Four American survivors of FGC speak out

Four American survivors of Female Genital Cutting have broken the culture of silence around the issue through a new video. These women, from diverse backgrounds, illustrate that FGC is not restricted to any one geography, religion, or socioeconomic class.

The four women featured in the video produced by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs include Renee Bergstrom, F.A. Cole, Aissata Camara, and Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher.

In order to realize the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending FGC by 2030, we need not only more courageous survivors need to speak out, but we also need religious leaders, men and boys, health practitioners, and young people to join the global campaign. To watch the video, click here.

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Detroit FGM/C case: Why two more arrests have left me feeling bittersweet

By: Anonymous

Country: United Kingdom
Age: 32

Today is a bittersweet day.

The news of two more arrests linked to the first FGM case in the US has left me torn between elation and sadness; while a part of me feels like justice is being served to those who perform, aid and abet FGM, another part of me is saddened by the effect that these arrests have had on the perception of the community and Islam.

Gone are the days when I would tell people that I belonged to the Dawoodi Bohra community and would receive the response, “Oh, the women who wear the colourful clothes with embroidery?” Now, I hear “Oh, isn’t that the community that practices FGM? I read about them in the paper.”

I scroll down after reading an article online about the current FGM cases and read horrible comment after comment. Heinous things are being said about not only the Dawoodi Bohra community, but also about the wider community of Muslims, the majority of whom condemn FGM. These prosecutions are being used as the fuel to fire Islamophobia, and hurtful attacks are being made on the religion that over a billion people worldwide adhere to.

Other Muslims are distancing themselves from the Dawoodi Bohra community, calling us insular and saying that we stick to ourselves. I feel a further isolation from people who believe in the same God as me and also pray towards Makkah.

While I think of all of the girls and women, including myself, who suffered through this barbaric procedure, I also think of the girls who are now in protective custody, or whose mother is currently behind bars. Those children were and are innocent, and are now suffering due to the criminal actions of their parents.

I question who is at fault here. While the authorities are prosecuting those who are performing, covering up and facilitating FGM, those who endorse and encourage the procedure, both privately and publicly, remain unaffected. There are still articles being posted that defend the Dawoodi Bohra community as being comprised of law-abiding citizens, yet murmurs of FGM fill the walls of masjids throughout the US and other countries where FGM is categorically outlawed. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that a problem exists in the first place, and it seems that there are some in the community who are not prepared to take this step.

I feel a tenseness in the air; I quietly discuss this case among close friends and relatives who share my sentiments, frightened to openly voice my happiness that there is yet another breakthrough in ending this practice. I feel the heavy hand of the community leaders bear down upon me, and feel stifled to openly express my feelings. This is the fear that prevents others to come forward. It is real and it is suffocating.

 

Engendering Progress Event Honours Sahiyo Co-founder

The Manhattan Young Democrats (MYD) held their 8th annual Engender Progress event Photo 5.JPGhonoring women thought-leaders, activists, entrepreneurs, and businesswomen on March 30th. This event is the hallmark of the MYD’s calendar and it honors powerful women, in order to inspire the next generation of young women to follow in their footsteps.

Sahiyo’s Mariya Taher was one of the women honoured at the event. The other honorees included Faiza Ali – Community Liaison, Melissa Mark-Viverito; Lauren Duca – Weekend Editor, Teen Vogue; Melissa Sklarz – Development Director, Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund; Nydia Velazquez – US Congresswoman, NY’s 7th District.

The event was held in Manhattan and provided a forum for honorees to share their stories, their organizations’ missions, and their dreams and aspirations for the future.

 

Engendering Progress Honorees
Engendering Progress Honorees

 

 

 

#NIMBY Reactions to Detroit

By: Anonymous

Age: 32

Country: United States

(Please note #NIMBY – Not In My Backyard)

For over ten years, I have been famously or infamously known for speaking up about a taboo practice within the Dawoodi Bohra community in my social circles. I discovered I was a victim of female genital mutilation or cutting during college and was finally able to put into words what happened to me when I was seven years old.

This time in my adult life was an extremely difficult one as I worked through the five stages of grief. A part of me was missing and gone forever. A part that I had not yet familiarized myself with or experienced while everyone around me was totally unaffected.fgmc-unitedstates-share-1.jpg

As part of my healing process, I took to my social circles to tell my story, to raise awareness, to start a discourse. While I felt supported by some, I was met with apathy by most. I could never understand why others like me who had been victims of this practice didn’t feel the sense of loss that I did. They felt I was being “dramatic”, or that it was just part of our culture and it had not prevented them from living a normal and happy life. Others who agreed it was morally and ethically wrong, were hesitant to speak up about it or even show an alliance with me in my own grassroots efforts.

