A Tradition That Branded Me

By Severina Lemachokoti

I chose to tell this particular story about my experience with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) because the story defines me, who I am, and shows what my culture/tradition branded me with. The story reflects the reality of what I went through and what I felt as a little girl. This is my other life that no one knows unless I share it with them. Sharing my story at the Sahiyo Stories workshop was a bit hard, but at the same time, it was a relief because I shared it with women who can relate to my hurt, women who have gone through painful and traumatic experiences as other FGM survivors. I felt comfortable and at ease with my sisters. I enjoyed the sisterhood, the courage, and passion that each of them embraced during the entire time. The storytelling process was smooth and very educative. I was able to revise my own story and put it in a way that I am confident will make a difference to our communities.

My advocacy on FGM is primarily focused on community education and the mental health of the survivors. As an activist, I believe that FGM will end when our communities are educated on the negative effects of FGM and find alternative ways of celebrating cultural practices without cutting girls’ genitalia. I am also aware that it is the right of each community to uphold their traditions and beliefs, but culture should not violate the rights of young girls in any way either. The mental health of survivors is a critical issue that needs to be looked into and addressed. Most of us are traumatized and still bear the pain of the cut even after so many years and it is necessary that survivors get healed in order for them to step up and talk about FGM in a way that can save other young girls who are at a risk.

My story is not very different from those of other survivors, but at the same time, I

DSC_0074.JPG
Severina with Lena Khandwala at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

believe I am unique and so my story is unique because of the painful experience and feelings that I had during the cutting. My hope is that my story and the stories of my other sisters will change our communities. I am looking forward to working with various organizations and individuals to see that our girls are free from FGM across the world. I will basically do my activism work till the end of my days, and advocate for supporting the mental health of FGC survivors across the world.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Severina:

17904081_1414046985328334_8283055367043356965_nSeverina Lemachokoti is an anti-FGM campaigner, a human rights defender and a gender activist from the Samburu community in Northern Kenya. Severina graduated from Wichita State University, Kansas State with a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies, with focus on Community Psychology, Sociology and Women Studies. She was the Cultural Ambassador- Kenya, at Wichita State University and participated in various activities that fostered diversity and inclusion. She worked as a graduate research assistant in the Criminal Justice department and also worked at the graduate office as a receptionist. Severina is a professionally trained teacher and holds a bachelor’s degree in counseling psychology and a higher diploma in psychological counseling. As one of the survivors of FGM, Severina uses her own experience to educate young girls from Kenya and her community to say “NO” to FGM and other harmful cultural practices. She has helped in changing the lives of young girls and women in her community through mentorship programs in schools and churches. Severina worked as a program officer for the ANTI-FGM Board, a government body under the ministry of gender to implement the ANTI-FGM act of 2011 and the 2010 constitution of Kenya to protect the rights of young girls in Kenya. Severina is a member of various organizations in Kenya and Africa that defend the rights of young girls and has spoken in various conferences including the UN on the rights of young indigenous girls and women.

Sharing My Story of Female Genital Cutting with Other Survivors Comforted Me

By Leena Khandwala

I chose to tell my story of FGC to highlight how after more than three decades, my experience of being cut is still traumatizing and vivid. Everything about it — from the deception leading up to it and the silence around it — make for an unspeakably horrifying experience.

Supporters of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) often try to distinguish the type of cutting that is practiced in the Bohra community from other types of cutting practiced by different cultures.  They claim that the practice in the Bohra community is simply to make a small and benign scrape or nick in the clitoris that causes no harm, and, in fact, may enhance sexual pleasure among women. Through my digital story, I hope to portray the violence and trauma I experienced when I was cut and how it has followed me for the rest of my life.

Participating in this workshop was an important step in my life-long process of coming to terms with my cutting. After finishing law school, I chose to work with women fleeing gender-based harms. One of my first cases involved a woman seeking asylum because she was vehemently opposed to genital cutting and feared that she would be unable to DSC_0074protect her minor daughter from being cut if she had to return to her home country.

In addition, I worked with many other women fleeing various forms of gender violence and found this work to be extremely cathartic. This workshop was a new step along that continuum because it enabled me to muster the courage to find my voice and share my own story.  In that sense, it has helped me shed the shame that has lingered with me to this day as a result of being cut.

There is a strong sense of comfort from shared community experiences. Sharing this story helped me because it reminded me that there are many other people who have gone through similar experiences. I also got to hear and experience multiple other perspectives.  

It was inspiring to see how so many women have channeled their pain and outrage into advocacy for change and are working to ensure that future generations of girls are protected from being cut.  

