Looking from the Outside-In: Initial Perceptions of FGC

By Batoul Saleh

A campaign event for Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar and former Michigan rep. Rashida Tlaib was disrupted on August 11 by Laura Loomer, a conservative media personality. Invading the event, Loomer claimed that Omar, a Somali-American, supported Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation (FGC/M), along with other accusations about her African culture and background, essentially questioning her ability to successfully fulfil political office  because of her origins.

Laura Loomer is an “investigative Journalist [and] Former Project Veritas operative” and according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, she has also been “investigating Muslim candidates” across America prior to the August 11 incident. She later rationalized her unannounced and uninvited appearance at Omar’s event saying that she was “helping Minnesotans “break free from Sharia”.

However, Loomer’s assertion that “[Omar] voted against legislation that would have made Female genital mutilation a felony in Minnesota” because “she didn’t want to offend the Somalian community” while saying that she is “ Somalian first” and “Anti-American” goes no farther than being a rash, racist comment made to instill fear in Minnesotan voters. In reality, the bill that Loomer was referring to, H.F. NO. 2621, which looks to “expand the crime of female genital mutilation; updating requirements for education and outreach; expanding the definition of egregious harm; [and] expanding the definition of a child in need of protection or services to include a victim of female genital mutilation” only had four representatives vote against the bill: David Bly, Rena Moran,  Susan Allen, and Tina Liebling — Ilhan Omar in fact voted in favor of the legislation.

This is just a single incident of bigotry; however, for those who have not experiencedScreen Shot 2018-09-20 at 7.47.18 PM.png it themselves or were not raised in a community where FGC is prominent, uninformed and insensitive judgments about FGC/M can be passed on as fact, leaving those who are from those communities stereotyped, ridiculed, and shamed for where it is they come from.

After this incident, many Americans, without knowing the truth about Ilhan Omar’s position on the FGC/M case, replied with intense anger and racism against her. With false information coming from alt-right politicians and journalists, the truth is easily distorted, and those individuals can spread those initial misconceptions about Female Genital Cutting just as easily as journalists like Laura Loomer did to encourage division and xenophobia, as shown in the tweets above. (See Sahiyo’s Media Toolkit on effective and sensitive reporting on FGC)

The accusation that Loomer created and spread publicly stems from her failing to separate the values of a person’s country and that country’s political and social beliefs from the personal beliefs of the individual. Just as a considerable amount of Americans now do not align themselves to the US government’s values and decisions, women of African, Middle Eastern, and South East Asian origins are just as much, if not more, un-bounded by the uncontrollable beliefs of their government and community. In fact, a US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health study concluded that  “prevalence of supporting the continuation of FGM among adolescent girls in Kenya is only 16%, Niger 3%, Senegal 23%”. It has also been recorded by Sahiyo that 81% of the female Bohra community disagreed with the continuation of FGC. Though the prevalence of GFC in the respective countries are high, adolescents girls in these countries are in opposition to its practices.

Thus, there is a clear distinction between someone’s cultural norms and the attitudes they hold, and from an outsider’s perspective it is vital that the media coverage and education they receive about Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation should be just as nuanced and integrated as the reality of FGC/M.

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Sahiyo co-founders win Laadli and ShoorVeer Awards in India

Sahiyo’s investigative report on the previously unknown prevalence of Female Genital Cutting in the Indian state of Kerala won the prestigious Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity for the year 2017. The report was authored by Sahiyo co-founder Aarefa Johari and independent writer and activist Aysha Mahmood.

Johari received the Laadli award on behalf of both authors at an event in Delhi on September 14 by Laadli’s founding organisation, Population First. Eminent journalist P Sainath was the chief guest at the event.

Johari and Mahmood’s investigation uncovered, for the first time, that FGC was being practiced covertly by two doctors in a clinic in the city of Kozhikide (Calicut) in Kerala. The doctors admitted to cutting girls and women of all ages from various Sunni Muslim sects in Kerala. Previously, it was widely believed that the Bohras were the only community practicing FGC in India. (Read the Sahiyo investigation report here.)

