Dear Maasi: a new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a new column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships. In the Bohra context, Maasi means auntie. We welcome you to send your questions to info@sahiyo.com. Please feel free to use a pseudonym if you’d like.

Dear Maasi,

I’m forty and divorced, but I’ve recently met someone nice, a non-Bohra, and we’ve grown close. Should I tell him about my experience with khatna? How do I start that conversation? Is it even important to dredge up that old trauma?

Divorcée Duriya

Dear Divorcée Duriya,

Hurray for your new relationship! It makes sense that you’re trying to figure this question out. Let me start by saying that sharing personal information is always your choice, and there are some pros and cons to consider.

Let’s start with the benefits:

Benefit #1: Sharing your vulnerabilities can build intimacy and trust.  I think this is especially true for trauma because it often happens in a context of secrecy, shame and isolation. Talking with a loved can be corrective; it breaks the silence and you can feel less alone. 

Benefit #2: When our loved ones understand how a trauma can trigger us emotionally, physically or sexually, they can be better allies in our healing. 

Here’s an example: Once in a while a certain kind of touch causes me to have a freeze response. My partner is attuned to me, knows about khatna, and will help me pause and get grounded again.  

Consider what triggers might exist for you, and then educate your loved ones on how to support you.

CAVEAT: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

This takes us to the potential drawbacks:

Drawback #1: If your loved ones are not skilled at being compassionate and/or don’t understand that khatna can be traumatic, they can inadvertently minimize or invalidate your feelings, or judge you. This can feel re-traumatizing, especially if you’re not prepared for it. 

One way to mitigate this is to share information before sharing your story.  I wrote this blog post for that reason. Check out the Sahiyo blog and WeSpeakOut website for more useful articles and videos.

Drawback #2: Talking about trauma—even with someone supportive—can leave us feeling raw or overwhelmed.  If you think this could happen for you, make sure you have ready access to someone who can help, for example, a good friend or counsellor. One way to test this is to rehearse what you might say, and notice what feelings arise.

How to start the conversation:

There are many ways to talk about khatna. Here’s a guide. Skip the steps that don’t apply to you and edit to your own style.

  1. Preamble: 

There’s something I’d like to share with you. It’s a personal and vulnerable thing to talk about.

I’m telling you because you’re important to me. 

I just need you to listen and later I can answer any questions you might have. 

Is this a good time to talk?

  1. Give them some info about the practice in general, but not too much: 

My community practices a form of genital cutting called khatna. It happened to me when I was a child. It’s a taboo subject and is considered traumatic. 

  1. Tell them the personal impact (this part can vary widely, so this is just an example): 

I’m okay, but sometimes thinking about it can upset me, and every so often, in some sexual situations, I find myself getting tense. 

  1. Tell them what you need from them (this part can also vary widely): 

I don’t need you to say or do anything right now.

I wanted to share this with you because it’s a part of my life experience. And it might help you understand why I react in certain ways.

  1. Offer to give them resources so they can learn more: 

If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them. I can also point you to some articles and videos if you’d like.

Well, Divorcée, I really hope that your new beau works out! If you decide to tell him, may it be a healing experience for you.

—Dear Maasi

About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor:

Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at www.farzanadoctor.com.  Pre-order her newest novel, SEVEN, which addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity and khatna within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Disclaimer: While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns, and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

Rejection of khatna must be a step in the liberation of Bohra women

By Zarina Patel

Khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) within the Dawoodi Bohra community, is not a distinct or unique ritual. It has a context and it is important that Bohra women (and men) understand that context if they are to free themselves holistically, not only from the ritual itself, but from all that promotes it. 

Khatna is an imposition of a patriarchal system, a male-controlled system, that seeks to assign a gendered role or designated place for women and imposes rules and regulations to maintain these assigned roles. For women, that role is strictly within the family unit where her duty is first and foremost that of caring for her family, especially the husband or parents; giving birth, including ensuring the survival of humanity; nurturing the progeny; and upholding and promoting this culture and these customs which are largely defined by the patriarchs.

