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.
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.
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.
If you would like more information about Sahiyo Stories or to host a screening with the videos, contact email@example.com.
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.
1) 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.
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
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.
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.
Questions 12 and 13 are perfect examples of problematic, leading questions: Question 12 offers 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. Yet, 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.
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.
By Priya Ahluwalia
Snugly sitting on my bed on the wintry night of December, a cold chill ran down my spine as I read through the Change.Org petition against Female Genital Mutilation also known as Female Genital Cutting or Khafz. I failed to recognize the magnitude of this practice because of the lack of knowledge of my own genitalia, but reading the petition created dread in my mind. The dread transformed into anger, anger towards the society that violated its own daughters, anger towards all those who let the practice continue and anger towards the ignorance of my own immunity. In anger I signed the petition but it was the vicarious traumatisation I went through while reading the petition in the first place that made me speak out.
An implicit responsibility of those choosing to speak out is to create more awareness. However, to my amazement I found that despite the multitudes of women affected by it, the information on FGC was little. Therefore I never understood the true roots of the practice and its implications on the community until this February at Sahiyo’s activists retreat in Mumbai. The retreat was perhaps the most comprehensive and genuine source of information about the Bohra community, the practice of Khafz and its implications. The retreat was also responsible for breaking one of the biggest barriers I had while talking about this practice: intellectualization. I had honed the tendency to talk about FGC mechanically, removing all speck of emotion from my voice as a way of protecting myself from further distress and also to prevent any secondary opinions or personal bias colouring my narrative. However emotions are fundamental to those who choose to speak out including myself, and therefore ignoring them would be a grave injustice to us all. A one-toned discussion has never led to any change, therefore it is integral that while holding a discourse on Khatna, the emotions be incorporated within the facts.
While presenting FGC as a topic in my school and college years, I often noticed the discomfort that many people feel as soon as the term genitalia was introduced. I couldn’t help but wonder that if verbalizing the word caused so much distress to an adult, then imagine the fear felt by the seven-year-old girl whose legs were held apart and her rights stolen away. I can feel the anguish, I can feel the anger and I can feel the betrayal she must have felt, because I could have easily been that girl, but here is where my immunity lies; I come from a community where this form of gender violence does not exist. However, the immune must support raising those who have undergone FGC which is why I chose this as a topic for my master’s thesis.
This was not a decision I took lightly or quickly, because I know the responsibility that lies with me. I had felt reluctance because I wondered if I, an outsider with little understanding of the community and the practice, would be able to do justice to the women and their stories. I do not know how the thesis will turn out but I know that I will do my best to do right by the women who choose to speak to me. They will not be just data but people with stories to tell that need to be protected and preserved. My aim is to understand the practice as a whole and therefore, I do not want to have a hypothesis of the results I will get, rather I wish to incorporate in my research as many voices as I can, both those who are pro-khatna and those who oppose it.
My job as a researcher will be to be open to all narratives and record them as authentically as I can.
All of us have a voice and therefore have the responsibility to use it wisely. Thus, I choose to use my voice for myself and all those women who have been silenced under the burden of tradition.
(Priya Ahluwalia is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. To participate in her research, contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org )
Shared Nation is an online community of global citizens designed to allow people around the world to join forces and combine their money, time, and wisdom to identify and accelerate the best solutions to our world’s biggest problems.
This month, nominated by Jonathan Payne, Sahiyo will be one of the projects participating in the May 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 May 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 by clicking here.
From March 24-25th, Sahiyo Cofounder, Mariya Taher, spoke on Fireside Conversation – Seeing is Believing: Story Telling and Media Engagement to end FGM,” during the Break the Silence Soumou in New York City organized by There is No Limit Foundation. The event was held in commemoration of Women History Month and the United Nations 62nd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW62). A “Soumou” is a Malinke word for “gathering.” Traditionally, the Soumou is an opportunity for building unity, creating a collective goal, and remembering the past through storytelling. It is also a moment to dream about the future and to learn lessons that will lead to realizing the dream. This was the goal of Break The Silence Soumou. The weekend included workshops, strategy sessions, and cross-sectional movement building aimed at ending FGC in the U.S..and at unifying grassroots organizations, as well as, survivors, and allies in the movement to end FGC.
