Maria Akhter nominated for The Global Woman Student Ambassador Award

Sahiyo’s Maria Akhter has been nominated to receive the Global Woman Award in the “Student Ambassador” category, on Friday, October 26, 2018, in Washington, D.C.  The awards are given by the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation to people who do a great deal to protect girls and women from various types of violence, including FGC.  The Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation is a 501c3 non-profit organization, located in the Washington, D.C. with the mission to empower women and girls through education to help eradicate gender-based violence, with a primary focus on the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM). In October 2015 the organization launched the Global Woman Awards, to recognize the exceptional work of individuals in the advocacy of the empowerment of women and girls.  
Click here to learn more about the Global Woman Awards and the annual 5K Walk Against FGM organized by the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation.

Advertisements

An appeal to Maneka Gandhi: Stop the flip-flops on Female Genital Cutting in India

Sahiyo is deeply concerned about the Indian government’s repeated contradictory positions on the problem of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in the country. In the span of just 13 months, India’s Ministry for Women and Child Development has flip-flopped on its stand on FGC at least twice.

Its latest u-turn came on Wednesday, June 27, when the Ministry mentioned, in the middle of a larger press release, that “Female Genital Mutilation” is “not practiced in India”. This is clearly at odds with the stand that the central government took in the Supreme Court just two months ago, when it stated that FGC is “already an offence” under Indian law and asked the Court for guidelines on how to tackle the challenge of FGC.

This is not the first time that the government has made contradictory statements about FGC, which is called Khatna or Khafz by the Bohra community and female Sunnath by FGC-practicing communities in Kerala.

Such flip-flops leave FGC survivors in the lurch, unsure of whether their government is likely to support the end of a practice that continues to harm so many women and girls in India.

The first time

Female Genital Cutting (also called Female Genital Mutilation) involves cutting parts of the female genitalia for non-medical, often religious or cultural reasons. In India, the kind of FGC practiced by the Bohras and some communities in Kerala typically involves cutting a part or all of a young girl’s clitoral hood. The practice can have a variety of physical, psychological and sexual consequences on the health of women and girls.

Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women and Child Development, first publicly acknowledged the practice of FGC in India in May 2017, a month after an independent lawyer petitioned the Supreme Court asking for a ban on FGC. The Court sought a response from the government and Gandhi stated that the practice of FGC would be considered a criminal offence under provisions of the Indian Penal Code as well as the law against child sexual abuse. She also stated that her Ministry would write to the Syedna (the leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community) and ask him to “issue an edict to community members” to give up FGC voluntarily. If the community does not give up the practice, Gandhi said, the government would introduce a specific law against FGC.  

This was a welcome stand by the government, but it was contradicted seven months later. In December 2017, during a hearing of the petition against FGC, Gandhi’s ministry told the Supreme Court that “there is no official data or study” that supports the existence of FGC in India. While this is technically correct, it is dismissive of the many survivor testimonies that have been presented to the Ministry through petitions and personal meetings with survivors and activists. The statement is also ironic, because “official” data can only exist if the government actually commissions such research studies on FGC, which it has not yet done.

After this frustrating statement, the government gave FGC survivors hope again in April. At another Supreme Court hearing, the government’s attorney unequivocally acknowledged the practice of FGC in India, described it as an offence under provisions of existing Indian laws, and asked the Court itself to help issue guidelines on how to end FGC in communities.

Now, with it’s latest press release, the government is back to flip-flopping on the issue.  

The second time

The Ministry’s June 27 press release was a refutation of a new poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which found India to be “the world’s most dangerous country for women”, based on a perception survey of 548 experts on women’s issues from around the world. The survey results identified a list of 10 countries that are currently perceived to be the most dangerous for women.

The poll evaluated each country on six key parameters: health, discrimination, cultural & religion, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking. India was ranked number one (most dangerous) one three of these parameters: sexual violence, human trafficking and culture & religion. It also ranked as most dangerous overall, followed by Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and others.

