I attended the U.S. Bohra Activist Retreat because I hope to see an end to FGM/C in my lifetime

By Rashida Rangwala

The practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in the Bohra community has been a secret and taboo subject for generations. Even today with the education, media and public stories from the survivors who have undergone FGC, the Bohra community truly believes that the practice of FGC on 7-year-old girls is a religious mandatory passage and should be done to ensure future virtuous female behavior, meaning to ensure girls remain chaste until marriage (and not be sexually promiscuous). But, FGC is really not a religious requirement. It is a cultural practice that predates Islam.

I attended the Sahiyo retreat in January 2018 because I wanted to educate myself about IMG_4053the medical aspects of a girl undergoing FGC and to gain from the experience of other activists and survivors. At the Sahiyo retreat I was able to hear, grasp and digest information on FGC and how to approach and begin a conversation about FGC to the mothers and especially the fathers in the Bohra community who have young girls.

I am truly convinced that FGC is a barbaric practice and there is documented evidence of harm that is done both psychologically and physically to the girl child and adult woman.  I found it shocking to learn that 80% of the 385 participants in Sahiyo’s study had undergone FGC and that 33-34% admitted that it negatively impacted their sexual lives. I want to see an end to this practice in my lifetime.

Sahiyo in collaboration with researchers, health professionals, and other FGC experts were able to create resources to help me in my own activism work to prevent FGC from happening to other girls. The brochures and guidance I received at the Activist Retreat has been invaluable in my work as an activist. The research findings from their global study on FGC in the Bohra community published in January 2017 gave me an education on FGC in terms of how widespread it is in the community, the physical and emotional consequences that occur to those who have undergone it, and to learn more about the challenges and barriers that occur in our work to end FGC, as well as best practices in how to try to overcome some of those challenges.




Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 1: What is trauma?

(This article is Part one of a seven-part series on trauma related to FGC. This article should not be used in lieu of seeking professional mental health and counseling services when needed)

By Joanna Vergoth, LCSW, NCPsyA

Many women who have undergone FGC may not have any lasting disturbances. But based on the Sahiyo study alone (see pie-chart below), there are those who may benefit from a deeper understanding of the effects of trauma. Often, we minimize, dismiss or normalize our symptoms and resign ourselves to feeling/living compromised. Learning more about trauma can provoke conversation; help one to feel less isolated and can prompt one to seek professional help. 

What is trauma?     

A traumatic event is defined as direct or indirect exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence. The incident may be something that threatens the person’s life or safety, or the life of someone close to the victim. Traumatic incidents can include kidnapping, serious accidents such as car or train wrecks, natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes, or violent attacks such as rape, sexual or physical abuse, or FGC. As defined—although culturally sanctioned— FGC is a traumatic event (see chart from Sahiyo’s study to the right).Q25a

Although for some the consequences can be minimal, most of the evidence suggests that FGC is extremely traumatic and the physical or medical complications associated with FGC may remain acute or chronic. Early, life-threatening risks include hemorrhage, shock secondary to blood loss or pain, local infection and failure to heal, septicemia, tetanus, trauma to adjacent structures, and urinary retention. One of the more frequent longer-term medical consequences includes adhesions or scarring, which can contribute to lingering pain and impede sexual functioning.

The focus of FGC has long been regarded from a physical and medical perspective but it is equally important to consider the psychological and emotional implications of this practice.  It has been reported that the psychological trauma that women experience through FGM ‘often stays with them for the rest of their lives’ (Equality Now and City University London, 2014, p.8). Sahiyo’s study found that of the 309 participants in the Q25study who had undergone FGC in the Dawoodi Bohra community, almost half (48%) reported that the practice left a negative emotional impact on their adult life.

Usually, the girl, unprepared for what is about to happen, is taken by surprise and cannot prevent what is about to occur. Those that can remember the ‘day they were cut’ often report having initially felt intense fear, confusion, helplessness, pain, horror, terror, humiliation, and betrayal. Many have suffered a multi-phase trauma; the first being forced down and cut and then second is seeing or hearing another family member endure the procedure. Even anticipating the procedure, oneself can be terrifying. Also of significance is the community and family reaction to the painful reactions experienced by these young women. Often girls can be chided for crying and not being brave while undergoing the cutting. This dismissive, non-nurturing reaction can potentially lead to another facet of the multi-phase trauma.   

Some proponents of FGC actually consider that the shock and trauma of the surgery may contribute to the behavior described as calmer and docile—considered to be positive feminine traits.

