Before I participated in this year’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) workshop, I had seen blurbs from previous years. In my head, the Voices program was an in-person workshop where a community of people got together to share their stories. However, COVID-19 happened, and this in-person experience was transformed into a virtual series. I was nervous going into the workshop. I missed the first two live sessions because of time-zone differences, and when I finally made it to a live session, the community already knew each other. Yet, I was embraced with much warmth and found myself comfortable to share my story almost immediately.
A part of the Voices program is to tell your stories through a video narrative. It is almost paradoxical that I chose somewhat chirpy tunes and colorful images to accompany my story of coming to terms with khatna, or female genital cutting as it is known in the Bohra community. Though I was sharing a narrative I have hidden in the crevices of my mind for years–a story I am just weaving together, a fact that still brings me pain– I wanted to emphasize the radiance and calm that came with healing. I wanted to leave the viewer on an upbeat note–a note of hope.
This coming together of a community of women sharing stories, tears, joys, aspirations, dreams, fears, and sacrifices was healing. The film editing is over, the written drafts are ready to be published, but the cathartic part of this workshop will live on in me. Coming together with this community has allowed me to come to terms with myself. Something in me was always reluctant to voice my story before the workshop. I wrote about it, preferred to text about it, but refrained from talking. My voice is louder; I am more willing to share; and maybe I will have a conversation face-to-face one day.
My fight against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) can be traced back to the day my mother and sister had a discussion with me on how young girls from the age of 7 are subjected to FGM/C or khatna, as it is known in the Bohra community. They explained it in simple terms, as I was still in school and unfamiliar with the practice, and guided me on how to approach the subject. They educated me on who conducts this act and where it is conducted and for what reasons. They told me that it was taboo to talk about it freely and also to never ask if anyone had been subjected to khatna.
After hearing this from two people that are close to my heart, I trusted their word and never asked anyone about it. I had no idea little girls were subjected to such pain and trauma. They are children, after all. Aren’t they supposed to play with dolls and fight for the window seat on the bus ride home? Why are people insisting on controlling girls from such a young age? Why are they putting them through this mental trauma? Why isn’t anyone speaking up against it? All these questions were flooding my mind and all I wanted was someone to tell me this isn’t happening anymore. To think I was hurt and frustrated would be an understatement. I was angry and sad at the same time. I thought this is a tradition that had been shunned and looked down upon by many communities around the world. But to my misery that was not the reality.
The next time I came across the word khatna in one of the books in The Princess Trilogy by Jean Sasson, it brought me to tears. At that point I knew I had to do something to raise awareness against it or simply make it known to people that it is a violation of a girl’s body. I read up about female genital mutilation/cutting and learned about how its roots were traced back to Egypt. I learned about the four types and how there is no scientific evidence to help women medically in any way.
Being a student of law, I have the opportunity to speak up and back my reasoning with legal knowledge. FGM/C infringes upon the girl child’s human rights, such as the right to bodily autonomy, equality, right to life and personal liberty, which includes the right to be free from any form of violence.
After the young girls are cut, they may die, or bleed continuously and/or develop an infection, which violates their right to have a healthy life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Justice Chandrachud also stated, “One has supreme authority over genitalia. It is central to one’s identity, dignity and autonomy.” The recognition of the harms of FGM/C is increasing day by day as many are filing petitions, raising their voices and sharing their stories with the help of nongovernmental organizations. I have the opportunity to voice my thoughts against the practice with the help of Sahiyo, and for that I am eternally grateful. The Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai said, “There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.”
I say stand up. Raise your voice and help put an end to FGM/C.
Being anonymous does not mean that I am powerless.
Being anonymous does not mean that I don’t have a name, or an identity.
Being anonymous does not mean that I don’t have words.
Being anonymous does not take my freedom away from me.
Behind that anonymous, is a mind and a body. Whole. Full.
Circling around joy and grief, pain and laughter, love and fear.
Sometimes broken, other times repaired.
I’ve waited many years to share my life’s experiences as a Bohra woman through a story. I’ve held my chest tightly closed, hidden with memories of being a girl in this world dominated by male power. I’ve longed to scream from a mountain top and tell them to just stop. These men, these systems, that continue to harm us and break us and tear us apart.
