Your questions answered: Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting

Last fall Sahiyo partnered with three award-winning and 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 female genital cutting (FGC), how FGC can impact sexuality, and how survivors may be working toward healing. Our guests had a lot of questions for our speakers, some of which we were not able to answer during the webinar. Nevertheless, we felt these questions and their answers were important to share. 

Below you will find the answers licensed psychotherapist Joanna Vergoth graciously answered for our guests. If your question is not addressed below, you may find it answered later in the recorded portions provided by Sarian Karim-Kamara on the Sahiyo YouTube page or on the Dear Maasi page. 

Joanna Vergoth’s responses to participants’ questions:    

  1. Do you have any strategies for breaking the taboo around FGM/C and how community-based organizations can work directly with community members to end the practice in the U.S.?  

Silence regarding FGM/C perpetuates the practice so it is important to find a way to broach the subject sensitively in order to encourage conversation. And, when working with community members, it is advisable to identify and recruit folks who support the abandonment of this practice in order to create dialogues that can help persuade proponents of the practice to reconsider their position. Also, sponsoring a community event that focuses on women’s health and well-being can provide an opening for discussion. In addition, showing a film about FGM/C, such as “Desert Flower,” or “The Cruel Cut,” can also open hearts and minds.

  1. Is part of the healing process ever confronting the person who betrayed you?

Betrayal trauma occurs when the people a person depends on for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being. It is understandable, then, that being cut by a trusted family member can have lifelong consequences with powerful emotions that can be difficult to process. 

Confronting the person who betrayed you can provide psychologically healing relief if your feelings are acknowledged and respected and if the ensuing conversation supports an honest discussion. However, every situation is unique and not everyone will feel the need or desire for confrontation. One can heal without confrontation. It all depends on the individual survivor and her particular circumstances. 

  1. I hope you can answer this question, please. Is it normal to not feel any impact by FGM? I am Iraqi and had FGM when I was around 7. I have no memories of this. I don’t have problems climaxing, and I am worried I may be blocking all of this out but I have no recollection of this at all.

Although post-traumatic stress symptoms can remain in remission for years, I don’t think you should think you have a problem because you can’t remember undergoing FGM. There are many women who do not remember their FGM/C [experience]. And, FGM/C is not necessarily an impediment to sexual function. In fact, many women report that they have no difficulties experiencing orgasm.  

  1. How do you offer community support to white women who have survived FGC from surviving cults, since their experience is different from women of color who may have community/cultural support?

Unfortunately, I do not know of any community support for Caucasian FGC survivors who have also survived cults. Here is the first link and the second link of resources for cult survivors. Hopefully, these women may be able to find support and other FGC affected survivors

  1. Any experience with sexuality after clitoral restoration?

The procedure, often called clitoral reconstruction or restoration, is viewed with caution by some medical experts. The World Health Organization says that while there are some promising reports that the operation may relieve pain, there is not yet enough evidence of safety and effectiveness. The organization advises against raising unrealistic expectations, especially for women seeking sexual improvement. However, that being said, a recent systematic review evaluated the effects of reconstructive surgery. The results indicate that about three women out of four regain a visible clitoris. Self-reported improvements in pain during sex, clitoral function/pleasure, orgasm, and desire are in the 43– 63% range; but up to 22% reported a worsening in sexual outcomes.  It is important to remember that female sexuality is a complex integration of biological, physiological, psychological, sociocultural, and interpersonal factors that contribute to a combined experience of physical, emotional, and relational satisfaction.  And within this combination of factors, every woman is uniquely different.

Hear about one FGM/C survivor’s successful experience of her clitoral restoration surgery.

Art, Activism, And Healing: Reflecting on our conversation around female genital cutting

By Cate Cox

On January 19th, Sahiyo held the webinar, Art, Activism, And Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from four speakers Owanto, Naomi Wachs, Sunera Sadicali, and Andrea Carr about how they have used art as a tool to encourage the abandonment of FGC and to work toward healing. From sculptures to videos and sound bites, this webinar explored how art in all its many forms can be used to uplift the voices of survivors and continue to push the conversation around FGC.     

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and U.S. Executive Director, began our webinar by giving the audience an introduction to Sahiyo’s many programs that involve art and activism, including Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C and #MoreThanASurvivor campaigns. Next, our speakers Owanto and Andrea Carr introduced us to their work as career artists, and how they are championing this cause in some of the most prestigious galleries and institutions around the world, as well as in community settings. They reminded us that art can be a tool to spark hard discussions and give people the space to have their own stories seen and heard. Sunera Sadicali and Naomi Wachs helped to expand on that conversation by taking us through their own journeys and explaining the psychological reasons behind why art is such an effective tool for trauma healing. The insight and experience of our panelists not only helped our audience to understand what has been done in the field of art and activism surrounding FGC, but stood as an inspiration for how we all can engage in art and activism in our own personal lives. 

