Violated hopes: My struggle to report on Female Genital Cutting in Pakistan

By Hina Javed

Country: Pakistan

When sporting my journalistic hat, I tend to sniff out stories from unlikely sources, wherever they are hidden. I look out for news, dropping into places to see what is new. This time around, however, I wasn’t particularly looking for a story. I was just making small talk with a friend, who I would call Amber, sipping tea in the chilly, wintry breeze; the stillness of time hanging heavy in the thin air; the late afternoon light filtering through the branches of a tree.

Amber kept rambling about her married life and parental responsibilities, and how both were in permanent need of repairs or adjustments like an old car needs maintenance. I pretended to listen to her, albeit inattentively, all the while thinking about the most plausible excuse for not meeting a story deadline. And just in that moment, I snapped out of my reverie at the mention of the word khatna (also known as circumcision).

Suddenly, my eyes and ears were attentive, in perfect union. In that rare and curious moment, I dared to ask her if she was talking about Female Genital Cutting, a practice I thought did not exist in Pakistan. For a split second, I thought I might have violated an unwritten code of ethics. Maybe I had not phrased the question to fit the language of social architecture. It was too late now, but I still tried to rephrase the question, spitting out tiny fragments of sentences; struggling to find the right words and dwelling on the worst possible response.

The response was startling, if not dreadful. All this while, she was complaining about her 10-year-old daughter who had recently been cut and refused to urinate for several hours. Amber was worried that her daughter would develop an infection if she held it for too long. Perhaps, for me, this was the worst part. This limbo of not knowing whether to ask more questions, given the sensitivity of the topic. But, I gave in and flooded her with queries.

If there is one thing Amber knows about me is that I listen keenly without ever coming across as judgmental. I assume it’s because of my profession. People never ask me what I think, and I never tell them what I think, because in my view that’s the way a journalist is ought to behave.

The initial conversation got me thinking. I made several attempts to talk to Amber and determine the extent of the issue. She would mostly respond in bits and pieces, leaving me more confused than ever. One day, however, she started talking more openly; justifying the practice and expressing concerns over how misunderstood her community is. It was in that fleeting moment that I knew I had plunged into murky waters. I was ready to write my next story, except I was in a state of moral anarchy.

As I investigated the matter further for my piece, I realized something important had changed. The social architecture that dismisses the inconvenient truth of FGC was changing fast, but only among the younger generation of Bohra women. Outsiders, however, were still largely unaware of the practice. These women were speaking up in numbers too big to ignore. What was holding them, however, was the horror of bringing shame to their families and a subsequent fear of revealing a reality that would rather be rationalized away.

Listening to the stories of vulnerable women gave me sleepless nights. I felt burdened with a sense of responsibility too heavy for my shoulders to carry. They had expectations too great for me to fulfill; each one of them hanging on to the hope that my story will stir up a conversation in Pakistan and possibly bring an end to this practice.

A month later, I had almost finished writing the story despite my own uncertainties and misgivings. In my limited experience as a young journalist, I had done stories on sensitive topics but nothing came close to this. To counter my persisting doubts, I had the story edited by a trusted senior colleague who showed nothing but the greatest respect for my brave efforts. I was finally starting to feel a sense of gratification; a tiny ray of hope for giving a voice to the voiceless. I was ready to put it out before the general public. However, the journey was far from over.

The path ahead was ridden with disappointment. Pakistani media organisations refused to lay a finger on the piece due to sensitivities. I was told that I had crossed the comfort zone for the general public. The article caused a stir and went through clearance after clearance; each time censoring important chunks of information and eventually being turned down.  

I was aware of my country’s heavily censored media and the difficulties journalists had to overcome to report sensitive topics. However, my experience landed me on a different playing field altogether; one that was far from level. I was now a victim of the epidemic of shameful silencing. I was among the people who were hurt, humiliated and degraded because I had made the mistake of speaking out. I had forgotten that stirring up a conversation would dismantle the stronghold of patriarchy. I was asked to retreat and swallow my resentment, to bear up and direct my fury elsewhere. Or turn it inwards. Or stomp it out altogether.