This short story is my beginning. An opening of my chest.
Through this storytelling workshop organized by Sahiyo and StoryCenter, I was ushered into a safe women’s circle that I had been waiting for all my life. I wish I could describe to you the experience that I had in my mind and body during the six sessions that we had together, building our stories for the world. One by one, we brought images and symbols that served as metaphors for pain and trauma that we had all experienced in so many different ways.
I remember closing my eyes to listen to the voice recordings and be immersed in every single word. I remember turning inward gently, raw and tender, and really seeing that courage rising. I remember that care and love that we all felt for each other even though we had never met. Our shared challenges brought us together, making our collective voices stronger and louder.
I offer you my story with both humility and hope. There is a lot I share in four minutes, and yet it is not enough and feels incomplete. I hope that this film inspires you to learn more about FGM/C and find ways to support this work. I hope it inspires you to support us as we navigate and stand up to the day-to-day battles we continue to face.
It is safe to say that the day I underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) was by far the worst day of my life. I grew up in a country that is infamous for the high rate of FGM in the region in Egypt. I was cut at the age of 10. I have always been very concerned about women’s rights and gender equality. This passion and concern was what inspired me to produce documentary work that brings this crime to light. For me, projecting a story visually through photography offers a medium to expose the ugly truth, to tell a story, or to spotlight underrepresented groups of people. I want to protect every girl who could be cut from this painful experience, which is an outright violation of women’s rights.
Through the Voices to End FGM/C workshop, I was able to express my feelings and speak freely about my experience. I really would like to thank Mariya from Sahiyo and Amy from StoryCenter for supporting me throughout the virtual digital storytelling workshop.
In late July, Sahiyo held its webinar, Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher moderated the panel discussion that included four expert speakers: Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Sunera Sadicali, and Aissata M.B. Camara. The event included thoughtful commentary on the overlap between racism, oppression, culture, and FGM/C, as well as the struggles the panelists have faced while working to spread awareness and bring an end to FGM/C.
Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM/C with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Hussein works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM/C around the world. Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Johari is a senior reporter with Scroll.in, where she covers gender and labour. She has been speaking out against female genital cutting since 2012 and is one of the five original co-founders of Sahiyo. Sunera Sadicali grew up in a family that was a part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only Bohras in the Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. Sadicali is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism. Camarais a professional with over a decade of program development and management, strategic planning, and relationship-building experience in non-profit, local government, and international affairs. A social entrepreneur and advocate, she was featured in The Guardian, PBS, RFI, Deutshe Welle and Brut for her advocacy to end female genital mutilation/cutting. Camara is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nations.
The four panelists, who are survivors of FGM/C, answered questions about how FGM/C intersects with other forms of oppression, including racism, violence, and “othering.” They also discussed the lack of legislation and law enforcement surrounding the practice, and challenges to passing laws to protect girls at risk. One notable part of the discussion occurred when Hussein made the point that survivors can become gatekeepers and have the opportunity to change the way that they are perceived. She relayed that when people hear about FGM/C, they may dismiss it and attribute it to cultural practice, but by naming FGM/C as child abuse rooted in patriarchy and oppression, survivors can draw attention to the issue for what it is in order to truly show people the harm being done.
Toward the end of the webinar, Camara discussed other movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter and how allyships must be formed in order to generate more traction in the media to spread FGM/C awareness. By teaming up with other survivors, resources, officials and organizations, more conversations about FGM/C can lead to change.
In conclusion, the Critical Intersections webinar allowed panelists from diverse backgrounds to share their views on racism and FGMC. Several ideas were brought up about how to spark change and dialogue in both local communities and globally. But the common thread among all the speakers was that change is not always easy, but always worth fighting for. For the sake of women and girls everywhere, the future holds hope for justice, healing, and change.
How do you associate yourself with a community you are not actively part of? How do you find comfort in a space that is familiar and foreign at the same time? How do you find answers and solace from strangers across continents?