No boy child has his destiny mapped out at birth within the Bohra community, but the idea of a girl child choosing and planning her destiny is considered as entirely secondary and trivial to her so-called God-given role. In this era of the internet and women’s liberation globally, it has seemingly become even more imperative for the patriarchs to keep their women (who, of course, they may consider as their property) in their place.

Nothing works better than religious persuasion, but it so happens that nowhere in the Holy Quran is khatna mentioned, let alone made mandatory. So the patriarchs have concocted a variety of restrictions: women’s dress code is ordained for them; the baggy and unsightly rida is designed to make them feel ashamed of their bodies and to limit their movements; if women must work outside the home, it has to be in family circles or at most in a Bohra environment; if widowed, she must observe total seclusion for four months; associating or travelling with strangers is frowned upon, and so on.

Khatna confers absolutely no benefit, medical or moral, to the girls who are cut. It can be traumatic with long-lasting effects both physical and psychological. It is one more such tradition, which at a very young age instills into the girl child that she is tainted and impure, and hence, it is normal for her to be violated and controlled. Is it surprising then that as adults, most Bohra women meekly accept the various restrictions placed on them.  

But women are the greatest defenders of the practice, we are told. True, very true – and some of those women are doctors and the like, educated, so to speak. 

Sahiyo has done, and is doing sterling work in exposing the harmful practice of khatna, and encouraging opposition to it. The rejection of khatna must be a step in the liberation of Bohra women.

 

How COVID-19 impacts programs devoted to ending gender-based violence, including female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down, so it is unsurprising that gender-based violence (GBV), including female genital cutting (FGC), has also been affected. Hidden Scars and Magool came together to co-host the Africa Led Movement Webinar series. In May, I had the pleasure of attending the second part of the series which addressed GBV during the current pandemic. 

Speakers included Bethel Tadesse, Hidden Scars; Leyla Hussein, Magool; Wanjiru Wahome, Samburu Girls Foundation; Christine Alfons, Safe Engage Foundation; and Domtila Chesang, I Am Responsible Foundation (I Rep Foundation)

Three panelists, Wahome, Alfons and Chesang, discussed the impact of COVID-19 on their work. Wahome and Chesang have both noticed an increase in GBV, specifically FGC, rape, and domestic violence. They add that the Kenyan government has forcibly closed all safe houses, sending thousands of girls back to their homes. Coupled with the closure of schools and the restriction of movement, more girls and women are stuck in places where they are not safe or comfortable. Additionally, it seems as if GBV may be the least of the government’s priorities in Kenya, as all resources and focus are currently being devoted to the pandemic. Alfons noted that in her region of Kenya, FGC only occurs every two years. Therefore, FGC is not rising in cases at the moment, but child marriage has increased significantly. 

The panelists were asked how their organizations have responded to the rise in violence prompted by the pandemic. All three are using the radio as a tool to prevent FGC by interviewing healthcare professionals and community leaders on air and playing jingles to remind listeners not to cut their girls. Upon hearing the devastating news of the closed rescue houses, I was relieved to hear that Wahome and Chesang have been going door-to-door to check on the girls they had to send back home. Alfons has been working to get girls sanitary products. Additionally, Alfons’ volunteers are making masks and supplying them to at-risk girls and women. 

In a vulnerable moment, they spoke with honesty about how the pandemic has personally impacted them. They shared the sentiment that their work has been frustrating and emotionally draining. I’m certain many advocactes would agree when Chesang stated this is not a job; it is personal, and you take it with you wherever you go. Alfons relies on other activists to stay sane. The panelists were asked what gives them hope to continue, and I found Wahome’s answer to be particularly poignant. She says when a girl is rescued, at the time she is viewed as a wife, but within a few months she transforms back into a child. 