The Sahiyo investigation caused a furore in Kerala after Mathrubhoomi, a prominent Malayalam newspaper, conducted a follow-up exposé of the same clinic, and published a first-person account of a young woman from Kerala who had undergone FGC as a child. The exposés led to a temporary shut down of the clinic in Calicut where girls were being cut and prompted several religious leaders to publicly condemn the practice. The health minister of Kerala also ordered the state police to take strict action against anyone found practicing FGC.

ShoorVeer Awards

Sahiyo’s co-founders Insia Dariwala and Aarefa Johari won the ShoorVeer Awards 2018 in Mumbai on August 10. The awards, given by the organisation Ample Missiion, were instituted to honour the bravery and courage of “common men and women who have done uncommon things”. The word “ShoorVeer” is Hindi for a brave warrior.

A total of 14 individuals from across India were awarded ShoorVeer awards this year, including two police officers who have excelled in their duties, two children who saved their friend’s life, an amputee sportsman and several women and men working in the fields of education, health, and human rights.

Aarefa won the award for her work as a Sahiyo co-founder to end the practice of Female Genital Cutting. Insia’s award was a recognition of not just her work to end FGC, but also her work to raise awareness about child sexual abuse through her organisation, The Hands of Hope Foundation.

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Insia Dariwala receiving her ShoorVeer Award.
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Aarefa Johari receiving her ShoorVeer Award.

Why I co-hosted a Sahiyo ‘Thaal pe Charcha’ lunch in New York

By Alifya Sulemanji

I had been hearing about Thaal pe Charcha (TPC), an event organized by Sahiyo, on a regular basis in Bombay India and it seemed like a very interesting concept to me. I felt inspired to host one at my home and bring together New York Bohra women for such an event. I reached out to few friends and acquaintances who I thought would be interested in being a part of this inaugural Thaal Pe Charcha event in the United States, and who would feel comfortable opening up about their daily lives.

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Alifya Sulemanji alongside Sahiyo cofounder Mariya Taher at the inaugural TPC event in New York

One aspect about TPC that I found very vital is that the event is about creating a safe space where people can speak openly without fear of reprisal for their beliefs. I assured the women who attended that the TPC at my house would be a safe environment where we could speak openly about issues like Khatna (Female Genital Cutting), Iddat, and other topics that can negatively impact women in our community.

We all also agreed that there were some very good things about the Bohra community that we all appreciated, such as the feeling of community, the food, and the mannerisms also known as ‘Adab’ in Gujarati and ‘Tehzeeb’ in Urdu that helps guide our lives, such as food and eating etiquette, how we dress, how to be respectful, how to keep your house, cleanliness, and how you treat others. Yet, even with Adab, there certainly is a wide range of thought amongst the Bohra community regarding how strict certain rules and cultural activities must be, which at times can be oppressive as well.

After hosting this first TPC, a personal hope of mine is that the women and I will form strong relationships and trust with one another so together we can take action to change the parts in our community we find harmful.

I hope we will continue to organize more events like these in the future and form a supportive group of friends who will stand by one another.

Are you interested in hosting a Sahiyo Thaal Pe Charcha event in your own city or town in the U.S.? If yes, get in touch with Sahiyo at info@sahiyo.com

WeSpeakOut spearheads two-day workshop on ending FGC in India

In a unique event bringing together activists working to end Female Genital Cutting and various stakeholders from civil society organisations, WeSpeakOut organised a two-day symposium at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai on August 1 and 2. The symposium, titled “Strategy-building Workshop on FGM/C in India”, was organised in partnership with TISS, Nari Samata Manch and Sahiyo.

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More than 40 activists, survivors, and researchers participated in the workshop, including women and men from various sub-sects of the Bohra community from different parts of India, feminists, academicians, and heads of several women’s rights and human rights organisations in the country. There were also international participants from Equality Now, a US-based organisation working to end FGC globally and Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, an NGO working to end FGC in Kenya.
Over two days, the workshop nurtured stimulating and productive discussions on various aspects of FGC and discussed strategies to advocate against the practice from the perspectives of law, health, community engagement and working with the youth and with men. The workshop was also an opportunity for activists from the community and those from outside the community to learn from each other.