It is through experiences and stories. That’s what Sahiyo and Storycenter’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) program brought to me. The Sahiyo team reached out to me, asking if I would like to share my story of FGM/C through the participatory storytelling project. At first, I was excited at the opportunity, but then I was apprehensive. Did I have a story to tell?
I was raised in the Bohra community, and knew about FGM/C. My curiosity to understand the practice pushed me to focus my Master’s thesis on FGM/C. While I had the opportunity (with Sahiyo’s help) to understand FGM/C from an academic perspective, I never really gave myself a chance to reflect on my own experiences and feelings about the practice, except that I was vehemently against it.
The Voices project gave me the opportunity to do so. I could not join the live workshop due to the difference in time zones, but watching recordings of the workshop made me feel connected to the other women. I heard their stories, empathized with them, and dug deeper within myself to find my own story and voice, as well.
I learned more about FGM/C – a practice I understood, did not undergo, but still felt deeply connected to. I dedicated time to understanding my own relationship with FGM/C – one of not being a survivor, but one of being affected by it. I learned more about women like me, and also very different from me, and we all shared something in common. I felt closer to the global community of voices against FGM/C.
Thank you, Sahiyo, and the participants of the workshop for sharing your stories and helping me find mine!
When I signed up to participate in the Voices to End FGM/C online digital storytelling workshop, I starting thinking about what story I would tell. So many incoherent ideas ran to my mind. It wasn’t until I attended the first session that I knew what story I wanted to tell. During the session, we watched sample stories that really centered my idea.
I have shared my experience as a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting many times, but it wasn’t until this workshop that I realized that there was a part of my story that I had never shared. It was the opportunity to be surrounded by people with both an interest in ending the practice of FGM/C and lived experience that gave me the confidence to share this part of my story. When I speak about my experience as a survivor of FGM/C, people ask, “Why would anyone subject a person to an inhumane practice?” As an activist, I ask myself why I cannot convince some of my family members, the people I love, about the harmful effects of this practice.
The opportunity to participate in the workshop created a space for me to be vulnerable and feel supported while sharing the space with people who are doing just the same. Together, we learned, shared, supported and healed.
Although female genital cutting (FGC) is not limited to any one community, misconceptions rooted in racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia have still negatively impacted the movement to end FGC – as well as survivors themselves. In our work to end FGC, we must use an intersectional approach to support the needs of all women impacted by FGC and bring about substantial change. First coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the term intersectionality was created to help us understand “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” An intersectional approach to all social movements is crucial to address the intersecting oppressions that impact different communities.
On July 29th at 1 pm EST Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, “Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Cutting.” This webinar will explore the intersection of anti-racism work and the work to end FGC. Four expert speakers, including Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Aissata Camara, and Sunera Sadicali, will explore intersectionality and FGC in a panel moderated by Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. These renowned activists have worked in the field of FGC prevention and survivor support, exploring the critical intersections where this form of gender-based violence meets systemic racism. Our guest speakers’ experiences will expand the conversation on how FGC survivors and advocates for change often have to push back against racist narratives in their work and in their journey toward healing, as well as how systemic racism can delay substantial change on this issue.
During this webinar, you’ll be able to be a part of the discussion about how we can all become better educated and better advocates in the journey to end systemic racism and FGC. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend. Register Today: https://bit.ly/CriticalIntersectionsWebinar
Leyla Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Leyla works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM around the world. As Leyla reminds us, FGM is a practice of oppressing women and controlling women’s sexuality. It’s not an African issue, it’s not an Asian issue; it’s a global issue that requires a global investment in women.
Aarefa Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Aarefa is a senior reporter with Scroll.in, where she covers gender and labour. She has been speaking out against female genital cutting since 2012 and is one of the five original co-founders of Sahiyo. Sahiyo is an organization founded on the belief that storytelling in all forms can create positive social change and help empower communities to abandon the practice of FGC.
Sunera Sadicali was born in 1982 in Mozambique and moved to Lisbon when she was 2 years old. She grew up in a family that was a part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only Bohras in the Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. Sunera underwent khatna (FGM Type I) by age of 8 in Pakistan while visiting her grandparents on vacation. She moved to Spain to study medicine by the age of 19 and finished her Family Medicine residency in Madrid. She has been politically active since the birth of her second child in 2012 in women’s issues, decolonial feminism, anti-racism and healthcare activism. Sunera is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism.