At the end of our webinar, our audience had the opportunity to ask our panelists questions about their experience and knowledge. The questions explored how our panelists were able to get people to open up about their experiences with FGC and how they were able to use art to encourage education and conversation around this issue. Coming from their multi-disciplinary backgrounds, each of our panelists were able to speak to a unique aspect of these questions. Despite their diversity of experience, they each emphasized the importance of art as a conversational medium, that allows people to take control of their own narrative, and when a safe space is created, encourages healing. 

Art, Activism, And Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting (FGC) explored the often underutilized tool that is art to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing. It reminded us that activism and healing take many forms, and that, as Owanto said, “There is light.” For those who are interested in learning more about art and activism, Sahiyo is hosting a screening of our Voices to End FGM/C videos coming up this February. You can register here to attend!  

If you were unable to attend this webinar, 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.  

Read the transcript.

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.”

Art, Activism, and Healing webinar: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting

By Cate Cox

Across the world, millions of women and girls are at risk of female genital cutting (FGC). FGC can have severe physical and psychological impacts that last a lifetime. As the painful effects of FGC are brought to light more and more, activists and therapists alike are looking for more ways to support survivors and protect future girls from this practice. Art is an underutilized tool to create awareness about this issue and support survivors’ healing.

As an organization whose mission is to use storytelling to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing, Sahiyo is one of the key advocates for utilizing art as a means of supporting these effectors. From the Voices To End FGM/C campaign, the #MoreThanASurvivor collages, and the Faces for Change project, art and activism have long been part of Sahiyo programming. 

On January 19th, 10 a.m. EST, Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, Art, Activism, and Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting. During this inspiring event, you’ll hear from four expert panelists, Owanto, Andrea Carr, Sunera Sadicali, and Naomi Wachs, as they discuss art and its role in supporting survivors’ healing, how activists and survivors alike can use art to make a change in their communities, and working toward prevention efforts to end female genital cutting. 

Following the vein of one of our previous webinars, Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing, the speakers will first introduce their work and their personal journeys related to this subject and then we will have a question and answer session led by Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher. 

To hear more about how art can help you as a survivor and/or an activist, please register for the event. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Register Today: https://bit.ly/ArtActivismAndHealing 

Owanto is a multi-cultural Gabonese artist born in Paris, France. She was raised in Libreville, Gabon, and later moved to Europe to study philosophy, literature, and languages at the Institut Catholic de Paris in Madrid, Spain. Her multidisciplinary practice emerges from a 30-year career where she explores a variety of media, including photography, sculpture, painting, video, sound, installation, and performative works. Her practice enables her to engage with consciousness through the notion of memory, both personal and collective.

Andrea Carr has worked across a broad spectrum of the performing arts, bringing vitality to global ecological and social themes. Embracing change along the way, her work often distills into designs that move between art installations and immersive environments. Her work has been included in the U.K. representation of the World Stage Design Exhibition, in the Aesthetica Art Prize anthology, and in the ‘Designers Lead’ section of the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) 2019 exhibition at the V&A. Andrea is also studying Process Orientated Psychology. She works from her Peckham Studio, her ‘dream palace,’ where she goes to ground her ideas, make models and mock-ups, and as a space for collaboration.

Sunera Sadicali was born in 1982 in Mozambique and later moved to Lisbon. She grew up in a family that was part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only members in Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. She underwent female genital cutting, or khatna, at the age of 8 in Pakistan, while visiting her grandparents on vacation. She moved to Spain to study medicine at the age of 19 and finished her Family Medicine residency in Madrid. Since 2015, she has lived and worked in the south of Sweden with her partner and three lovely kids. She has been politically active since the birth of her second child in 2012, with a focus on women’s issues, decolonial feminism, anti-racism, and healthcare activism.

Naomi Wachs has a B.S. in Theater from Northwestern University and a Masters in Social Work (A.M.) from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. While at S.S.A., her concentration was in clinical social work with a focus on art-based methods, LGBTQ affirmative practice, and trauma-informed practice. From 2015-2017, as a German Chancellor Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation under the guidance of Tobe Levin von Gleichen, she explored art-based practices as a tool for trauma healing and restorative dialogue with immigrant and refugee communities affected by FGM/C and other forms of gender-based violence. Currently, Ms. Wachs is a psychotherapist at Connections Health in the Chicagoland area where she works with individuals, couples, families, and groups with anxiety, depression, trauma, eating disorders, and relationship and identity concerns. 
This event is sponsored by Sahiyo.

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.

Thaal Pe Charcha: February 2020

On February 8th, as part of our International Zero Tolerance Day for FGM/C, Sahiyo hosted its first Thaal Pe Charcha (TPC) for 2020, with a special private screening of ‘A Girl from Mogadishu’, directed by Mary McGuckain.

The film is a true story based on the testimony of Ifrah Ahmed, a Somalian whose suffering acted as catalyst for one of the world’s biggest and most successful movements to end gender-based violence and female genital cutting.