It is the parameter of “culture and religion” that specifically concerns us here. This parameter includes practices such as child marriage, forced marriage, female foeticide, punishment through stoning or mutilation as well as Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

The Indian Ministry for Women and Child Development did not take kindly to the Thomson Reuters poll, and issued a defensive press release dismissing the poll as unscientific and not based on data. It is no secret that women’s rights and freedoms are regularly trampled upon in India, and the Ministry’s sour-grapes reaction to the perception poll has already been critiqued in the media.

What struck Sahiyo’s attention is this particular statement in the Ministry’s press release: “The six questions posed as part of the poll cannot fairly be applied to all countries. E.g. the age bar for defining child marriage is different in every country, mutilation as a means of punishment, female genital mutilation, stoning etc. are not practiced in India.” [Italics added]

To claim that Female Genital Cutting is not practiced in India is a blatant falsehood, and it comes from a government that has already publicly acknowledged the prevalence of FGC in India twice before.

It comes from a government whose ministry has personally met with survivors and activists in the past year and assured them that it is keen to end this practice.

It comes from a government whose minister has claimed she would appeal to the Bohra Syedna to end the practice of FGC in the Bohra community.

It comes from a government that has officially told the highest Court of this country that FGC is already a crime in India, under the Indian Penal Code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

It comes from a government that must surely be aware that FGC is practiced not just by Bohras but also by other groups in Kerala, because in August 2017, the government of Kerala ordered a probe into reports about “Sunnath” being carried out on girls in the state.

It comes from a government that must surely have read the headlines when Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor released a study that found a 75% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohras.

Why, then, is the government now claiming that FGC is not practiced in India?

It appears that the Ministry for Women and Child Development is willing to deny the existence of practices that harm actual women in the country, simply for the sake of defending an abstract notion of national pride in the face of a survey that reveals the world’s negative perceptions of India. This is a distressing betrayal of all the women and children who have suffered the harmful consequences of FGC, as well as any woman who may have hoped for support from a Ministry meant for her welfare.

Sahiyo appeals to the central government and the Ministry of Women and Child Development to retract its claim that FGC is not practiced in India. We also appeal to the Ministry to commission research on the practice of FGC in India, so that it can design sensitive policies to help communities end FGC.

(Sahiyo has been petitioning global agencies to invest in research on FGC in Asia. Support Sahiyo’s petition by clicking here.)

Sahiyo participates in Canadian webinar on FGC

On May 23, the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) hosted a unique webinar to help Canadian social sector organisations get acquainted with the practice of Female Genital Cutting. As an organisation working to end the practice in India and other Asian countries, Sahiyo was invited to present some of its work during the webinar.

CanWaCH is an Ottawa-based umbrella organisation with a focus on women’s health and gender equity. Its members come from across civil society, research and health sectors. The webinar on May 23 was for CanWaCH’s member organisations as well as the wider public, and it aimed to stimulate greater participation from Canadian NGOs, charities and institutions in the global movement to end FGC. Through presentations by various global organisations already working in the field of ending FGC, the webinar focused on sharing knowledge and best practices with the audience.

 

Participants included Anne-Marie Kamanye and Peter Nguura from Amref, a CanWaCH member organisation that has anti-FGC programmes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; Jenna Richards from Orchid Project, a UK-based organisation that supports anti-FGC partners in Senegal, Kenya and India, among others; Aarefa Johari from Sahiyo; and Alissa Koski from McGill University in Canada. Sahiyo shared information about the key elements required in an individual or organisation’s efforts to end FGC. Koski discussed the methods and challenges of conducting monitoring and evaluation of anti-FGC programmes.

Amnesty India features Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut in its ‘Brave’ campaign

Leading human rights organisation Amnesty India has featured Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut — the two collectives working to end Female Genital Cutting in India — in its new campaign titled “Brave”.

The campaign aims to highlight the work of individuals and groups working to defend human rights, truth, and justice in India, despite facing threats, attacks and other kinds of backlash.

amnesty

Other brave individuals featured in the campaign are: Chandrashekhar Azad, who founded the Bhim Army to fight for Dalit rights in Uttar Pradesh; Sagolsem Menor Singh, who campaigns for justice for the families of those killed in fake encounters in Manipur; and Gauri Lankesh, the journalist and human rights activist who was shot dead for her views last year.

Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut have been recognised for raising their voices against a taboo topic: the ritual of cutting young girls’ genitals in the name of culture and religion. During the course of the year, the Amnesty campaign will help support and amplify Sahiyo’s work.

Read more about the Brave campaign here.

Sahiyo and Khatna survivors get attacked online through ‘organized trolling’

In the recent years Sahiyo has come across many dissenting views while engaging with followers on the internet on the topic of ending Female Genital Cutting. The dissenting views have come in the form of tweets, comments, emails, people personally dissuading us from our work, and more. And every time someone has tried to tell us that Female Genital Cutting is beneficial for the woman, we have tried to present a reasoned argument against it.

It is our mission to create a counter-narrative on Female Genital Cutting in the communities practicing it, through dialogue and education.

That said, we recently observed a phenomenon of ‘organized trolling’, a spate of attacks online. A few days ago, Sahiyo’s Facebook page was attacked with negative reviews from different people. It happened in a quick span of a few minutes and oddly enough every review had almost the same things to say.

The trolls gave Sahiyo one-star ratings and called us a ‘sham organization’. In some reviews, co-founders were named individually and discredited for bringing shame to the community. Furthermore, these reviews stated that Sahiyo co-founders are creating a fake narrative against Female Genital Cutting prevalent in the community for their personal gains. This kind of behaviour qualifies as online harassment, because it is an intentional attempt to attack and discredit a group and its individual members in manner that is not civil.

In 2015, Sahiyo conducted an anonymous survey with 385 respondents out of which 81% people responded that they didn’t want the practice to continue. Since its inception, the number of people supporting Sahiyo’s mission has increased manifold, as men and women from the community have come out against the practice.

Yet there is a significant number of people who fear openly coming out with their views against the practice. Online harassment through organised trolling is one among the many reason why people fear voicing their opinions publicly.

Through Sahiyo, we want to create a safe space where opinions on the practice could be heard and tolerated, not trolled and shunned. By attacking online and publicly shaming, the pro-khatna supporters have displayed their intolerance against any view that counters or challenges the practice.

FGC is illegal in many parts of the world including United States and Australia, where people from the Bohra community have faced legal action for practising Female Genital Cutting. Furthermore, the jamaats (congregations) in US, UK and Australia came up with notices asking members not to practice FGC because it is against the law of land.

Yet pro-khatna supporters continue to defend the practice, and in doing so, some of them resort to  trolling or online harassment through foul language and personal attacks of those why they disagree with. While claiming that they have personally not had negative experiences with FGC, they attack, discredit and dismiss the personal experiences of others who have had negative experiences with FGC and have taken the courage to share their stories.

While we disagree with pro-khatna rhetoric which has been passed down since generations within the community, we — and the FGC survivors who share their stories with us — want to create room to have a dialogue and debate around it without being personally attacked.

Many women who have undergone FGC already have a challenging time talking about their experience openly. There is a fear and shame associated with sharing their stories — shame that it happened to them and perhaps feelings of not wanting to be viewed as victims. There is also a very real fear of backlash and of not being believed, and online trolling validates these fears. Trolling makes it more difficult and dangerous for people to come forward, and for community members to feel supported because of something they feel.

Furthermore, it is only a clear exhibition of intolerance prevalent in the community, which quells voices of the people who don’t agree with their mandate.

Sahiyo strongly condemns online trolling of those who have voiced their views against the practice. Online harassment or trolling leaves no room for debate or dialogue.

 

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 3: The Body and the Brain

(This article is Part 3 of a seven-part series on trauma related to Female Genital Cutting. To read the complete series, click here. These articles should NOT be used in lieu of seeking professional mental health and counseling services when needed.)

By Joanna Vergoth, LCSW, NCPsyA

Trauma overwhelms us and disrupts our normal functioning, impacting both the brain and body, both of which interact with one another to regulate our biological states of arousal. When traumatized, we lose access to our social communication skills and displace our ability to relate/connect/interact with three basic defensive reactions: namely, we react by fighting, fleeing, or freezing (this numbing response happens when death feels imminent or escape seems impossible).   

In order to understand and appreciate our survival responses, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how our brain functions during a traumatic experience, such as undergoing Female Genital Cutting or FGC.