Aissata M.B. Camara is a professional with over a decade of program development and management, strategic planning, and relationship-building experience in non-profit, local government, and international affairs. A social entrepreneur and advocate, she was featured in The Guardian, PBS, RFI, Deutshe Welle and Brut for her advocacy to end female genital mutilation/cutting. She has received numerous awards, including the New York State Assembly Certificate of Merit, Knights of Pythias Medal of Achievement, the Hackett Medal for Oratory Excellence, and the Jo Ivey Boufford Award. Aissata is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nations.
On June 3rd, 2021 Sahiyo partnered with the Connecticut Trauma and Gender Learning Collaborative and The George Washington University associate professor Dr. Karen McDonnell to hold a training for healthcare professionals who may interact with survivors of female genital cutting (FGC). The Connecticut Trauma and Gender Learning Collaborative focuses on trauma-informed and gender-responsive treatment. Many of the participants are actively providing clinical services.
This presentation explored FGC in the United States and resources available for clinicians and other front-line professionals who may come in contact with women impacted by FGC, as well as how they can provide trauma-informed care. In particular, our training highlighted The George Washington University’s Women and FGM/C Toolkit as a tool to help further their education and to become better prepared to support survivors in their journey toward healing.
Alongside the GW Women and FGM/C Toolkit, we highlighted Sahiyo resources such as the Trauma Blog Series by Joanna Vergoth, founder and executive director of forma, among others. During the training, we also used some of our Voices to End FGM/C videos to highlight the lack of education on how to support survivors of FGC in the medical field and the imperative practitioners have to fill in those gaps to better support all women.
At the end of the presentation many of the attendees said they didn’t realize how widespread the problem of FGC is in the U.S. They expressed that they are grateful to have had the opportunity to learn how to better support their patients. Overall, trainings such as this one are crucial to help providers learn how to best support survivors and to help expand the understanding that FGC is a problem in the U.S. that we all need to be involved in addressing.
Dear Maasiis a 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 (female genital mutilation/cutting or FGM/C) and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexualities and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.
I have a question about the deep shame I hold for being cut. It is so toxic and permeates throughout my life. How can I move past it?
Shame is an important topic that doesn’t get addressed enough—thanks for asking this question.
Shame results when our inner critic judges us harshly, most often about things we’ve had little or no control over. These judgements come from the negative or abusive messages imposed on us as children. Shame doesn’t just criticize our behaviours but something more integral: our worth as human beings. For this reason it can impact all aspects of our lives.
Khatna, or female genital cutting, stamps shame on the body. As kids, we don’t have the capacity to understand why a confusing and painful thing is happening to us. The taboo and secretive nature of the practice reinforces the shame. Most children turn the blame and shame inward, rather than pointing it at the trusted caregivers who are betraying us.
So how do we begin to resolve shame? There are many paths to healing:
Begin to intentionally cast a compassionate gaze upon yourself. At first, your affirmations may feel false, but with repetition, that will change.
View your inner shamer as a child-like protector who functions to keep you feeling small and worthless in order to avoid further harm. Thank it for its diligent work and remind it that you’ve grown up and have other resources for feeling safe. This is an Internal Family Systems approach. Learn more through this 14-minute video.
Seek out a trauma therapist who can help you work through the khatna. Doing so enabled me to identify the child-logic (the ways I made “sense” of the traumatic moment as a kid) that led to me internalizing the blame. This child-logic had long legs that impacted many aspects of my life, including self-expression, romantic relationships, friendships and work. Check out my January 2021 column for tips on finding a therapist.
Debunk the myths you’ve learned about your sexuality and body. Most of us have learned that our genitals are “bad” or “wrong” or “dirty.” If we don’t shame our elbows, why would we shame our vulvas?
Talk to other khatna survivors or listen to their stories. This will remind you that you’re not alone, and not to blame.
Anonymous, healing from shame takes time and effort, but it is possible. I wish you all the best in this journey!
About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor: Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at http://www.farzanadoctor.com. Disclaimer: While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.