Finally, the panelists shared what their asks would be if they could ask anything at all of the viewers. Chesang wishes for a car, or even just fuel, to allow her to visit at-risk girls and women more easily and more often. Wahome’s organization is in need of food to take the girls, as the virus has left many families without any income. Alfonso asks for sanitary pads, food, and assistance in building a website to better spread their message and work. If any readers can offer assistance, please visit their websites (linked above) or reach out to Bethel Tadesse for contact information. 

The webinar ended with an important call to action: keep amplifying the voices of the grassroots organizations working to end FGC and GBV. For more information on how the virus is impacting programs devoted to ending FGC and GBV, read here.

U.S. may deny asylum for females fleeing gender-based violence

By Hunter Kessous

(Follow this link to take action immediately and stand with survivors before July 15th.)

At the age of 17, Fauziya Kassindja narrowly escaped undergoing female genital cutting (FGC) and a forced marriage in her home country of Togo. She used a fake passport to make her way to the United States, and upon arriving at the border, explained to the officials that her document was fake and she was there to seek asylum. She was placed in a maximum security prison for nearly two years. Her case for refuge was initially denied, and was appealed to the highest immigration court in the U.S. where she was finally granted asylum. In 1996, Fauziya became the first to gain refuge in the U.S. on the grounds of escaping FGC. Her victory set the precedent for future immigrants to receive asylum from gender-based persecution. 

In addition to the precedent set by Kassindja’s case, there are multiple legal reasons why FGC qualifies as persecution. It violates multiple human rights documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child among others. To qualify for refugee status, an individual must prove the persecution they fear is for reason of her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. FGC is often thought to be a religious requirement. It can also be argued that opposition to FGC is a political opinion. 

It seems obvious that FGC should be grounds for asylum in the U.S. Yet, women are still refused for reasons that are often untrue or impossible, such as “woman can refuse to be cut or “the woman can relocate.

Now, refuge for women escaping FGC may be significantly limited. A proposed rule by the Homeland Security Department and Executive Office for Immigration Review set to be finalized on July 15th, would radically restrict eligibility for asylum, especially for those fleeing gender-based violence (GBV) and for LBGTQIA+ individuals. The regulation bars evidence that supports an asylum claim if it could be seen as promoting cultural stereotypes. On this basis, a judge could refuse refugee status to a woman fleeing FGC because the judge may think it promotes a cultural stereotype. A woman escaping GBV could be denied asylum on the grounds that feminism is not a political opinion. It even allows officials to dismiss some asylum applications without a hearing. These are only a few examples of the many ways this rule would dismantle the U.S. asylum system.

We must act now to protect women and girls. The rule will go into effect July 15th, but before it is finalized the government must read and respond to comments sent by organizations and individuals. To submit a comment, follow this link. A sample comment is provided, but it is imperative to make your comment unique in order to ensure that it is read and responded to accordingly. 

For more resources to fight the finalization of this harmful rule, read this document containing websites for action-taking, informative webinars and articles, and sign-on letters. 

Farzana Esmail hosts fireside chat on FGC with co-founder of Sahiyo

By Hunter Kessous

Mariya Taher, U.S. Executive Director and co-founder of Sahiyo, and Farzana Esmail, survivor, mother and advocate, sat down together to have a virtual fireside chat on female genital cutting: part interview, part sincere exchange of stories, and part education. Upon introducing Mariya’s background, Farzana asks her to call on her expertise to explain female genital cutting (FGC) to the audience, using World Health Organization classifications and statistics regarding global practice. Throughout the chat, Mariya provides essential background on FGC, making this a great video to watch for people of varying knowledge levels on FGC. 

 

Farzana described her experience of discovering through Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C that FGC is practiced not only in the Bohra community, but in Africa as well. Mariya explained that this misconception exists only because Africa is where the bulk of the research on FGC was occurring until recently. FGC has been recorded as being practiced in at least 92 countries. Sahiyo conducted research on the Bohra community and discovered 80% of women from their sample had been cut. 