As I sit here in silence, I feel the guilt of betraying the survivors and the fury of being betrayed by the so-called representatives. The former, a betrayal of hopes and expectations. The latter, a betrayal of attitudes. This unbearable pressure has crept into me like a blazing fire – at first slow but fast turning into an inferno. I exist in perpetual isolation and emotional turmoil. I am left to untangle the web of reasons why all my efforts backfired. I wallow in the awareness that no one will ever acknowledge the existence of an otherwise contested practice in my country. Every time I think about taking a small step in a positive direction, I am reminded of the faces of responsible individuals shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that the conversation may open a gateway to a potentially dangerous territory that could affect them.

(Hina Javed is an investigative journalist based in Pakistan, driven by the ambition of tackling difficult, often untouched topics. Her focus is on stories related to human rights, health and gender.)

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Sahiyo participates in 2017 Hilton Humanitarian Foundation Symposium

On October 11th, Mariya was invited to take part in the 2017 Hilton Humanitarian Foundation Symposium. Mariya, along with Tostan’s founder Molly Melching, and Safe Hands for Girl’s, Jaha Dukureh, was on a panel titled “Empowering the Silent to Speak, Engaging Communities to Respond”, to discuss FGC and the work being done to end it.

To watch a recap of the event, click here.

 

This year’s 2017 Hilton Humanitarian Prize was presented to icddr,b. To learn more about award recipient, click here.

Finally in the spotlight: Female Genital Cutting is getting national attention in Sri Lanka

Until a few months ago, Female Genital Cutting (FGC) in Sri Lanka was spoken about only in whispers within practicing communities and in a few news articles. Since last month, however, the issue has suddenly attracted the attention of the mainstream national media and has been the highlight of some crucial discussions among government ministers and activists.

In Sri Lanka, FGC is practiced among the Dawoodi Bohras (who call the practice Khatna or Khafz) and among the Sunni Moor and Malay communities (who call it Sunnath). While the Bohras cut the clitoral hoods of girls at the age of seven, the Moors and Malays cut baby girls when they are 40 days old. (Read more about it here.)

FGC is internationally recognised as a violation of the rights of women and children, and is illegal in several countries around the world. However, Sri Lanka — like its neighbour India — does not have a specific law against FGC/Khatna/Khafz/Sunnath.

In order to push for a law banning FGC, a group of human rights activists and lawyers have been gathering testimonies of Sri Lankan FGC survivors. These testimonies have drawn recent media attention, and were also formally submitted to the Sri Lankan Parliament Sectoral Oversight Committee in a meeting earlier this month.  

This long overdue exposure of the practice of FGC in Sri Lanka is strongly linked to the controversies around the country’s personal laws for minority communities like Muslims.

The background

The public debate about FGC has been brought about in the midst of the discussion in Parliament on reforms to the MMDA (Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act), which was enacted by the Sri Lankan Parliament in 1951. According to this website, “The origin of Sri Lankan MMDA stems from a code of law on marriage and divorce exported from Batavia (present day Indonesia) in 1770 during the Dutch rule. This law has gone through a process of codification over a period of time and is based on Sharia law and Islamic legal practices. However, the Act also includes provisions pertaining to local customs unknown to Islamic law…”

In addition, Article 16 in the Fundamental Rights chapter of the 1978 constitution of Sri Lanka enshrined MMDA and Muslim Personal Laws in Sri Lankan law through the following statement: “All written and unwritten law that existed prior to the 1978 Constitution is ‘valid and operative’.” This has been interpreted as legal validation of MMDA and Muslim Personal Laws and local customs even if they contradict, or are inconsistent with, the fundamental rights of Sri Lankan citizens. As the Sunday Observer stated in this article, “personal Laws exist to provide the minority communities the extra protection they need, but instead, they violate the fundamental rights of people in those communities.”