Until recently, there were not many formal groups in the forefront actively working to end FGM/FGC. The increase in awareness about this issue over the last ten years is astounding.  To think that the investigation of this activity had been taken up by the F.B.I. will likely be an eye-opener for those in the community who think of this as a cultural practice, not a criminal activity. When the story of the Detroit doctor being arrested for performing FGM/C first broke, I was not surprised at all. Yet I was met with several messages of shock and awe from friends and family (knowing my personal interest in this topic) asking if I had seen the news.

Just last year, a similar story broke in Sydney, Australia — have we forgotten already? This prompted several jamaats or religious congregations across the world and the U.S., in particular, to send public resolutions to their members advising them not to carry out the practice in any form or else they would be subject to the laws of the land, and thus not be held liable for any individuals’ actions.

What’s shocking to me is that the events in Sydney didn’t have a strong enough ripple effect for communities in the U.S. to comprehend the sincerity of governments to prosecute those performing this act. After a little bit of buzz, the onslaught of public resolutions, the contradictory statement made by the religious head of the community, everyone went back to being silent.

What we’ve learned in the interim through much back and forth is that the head of the community does not condemn the practice and likely sees virtue in it.  The public resolution sent by the powers that be was a liability waiver, not a condemnation of the act. Until then, devout followers wherever they are in the world will continue to follow his lead and subject their young daughters to what he deems a part of our history and “religious obligation.”

The alarm over this investigation contrasts sharply with the apathy I was met with years ago.  I was told:

“Well, it didn’t happen to me”

“Your [town] is different”

“That doesn’t happen here”

“You are exaggerating”

“I know someone who had it done, and they’re fine”

“I’ve had it done, and I’m fine”

It shouldn’t have to take someone you personally know or are connected to, to go to jail for you to start paying attention. This is something that affects all of us no matter what part of the world we live in. Whatever your personal feelings are about this practice, it is time to start caring one way or another because yes, this is happening…even in your backyard.

 

Detroit arrest: It is time for Bohras to get serious about ending Female Genital Cutting

Sahiyo is shocked and truly saddened by the news that a Bohra doctor in Detroit, USA, has been arrested on charges of performing Female Genital Cutting (FGC) on minor girls in the community. While the allegations in this particular case are yet to be proven, we believe it is a serious breach of medical ethics for any doctor to perform this non-medical procedure that is categorically recognised as a form of gender-based violence and a violation of human and child rights. In countries like the USA where FGC is a criminal offence, we believe that parents, too, cannot be absolved of the responsibility to follow the law.

In the light of this Detroit case, Sahiyo would like to call on the entire Bohra community to make a concerted effort to bring an end to this unnecessary and potentially harmful tradition. We believe it is also imperative for the community leadership to call for a clear, unambiguous, world-wide end to the practice of khatna, khafz or female genital cutting.

What is the Detroit case all about?

On April 13, 2017, a Detroit emergency room doctor was arrested and charged with performing FGC on minor girls in the United States. This is believed to be the first time someone was brought up on charges under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalizes FGC. According to the U.S. Federal complaint, Jumana Nagarwala, M.D., 44, of Northville, Michigan performed FGC on 6 to 8 year old girls out of a medical office in Livonia, Michigan. Some of these girls’ families reportedly traveled inter-state to have the doctor perform FGC. At this time, the complaint is merely an allegation and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The federal complaint states that phone call records and surveillance video show that in February 2017, two Minnesota girls and their parents came to Detroit for a “special girls trip”. They stayed at a hotel in Farmington Hills and ended up visiting Nagarwala, thinking they were seeing the doctor because their “tummies hurt”. Instead, the girls underwent FGC. The complaint also indicates that other children, including children in Detroit, might have undergone FGC by Nagarwala between 2006 and 2007. To see the official press release, click here.

Bohras have been aware that FGC is illegal in USA

Among Bohras, khatna or khafz, involves cutting a part of the clitoral hood or prepuce of a 7-year-old girl. Many Bohras have argued that this mild, ritual “nick” is not the same as the supposedly “African” practice of FGM, which can involve severe cutting of the clitoris and labia (classified by the World Health Organisation as Types II and III of FGM/C).