On March 16, Sahiyo partnered with Women in Film and Television International India to organise its first-ever on-ground storytelling event in Mumbai, India. The event, titled “Storytelling with Sahiyo”, featured four critically-acclaimed Indian film actors who performed narrative readings of the personal stories of four Female Genital Cutting survivors. The event was led and hosted by Sahiyo co-founder Insia Dariwala, along with WIFT founder Petrina D’Rozario.
The actors — Rasika Dugal, Sobhita Dhulipala, Plabita Borthakur and Dolly Thakore — read the stories of survivors Fatema, Insiya, Samina and an anonymous mother who regrets getting her daughter cut. The stories highlighted the different ways in which FGC affects women who are cut and the difficult decisions that mothers often have to make when they are caught between tradition and the desire to protect their daughters.
After the emotional readings, which left some audience members in tears, three of the survivors present at the event were felicitated by the actors. This was followed by a panel discussion with the survivors, who talked about why they decided to share their stories and what kind of backlash they face in the community for speaking out.
The event also included a second panel discussing Women and their Changing Narratives, in which women filmmakers Insia Dariwala, Priya Goswami, Petrina D’Rozario, Tanuja Chandra and Dolly Thakore discussed the mainstreaming of women’s issues through the medium of film.
Khatna, and Female Genital Cutting (FGC) evoke strong responses. It is seen as a human rights violation, is attributed to the “backwardness” of Islamic peoples, and is a critical part of cultural heritage. For those of us within the Bohra community, our feelings are generally much more complicated. Even for those of us who oppose the practice, we find it important to work within cultural norms to advocate against it.
Changing an entrenched cultural practice can be very challenging, even if it is so clearly the right thing to do. Everyone at the Sahiyo activist retreat in New York was either a survivor of khatna or a close family member of a survivor. When we talk about the people in our community who have undergone khatna, we aren’t talking about a faceless mass, we are speaking about our mothers, our sisters, our friends, and ourselves. Everyone came to the retreat with powerful stories about when they first found out about this practice (often when they first underwent it) and what drove them to advocate against it.
The retreat was very emotional. It was so comforting and joyous to spend time with people who felt “just like me” in that we came from the same community and grew up with the same foods and the same quirks. It was a safe place to share stories. Some of the attendees are not yet open about their participation in Sahiyo and the retreat offered them a supportive environment to think about the role they might play in creating social change.
Additionally, people shared a lot of frustration and sadness. Many of the activists experienced negative pushback from their loved ones and their communities regarding FGC activism. Relatives no longer spoke to them and they were harassed by internet trolls. The retreat was a nurturing safe space. Activism can be very isolating and the retreat enabled many of us to share our experiences with people who understood the background we came from. These emotional connections were infinitely valuable.
I left the day feeling strengthened. Not only do I feel there is a like-minded community of activists who I align with, I feel as though the tactics being used are culturally aware and thoughtful. We left with tangible actions to take forward to our communities and loved ones. I also felt like I got to see many different ways of being Bohri in America. We all have different levels of religiousness and practice, but nonetheless, we all think that we can come together and make a difference in ending this harmful practice.
To learn more about the U.S. Bohra Activist Retreat, read the report!
This May, 2018 Sahiyo Cofounder, Mariya Taher, will be working with StoryCenter on a digital storytelling project to capture the stories of women who have been experienced or affected by FGM/C. Here is an example of the story format that will be used — simple voiceover narration paired with images and video clips. The stories will be shared as a way of bringing attention to the need to end this practice, which continues to harm women and girls around the world.
Sahiyo and StoryCenter are looking for talented visual artists (illustrators, photographers, videographers) to develop original visual images to use in the short videos that participants will be creating. They are also looking for talented sound designers and musicians who might be willing to contribute original music to include in the videos.
The workshop will be in Berkeley, California, however, photographers and videographers do not necessarily need to be at the workshop; they might shoot creative b-roll video in their own locations, of scenes/things other than the storytellers.
However, they are also considering the possibility of asking workshop participants to take part in short interviews so we capture how the experience of how the workshop is going for each of them. In this case, one videographer would need to be present at the workshop in May. If that person also wanted to help shoot some b-roll on site, that would be welcomed.
If you or someone you know is interested in participating and supporting this important project, please contact Mariya at email@example.com.
Please note that due to limited funds, Sahiyo Stories is seeking individuals who may be able to provide assistance on a pro-bono basis (though there may be a slight possibility of providing a small stipend). Sahiyo and StoryCenter would, of course, would ensure that your contribution is properly credited in our project (and on the participant videos produced).
To learn more about the project, click here.
To see an example of StoryCenter Video, click below