Sahiyo Stories – Women in the U.S. Share Stories on Female Genital Cutting

Sahiyo is excited to announce the launch of our digital story project: Sahiyo Stories! The project brought together nine women from across the United States to create personalized digital stories that narrate the experience of undergoing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and/or the experience of their advocacy work to end this form of gender violence.

It was created and organized by Mariya Taher, co-founder of Sahiyo, and Amy Hill, Silence Speaks Director at StoryCenter. Over the course of the next 10 weeks, Sahiyo will be sharing one story a week created by the nine participants: Renee Bergstrom, Zehra Patwa, Maria Akhter, Salma Qumruddin, Maryah Haidery, Leena Khandwala, Aisha Yusuf, Severina Lemachokoti, and Mariya. Subscribe to Sahiyo’s YouTube channel to watch them all! sahiyo1.jpg

Every woman who attended the workshop was facing her own challenge with FGC and was in a different phase of coming to terms with the practice. Some women had only recently discovered they had undergone FGC and were grappling with its emotional and physical impacts, while others were deeply invested in advocacy efforts to prevent it from happening to other girls.

Though each digital story reflects a different perspective, the collection is woven together through shared experiences and a united sentiment. The women’s joint hope in creating and sharing these videos is to build towards reaching the critical mass of voices needed to prompt social change. They hope their stories demonstrate that there is an increasing trend of support for abandoning this harmful practice in every community where FGC occurs.

If you are interested in learning more about the project or hosting a screening of Sahiyo Stories, contact mariya@sahiyo.com.

We also welcome your support in promoting these videos among your social networks. For this first two weeks, we invite you to watch and share: Making Sahiyo Stories” and “Shattered Silences.”

To share the videos on social media, click links below:
Twitter – 
http://bit.ly/2NS7oe0
Facebook – http://bit.ly/SahiyoStories

Why I Chose to Tell My Story About Female Genital Mutilation at the Sahiyo Stories’ Workshop

By Renee Bergstrom, EdD

I chose to tell my story of FGM because I am aware that being silenced is a universal issue for those who have experienced it. When I read my story the first day at the StoryCenter, I was surprised that my voice cracked with emotion. Our sisterhood developed quickly from the strength of shared history in spite of differing cultures, and I felt so privileged to be included. The world needs to hear all our voices in order for this female injustice to end.

The storytelling process was beautifully orchestrated and we were guided to compose our messages for the greatest impact. All apprehension regarding telling my story dissipated. Before my story became public knowledge, my advocacy was focused on developing and distributing brochures in collaboration with my Somali friend Filsan Ali. Pregnant infibulated Somali women give this bilingual brochure to their physicians and midwives to plan safe labor and delivery and prevent unnecessary C-Sections.

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Renee Bergstrom at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

In 2016, the time was right to share my story because so many young women were standing up to their political, cultural and religious leaders, matriarchs, and patriarchs. Instead of being seen as a Western woman imposing my beliefs on another culture, I am supporting their efforts. Recently, other white Christian women from North America have contacted me with their FGM stories, thus my current advocacy plans involve listening, but also connecting these women with resources and opportunities to share their stories.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Renee:

Version 2Renee Bergstrom, EdD, is an educator who advocates for relationship-centered medical care. She and her husband, Gene, have been married 53 years. They have three children, ten grandchildren and one great-grandson. They live in a dynamic art town in Midwest America where they are very involved in the community. Renee loves to read, watercolor paint, weave, garden and bike. She has been an advocate for women’s justice throughout her life.

Why Won’t Massachusetts Pass A Law Against Female Genital Cutting?