However, the Bohra form of khatna very definitively falls under Type I FGM/C, for a good reason. However “mild”, khatna still involves the cutting and altering of female genitals for non-medical reasons. No health benefits of the practice have been recorded, and in fact several Bohra women have been increasingly speaking up about the negative physical, emotional and sexual consequences they have faced.

For the past one and a half years, particularly after three Bohras in Australia were convicted under the country’s anti-FGM laws, there has been increasing awareness in the community about the fact that khatna is considered a violation of human rights by the United Nations. In countries where the practice is illegal, including the US, UK, Australia, Canada and other parts of Europe, Bohra jamaats have themselves issued clear resolution letters, asking community members not to practice khatna or khafz on girls anymore.

In fact, the Detroit jamaat issued such a resolution letter to all its members on May 11, 2016.

So despite all this awareness, why are some Bohras — like the parents of the girls in Minnesota — still choosing to break the law and subject their daughters to FGC?

A deeply-entrenched social norm

The main reason, according to Sahiyo, is that female genital cutting is a deeply-entrenched social and cultural norm for Bohras and all other communities practicing the ritual. A variety of reasons, often contradictory, are cited for following the practice: many say that khatna curbs a girl’s sexual desire and prevents promiscuity, some claim that cutting the clitoral hood enhances sexual pleasure, others claim it is done for hygiene or health.

However, a recent online survey conducted by Sahiyo found that among Bohra women, the most common reason cited for khatna is “religious purposes” or tradition: most people simply continue the practice without questioning, because they believe it is a necessary cultural requirement.

Sahiyo is concerned that these beliefs might be getting compounded by certain mixed messages conveyed by the community leadership.

In April 2016, even as several Bohra jamaats were issuing resolution letters against khatna, community leader Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin covertly endorsed the practice during a public sermon in India without mentioning the word khatna. He said that “the act” must be done discreetly for girls irrespective of what people say.

Then in June 2016, the Syedna issued a statement to clarify his official stand on khatna. It stated that the resolution letters issued in various international jamaats were still valid for Bohras living in those nations. However, in the same statement, Syedna also endorsed khatna as a “religious obligation” necessary for “religious purity”. These ambiguous messages can be confusing to community members who may then be caught between abiding by the laws of their land and abiding by their leader’s wishes.  

Sahiyo therefore strongly urges the community leadership to unequivocally and unambiguously ask all Bohras across the world to now stop the practice of khatna for girls.

A law is not enough

Overcoming deeply-ingrained social norms like FGC is difficult, but not impossible. Sahiyo recognizes that laws are important to help reinforce that a particular practice is against human rights. However, we also recognize that to truly find sustainable change within a community and to end this form of violence, we must seek ways to change mindsets around this social norm.

First, it is important to recognize that FGC occurs to women and girls coming from all kinds of different backgrounds, regardless of race, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, country. FGC does not just happen to girls in small villages in Africa as is often mistakenly believed. The US State Department recently came out with a video highlighting American Survivors of FGC to counter this misconception (See American Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Speak Out). In fact, up until the 1950s, clitoridectomy was performed by physicians in the US and in Europe to treat hysteria and mental illness.

It is also important to empower civil society activists and organizations working to end FGC around the globe. Today there is a lack of resources dedicated to preventing FGC in all parts of the world. Sahiyo is working to bring awareness to the fact that FGC occurs in several Asian communities, and has even launched a petition urging the UN to invest in more research and support to survivors from these backgrounds, particularly since the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (Goal #5) call for an end to FGC by 2030.

To truly end FGC, we need to educate the general community and collectively let go of this ancient and unnecessary practice. It is heartbreaking that the girls in Minnesota, those in Australia and several other Bohra girls have been subjected to khatna. However, we hope that the indictment of the doctor in Detroit will lead to more awareness and education about the need to end FGC both within the community and globally.

I underwent Khatna but did not let it happen to my daughters

By: Anonymous

Country of Current Residence: United States
Country of Birth: India
Age: 57

It was a day in June, 1966, in India. I was seven years old and sitting with my mother, listening to a story she read to me from a newspaper. Midway through reading the story, she casually mentioned to me that we were going to Aunty R’s house the next evening with my grandmother as well. I was excited to go somewhere with my mother and grandmother, and to take a car ride to get to the place. Out of curiosity, I asked my mother why we were going over to Aunty R’s house, and she told me we were going for something very important that needed to be taken care of. On the car ride there, I heard my mother and grandmother discuss that they could not accept water to drink from Aunty R if it was offered to them, because the work she carries out is considered dirty. Being of an inquisitive mind, I asked my mother what she meant.  She shushed me and said, “You are too little to understand.”