FGC is a traumatic event that can profoundly rupture an individual’s sense of self, safety, ability to trust and feel connected to others—aspects of life considered fundamental to well-being. Such genital violence can interrupt the process of developing positive self-esteem. And, when children are violated their boundaries are ruptured leading to feelings of powerlessness and loss of control. Children who have experienced trauma often have difficulty identifying, expressing and managing emotions, and may have limited language for describing their feelings and as a result, they may experience significant depression, anxiety or anger.   

Over time, if the distress can be communicated to people who care about the traumatized individual and these caretakers respond adequately, most people can recover from the traumatic event. But, some FGC affected girls and women experience severe distress for months or even years later.   

The symptoms of trauma:

Outlined below are some of the consequences that may occur following a traumatic event. Sometimes these responses can be delayed, for months or even years after the event. Often, people do not even initially associate their symptoms with the precipitating trauma.  


  • Eating disturbances (more or less than usual) 
  • Sleep disturbances (more or less than usual) 
  • Sexual dysfunction 
  • Low energy 
  • Chronic, unexplained pain


  • Depression, spontaneous crying, despair, and hopelessness 
  • Anxiety; feeling out of control 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Fearfulness 
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness, shame, despair, hopelessness 
  • Irritability, anger, and resentment 
  • Emotional numbness 
  • Withdrawal from normal routine and relationships
  • Feeling frequently threatened
  • Feeling damaged 
  • Self-destructive and impulsive behaviors
  • Sexual problems 


  • Memory lapses, especially about the trauma 
  • Difficulty making decisions 
  • Loss of previously sustained beliefs
  • Decreased ability to concentrate 
  • Feeling distracted

Over time, even without professional treatment, traumatic symptoms generally subside, and normal daily functioning gradually returns. However, even after time has passed, sometimes the symptoms don’t go away. Or they may appear to be gone, but surface again in another stressful situation. When a person’s daily life functioning or life choices continue to be affected, a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be the problem, requiring professional assistance.

To learn more about PTSD, see our Part II – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

About the Author:

Joanna Vergoth is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in trauma. forma logoThroughout the past 15 years she has become a committed activist in the cause of FGC, first as Coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, and most recently with the creation of forma, a charity organization dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women affected by FGC, and also offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy and awareness training to hospitals, social service agencies, universities and the community at large.


White House Press Release Falsely links Gender Violence (and FGC) to Foreign Nationals

By Geethika Kodukula

(Disclaimer: Although they graciously accepted it, the views in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sahiyo or its founders. I am not myself an immigrant, Muslim, or an FGC survivor.)

In January, the White House put out a press release wherein they mentioned a Department of Justice report about the Entry of Foreign-Born Terrorists into the United States and the “connection” to Gender-Based Violence. The press release noted more than 20 “statistics” and names of people who have either been convicted of terrorist activities or conspiring against the US between 2001 and 2016. All of the cited examples were of people keeping Islamic faith, children of visa lottery recipients, or children of foreign-born nationals. Nowhere in this press release is there mention of the multitude of hate-crimes against people of color in 2017 or the half a dozen shootings in the month of January that are more pressing and real concerns for national security.

As a statistician, I can tell you with certainty that numbers do not mean anything if you do not have a baseline to compare against. For example: let’s examine statistics about crime from the FBI. In 2016, there were 6,121 hate crimes in the United States. However, before believing that we must leave the country because it is unsafe, it is important to note that only 11.6% of the total number of jurisdictions monitoring hate crimes reported any incident. In other words, 88.4% of jurisdictions had no incident report of a hate crime whatsoever. Cherry picking numbers and placing them onto an entire group does not make the statistical interpretation valid.

According to the White House Press Release, two ‘threats’ immigrants bring into America are gender-violence and crime. Let me rephrase that – the current administration, led by this man, who hired people like Rob Porter and David Sorensen who touted their professional prowesses in response to them giving their wives black-eyes, is worried about immigrants bringing gender violence into the country.

Gender Violence is pervasive across the world. “Global estimates by the World Health Organization indicate that about 1 in 3 women worldwide has experienced violence in their lifetime.” [WHO | Violence against women] Factually, there is no continent on which there hasn’t been some form of sexual harassment or assault, including Antarctica. If you want some stats on the issue, go to UNWomen.

I could (and desperately want to) pick apart each of the statistics provided in the White House statement intended to make us clutch our pearls and shriek at the sight of a ‘foreign-national’. However, I will resist the urge and stick to the point that made me decide to write this piece.

From the White House statement:

“According to a 2016 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of women and girls at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) was three times higher in 2012 compared to 1990. The CDC report states that the increase was entirely a result of the rapid growth in the number of immigrants from FGM practicing countries.”