Another finding of that same study was that 81% of women did not want FGC to continue for the next generation. Farzana asked the important question of why FGC continues to be practiced if so many women feel this way. Mariya used the concept of pluralistic ignorance to explain: the tradition lives on because nobody in the community talks about FGC and therefore, nobody knows that other women are also suffering and do not want to cut their daughters. Sahiyo’s social change platform was born to amplify the stories and voices of survivors. Mariya references a study finding that in order to achieve social change, 25% of a community is needed to reach a certain tipping point, which is slowly happening within the Bohra community. 

Mariya also discussed the shift from the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an important global health policy. The MDGs were a UN framework created in 2000 that enlisted all countries who signed on to put an end to various issues globally and to measure their achievement towards these goals. The MDG goal to abandon FGC only applied to 29 or 30 relevant countries, which were mostly within Africa and the Middle East. The issue here is that FGC is a global issue. It is prevalent in South Asia and is practiced in at least 92 countries. The SDGs, which followed the MDGs, finally recognized that FGC is a global practice. The fifth SDG specifically calls on countries to decrease FGC globally and measure the prevalence rates within their communities. 

In a similar vein to the importance of recognizing FGC as a global practice, Mariya shares the importance of involving men in the movement to end FGC. Sahiyo amplifies not only the voices of survivors, but also of fathers, brothers, and husbands of survivors. The goal is to show that FGC negatively impacts entire communities, not only the women who undergo FGC. This is an important action toward abandoning FGC. Revealing FGC to be more than just a women’s issue or a cultural issue means every single person has the right and responsibility to get involved in the movement to end FGC. 

Many are talking about the very important issue of an increase in gender-based violence as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown. Mariya has not noticed an increase in FGC within Asian communities or within the U.S., but instead notes the distress that the lockdown causes many FGC survivors. The isolation makes it harder to seek help, and the sense of a loss of control can trigger a trauma response for survivors. It’s important to draw attention to this issue in order to provide survivors with the services they need. Read the full transcript here, and view this eye opening discussion here.

 

Survivor: Why labia elongation is female genital mutilation

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

By Jenny Cordle

When Comfort Dudzai was 9 years old, her father’s two sisters and her nanny took her and her cousins to her family’s rural home in Chipinge, in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe outside of Harare. In six long weeks the three women taught the girls a combination of lessons on hygiene, virginity and marriage. 

Each morning the group would gather in the forest near hot springs off the Save River for a lesson. One morning the 9-year-olds were taught how to elongate their labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva, arguably one of the most sensitive parts of female anatomy. 

“The men in our culture expect that you have your labia the (length) of your middle finger,” Comfort said. “For the first few sessions, the older ladies actually pull on the labia minora for you.”

Her aunts used their hands and secret herbs for the elongation. “It was a holistic teaching about womanhood, and the labia pulling is just one of the components.” 

There is a myth about the herbal mixture being made of bat wings. 

“It is painful,” Comfort said. “You cannot cry. You endure.” 

Comfort had an allergic reaction to the herbs. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong until I started facing complications,” she said. “I felt safe because these are women I trust and love, and women I know who love me and want the best for me.” 

Comfort’s pain didn’t end with the initial allergic reaction. She had complications with the delivery of her first son as a result of the labia elongation, and eventually had a surgical operation due to many infections. 

Although there are various forms of female genital mutilation/cutting and different classifications in terms of severity, the World Health Organization (WHO) stops short of explicitly listing labia elongation as Type 4, which “includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.”

Labia elongation is encouraged to enhance sexual pleasure not only for men, but for women as well. Whether the prior WHO classification, which actually included “stretching of the clitoris and/or labia,” was altered after two researchers published a study suggesting that Rwandan women experience labia elongation as positive is unclear. 

Types 1-3 classify what can be construed as reductive types of female genital mutilation/cutting. But labia elongation is not considered reductive since nothing is cut away. Instead the labia is pulled during a series of sessions, in what some deem as modification because the process appears to be devoid of violence. Consent is key.