The Sahiyo team and Thaal Pe Charcha participants were deeply moved by the film, and found resonance in Ifrah’s journey on fighting a practice deeply rooted in the culture and tradition of a community constantly seeking ways to establish their identity.

Participants at the February 8th Thaal Pe Charcha

‘Thaal Pe Charcha’, in which a diverse group of participants gather around a meal, and encourage conversations about ending Khatna (FGC) within the community, is currently in its third year and is one of Sahiyo’s more successful ground activities, which provides a safe environment for sharing solutions and stories.

Read about this ‘TPC’ through the lens of one participant in this thoughtful blog piece.

Upcoming Webinar: Addressing Female Genital Cutting in the Clinic

By Sandra Yu

Female genital cutting (FGC) is an often overlooked issue in medical curriculums, and medical care for survivors is rarely a topic of discussion. As part of the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, Sahiyo is hosting a webinar to inform individuals about the necessity for trauma-informed care for survivors of female genital cutting.

Join Sahiyo for “FGC In the Clinic: A Dialogue between Survivors and Healthcare Professionals” at 6 p.m. EST on Tuesday, December 8th. This panel discussion aims to gather the perspectives of clinicians and survivors as they discuss their in-clinic experiences. Renee Bergstrom, EdD, and Sarata Kande will be speaking about their experiences in connection to receiving medical care related to FGC. Karen McDonnell, PhD, Dr. Margaret Dow, and Dr. Deborah Ottenheimer will respond and discuss the current state of healthcare for survivors of gender-based violence. Mariam Sabir, a fourth-year medical student, will speak about her advocacy for supporting survivors in healthcare settings. Zahra Qaiyumi and Sandra Yu will moderate.

Renee Bergstrom, EdD works toward ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by sharing her survivor story as a white, Midwest American. She is a retired patient educator who now focuses her energy on the art of weaving. 

Sarata Kande is a student, entrepreneur and youth advocate for inter-African committee. She is a survivor of FGC and loves to share her story. She dedicates her time as an advocate and an interpreter.

Margaret Dow, MD is a laborist at Mayo clinic, where she serves as Clerkship Director. She works with medical students, peers, and the community in education and advocacy for survivors of FGM/C and in trauma-informed care practices, as well as practices that promote equity in healthcare.

Deborah Ottenheimer, MD is the Director of the Women’s Holistic Health Initiative at Harlem United/ URAM, Nest Community Health Center where she is focused on immigrant health as well as the development and implementation of a multispecialty medical service for women and girls affected by FGM/C. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Ottenheimer spends a significant portion of her professional time assisting asylum-seeking women who have suffered human rights violations. Dr. Ottenheimer is an active member of Physicians for Human Rights, and serves as faculty at the Human Rights Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the Weill Cornell Clinic for Human Rights, and the CUNY School of Medicine Human Rights Collaborative aiding survivors Gender Based Violence, including female genital cutting, domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking in their applications for asylum. She has published and lectured extensively on human rights violations against women, with a focus on FGC. She has also worked in Haiti, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo, helping to improve the health and lives of women in low resource settings.

Karen McDonnell, PhD is a public health program evaluation and implementation specialist with over 15 years of experience working with community groups, public health agencies, and health care systems both locally and globally to ensure the health and well-being of women and children. McDonnell’s expertise lies in using mixed methods to look at complex public health issues and programs. Her most recent work is leading a team to evaluate gender-based violence in immigrant communities, development, and testing of a community-centered FGM/C prevention project, evaluating the National Domestic Violence Hotline/loveisrespect Helpline and evaluating multi-systems changes in the Clinical Translational Science Institute with Children’s National and The George Washington University. 

Mariam Sabir is a fourth-year medical school student at the American University of the Caribbean. She aspires to become a family physician that provides comprehensive care. She became an avid Sahiyo supporter when she discovered how prevalent female genital cutting is, particularly in her very own community. While rotating through different fields of medicine such as obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics and family medicine, she discovered her passion for educating health care professionals on how to provide culturally sensitive care for women who have undergone FGC.

Zahra Qaiyumi completed her undergraduate education at The University of Maryland, studying physiology, neurobiology, and Spanish. Afterward, she pursued a Master’s degree in Physiology at Georgetown University. She then moved to the Bay Area and participated in neurobehavioral research while working with adolescents diagnosed with ADHD at the University of California San Francisco’s Neuroscape Center. Currently, she is in her third year of medical school at the Frank H. Netter M.D. School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University.

Sandra Yu is an undergraduate student at Vassar College studying biochemistry and philosophy. She is interested in public health policy and expanding womens’ healthcare access in underserved populations. She was drawn by Sahiyo’s mission to end FGM/C through powerful storytelling, and she hopes to contribute to Sahiyo’s platform to grow and empower the community.

Register here: bit.ly/addressing-fgc-in-the-clinic 

Facebook updates: https://fb.me/e/3QaNwkvWE

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.