The MMDA reform debates have been ongoing for decades, but they recently came back into serious discussion, with the Sri Lankan government’s application to regain the GSP+ (Generalised Scheme of Preference) from the EU. This preference was taken away from Sri Lanka sometime in 2010 citing non-compliance with international Human Rights standards. One of the criteria cited by the EU to grant this preference back to SL, was to bring about reform to the MMDA; claiming it as a rights violation against women and children.

Citing these rights, many Muslim Women’s activists and lawyers urged for a ban on the practice of FGC, and gathered many testimonies from victims, which were presented to the Parliamentary Oversight Committee on Women and Gender (POCWG) set up to address the MMDA reforms.

Hope for the future

In the past two weeks, with increasing media attention on FGC in Sri Lanka, some spokespersons from the country’s Dawoodi Bohra community have responded by defending the practice. Their argument is that FGC is “just a nick” and not harmful, should not be called “mutilation”, and that it is done for personal hygiene and for religious reasons.

However, in a positive sign, a group of senior ministers in the Sri Lankan government reviewed the practice of FGC and came to an agreement that the ritual needs to be treated as a public health issue. The meeting, held last week, included the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Women and Child Affairs and the Chairperson of the National Committee on Women. The ministers indicated that they would work with the local Muslim communities and help raise awareness about the issue of Female Genital Cutting.

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Geethika Kodukula

Geethika is a graduate student of Biostatistics in Public Health at Kent State University, Kent Ohio. Originally from Hyderabad, she has been involved in social work since 2011 when she started studying Math, Stats and Computers at St. Francis Degree College for Women. She is a dog-person and endeavors to study Mental Health and suicidality among vulnerable populations. When she is not working on her research, she tries to read fiction and play video games.

1)    When did you first get involved with Sahiyo?Photo4_Geethika

I first reached out to Sahiyo in April 2016.

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

I proofread and edit the newsletters, blog posts and media reports for readability, help with sending out the newsletter, spread word among my peers, and help maintain the Sahiyo blog.

3)    How has your involvement impacted your life?

I am proud to be a part of this community. It’s terrific to read our volunteers’ and founders’ achievements each month. The impact that we are trying to create together empowers me and helps me fight the helplessness I feel in the face of injustice. Survivor stories each month keep me motivated to keep fighting.

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

Never underestimate what you can do. Ask for help when you need it. Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters. Don’t forget to take care of yourself!

Working Together To Address FGC: Michigan Roundtable

On October 9th, Sahiyo, along with Equality Now, Tahirih Justice Center, and forma came together in a roundtable discussion with Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to engage in cross-discipline dialogue on the challenges and best practices regarding how to respond to FGC in the United States. The roundtable discussion helped attendees to increase their knowledge base on FGC, understand the medical circumstances associated with FGC, and identify strengths, gaps, and policy/law implications that could improve outcomes for children and families. Sahiyo’s Mariya helped to facilitate this initial roundtable, and continues to work with DHHS on next steps to ensure that we work to address the issue of FGC, and how to support survivors,  in a holistic manner.

Sahiyo’s Mariya Taher receives Survivor Activist Award

On Saturday, October 2, the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation recognized Sahiyo Cofounder, Mariya Taher with the Survivor Activist Award at their annual 5K Walk to End FGM Charity Event in Washington DC. Mariya along with eight other deserving women and men were given Recognition Awards for the outstanding work toward ending female genital cutting and other injustices against women and girls during the pre-walk ceremony on the Washington National Mall in Washington, D.C.  

To learn more visit the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation blog here.

Insia Dariwala receives Women Have Wings Courage Award

Sahiyo co-founder Insia Dariwala has received the prestigious Women Have Wings Courage Award for her work to end Female Genital Cutting and bring attention to all forms of child sexual abuse. This award was instituted in 2012 to honour “women of courage who have taken bold risks to ensure a more just and peaceful future for us all”, and has been awarded to 31 women around the world so far.