For Comfort, the idea that girls are coerced into altering their genitals for the pleasure of men, and even for themselves, can be psychologically damaging. She is sharing her story to bring awareness to the process and to protect girls in the future. 

“Psychologically, it tells a girl that you’re not enough,” she said. “You need to alter something and there’s something deep about telling a young lady that age that you need to make yourself this way for a man. You’re not good enough. There’s even stories about women who get returned from their marriage — that they need to go and pull that labia longer. It’s very damaging to women. It places the value of the man over the woman.”

Labeling elongation, pulling or stretching as labia modification undermines the harmful effects on girls and connotes agency, whereas in many girls experiences, they aren’t given a choice.

Labia elongation is or has been practiced among groups in several African countries including Benin, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the BBC, it is reportedly happening in the United Kingdom among diaspora communities. 

Comfort (Dondo) Dudzai participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop led by StoryCenter and Sahiyo, and funded by the George Washington School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.

Asia Network to End FGM/C calls for your participation

Malaysian NGO Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and British charity Orchid Project are jointly developing a new Asia Network to End FGM/C, to strengthen movements to end the practice of FGC in Asian communities.

To shape this network and its priorities, all interested organisations, activists, and stakeholders working in the region on FGM/C or related issues in Asia are invited to fill out this consultation survey. The closing date for this survey will be 22nd December 2019.

My mother thought she was saving me with khafz

By Rashida

I can recall with crystal clear memory my mother taking me at around age 7 to a dilapidated old Chawl style building in a Bohra Mohalla in Bhendi Bazaar. My mom wore a dark orange saree with a green, white and light orange geometrical design. We climbed up broken wooden steps to go to the first floor on which there were several rooms with closed doors. We knocked on one of those doors and a lady quietly let us in.

grayscale photo of man woman and child
Photo by Kristin De Soto on Pexels.com

We sat down on the bare carpet and my mom greeted her with a salaam. The lady disappeared behind a curtained door. I know she came back with washed hands because my mom made me do the traditional salaam that we do to the elders, and her hands were wet and smelled of soap as I kissed them.

The lady sat down across from us and I kneeled down to do the salaam. As I was finishing the salaam the lady pulled my pants down. My mom pulled me back, held my hands and covered my face with her sari and put her face in the sari folds so I could see her face, too. I felt a searing pain between my legs and I began to cry, and my mom made big scolding eyes (that’s how she always silenced me to show me her disapproval), and I reduced my crying to a slow whimper. I was very frightened and had no idea what was happening.

The lady squeezed the tip of my clitoris firmly with a ball of cotton soaked in red mercurochrome as a final move. She told me to keep that ball of cotton in place and not to touch it until it remained stuck to my clitoris. My pants were pulled up and I sat in my mom’s lap sobbing. The lady appeared again from behind the curtained door and was drying her hands now on a napkin. She pried open my clenched fist and forced two Parle G glucose biscuits into it, and I clutched them while clinging to my mom in a petrified state with the other hand. My Mom did salaam to the lady with an envelope filled with money and we began to leave.

I walked out very slowly holding my mother’s hand and we began to descend the staircase. My mom picked me up and carried me down. I remember that moment most vividly today because my mom had stopped carrying me since I was so tall and grown up. I was relieved and happy that she was carrying me because she had not done that in a very long time.

Mom then called for a passing taxi cab. We took taxicabs only for special occasions like a wedding or if we had too many people in a group. I looked up and asked her, “Mummy, we are going in a taxicab to uncle’s home? It is only half full?” And she just smiled and asked me to eat the biscuits.

The taxicab drove us to my uncle’s home (my mom’s brother) and as I was playing outside a few hours later, I overheard my mom talking quietly to my aunts (her sister and sister-in-law). “Oh, I thought Rashida would cry and scream,” she said. “She was so good, and look she is already running around. You cannot even tell it has happened. I was told she would shout and kick her feet. But she is all okay.” Mom said she was relieved that the deed was done.