Today, FGM/C is banned under federal law, yet, only 26 states in the U.S. have laws against it. Massachusetts is not one of them. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that over half a million girls and women in the United States are at risk. Massachusetts ranks 12th in the nation for at-risk populations with an estimated 14,591 women and girls. Since 2012, the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association has tried to advocate over and over again for a state law criminalizing FGM/C. Yet, to this day, no law has been put into place. The current bills, S.788, and H.2333 have been sent to a committee for study and most likely will not move forward either.

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In an effort to raise more awareness on the issue and to prompt community action to encourage Massachusetts state legislature to pass such a law, Mariya Taher, Aisha Yusuf (both survivors of FGM/C) and Hanna Stern (an advocate against FGM/C), started a change.org petition calling on Governor Charlie Baker, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, and President of the Senate Harriette Chandler, to take action and protect all girls in Massachusetts, as FGM/C is nearly always carried out on minors, is a violation of the rights of children, and reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes that constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women.

Massachusetts needs a bill that unequivocally reiterates that female genital mutilation/cutting is a form of violence. There are laws against domestic violence and sexual assault. We need a law against FGM/C as well.

Read more:

Learn which U.S. states have FGM/C laws.

Want to help us end female genital cutting? Vote for Sahiyo in the Shared Nation Contest!

Since 2014, Shared Nation has provided an online platform for citizens all around the world to come together in order to solve shared global problems like poverty, climate change, and refugee crises. Shared Nation embraces the lessons of history, which has shown that when people act towards shared goals, they can achieve extraordinary things.

This month, nominated by Gina Li,  Sahiyo will be one of the projects participating in the August 2018 contest to be voted on to receive the digital community’s combined funds. Each month, general voting takes place for the first three weeks of the month, and in the final week of the month, a winner is selected from eight quarter-finalists.

What’s great about Shared Nation is that every participating project will be offered a small percentage of the pooled Shared Nation funds for taking part, but one lucky organization receives the vast majority of the funds.

If you would like to help Sahiyo become the August 2018 Winner, sign up for Shared Nation and vote today!

To sign up for Shared Nation and Vote for Sahiyo, click here. If you can’t pay that $2 fee, they will provide a free sponsorship for you.

You can also “favorite” Sahiyo and increase its ranking and visibility! 

Indian Supreme Court Offers Hope for Petition Against FGC, While Government Denies its Prevalence

On July 10, judges of the Supreme Court of India observed that the “bodily integrity of a woman” cannot be violated while hearing a petition about Female Genital Cutting. The Court made this observation while hearing the arguments of a petition filed by the Dawoodi Bohra Women’s Association for Religious Freedom, which claims that FGC, as practiced by the Bohra community, is not “FGM” but “circumcision”, and is an essential religious practice that they have the constitutional right to follow.

In response to these arguments, made by DBWRF’s lawyer, Abhishek Singhvi, Justice Chandrachud said, “Why should the bodily integrity of a woman be subject to some external authority? One’s genitals is (sic) an extremely private affair.” The judges also observed that the practice cannot be imposed on those who do not want it.

This is not the final verdict of the Court, and the hearings in the case on FGC in India will continue.

Meanwhile….

On June 27, India’s Ministry for Women and Child Development denied the prevalence of Female Genital Cutting in the country – it’s second U-turn on the issue in the past 13 months. This denial came after a perception poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked India as the most dangerous country in the world for women, based on a variety of parameters that included the practice of FGC. The Indian government responded to this poll by issuing a press release refuting and dismissing its methodology. In the press release, the Government also stated 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. Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi had first publicly acknowledged the practice of FGC in India, and the need to ban it, in May 2017. In December 2017, however, the Government dismissed the testimonies of several women who have spoken out about their FGC experiences by claiming, in the Supreme Court, that there is no “official data” to support the existence of FGC in India.

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.

Read more:

Sahiyo comment – An appeal to Maneka Gandhi: Stop the flip-flops on Female Genital Cutting

The problem with the Indian Government denying the existence of Female Genital Mutilation in India: Priya Goswami

Sign Sahiyo’s petition asking the United Nations for more investment towards research and advocacy on Female Genital Cutting in Asia.

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.