Our brains are structured into three main parts:

image1The human brain, which focused on survival in its primitive stages, has evolved over the millennia to develop three main parts, which all continue to function today. The earliest brain to develop was the reptilian brain, responsible for survival instincts. This was followed by the mammalian brain (Limbic system), with instincts for feelings and memory. The Cortex, the thinking part of our brain, was the final addition.

The Reptilian brain:

The reptilian brain, which includes the brain stem, is concerned with physical survival and maintenance of the body. It controls our movement and automatic functions, breathing, heart rate, circulation, hunger, reproduction and social dominance— “Will it eat me or can I eat it?” In addition to real threats, stress can also result from the fact that this ancient brain cannot differentiate between reality and imagination. Reactions of the reptilian brain are largely unconscious, automatic, and highly resistant to change.  Can you remember waking up from a nightmare, sweating and fearful—this is an example of the body reacting to an imagined threat as if it were a real one.

The Limbic System:

Also referred to as the mammalian brain, this is the second brain that evolved and is the center for emotional responsiveness, memory formation and integration, and the mechanisms to keep ourselves safe (flight, fight or freeze). It is also involved with controlling hormones and temperature. Like the reptilian brain, it operates primarily on image5a subconscious level and without a sense of time.

The basic structures of Limbic system include:  thalamus, amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus  

The Neocortex:

The neocortex is that part of the cerebral cortex that is the modern, most newly (“neo”) evolved part. It enables executive decision-making, thinking, planning, speech and writing and is responsible for voluntary movement.

But…image6

Almost all of the brain’s work activity is conducted at the unconscious level, completely without our knowledge. While we like to think that we are thinking, functioning people, making logical choices, in fact our neocortex is only responsible for 5-15 % of our choices.  When the processing is done and there is a decision to make or a physical act to perform, that very small job is executed by the conscious mind.

How the brain responds to Trauma

The fight or flight response system — also known as the acute stress response — is an automatic reaction to something frightening, either physically or mentally. 

This response is facilitated by the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which work in harmony with each other, connecting the brain with various organs and muscle groups, in order to coordinate the response.

Following the perception of threat, received from the thalamus, the amygdala immediately responds to the signal of danger and the sympathetic nervous system  (SNS) is activated by the release of stress hormones that prepare the body to fight or escape.

It is the SNS which tells the heart to beat faster, the muscles to tense, the eyes to dilate and the mucous membranes to dry up—all so you can fight harder, run faster, see better and breathe easier under stressful circumstances.  As we prepare to fight for our lives, depending on our nature and the situation we are in, we may have an overwhelming need to “get out of here” or become very angry and aggressive (See ‘I underwent female genital cutting in a hospital in Rajasthan’ on Sahiyo’s blog). Usually, the effects of these hormones wear off only minutes after the threat is withdrawn or successfully dealt with.

However, when we’re terrified and feel like there is no chance for our survival or escape, the “freeze” response, activated via the parasympathetic nervous system, can occur. The same  hormones or naturally occurring pain killers that the body produces to help it relax (endorphins are the ‘feel good’ hormones) are also released into the bloodstream, in enormous amounts, when the freeze response is triggered. This can happen to people in car accidents, to sexual assault survivors and to people who are robbed at gunpoint. Sometimes these individuals pass out, or mentally remove themselves from their bodies and don’t feel the pain of the attack, and sometimes have no conscious or explicit memory of the incident afterwards. Many survivors of female genital cutting have reported fainting after being cut. Other survivors have reported blocking out their experiences of being cut (See ‘I don’t remember my khatna. But it feels like a violation’). Our bodies can also hold on to these past traumas which may be reflected not only in our body language and posture but can be the source of vague somatic complaints (headaches, back pain, abdominal discomfort, etc.) that have no organic source. FGC survivors who were cut at very young ages can be plagued with ambiguous symptoms such as these.