One concern/question that immediately comes to mind: what was their methodology to predict that increase? Let’s check the report:

“For comparability of terminology with earlier analyses, those at risk consisted of the number who potentially underwent or would potentially undergo FGM/C in the future if the population of foreign-born women and girls and their children in the United States had the same rates of FGM/C as the countries in which the girls or their mothers had been born.”

To put it in perspective, the statement assumes that if a country has, say, 20% prevalence of FGC, and we have 100 immigrants from that country, 20 of those immigrants are at risk for FGC/M.

The inference is then that after people emigrate to the United States, they behave in the same manner as they would in the country from which they migrated. The study does not take into account assimilation of immigrants, a difference in socioeconomic status, nor that FGM/C is banned in the United States. The CDC study itself notes that ‘These differences would very likely result in reduced risk for FGM/C’. Whoever wrote this press statement did not read the entire CDC study, or they just choose to conveniently leave out that point. Alternatively, they must have thought that no one would read the actual CDC study in its entirety and instead the public would align with the narrative that we must all run from the scary foreign-man?

FGC is a real public health problem prevalent around the world, including in the United States. We are all trying to understand, reason, and reduce its incidence. We would be rejoicing if as a shift from the norm, the statement had said, ‘We can not tolerate this practice anywhere; here on U.S. soil, or across the world. We will work towards grassroots education, de-stigmatizing, and progress in the elimination of FGC.

The White House Press Release leaves me to wonder, is the U.S. still a champion of human rights across the world, or, are they okay as long as any violation that occurs is just not in their backyard?

FGC has its origins rooted in the patriarchy and suppression of female sexuality. Expecting the Trump administration to understand the nuanced situation of harmful religious practices is almost pointless. It is a war and not a battle. However, I will be damned if I stand by and watch these false “champions of women’s safety and health” demonize people without caring about the implications of their statements. At this point, if a ‘foreign national’ pulls his ear three times before eating his lunch, it seems the White House will find a reason to make it an issue relating to economic/health/crime/gender-violence.

The gender-violence statistics in the United States are staggering. For many of us, it is our day job to end it – day-in and day-out. Gender-violence, like many forms of violence, is about power. Don’t let anybody fool you into believing that strict immigration reform will put a stop to gender-violence.

Time and again, research has shown that there is no evidence for the enduring belief that increased immigration means increased crime. For writing this article, I perused the FBI’s arrested people statistics from the year 2011. Observing the races of the persons arrested by the FBI in 2016 (the latest year of compiled data available at the time of writing), 69.6% of the persons arrested were white, with 26.9% being African American. There are many more sources and studies that decry the notion that immigration increases violent crime. In fact, immigration does the opposite, immigration actually energizes a community, helps the economy grow, and in some cases (gasp!) even brings crime rates down.

I do not live in a leftist utopian peace bubble. Enemies of all magnitudes are growing, for every democratic institution in the world. Terrorism is a real, tangible threat that touches our lives too often. We should aim to unite people, to prepare them for emergency situations, to stand together. Instead, this driving-a-wedge mentality and fear-mongering are weakening our bonds and strengthening the effect of terrorist/anarchist ideologies.

I understand the temptation to believe that the ‘bad’ is pouring in from the outside, in terrifying numbers, if you align with some media platforms and politicians. However, this us vs. them mindset will cause chaos, breed distrust, and only add on to the number of problems with which we, and the next four generations, have to deal. If we build the walls, imposed a travel ban, and shut our doors to everyone outside our borders tomorrow, to our sad surprise, we will see that crime has not reduced or altogether disappeared as promised.

I am all for meaningful immigration reform and crime policy reform – every country needs it. However, let us try to remember that this is America, where anyone who is not 100% Indigenous Native American, has descended from an immigrant who came to this country at some point. Let us try not to dehumanize or demonize immigrants as people who are here to pillage, steal jobs and blow up things. They want a brighter future for themselves and their children. We should all strive and want to evaluate and provide a structured pathway for that to happen. Big, scary numbers and cherry picking Muslim names from a decade-long list of convictions will not get us there.

Building the data on Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra Community

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the findings of the first ever large scale global study on Female Genital Cutting in the Bohra community in order to gain insight into how and why this harmful practice continued. A year later, this February 2018 saw the release of a second large-scale research study entitled “The Clitoral Hood – A Contested Site”, conducted by Lakshmi Anantnarayan, Shabana Diler and Natasha Menon in collaboration with WeSpeakOut and Nari Samata Manch. The study explored the practice of FGM/C in the Bohra community specifically in India and added findings about the sexual impact of FGC on Bohra women. Substantial overlap between the two studies can be found and parallels can be drawn.