Later that afternoon, I told my mom about the bloody ball of cotton that was still loose and lying around in my underwear and she threw it away for me. My brothers were playing around and my 11-year-old brother asked me, “What happened to you? Did somebody do something to you?” He must have overheard the adults talking. He does not remember this incident. I just ran away too scared to answer.

The community is getting regressive and male-dominated and under the influence of clergy clout. Despite FGM/C education, the social pressure to follow the diktats is palpable, real and fearful. Social boycott and fear of Laanat holds back the followers in shackles of complete submission.

The issue of equality is a blatant cover-up. The clitoral hood is clearly called “Haram ni Boti” in all sermons and all discussions that are held privately in the community. “This piece of flesh has to be taken out or the girl will be sexually promiscuous.” The Sabak or lessons given by the priests and their wives at the mosques, preach to the parents and especially to the mothers that “your daughters will have an extramarital affair or pre-marital sex if you do not do this. Save your family’s name by doing khafz.”

I do not hate my mother for doing FGM/C to me. She was an educated woman of her times with a BSc, B.Ed., and an M.S. in Chemistry. She was a teacher and retired as principal of her school. She was a victim of this procedure, too.

My mother thought she was saving me. I am sure there was a lot of social pressure from the family and community. My only conversation with her was a casual single comment she uttered as she overheard my friend complaining about health issues her young daughters were facing. My mom quietly said, “We do a procedure to our girls that prevents urinary tract infections in young girls.” I was embarrassed and knew she was referring to FGM/C. So I said, “No, mom, that is wrong and not true!” Mom just walked away. My friend had no idea what we were talking about.

We had no conversation about FGM/C or what happened to me at all thereafter. My mom passed away very young at 61 years of age and I will never have my questions answered. I love my mother dearly and she will be the strongest woman I will know in this lifetime.

I do know that my mom would support my anti-FGM/C stance today if she were alive, provided that my father would not stop her. My dad would be very angry with me today if he knew I was opposing the Syedna in any shape or form.

I run in full marathons and ran my first marathon at age 46. In total, I have run seven full marathons, including those in New York, Chicago, and Washington, and plan to continue running until I die. Running brings me peace of mind and strength. I truly believe I am the oldest woman of Indian heritage still running in marathons and the only Bohra woman my age running, yet I do not feel that the community acknowledges this accomplishment. I am considered a rebel for this act of running as well as for my stance against FGM/C. I will turn 51 soon and will be running the Philadelphia marathon in November of this year, and it will be my eighth full marathon.

My mom used to say, “There should be hope in life. If there is no hope, there is no life.” I hope to see a law banning FGM/C in India. There is no mention of this practice in the Quran and it actually predates Islam. I hope to see the practice of female khatna/FGM/C stopped globally.

 

Featured

Discovering female genital cutting in my community

By Mariam Sabir

Country of Residence: United States

With so many issues in the world that need to be addressed, we have to pick and choose our battles, whether it may be poverty, education, inequality, or gender violence. The majority of people choose something that they can most relate to via personal or cultural experiences. With this first blog I will write about my personal journey of discovering female genital cutting (FGC) in 2011 and why it took me eight years to finally do something about it.

Bohra women

My sister is my confidant, as I am hers. I was 17 years old when my sister pulled me aside urgently to talk to me about something she could not fathom. She had just discovered FGC. I was still in high school and did not grasp the gravity of the situation. A few years later, I was sitting in my healthcare ethics course in undergrad and my professor breezed over the topic of female genital cutting. My mind started to spin. This could not possibly be what my sister was talking about? I called her immediately after class and she confirmed it. I was enraged as though I was hearing it and truly understanding it for the first time. It felt like a conspiracy. No one in the community talked about it. How many of my cousins, friends, and aunts had gone through this and had never spoken of it?