Neuroscientists have identified two different types of memory: explicit and implicit. The hippocampus, the seat of explicit memory, is not developed until 18 months. However, the implicit memory system, involving limbic processes, is available from birth. Many of our emotional memories are laid down before we have words or explicit recall, yet they influence our lives without our awareness. Although a traumatized person may not explicitly remember the traumatic event(s), the memory is held in the body: ‘‘What the mind forgets, the body remembers in the form of fear, pain, or physical illness’’ (Cozolino, 2006, p. 131; Van der Kolk, 1994).

The brain and PTSD

For those affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — especially those who had no chance to fight back successfully or escape — the body and the brain have been blocked from responding normally and the trauma does not end.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (2001), a major clinician and researcher in the field of trauma notes that individuals with PTSD ‘‘are very sensitively tuned to pick up threat and respond to minor stimuli as if their life were in danger”.

What Dr Bessel is referring to is the fact that for those with PTSD, the trauma has not been able to come to a conclusion and remains unfinished. When stressors are present or familiar triggers (such as a person, place, or scent) are activated, the person can feel threatened and those fight-or-flight reactions stay turned-on, prompting the amygdala to be in a state of perpetual overactivation — in effect, hijacking the thinking process. Some FGC survivors in the Bohra community have experienced versions of such responses. For example, one young woman interviewed in the documentary A Pinch of Skin mentioned that her traumatic memories of being cut are triggered when she sees her cutter in the neighbourhood, and she ‘never wants to see that lady again’.  

When the amygdala is overactive and in control it registers only emotional and sensory information so that when the hippocampus tries to record the event sequentially it is compromised by these hormonal releases and only fragmented flashes of memory and emotional distress are remembered. This, too, is common in the way many FGC survivors remember their experience of being cut.

Why this happens

Trauma impairs the integrative functioning in the brain and neural networks get stuck in paths related to processing and encoding fear. The limbic system stores our emotional memories and replicates the response we had to the earliest time we experienced a similar situation: if we are in a state of distress we will revisit a memory of distress and that will cause more somatic sensations of distress.

PTSD reflects a condition in which the body’s natural mechanisms for recovery have failed, resulting in a prolonged state of negative stress arousal—causing increased heart rate and blood pressure, restricted flow of blood to the genitals and digestive systems—in effect making it hard to process information, eat, sleep, salivate or be sexually aroused.

For more information about the Psychosexual Consequences of trauma, see Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 4: Psychosexual Consequences.

About Joanna Vergoth:

 

Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in trauma. Throughout the past forma logo15 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.

Penn State Law School Host Conference on Female Genital Cutting

On April 12-13th, the Dickinson Law’s FGM Legislation Project hosted a conference, “Crafting Legislative and Medical Solutions to Address Female Genital Mutilation Locally and Internationally,” at Dickinson Law. This conference aimed to educate the public, lawyers and medical professionals about the legal, social, psychological and medical consequences of FGC. Experts and practitioners gathered to address the medical implications for women who have undergone it, the need for legislative action, and cultural competencies and prevention. Sahiyo Cofounder, Mariya Taher participated in a panel session, “Effective FGM Prevention and Survivor Advocacy.” A live stream of the event can be found here. On April 13th, a working group gathered to create and discuss an optional protocol to the Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women that focuses primarily on Female Genital Cutting.

Seeing Sahiyo Stories on Female Genital Cutting Come to Life

By Mariya Taher

As an alumni of the Women’s Foundation of California’s Women’s Policy Institute, I was invited to attend a storytelling workshop hosted by StoryCenter in March 2017, in which I created a digital video story about my advocacy work to end Female Genital Cutting (FGC). I advocate against FGC because for centuries, women have been afraid to speak up–they fear being socially ostracized from their community, being labeled a victim, or getting their loved ones in trouble. For too long, a silence on this form of violence has existed within this country.  

I strive to be one of the individuals who continues to break that silence.

The result from the workshop was Shattered Silences, a video discussing my experience as a survivor of FGC and the power of storytelling in inspiring other women and men to come forward and speak against this harmful practice that has persisted for generations because of our community’s silence.