Firstly, both studies explored the type of FGM/C that was carried out on the participants. The study by Sahiyo discovered that out of the 109 participants who were aware of the procedure that was carried out on them, 23 reported having undergone Type 1a – the removal of the clitoral hood. Research carried out by Anantnarayan et. al. found that although proponents of FGM/C in India claim that Bohras only practice Type 1a and Type 4 FGM/C (pricking, piercing or cauterization of the clitoral hood), participants reported that both Types 1a and 1b (partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or clitoral hood) are most often practiced.

Sahiyo and Anantnarayan et. al. both found that the majority of participants had undergone FGM/C and therefore, among both samples, FGM/C was widely practiced. Sahiyo found that 80% of 385 female participants had undergone the practice, whereas Anantnarayan et. al. found that of the 83 female participants in the study, 75% reported that their daughters had undergone FGC. Both studies found that FGM/C was performed at around the age of seven.

The impact of FGM/C on participants was also reported to be similar among participants of both studies. In exploring this further, Anantnarayan et. al. found that 97% of participants remembered FGM/C as a painful experience. Participants who had undergone the practice reported painful urination, physical discomfort, difficulty walking, and bleeding to be the immediate effects after having undergone FGM/C. In the long-term, some women reported that they suffered from recurring Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) and incontinence, which they suspect could be linked to their khatna.

Both studies also explored the effect of FGM/C on participants’ sex lives. Anantnarayan et. al. found that approximately 33% of participants believe that FGM/C has negatively impacted their sex life. Similarly, Sahiyo reported findings of 35% of participants who believed that FGM/C has negatively impacted their sex lives. Some of the problems identified by several participants included low sex drive, the inability to feel sexual pleasure, difficulty trusting sexual partners, and over-sensitivity in the clitoral area.

Physical consequences of FGM/C in both studies also revealed psychological consequences. Similar to Sahiyo’s findings, Anantnarayan et. al. found that many participants reported feelings of fear, anxiety, shame, anger, depression, low self-esteem, and difficulty trusting people as some of the psychological repercussions of their FGM/C experience. Sahiyo found that 48% of participants in their study reported that FGM/C had left them with a lasting psychological impact.

Both Sahiyo and Anantnarayan et. al. also explored the main reasons for the the continuation of FGM/C within the Bohra community. Several common reasons were found, including the continuation of an old traditional practice, the adherence to religious edicts, and to control women’s promiscuity and sexual behaviour.

Interestingly, Sahiyo’s study found that 80% of women had earned at least a Bachelor’s degree, no relationship could be determined between education level and having undergone FGC. Meanwhile, the study by Anantnarayan et. al found that a strong connection existed between a mother’s education level and her decision to continue FGC on her daughter.

Sahiyo’s study, however, did note that more important than education level was the question of a person’s ideological preference (stated religion) as it might influence a person’s decision to continue FGC on their daughter. In fact, Sahiyo’s survey found that those who were most likely to continue ‘khatna’ were also more likely to still identify as Dawoodi Bohra in their adult life. Anantnarayan et. al also determined that the more diverse personal networks and economic independence from the Bohra religious community a woman had, the more likely they were to discontinue FGM/C and renounce it.

Finally, both studies examined the relationship between men and the decision/involvement for a girl to undergo FGC. Both studies did allude to the idea that the decision leading to a girl undergoing FGM/C may not strictly be confined to women. Sahiyo’s study revealed that 72% of respondents believed that men were aware of the practice, but only 27% believed that men were told of the practice when the girl underwent it in their family. Anantnarayan et. al. concluded that men played an integral role in the maintenance and propagation of the practice, both at the personal and political level, whether passively or more actively. However, Sahiyo’s data collection was completed in 2016, prior to the large-scale movement to end FGC in the Bohra community. The last few years have shown that with an increase in awareness of FGC amongst the public, Bohra men’s own knowledge of FGC has also naturally increased, and thus the traditional idea that men are unaware of FGC may in fact be changing with the current generation, as pointed out by Anantnarayan et. al.


Volunteer Spotlight: Alisha Bhagat

Alisha is passionate about working with organizations to think systematically about a sustainable future for people and the planet. She is a futurist and strategist at Forum for the Future, a sustainability non-profit that works with companies on long-term thinking and systems change. Prior to joining Forum, Alisha was a foreign policy consultant for the US government. She first became an activist through protesting the war in Afghanistan in 2001. Alisha has served on the board of BitchMedia, a feminist media organization since 2016. In the past, she was a Girl Scout troop leader in her community. She holds an MS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a BS from Carnegie Mellon University. When not thinking about and shaping the future, Alisha is an avid gamer and science fiction enthusiast. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, adorable daughters, and loving cat.