On reaching Aunty R’s house, we were sent upstairs and sat down in a big hall. A few minutes later, she joined us and sat with us and talked for a bit. Then, she went inside another room and came back with a big white sheet which she spread out onto the floor. As she did this, I watched her movements with a lot of confusion. She then asked me to come lie down on the sheet and to shut my eyes, which I did. She covered me with another sheet and pulled my panty down. The next thing I felt was a pinch down there, and I screamed. She told me not to worry.

All was done.

On our way home I felt discomfort and my mother told me that all would be fine and that there was nothing to worry about. When we reached home I needed to use the bathroom and saw some blood oozing out of me. It scared me a bit. Again, my mother convinced me that all would be fine. I asked her what our trip to Aunty R’s was about and why I had to undergo it. She said, “all little girls go through that procedure.”

After a few days, I forgot about the incident.

As I grew older and I went into my teen years I realized that for no good reason something had been done to my private part. Something that was not very much required. After speaking to my mother about it, I realized she had gotten it done to me only because it was a tradition. She had gone through the same process. It had no religious significance.

Years went by and one day, I became a mother too. When my daughter came of age, I made the decision that I would not let her go through this mental torture, which was just a tradition and had nothing to do from a religious standpoint. When I made this decision, neither my mother nor my mother-in-law objected to it; they did not pressure me into having my girls undergo the ordeal. To conclude, I would like to add that it definitely did affect my sex life negatively and I did not want the same to be true for my girls.

Mariya joins Young Philanthropist Responding to Gender-Based Violence Panel

On February 1st, the Board of Directors for Jane Doe Inc., the Massachusetts statewide coalition against domestic & sexual violence organized their first young philanthropist event that included a panel of changemakers who are organizing against gender-based violence in the greater Boston area and beyond. The conversation took place at WeWork in Boston and included discussions around innovative perspectives on what it means to be a young ‘philanthropist’ in 2017. Panelist included Kendra Hicks (Resist Inc.); Meg Stone (IMPACT Boston); Rani Neutil (Safr); and Mariya Taher (Sahiyo).

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Sahiyo teams up with Feminist Challenge 2K17

During the week of February 6th, Sahiyo connected with Feminist Challenge to create a challenge around the topic of FGC.  Feminist Challenge is an online newsletter created to encourage men to approach empathy with women by building their own personal testimonies of awkwardness, inconvenience, and pain. The belief behind this approach is that performance can add a different level of appreciation above intellectual understanding. The more men fully appreciate the feminist call to equality, the better our society will be. Each week those who have signed up partake in a challenge to help everyone to think more deeply about feminist issues.

On February 6th, the challenge on FGC included 1) Watching a story on FGC 2) Reflecting on it by journaling on a) how the person felt after watching, listening, or reading the story b) reflecting on a time in their life where they encountered violence or someone they knew encountered violence.

The advocacy event was included as part of Sahiyo’s February 6th events for Zero Tolerance Day. Over 400 people have signed up to take part in Feminist Challenge.Photo6.jpg

Sahiyo blog post wins a Laadli Media Award

A Bohra woman’s personal essay about her experience of Female Genital Cutting, published on Sahiyo’s blog last year, has won the prestigious Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-16.

The essay, titled ‘It was a part of me…part of my womanhood‘, won the award for Best Blog in the ‘Web-blogs’ category in the eighth edition of the Western region Laadli Awards, which celebrate gender sensitive advertising and journalism in India. The award ceremony was held at Ahmedabad’s Gujarati Sahitya Parishad on February 23, with prominent dancer and artiste Mallika Sarabhai as the chief guest.

The winning essay describes the author’s memory of undergoing ‘Khatna’ and her struggle to come to terms with it. Read below the jury’s citation on her powerful narrative:

The blog is a powerful and vivid account of a woman’s memory of female genital cutting. She speaks about the secrecy of the practice as well as the young age at which it happens. This story is among a handful stories that carefully look at female genital cutting among the Dawoodi Bohra community in India.

This essay was among the first few accounts of Bohra women willing to share their stories on Sahiyo’s blog when it launched in December 2015. Sahiyo believes in the power of storytelling and this blog is a story-sharing platform for all those who feel passionately about khatna or FGC and who wish to see the practice end.

