floor of a small dark room with their heads wrapped in patterned scarves typically reserved for women, and wearing small skirts of a different fabric. I searched their faces. There were dried tears and fresh ones. They were silent, their lives having been marked with a before and after by a woman who made it her job to perpetuate a harmful practice. Most of them looked about eight years old—the year I started writing stories and met my lifelong best friend, and thought about what outfit my Barbie should wear.

I’d taken many portraits of youth in Konza. They were intense, gorgeous people with secrets I wanted to know but may never be able to handle. At the time I couldn’t process that they’d been physically and emotionally violated, but my shock and anger was apparent—too visible to the elderly women.

I missed the cutting and thought I missed the cutter. I knew the cutter had come from Djobo, a neighboring community, based on conversations I had with friends. I envisioned her wielding an unsterilized razor, delegating older women to hold the girls down and making a series of quick, but painful cuts. I could see her promptly packing up, blessing the girls who bled too much and praising the ones who silently endured it.

I could see her mounting a motorcycle, and then her back in the dust with her head wrap billowing. I knew she had money wrapped in her skirt: payment for a day’s work. I knew of her need for secrecy, which was honored by everyone in the village. No one would share exactly who she was or where she lived or why I couldn’t speak with her.

I called a meeting with the village chief, along with my landlord and a few elders—the midwife, Binta, sitting next to me in the night as I spoke. I brazenly called for an end to the cutting. I mentioned the harmful effects—that these girls could die. Baji Kone, the chief, promptly told me that it would never happen again and thanked me for the visit. A few weeks later, many other girls were cut. I’d been appeased—but as a white American woman, who was I to pressure the chief to end one of the oldest rituals in Mali?

I would learn that cutting in Mali was a sacred tradition that would not be cast in a violent light. It would be protected and blessed and carried on years later in Konza. I decided as a volunteer that it was not my place to interfere; doing so may have undermined my work in the community.

It wasn’t until years after my service that I realized I wanted to explore and understand the motivations behind the practice of cutting. I knew the girls in Mali. They’d sat in my best woven chair under a porch made of tree branches and chatted with me daily. I wanted to know the cutters. Who were these women paid to inflict pain in the name of honor and purity? I’d learned Malian birthing customs, and experienced how many Muslims embrace death as God’s will, but the rites of passage for girls into womanhood was kept from me, so I ran toward it.

(This blog is the first in a series of blogs meant to inspire a larger, global conversation about girls’ and women’s health and rights, cutting as a practice, and ideas for positive change. A series of conversations about cutting in my community in Mali led me to advocacy work at Sahiyo. My hope is that collectively we can gain an understanding of the practice, and in doing so, can encourage abandonment.)