After participating in the workshop, and after seeing my video go live, I felt much pride in knowing I had shared my story, and most importantly, I felt that I had gained control over how I told my story. Since 2016, as my work on FGC has increased, and my name has become more publicly associated in media articles related to FGC, I have seen again and again how my story has been taken out of context and told by others in a way that at times has felt exploitive, or not quite right. (Watch American Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Speak Out ). Creating Shattered Silences allowed me to take back agency over my story, which I had seen used to promote Islamaphobia and anti-immigrant fear, and tell it in a way that felt comfortable and in line with the message I wanted to share with others.

I began to wonder that if I felt that way, then perhaps other women and girls living in communities where FGC occurs might also feel that way. Soon after I had the idea of hosting a StoryCenter workshop focused on FGC, to bring together other women living in the U.S. who have been affected by FGC or who have family members who have been affected by FGC, and who wanted to lend their voices to ending this harmful practice in the United States, and globally.

Most people falsely believe FGC exists only in other parts of the world, and could never occur in the United States. But in April 2017, that misconception was shattered when a Detroit doctor was arrested for performing FGC on two seven-year-old girls. This doctor belonged to the same religious sect, Dawoodi Bohra, I grew up in, and the case showed that though laws banning the practice exist, FGC does continue to affect women living in the U.S.

I also wanted to show that FGC affects U.S. residents who come from all different backgrounds (economic, religious, education level, racial/ethnic, etc.).

For the next year, I fundraised to do just such a thing, and in May 2017, I called on my family, friends, and community to help bring an end to the silence around FGC and the practice by donating to a campaign to allow more women living in the United States to produce and share their stories publicly. The campaign raised close to $8,000, and in the fall of 2017, the Wallace Global Fund came onboard to provide an additional $10,000 to ensure that the women’s stories would be distributed far and wide.

Finally, in May 2018, with support from Sahiyo volunteers, I hosted the workshop with Amy Hill from StoryCenter, Orchid Pusey from Asian Women’s Shelter, and nine women from all over the country, who came together to create digital storytelling videos. The participants included a mixture of women differing in race/ethnicity, age, and citizenship/residency status, yet the one thing we all have in common is that we live in the United States. The women included Renee Bergstrom, Zehra Patwa, Maria Akhter, Salma Qumruddin, Maryah Haidery, Leena Khandwala, Aisha Yusuf, Severina Lemachokoti, and myself.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The three day digital storytelling workshop at StoryCenter allowed these women (who are now my friends and allies in the work to end FGC) to come together in a supportive environment where we could heal and reclaim the piece of ourselves that was lost when we underwent FGC or learned of others in our family who experienced it. Every woman was at a different phases of coming to terms with FGC, from only recently learning they had undergone it and beginning to grapple with its emotional and physical impacts, to being staunch advocates working to prevent FGC from happening to other girls, and their digital stories reflect it. Our joint hope in creating the videos is that by telling our stories, we will move towards building that critical mass of voices needed to prompt social change and demonstrate that in every community where FGC occurs, there is an increasing trend of support for abandoning this harmful practice.

As a writer who has loved words since I first learned how to read, I know how powerful stories are in creating change in the world. They spark our emotions and wake us up to our reality. Too often in everyday life, we try and connect with each other on a rational level, but this isn’t always enough to change behavior. People must be emotionally engaged to understand what needs to be done. StoryCenter’s digital storytelling platform allowed women to be the creators in sharing their stories in the manner they feel most comfortable with.

Currently, the videos are in post-production, but when they are ready to be shared broadly, we all hope that our stories will engage the broader community so that we can all ensure that FGC does not happen to the next generation of girls. We’re working on creating partnerships with various organizations and groups to host screenings of the stories and to support workshop participants in attending those events so that they can be present to answer any questions arising from the audiences. After all, these stories are theirs, making the women who created the digital stories the best teachers of all in learning how to support survivors and end female genital cutting once and for all.

Learn More about Sahiyo Stories here.

If you would like more information about Sahiyo Stories or to host a screening with the videos, contact mariya@sahiyo.com.

Why the new survey on Khafz (Female Genital Cutting) among Bohras is biased and unscientific

By Mariya Taher, MSW, MFA

Last week, many Dawoodi Bohras around the world received the link to an online “research” survey with questions about Khatna/Khafz practiced in the community. Khafz refers to cutting a portion of a girl’s clitoral hood – a type of Female Genital Cutting – and this new online survey by Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T and Dr. Rakhee K claims that it aims to get feedback from Dawoodi Bohra women and men about the practice. (Link to survey is here).