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Leena:

IMG_1881Leena Khandwala has been practicing immigration law for well over a decade. She is a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, where she assists low-income New Yorkers in applying for a wide range of immigration benefits. Prior to joining The Legal Aid Society, Leena was employed with Brooklyn Defender Services where she was part of the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which was aimed at providing universal representation to all immigrants in detained removal proceedings. Prior to joining the nonprofit world, Leena was an associate with Claudia Slovinsky and Associates, PLLC, a small boutique law office. Leena has also been a Clinical Teaching Fellow in the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic and the Civil Litigation Clinic at Seton Hall University School of Law in Newark, and a fellow at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Leena received her J.D., cum laude, from Fordham University School of Law in 2004. She was a Stein Public Interest Scholar and a Crowley International Human Rights Scholar. She grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, where she did her Masters in Business Administration at the Institute of Business Administration, in Karachi.

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

‘Even Though I was Impacted by Female Genital Cutting, I Knew Little about It’

By Aisha Yusuf.

My name is Aisha Yusuf, and I am a female genital cutting (FGC) survivor. I was born in Somalia, a country with one of the highest FGC rates in the world. Recently, Somalia was named by the Thomson Reuters Foundation as being the fourth most dangerous country for women, with FGC happening to 98% of women. I was cut when I was five-years-old. Although it took me a long time to understand my experience, I was enraged that it had happened to me. 

Honestly, I only recently became more active in advocating against FGC. I chose to tell this specific story for my digital story because this was a moment in which I came to terms with why female genital mutilation was bad in our community.

Sharing the story with the group during the Sahiyo Stories workshop was both a relief to me as it was informative. Even though I was impacted by FGC, I knew little about it. I did know that the practice of FGC is unnecessary, even though it’s culturally perpetuated. Though many people try to justify it through religion, I learned it’s actually not in the dsc_0057.jpgpractice of Islam. This storytelling process allowed me to be comfortable with sharing my story instead of feeling shameful about it. Most people in my culture think that by talking openly about it, I’m talking negatively about this secret of the community, but I believe what I’m doing is bringing awareness on a topic that is harmful and so evil. Since 98% of women in Somalia are cut, I want that statistic to be a thing of the past and no longer be true in the 21st century.

Additionally, I am currently offering support to a change.org petition to advocate to ban FGC in Massachusetts, and hopefully, all other U.S. states where there isn’t already a law.  

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Aisha:

IMG_1289Aisha Yusuf is a twenty-nine-year-old female from Somalia, residing in Boston, Massachusetts with her family. She moved to the states as a child and grew up in a little neighborhood called Jamaica Plains. She went to the University of Massachusetts Boston and graduated with a B.A in Psychology in 2017. She works as a case manager for addiction services at the Andrew House Program in the greater area of Boston. As a case manager, she helps people who are in difficult situations find resources they need and how to access them, create plans for treatment or recovery, work with other mental health and human service providers, and monitors her client’s progress with their treatment plans. She considers herself an activist on many issues including women’s rights, poverty and economic injustice, child welfare, healthcare reforms, and racial injustices. During her leisure, she enjoys reading, hiking, traveling, working out, and cooking healthy foods.

 

Khatna Isn’t Black Or White, Just Like My Story

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation in the Bohra community is not black and white, just like how survivors and non-survivors’ stories are not black and white. This idea resonated the most with me during the Sahiyo Stories workshop held in Berkeley, California at the beginning of May. Sahiyo Stories allowed me to explore the complexities of FGM/C and see the strength of the women who advocate to end the practice worldwide.

The workshop included women from different backgrounds and communities. We had varying ages, ethnicities, and cultures, yet our common experiences and passions bound us together.

I remember fighting back tears as we shared a space around a table and told our stories. For those ten minutes, we were allowed to feel vulnerable, insecure, afraid and seek advice, support, and shared empathy from others.

I have not undergone khatna, and I was the only one in the group who had not. My digital story touches on how I sometimes feel like an outcast around Bohra women, regardless of whether or not I know they have undergone khatna. In the Bohra community, so many practices and customs are normalized on a large scale that you are left wondering if you are different for something that has or has not happened to you.

I was in awe of the bravery of the women around me who shared their stories of the khatna/FGM they underwent when they were young girls. It was impactful for the women to be from such varying backgrounds. It made the issue of FGM feel global and like it touched so many different lives.

By the end of the workshop, I realized that khatna, advocacy, traditions, women and human rights are not all black and white. Instead, they are layered and multi-dimensional, thus making these matters far more intricate than just taking a stand one way or another. My experience is not black or white either, and the Sahiyo Stories workshop was the most empowering avenue for me to explore that gray area.

 

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.

IMG_0951
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.