1)    When did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I first became involved with Sahiyo in August 2016, when a friend connected me with Mariya, Sahiyo’s co-founder.

2)    What opportunities have you been involved with at Sahiyo?

I made a documentary back in 2004 called Deen and Duniya that deals with religion and modernity in the lives of Dawoodi Bohra women in Mumbai. One of the topics covered is FGC. The film had been casually circulated amongst friends and family but given its relevance to Sahiyo’s work, Sahiyo asked if they could feature it on their blog so I did a short write up of it, which you can read by clicking here.
Most recently, I helped organize an activist retreat in New York for eleven activists associated with Sahiyo and working on FGC within the Bohra community. It took many months of planning, but we had a really productive retreat where activists were able to connect, find community, and better equip themselves to be change agents.

3)    How has your involvement impacted your life?

Being an activist is very empowering and meaningful to me. When I first found out about FGC in the Bohra community, I felt a number of things: shock, outrage, and helplessness. Engaging in activism is a way to reclaim power and agency. I strongly believe that the future is what we create so if this is something we do not want, we need to work towards making this practice a thing of the past. I’m so glad to be part of a community of people who feel similarly, who share not only the same cultural and religious background but also the same values. My involvement makes me hopeful for the future.

4)    What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?

Start with a small action. Perhaps it is talking about Sahiyo’s work with a friend or sharing a survivor story. Maybe it means hosting an event or attending a workshop. The first step to engage is challenging but doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Think about a way that you could engage and contribute and find a way to do so that is personally meaningful. Also, if you don’t know how to participate – reach out! There is so much we can do together.

My Reflections on Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat and my advocacy on ending FGM/C in the U.S.

By Alifya Sulemanji

Sahiyo organized a retreat for FGM survivors and activists in January 2018. I attended the retreat because I am a survivor and I was interested in learning about different views, challenges and perspectives of other survivors and activists who were planning to attend as well.IMG_3784

The retreat was very beneficial in many ways. I was able to meet other survivors and listen to their experiences and learn how they can contribute towards putting an end to this atrocity. It was good to meet people who I could relate to regarding the many aspects of life for a Bohra who is against FGM/C (Khatna), but who still bears a Bohra identity.

I have a very vivid memory of being cut at the tender age of seven. It felt like my body was being violated. Even when I was just 7 years of age, I knew something wrong had been done to me as I was told that this thing was a dark secret I was not supposed to tell anyone about. As I grew up I found out that none of my other friends had this religious ritual done, and it confirmed that what had been done to me was wrong. In the past few years, I learned that many other women like me felt the same way. I was encouraged to speak about it through the medium of Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, groups who are working to end this cruel practice done in the name of religion.

This Sahiyo Activist Retreat gave me insight into how I can talk to other pro-FGM/C people and how I can convey my thoughts on FGM/C to them in a positive way. I also learned that in conversations with them, it is important to try not to make stereotypical judgments about people, based on my own past experiences.

IMG_3937The contributions I have made towards creating awareness about the harm of FGM/C (Khatna) have been through storytelling, which at the Activist Retreat we discussed was a powerful method for creating social change. Already, I have written about my own experience of FGC (Khatna) for Sahiyo. I have given interviews to the Detroit Press during the arrest of Jumana Nagarwala, the doctor in the U.S. who in April 2017 was first charged with performing FGM/C on minor girls. The interviews I have given reflected on the reactions of, and repercussions for the Bohra community after her arrest. I also participated in a research study by Laxmi Anantnarayan. Another research study on FGC and survivors’ experiences that I participated in was conducted by a student in India from Manipal college. I also told my story to an Author/writer Firos in India who is writing a book on this subject.

I also worked with Owanto, a famous artist, and her daughter Katya Berger, a journalist and graduate from Columbia University who are creating a documentary ‘Thousand Voices’ to depict the effects of FGM/C by sharing the voices of girls who were affected by it. Lastly, I work with the New York Coalition to End FGM and meet with them every 2 to 3 months to work on creating awareness on FGC and to take measures to stop FGM/C and aid survivors.

My Empowerment at the Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat

By Maria Akhter

A few weeks ago, I attended the first U.S-based Bohra activist retreat held in Brooklyn, New York. Eleven women from all over the country gathered together in a spacious Airbnb to discuss issues surrounding FGC in the Bohra community as well as to get to know each other a little better.