As someone who has gone through the process of designing multiple research studies, I can confidently say that this latest survey on Khatna/Khafz in the Bohra community is neither a safe nor an unbiased tool for conducting proper research on female genital cutting. Other academic researchers who reviewed the Khafz survey have also pointed this out. For example, Usha Tummala-Narra, Ph.D., an associate Professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental and Educational Psychology at Boston College, states:

The questions are strangely worded, and implicitly and explicitly suggest that the practice is not mutilation or traumatic. There are also no questions related to girls’ or women’s experiences of the practice. We can’t really know much about the definition of khatna/khafz without asking about the experience and its effects over time.”

While Karen A. McDonnell, an Associate Professor and Vice-Chair in the Department of Prevention and Community Health at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, states:

“Overall this survey presents itself as a feedback mechanism from Dawoodi Bohras about female circumcision. Taking the perspective of someone trained in objective survey development in psychology and public health, the survey actually reads in its entirety, not as a feedback, but rather as a tool for marketing a perspective. As the survey proceeds, the tenor of the questions increase in a lack of objectivity and a central cause/message is quite clear and the respondent is made to feel manipulated.” 

While all research has its limitations, the design of this questionnaire suggests that it clearly was NOT created and sent out into the world to collect empirical unbiased research on the practice FGC/Khatna/Khafz. Instead, the bias and manner of wording of this survey tool express that the authors (Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T & Dr. Rakhee K) are seeking responses that will justify their motives to prove that Female Genital Cutting (FGC) does not harm girls.

Which makes me wonder, was this research tool (the survey) even vetted before the study’s implementation?

In 2008, because of my increasing passion to end violence against women, I choose to craft and carry out research for my Master of Social Work thesis on “Understanding the Continuation of Female Genital Cutting Amongst the Dawoodi Bohras in the United States.” The issue had been in the recesses of my mind for years and I wanted to learn how a practice that involves cutting the sexual organs of a young girl could ever have been deemed a religious or cultural practice. I wanted to understand how the issue of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) could continue generation after generation without question, because if I could understand this reasoning, then I could better understand why FGC had been done to me at the age of seven.

As a graduate student, my thesis advisors walked me through every step of the research process, from consulting references and existing studies, to contacting other academics and experts who had studied FGC. In the end, I carried out an exploratory study and crafted questions that could be used to conduct ethnographic interviews. Ethnographic interviewing is a type of qualitative research that combines immersive observation and directed one-on-one interviews. In order to draft the questions, I consulted questions used in previous studies by other researchers. My thesis advisors reviewed the questions, and the San Francisco State University’s Institutional Review Board examined my question to ensure there was no hidden bias in the wording of my questions that could lead participants to answer one way or the other.

Having been through the process once, and understanding the importance of having multiple individuals review your questions for hidden biases, years later, I went through a similar process when Sahiyo designed its study on Khatna among Dawoodi Bohra women. Prior to engaging Bohra women for the study, our research tool (the survey) was vetted by many NGOs and expert researchers.  

If this newest Khafz questionnaire by Dr. Tasneem Saify, Dr. Munira Radhanpurwala T & Dr. Rakhee K had been vetted by other individuals and institutions, it would have recognized the following problems well before releasing the study to the public.

intro.JPG1) Participant consent

Prior to filling out a study, it is important that participants are informed of the study’s intention and are able to sign a consent form acknowledging that they understand the study’s purpose and are giving their permission for the findings to be used in a study’s report. The new Khafz -survey does not have a consent form that does such. [See Screenshot to the left]. In fact, the purpose of this survey is misleading to the reader. There is no mention of how the respondents are being recruited and if their responses will be anonymous or even held in confidence and in essence violates a respondents rights as a participant.