The subject was heavy, but my heart felt light: My experience at Sahiyo’s StoryCenter workshop

By Salma Qamruddin

Female genital cutting (FGC) sounds like a distant and antiquated practice, especially to those living in the US. Americans think FGC happens in remote African villages or in times of yore, but not locally and not now. Unfortunately, this is simply untrue. Sahiyo is an organization dedicated to opening up the conversation around modern FGC practices. Their 3-day workshop, Sahiyo Stories, invited women to break the silence around FGC by transforming each woman’s personal FGC story into a short film. These are my experiences attending Sahiyo Stories…

Unlike many of the other attendees, I am new to the sphere of activism. Although I’m just beginning to speak out against female genital cutting (FGC), Sahiyo Stories was a transformative point in my activism journey because it helped me refine my voice and allowed me to work among some of the trailblazers of FGC activism whose work is genuinely driving social change. From Severina Lem who has traveled the world working to unravel tradition-based cutting practices, to Renee Bergstrom who has created invaluable resources for victims of FGC to get proper medical care, and to Mariya Taher who co-founded Sahiyo with the goal of dismantling the practice through storytelling, every woman I met amazed me with their confidence and drive.

Though these accomplished women came from all places and all walks of life, our connection to one another was sparked almost immediately. Because we had to open our hearts to discuss such a personal subject matter, we all had to let our guard down by design. All of us carried trauma that few other people could relate to; it was refreshing to finally be in a room where everyone genuinely understood the pains we’d all experienced. From strangers to sisters, the respect and love in the workspace was tangible.

While preparing for Sahiyo Stories, I read up on what information was already available on FGC. Sahiyo partnered with a healthcare research firm to identify the biggest challenges facing activists speaking out against female genital cutting (FGC). Reading through the report, I was surprised how closely my journey to activism perfectly aligned with the “standard” journey for most activists. On one hand, I felt validated that I was not alone on my path and that there were others whose struggles were harmonic to mine. However, my story also felt less special. The goal of Sahiyo Stories was supposed to present unique experiences with FGC, but if I am a “cookie cutter” activist, what did I have to say that hadn’t been said? Even though I was not very confident in what my story brought to the table, I decided to share my first “a-ha” moment about FGC; the time when I realized that I had been cut.

IMG_0948
Salma and other participants during Sahiyo Stories Workshop

Despite entering the workshop with some insecurity, the process of putting my story onto paper, editing the script and illustrating the words was cathartic. In order to translate my thoughts into a digital story, I had to boil my experience down to its core and dissect why this story matters to me. It was a process that involved deep reflection. As my story started to come alive, my confidence grew with it. One of the most beautiful moments for me was when speaking with Orchid, a Sahiyo Stories facilitator who believed that, “everyone has the best voice for their own story”. Both Orchid and Amy, the two StoryCenter staff members, had an incredible talent for pulling out the real meaning from a story and empowering us through the process. Even though the subject was heavy, talking through my story with them made my heart feel light.

Though the process of creating digital stories was helpful, the highlight of Sahiyo Stories was the screening of the completed products. We sat together, laughed together, and cried together as we watched the digital stories for the first time. The room was a stirring pot of emotions. As we watched each person speak their truth, we felt their emotions and their pain. Their words resonated with us, not only because we could all relate to FGC, but because the struggles were tied to themes that all humans experience: isolation, grief, family, tradition, and healing. The power of what we had created was instantly recognizable. Being a survivor of FGC is a multi-faceted experience. It affects so much more than just anatomy. Even though all of these stories are tied together by the common thread of FGC, they capture so many different components that no story is alike. Personally, when my story was screened, I felt a rush; it was proof that my voice is unique. It was validation that I, along with every person who has a desire to speak out, has something valuable to offer by sharing their voice.

Overall, Sahiyo Stories served as the catalyst in my personal journey down the road of activism and I’m excited to see what comes next…

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Salma:

SalmaSalma Qamruddin works as a scientist based out of Chicago and is new to the world of activism. She works at calling attention to current FGC activist efforts through digital platforms and serves as the current Social Media Intern for Sahiyo. She hopes that Sahiyo Stories can be a tool that takes us one step closer to an open and honest conversation about the prevalence of cutting in this day and age.

Seeing Sahiyo Stories on Female Genital Cutting Come to Life

By Mariya Taher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

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

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

Learn More about Sahiyo Stories here or watch “The Making of Sahiyo Stories“.

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

Storytelling with Sahiyo: Four actors narrate FGC survivor stories at a unique event

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.

Photo 1 survivors.jpg

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.

Calling for Visual Artists, Musician, Sound Designers, to assist with Sahiyo Stories Project in the U.S.

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 mariya@sahiyo.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