I joined Sahiyo as a volunteer six months ago with a simple curiosity to explore the traditions in my community that I didn’t agree with. My journey with Sahiyo led me further and further through the organization, and I found myself booking the next flight to New York to meet with other activists and share my own work.IMG_4208.jpg

As I sat on my redeye flight from California to JFK, anticipation for the upcoming weekend kept me awake. I wondered how it would feel to be in a room with people who would be able to understand a huge, hidden component of my life. I wondered if I would be able to share my own experiences with the others and if I even had a story worth sharing.

I woke up the next morning to sky rises and a chill that turned my fingers blue. But once I was in the company of the other activists, I felt myself warm up. Each participant had a unique story to share and with each shared story, I felt that my own story was comprised of similar sentiments and experiences. During the retreat, everyone was given a safe space to share how much or how little they felt comfortable with. We talked about everything from Khatna experiences and familial and romantic relationships to our careers and favorite foods. We were able to connect with each other on shared experiences in madrasa, masjid, school or work.

IMG_3867As one of the younger participants at the retreat, I was able to share experiences unique to myself but more importantly learn from the stories of those women who had undergone Khatna and who had made life-altering decisions to confront others about the practice. I was overwhelmed by the courage, strength and free-will that showered over all of us at the retreat.

The retreat consisted of speaker-led workshop sessions, open discussions and reflection
periods. The workshops were profoundly informative. I was given toolkits for dialogue, statistics and graphs, and comprehensive support material.

During our discussions, we participated in healthy debates that sometimes got heated but were never disrespectful. And that became one of my most important takeaways from the retreat. In order to create positive change, I need to be open-minded and receptive to ideas I might not agree with.

Leaving the retreat, I felt like a more informed activist. I have raw data and concrete facts tucked away. I have a support system of friends that I can now rely on to be there as listening and supportive ears. On my flight back to California, I felt unstoppable and empowered. I felt like there were no limits to what a group of strong-willed and fiercely devoted women can accomplish.

Sahiyo in the U.S. presents a workshop opportunity in May 2018 in collaboration with StoryCenter

From May 4-6, 2018, in conjunction with StoryCenter, Sahiyo in the U.S. will host a 3-day workshop in Berkeley, CA where eight women who grew up in the Bohra community and live in the United States can come together to create their own digital storytelling videos about FGC and the work they do.

This project will culminate in the professional production of a two- to three-minute video of participants sharing the story of their anti-FGC advocacy journey. Participants will have full access to this video and full permissions to use it for their own ongoing community leadership and advocacy efforts after the training, and the facilitators will also work to deepen your knowledge of participatory storytelling and the various uses and applications of digital storytelling.

If you’re interested in applying to participate in this advanced training—StoryCenter Sahiyo & in the U.S. will cover the cost of the project itself, as well as transportation and accommodations—please read the info below and complete this application by Friday, March 30, 2018. 

If you have any questions about this project, please feel free to contact mariya@sahiyo.com

To see past examples of videos produced by our partner, StoryCenter, click here. To see Mariya’s StoryCenter video, click here.


Sahiyo U.S. Activists Retreat: A Reflection

By Zehra Patwa, WeSpeakOut

Retreat [ri-treet]: a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction.

When I initially signed up for Sahiyo’s retreat for Bohra anti-FGC activists in the US, I thought it would be a good opportunity to network, share ideas, and develop strategies.  What I wasn’t prepared for was the incredibly nurturing support I received from the other attendees, as well as from those who ran the retreat.

I have been an anti-FGM/C activist since 2015.  Since then, I have been accused of promoting myself to attract attention, to make money, and so that I can shame the community.  It’s exhausting and demoralizing.

Despite what people may think (and they tell me what they think every day!), I am not comfortable being in the spotlight, I never have, but when I discovered at the age of 42 

that khatna/khafd was happening in the Bohra community and that I was also subjected to it at the age of 7, I could not stay quiet. This was the start of my journey.  I knew nothing about anatomy, or laws, or religious texts, or social rituals surrounding khatna.  I learned everything I possibly could through talking to others in my community, including activists, talking to health and legal experts, reading everything I could find about FGM/C but, mostly, by listening to women’s stories of their khatna experiences and how they had been, and continue to be, affected long into adulthood.

This new knowledge has changed the way I see people.  I freely admit that I have been guilty of making judgments about people without knowing much

img_3836.jpgabout them.  However, hearing what many women have gone through has made me realize that there is so much hidden deep in one’s psyche that it’s hard to truly understand why someone feels the way they do. This is where empathy comes in.

I do not recall my personal khatna but when I hear other women’s stories, I feel a pain that’s hard to describe. It is visceral and profound and stops me in my tracks.  But then I remember that I have a voice and that I’m no longer afraid.  I remember that I can be vocal for those who cannot be, and I owe it to them to stand up for them when they feel they cannot speak out for themselves.