2) Confidentiality

The new Khafz survey form requires participants to provide information that will NOT allow their information to remain private. The study requires that participants add their Community ID (ITS52/Ejamaat) Number. As reported in Mumbai Mirror, the ITS number keeps track of a Dawoodi Bohra’s personal details, including the number of times a person visits the mosque. By requiring an individual to enter this information, already the researchers have directly violated a person’s right to privacy. The question also limits respondents to only those who have signed up for such an ITS number. This, therefore, rules out the participation of many individuals born into the Bohra community or to a Bohra parent who may not have signed up for the ITS card for a variety of reasons, but who have had to undergo FGC as children because of a decision made by a family member or community member.

The mandatory requirement of disclosing one’s ITS number can also discourage an individual from filling out the survey for fear of backlash from the religious community for disagreeing with the practice of Khafz Such backlash occurs on a regular basis against advocates speaking against FGC as can be viewed on Sahiyo’s social media accounts. (See Sahiyo Activist Needs Assessment to learn more about the challenges individuals face when they speak in opposition to FGC).

3) Biased questions Khafz survey Q2

Besides the problematic ITS number, the wording of subsequent questions on the new Khafz survey is biased and considered to be leading questions that prompt survey respondents to answer in a specific manner.  Khafz survey Q5

For instance, Questions 2, 5, 9, and 10 make assumptions about religious freedom, media, and activists, rather than posing the questions and response choices in a more neutral, open-ended form.

Khafz survey Q9n10

Questions 12 and 13 are perfect examples of problematic, leading questions: Question 12 Khafz survey Q1213offers a definition of the word “mutilation” without any context to why the word is being asked. Question #13 then frames the question in a manner that can minimize or under report a participant’s level of distress associated with khatna/khafz, and also automatically suggests to the participant that the practice is not mutilation. 

Question 14 is confusing for another reason. The introductory paragraph by the researchers suggests that male participants can take part in the study, however, Question 14 is written and geared towards female participants who undergo Khatna/khafz. Khafz survey Q14Yet, because of the asterisk (*), the question is mandatory for all respondents, meaning men would have to submit a response to Question #14. This inclusion of information would automatically invalidate the data collected as men have NOT gone through khafz. The wording of the question also infers that all Dawoodi Bohra women have undergone khatna/khafz, which, from anecdotal reports and previous research on FGC in the Bohra community, we recognize is not the case. In fact, we do see a trend in the Bohra community of people wanting to give up the practice on future generations of girls. Yet, the survey makes no mention of this trend or suggests that it is even an option amongst survey respondents.

Overall, the Khafz/Khatna study is problematic for an entire milieu of reasons, not only the ones I have listed here. However, as a researcher, a social worker, and a woman who has undergone FGC because I was born into the Bohra community, what saddens me the most about this survey is that it is yet another attempt to discredit and disbelieve the numerous women and girls who have spoken up and stated that FGC was harmful to them. These women have spoken up for no other reason than to be believed, and instead of comforting them, the researchers of this new Khfaz/Khatna questionnaire are trying to silence them.

Sahiyo’s petition to the United Nations needs your help

In December 2016, Sahiyo started a petition with Change.org to encourage the United Nations to invest in research on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Asian countries. The petition proposes to end FGM/C worldwide by 2030, and Sahiyo needs the support of 7,500 petition signers to accomplish our goal.

The United Nations reports that at least 200 million women have undergone FGM/C, but their data is mostly restricted to countries in sub-Saharan Africa. FGM/C is reported in many Asian, European, and Middle Eastern nations; however, there is a considerable lack of data from these countries, which means the global scope of the problem of FGM/C remains unknown.

In the past year, cases of FGM/C in Sri Lanka, India, and other Asian countries have come into the light of the media and attracted the attention of government officials. The Indian Government’s Ministry of Women and Child Development told the Indian Supreme Court that there was no official data to support the prevalence of FGM/C in India. This ruling was a massive disappointment to activists and researchers who are working to bring more research and awareness to the prevalence of FGM/C in India and Asia.

Asian countries have been excluded from the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme to Accelerate the Abandonment of FGM/C. With more support for research initiatives, Asian countries can conduct research, bring further awareness to the issues within their countries as well as in the global context, and propose legislative change with qualitative backing.

We need about 2,000 more signers to reach our petition goal. Click this link to help us advance our mission to eradicate FGM/C in Asia and worldwide! Help us spread the word by sharing our petition within your networks.