Insia, a filmmaker based in Mumbai, is not only the co-founder of Sahiyo but also the founder of the Hands of Hope Foundation, which raises awareness about child sexual abuse through visual art and education.

According to her award citation, “Insia is an incredible advocate because she goes where the silence is. In the past few years, she has used her art to ensure that silent issues such as child abuse and FGM/C are brought into the light, discussed, and acted upon. Be it with diaspora communities in the US or back in India, Insia has been one of the faces and the voices of a small group of brave survivors denouncing the practice and calling for its eradication.”

To learn more about Insia’s award, click here.

StoryCenter – A digital storytelling workshop for Bohra women in the United States

By Mariya Taher

For the past decade, I have advocated against female genital mutiliation/cutting (FGM/C) by sharing my story, and by helping other women to share their own stories of undergoing FGC. My story has received attention from several media sources like NPR, USA Today, and ABC News (read Because I was Harmed on NPR Codeswitch).

In March 2017, StoryCenter led a digital storytelling workshop in collaboration with the Women’s Foundation of California to highlight the voices of women who participated in the Women’s Policy Institute. As an alumni of this program, I was invited to attend and share how I advocate to end FGM/C through storytelling. You can watch my story here.

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Most people believe female genital cutting only exists in other parts of the world, not in the United States. But in April 2017, a Detroit doctor was arrested for performing FGC on two seven-year-old girls. This doctor belonged to the same religious sect I grew up in, and the case highlights that FGC does continue to affect women living in the United States, even though laws banning the practice do exist (watch American Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Speak Out ). In total, eight people have now been charged in connection to this FGC case in Michigan.

After going through the StoryCenter workshop experience, I came away knowing that I want to support other FGC survivors from my community in sharing stories of their experiences by also participating in a StoryCenter workshop. For centuries, women have been afraid to speak up because of a fear of 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.

We must break this silence.

I believe that a StoryCenter workshop will allow women to come together in a supportive environment so they can heal and reclaim a piece of themselves that was lost when they underwent FGC. I believe that this workshop will help build a critical mass of voices against FGC, and further demonstrate that there is a growing trend of support for abandoning this harmful practice.

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 5-10 additional women living in the United States to produce and share their stories publicly.

This campaign raised over $6,000, and in the fall of 2017, the Wallace Global Fund came onboard to provide an additional $10,000 to ensure this project will come to fruition, and that the women’s stories will be distributed far and wide.

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 will allow survivors to share their stories and directly engage with the broader community to stop FGM/C from happening to the next generation of girls. And I couldn’t be more excited to be working with StoryCenter in 2018 to carry out this first-of-a-kind workshop to raise the discourse on FGC in the United States.

Medical organisations in five African nations issue statement against the medicalisation of FGM/C

A group of prominent medical bodies from five African nations have issued public statements in support of all programmes to end the practice of Female Genital Cutting and combat the medicalisation of the ritual. The statement was issued in the last week of September by the National Midwives Associations of Sudan and Djibouti, and representatives of several National Doctors Syndicates, Medical Councils and Associations from Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia.

These medical organisations issued the statement at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, at a meeting on ‘The Role of Health-care Professionals in Combatting Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Arab region’. The doctors and midwives expressed concerns about the growing medicalisation of FGM/C, a trend in which the procedure is increasingly being performed by medical practitioners in a clinical setting, rather than by untrained, traditional cutters. While medicalised FGM/C is believed to be more hygienic and less risky, it also promotes the false belief that the procedure is medically beneficial or acceptable.

In their statement, the medical organisations recognise the dangers of such medicalisation, the social and psychological impacts of FGM/C, and the fact that it is a violation of the rights of women and girls. In keeping with the ethics of medical practice, the statement pledges support to all national programs working to eradicate FGM/C. It also urges all governmental and non-governmental organizations to incorporate in their plans and programmes efforts to decrease the medicalisation of FGM/C.