The retreat has given me the tools to start conversations with those I vehemently disagree with, which was something I found difficult to do. I have learned to be open to others’ points of view and to try to find commonalities in our beliefs.

But most of all, the retreat has helped me realize that I am not alone, that many other activists feel the same way I do.  I have found a new support network of people that truly understand what I’m struggling with and this gives me the strength to carry on speaking out.

Sahiyo Activist Needs Assessment: Learning How To Support FGC Activists

Research Summary & Implications


Sahiyo is dedicated to ending Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the Bohra community, a small global Shia Muslim community. Sahiyo focuses its efforts on public education about the prevalence and impact of FGC, community outreach initiatives, and supporting survivors and activists, with the ultimate goal of driving positive social change around gender violence. Sahiyo recently partnered with a healthcare market research consultancy to conduct primary market research with activists speaking out against FGC, in an effort to better understand activists’ challenges and hopes for the future.

In this article, we hope not only to summarize the key findings from our primary research and draw implications for the broader gender violence activist community, but also to underscore the importance of conducting primary research with activists.

Research Methodology

Research entailed two phases: first, a quantitative, online survey was sent to anti-FGC activists across the globe. Second, follow-up interviews were conducted with activists from the online survey sample, who expressed their willingness to further participate in the research.

Sample & Demographics

All activists who took part in this research grew up in the Dawoodi Bohra religious tradition, and are now self-described as active in speaking out against FGC (‘khatna’).

Phase 1 Quantitative Sample:

  • Between 40-50* activists took the online survey, 91% of whom were female.
  • Activists’ ages varied, though 56% were under the age of 35.
  • The majority (~3/4) of activists reside in either the United States or India and were highly educated, with 96% having at least some graduate degree.
  • Although respondents were raised Dawoodi Bohra, only 43% still identify as Dawoodi Bohra, while 37% are non-practicing. However, 67% of respondents socialize with Dawoodi Bohras at least sometimes (every couple of weeks).
  • 69% of respondents personally underwent FGC, while 94% had a mother who was cut.

Phase 2 Qualitative Sample: 7 activists were interviewed in follow-up telephone conversations. These 7 activists had variable ages, countries of residence, and genders.  

Key Findings

Although each activist’s story is unique, they all shared the drive to end FGC in their community and more broadly. Their activist journey typically started with a realization about the prevalence of the practice: whether this be through a family member speaking out, a documentary, or media coverage; the realization sparked further investigation. Although some activists had memories of their own experience of being cut, many did not. For the latter individuals, the realization as adults about the practice’s prevalence occasionally came with a realization that they too had been cut, triggering an intense emotional response. For all activists, the initial anger and shame upon learning of the practice’s prevalence often led them to ask family and friends about FGC in their community, but they were met with a culture of secrecy and silence. Even when activists did open conversations with family and friends, they found the practice was often justified as a longstanding tradition, necessitated by religion.

This culture of secrecy and acceptance, paired with painful body or narrative memories of their own cutting, were said to be key drivers to speaking out. Many activists feel that not only does FGC have long-term physical and psychological health impacts, but that it is also a form of child sexual assault and/or abuse given the lack of consent. Furthermore, activists acknowledge that FGC’s underlying misogynistic and patriarchal factors make it part of a larger movement to control women. In short, activists feel that FGC does only harm with no benefit and must therefore be ended.

Challenges to speaking out:

Overlap of religion and community

The most significant challenges activists face when speaking out stems from the high degree of overlap between religion and community in the Bohra community. Although most activists are fairly open with their families and friends about their activism, they feel only moderately supported by their loved ones, largely due to concerns with the activism’s social repercussions. These concerns are linked to the social characteristics of the Bohra community, which include long-standing traditions of loyalty and closeness, in which the religious community often dictates social circles, romantic partners, neighborhood housing, cemetery sites, and more. This overlap causes speaking out against FGC to be seen as an attack on the community and faith at large. As a result, activists fear that speaking out would lead to discontinued social and professional bonds and ceasing of access to religious privileges. For some, these potential social repercussions bar them from speaking out publicly, so they pursue more private means of activism, such as anonymous writing and supporting organizations like Sahiyo.


Religious authority

Concerns with speaking out are further driven by the authority of the Bohra religious leaders. Considering that there is no clear religious justification for FGC, its continuation relies upon the leaders’ mandates and interpretations. Questioning of the religious leaders is deeply discouraged and potentially dangerous—causing many activists to not only fear speaking out, but also sometimes demotivating them, making them feel that without the support of religious leaders, their activism is a ‘lost cause.’