We would like to say a big thank you to Population First, the organiser of the Laadli Awards, for honouring Sahiyo’s blog contributor through this award!

81% want Khatna to end: results of Sahiyo’s online survey of Bohra women

On the occasion of International Zero Tolerance Day for Female Genital Cutting, Sahiyo is proud to present the complete findings of the first large-scale, global research study on the subject of Khatna as practiced by Dawoodi Bohras.

The report of the study, titled ‘Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra Community: An Exploratory Survey’, was officially released at a press conference in Mumbai on the morning of February 6, 2017. The report contains the full results and analysis of a detailed online survey of 385 Dawoodi Bohra women from around the world. This survey was conducted over a period of six months from July 2015 to January 2016.

READ THE FULL SURVEY REPORT HERE

What did the Sahiyo survey find?

We encourage you to read the full report to understand the methodology used in the survey, the complete statistics and findings, the analysis of the data and the stories of women who provided personal accounts of their experience. However, here are some key findings at a quick glance:

Demography:

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  • 385 Dawoodi Bohra women participated
  • Majority from India and USA
  • 67% between 18-25 years old
  • 76% married
  • 80% women working or running a business from home

Experience of Khatna:

80% survey participants had been subjected to Khatna as children. Out of those women,

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  • 66% were 6 or 7 years old when they were cut
  • 74% were cut by an untrained traditional cutter
  • 15% were cut by a health professional
  • 65% were not sure about which part of their genitals was cut

Impact of Khatna:

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  • 51% of those who were cut felt fear immediately after Khatna
  • 21% of those who were cut felt anger
  • 98% of those who were cut described experiencing pain immediately after the Khatna.
  • 35% of those who were cut claimed that Khatna affected their sexual life. Out of those women, 87% said Khatna had a negative impact on their sexual life.

Reasons given for Khatna:

Survey participants had heard of multiple different reasons for why Khatna is practiced in the Dawoodi Bohra community. The most common reasons were:

 

  • For religious purposes – 56%
  • To decrease sexual arousal – 45%
  • To maintain traditions and customs – 42%
  • For physical hygiene and cleanliness – 27%

Hope for the future:

Perhaps the most important finding of the Sahiyo survey is that a huge majority of the participants do not want the practice of Khatna to continue.

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  • 82% said they are unlikely or extremely unlikely to continue Khatna on their daughter

 

  • 81% said they are not okay with Khatna continuing in the community

This indicates an opportunity for the prevalence of Khatna to reduce among Dawoodi Bohras a generation from now.

Why is Sahiyo’s Khatna Survey significant?

Because there has been almost no research on Khatna among Bohras before this.

Female Genital Cutting (known as Khatna or female circumcision in the Bohra community) is recognised as a form of violence against women and children. It is illegal in many countries, has no mention in the Quran and is in fact considered un-Islamic by many Islamic scholars.

Dawoodi Bohras have been practicing Khatna as a secretive ritual for centuries, and the silence around the practice has broken only recently, in the past four or five years. Even though many women from the community are now speaking out about their personal experiences of Khatna and pushing for an end to the practice, there has been little to no scientific research on the subject.

Without research and representative data, it is difficult to determine the degree of prevalence of Khatna and to understand the complex social norms and cultural value systems that shape the practice of Khatna within the community. The lack of research also makes it difficult to pass legislation and policies, and to design outreach and education programmes to push for an end to the practice. As the first large-scale research study on FGC among Bohras, Sahiyo’s Khatna Survey aims to fill this gap in knowledge and data.

The Sahiyo online survey is a preliminary and exploratory study of Khatna. The survey results point to the need for much more in-depth field research, both qualitative and quantitative, on the practice of Khatna among Bohras. In the future, surveys of Bohra men’s attitudes towards Khatna are also needed. We hope that this pioneering survey becomes a base for future research on Khatna.

(Conducting large-scale scientific research on FGC requires funding and other resources, which are currently lacking in India and other Asian countries where FGC is practiced but not widely known. To encourage the United Nations and other international agencies to invest more towards research and advocacy to end FGC in Asia, please sign and share this Change.org petition by Sahiyo and 32 other global organisations!)

(If you are a media professional interested in covering Sahiyo’s survey or other aspects of Khatna among Dawoodi Bohras, do read Sahiyo’s detailed Media Resource Guide on how to sensitively report on Khatna – we created it especially for you!)