Through this statement, the organisations have pledged to:

  1. Participate in community awareness programmes in order to raise awareness about the medical and social consequences of FGC.
  2. Make this information available in the mainstream, through continuous midwifery education programs for physicians, in order to prevent them from performing FGC and also engage with the community to raise awareness about it.
  3. Train midwives about laws and legislations against FGC and its medicalisation.
  4. Support the issuance of laws and make recommendations to the concerned authorities to penalize any healthcare professionals in their organisations if they are found to have performed FGC. The penalty could include cancellation of their licence to practice.
  5. Act as instrumental partners to all national and regional organisations, to share experiences and good practices in this work.

The organisations that have endorsed this statement include the Egyptian Doctors Syndicate, the Sudanese Medical Council and OBGYN Association, the Yemeni Health Office for Al-Hudydah and Health Office for Hadramout, the Somali Medical Association of the Federal Government of Somalia, the Association of Midwives of Djibouti and the Midwives Association of Sudan.  

The public statement to end medicalization of FGC by various organizations and discussions and suggestions drawn at the meeting to reduce it will also play a role model for other countries to incorporate such programs in their own countries.

In India, the national medical community has not given much attention to the prevalence and practice of FGC among some communities. In August, after a Sahiyo investigative report that found FGC being practiced by some Sunni Muslim sects of Kerala, the state’s health minister ordered a probe into the matter and promised to take action against those found practicing FGC. The Kerala chapter of the Indian Medical Association also issued a press release taking a strong stance against FGC. The Association described the practice as “unscientific and against medical ethics”.

Earlier, in June, the national president of the Indian Medical Association told the Times of India that the IMA condemns the practice of FGC in all its forms, and would probe into any complaints of doctors promoting FGC.

However, Indian medical bodies are yet to make an official statement about FGC and its medicalisation, and Sahiyo urges the Indian medical sector to take a stand on FGC as soon as possible.

At Sahiyo’s third Thaal pe Charcha, Bohra men attended too

In October 2017, Sahiyo hosted Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as ‘discussions over food’) for the third time, with 22 participants from the Bohra community. Thaal Pe Charcha is a flagship Sahiyo programme that brings Bohra women together in an informal, private space, so that they can bond over traditional Bohra cuisine while discussing Female Genital Cutting and other issues that affect their lives. While Sahiyo’s first two TPC events were open only to women participants, the October event included 15 women as well as three men from the Bohra community in Mumbai.  

Most of the women who participated in the event had already attended the previous two TPC events held in February and July. With this third event, their comfort level in discussing FGC had grown. These women also brought their friends, cousins, and other relatives to join in on the discussion. Some women expressed that they had cautiously begun speaking about FGC with their families, friends, and spouses, which they had never done earlier. The women also spoke with their spouses about not performing FGC on their daughters.

The new women participants were able to clear some of their doubts about FGC and asked questions about why it is performed and why we need to stop practicing it on the next generation. Conversations about FGC have always been taboo and secretive in the community, so being in a safe and intimate space at the TPC helped the women discuss it openly.

By listening to the stories and concerns of the women, the men who attended the Thaal Pr Charcha were able to get a deeper understanding of how the practice affects women. They were very open to discussing FGC and even suggested several ways to raise further awareness about the harms caused by the practice and how to promote abandonment of FGC.  

One of the highlights of the event was having one of the women participants, Saleha, share her story of undergoing FGC. After listening to Saleha’s story, a few women and men were in tears. Some women said they experienced flashbacks to their own experience of undergoing FGC. Saleha sharing her story helped make other women feel comfortable talking about their own FGC experiences. Many women’s stories were similar in terms of how the cutting occurred, how they felt anger, fear, shame, depression and a sense of being cheated by those they trusted.

Over lunch, men and women continued their discussion on FGC, as well as other various issues occurring within the Bohra community. Participants also discussed ways in which they could all work at the grassroots level to raise awareness about ending FGC.