Considering the challenges above, many activists feel torn between wanting to end the practice and wanting to maintain a close connection to their faith and/or community. Even activists who are no longer involved in the Bohra community still fear risking the social wellbeing of their loved ones. Activists present this as a ‘catch-22’: loyal Bohra members are well respected by their community; however, speaking out against a taboo practice might oust them from it, rendering their authority no longer valid.

Conversation challenges

When activists do speak out publicly or privately, they find the conversation about FGC particularly challenging. The lack of robust, publicly available information about the practice’s prevalence in the Bohra community, as well as about its physical and mental consequences on the girls’ health often result in other Bohra members undermining the impact of khatna. Many community members present khatna as ‘not as bad as other types of FGC’. These arguments are particularly difficult for activists who do not have a clear memory of their own experience or believe that it has not had a negative impact on their life. They therefore risk feeling further invalidated and oftentimes doubt themselves. These factors, paired with the importance laid on tradition and religious authority, poses a serious difficulty for the activists in communicating the need for open conversation about FGC eradication.


Lastly, the challenges faced are not limited to considerations within the Bohra community. Some activists in America fear that public attention to FGC in a Muslim community might fuel pre-existing islamophobia, ultimately risking the wellbeing of their community. Additionally, given that the practice is illegal in many of the countries of active Bohra communities, some activists fear legal repercussions for people in their family, who they tend to also see as victims of the practice’s broader normalization.

Hopes for the Future:

Activists acknowledge that the unique social and religious considerations surrounding FGC make alleviating many of their challenges difficult. However, they hope that with continued conversation and increasing public awareness more people will learn about and, eventually, question the practice. Many activists feel that every conversation matters, even just 1:1 conversations with loved ones: each person who chooses not to cut their child is ultimately making broader change. They hope that personal stories are shared by name and anonymously, with the facilitation of active support groups, which allow a safe space for women to discuss, ask, and learn. Additionally, crucial information about FGC in the Bohra community and about its overall impact on women’s health and position in the society is expected to provide useful tools to activists and new opportunities for community discussion. Considerate presentations about the practice by the media will further support this dialogue. Although they acknowledge that broader, more formal change spearheaded by religious leaders is unlikely in the near future, community-level change is both possible and valuable. Through a combination of both public and private activism, activists hope that they can continue to build compelling arguments against FGC as they spread awareness.

Implications & Conclusion

Implications on FGC activism

Resources that reinforce the argument for eradicating FGC would significantly support FGC activists: information on the prevalence of FGC, research on the physical and mental health impacts of Type 1 FGC, useful guidance on legal repercussions of publicly sharing experiences and on arguments concerning child sexual abuse and gender violence, and religious arguments against the requirement of FGC for the Muslim tradition. Additionally, activists acknowledge the need for resources on how to strike a balance between empathy and understanding and anger and frustration in a conversation about FGC, especially with active members of the community, who might feel threatened or offended by activists. Activists require such guidance so that they can effectively encourage women to share their experiences and both women and men to listen and learn about FGC.

Implications on research methodologies

This study evidences the critical nature of conducting research directly with activists to better understand their needs. The use of both quantitative and qualitative primary research techniques facilitated both breadth and depth in the findings, therefore increasing existing evidence about FGC prevalence in the Bohra community and activists’ greatest challenges. These findings are crucial in drawing attention to FGC within and outside the community, especially considering the secretive nature of the practice: such evidence can empower activists, who are often met with doubt about their cause. Discussing directly with some of those activists about their own experience and the impact of their activism contributed to further understanding the reasons behind their worries and identifying ways to overcome the challenges. We believe that such methodology can be a robust way for any activist organization to increase evidence, draw attention, and help their members.

Implications on broader gender violence activism

Although the religious and social considerations are certainly unique to the Bohra community, many of the concerns expressed by these anti-FGC activists were resonant of concerns from people speaking out against any form of gender violence: concerns about social repercussions against themselves or their family. Although these repercussions orient more around the close-knit nature of the Bohra community, the underlying anxieties exist for any form of anti-gender violence activist: fear of potential discrimination in the workplace, isolation from family/friends, etc. The fear of negatively impacting one’s community prevalent among anti-FGC activists could be analogized to the fear of negatively impacting loved ones seen in many forms of anti-gender violence activism that results from the perpetrator of the violence often being part of one’s own immediate social circle. We believe that research, like the presented one, which allows gender violence victims and activists to voice their worries of speaking out, especially in terms of the activism’s immediate impact on their life, is crucial in order for organizations, like Sahiyo, to understand how these victims and activists can be best supported.

If you are interested in learning more about this study, its results, and their impact for FGC activism, please see the attached presentation, which includes detailed findings and implications.