I was desperate to talk to someone about this. Surely there must be somewhere I could go to get more information. I called the first person that came to mind, my mother. I could sense her discomfort in talking about this subject. She told me it is a Bohra custom, a social norm within our community that people feel compelled to perpetuate without questioning, even by my grandmother as well. My mother admitted that it was a traumatic experience, but did not want to indulge further.

I was not satisfied. I called my aunt. My aunt is more liberal and expressive; she writes poetry and is an activist in her own ways. Surely, she would have more to say about this. She told me it was done supposedly to moderate a woman’s sexual urges to prevent premarital or extramarital affairs. To my dismay, this was the end of our conversation.

My attempt to gather information seemed like an impossible task. I did not know where to go or who to talk to, so I pushed my thoughts aside until that summer when I went back home to Dubai. I was curious to see how much Bohra men knew about this. I met up with an old Bohra friend and told him what I had discovered. He immediately said, “Well, men get it done, too.” I was disappointed. I told him that male circumcision and FGC were not equivalent, that FGC was much more psychologically and sexually damaging for a female. He continued to defend the custom saying there must be a reason why Moula (the leader of our community) recommends it. There must be a long-term benefit from the procedure that we don’t know about. I was in disbelief. How could he not think it was wrong? I was left more confused and angry after that conversation. Was I making this a bigger deal than it needs to be? Why is no one else speaking up about this?

I attended medical school and the more I learned about female anatomy, the more upset I got thinking about FGC. I felt powerless until I heard a friend talking about Sahiyo. I was shocked and relieved. It was comforting to know that I share the same views as many other women. Up until then, I felt like my emotions of anger and distrust were out of proportion and unjustified. There was finally a safe space to discuss FGC, gather information and truly understand its origins.

Through Sahiyo, I learned more about how we can create awareness and discussion about such a sensitive and taboo subject. In retrospect, I wish I had handled the conversation with my Bohra male friend differently. It was presumptuous for me to think he would understand what women went through. Afterall, it is our body, not his. I wish I had the tact and knowledge to educate him about the long-lasting effects of FGC, to tell him that it is not a small-community problem but a human rights issue. That taking a child at the age of seven and altering her anatomy forever is not okay. That depriving a woman from experiencing pleasure during sexual activity is not okay. That potentially causing severe pain and complications for women’s reproductive health is not okay. That tampering with God’s creation of a perfect body is not okay. That perpetuating patriarchal standards by continuing this practice is not okay.

All the secretiveness around this topic should be a red flag for everyone who blindly follows this practice. So let’s question it. Let’s drop the secrecy. Let’s drop the shame. Let’s create awareness. Let’s educate each other.

 

 

Why I care about khatna: Reflections from the 2019 Sahiyo Activist Retreat

By Alisha Bhagat

I first found out about female genital cutting, or khatna, in my community in my twenties; my mother told me it had been done to her. At the time I was shocked. I thought this was something that happened to other people in far off places, not to my mom or Nani or Masi. It was only after talking to other Bohra women that I realized that I was not unusual in knowing a survivor. Every woman in our community is a survivor or knows a survivor.

As I began talking to people about khatna, I started to receive some pushback. Even people who admitted the practice was outdated and unnecessary were uncomfortable speaking about it. In the grand scheme of things, I was told, this is so small. It’s such a small pinch of skin. It’s just a moment in a girl’s life. It’s not indicative of who we are and all the good things we have done and built.

Copy of DSC_0120.jpg
Alisha Bhagat

But I believe the opposite, it is precisely in small moments that we show what we value and who we are. Khatna is more than a cut, it is the manifestation of so many other underlying problems.

As activists we focus on khatna for a few reasons. First we believe this practice itself is traumatic, unnecessary, and has long lasting implications for women’s health and sexuality. It is a straightforward violation of bodily autonomy. Second, the culture surrounding it speaks to the way in which we are shamed, silenced, diminished, threatened, and put in our places.

Earlier this year I attended the Sahiyo Activist Retreat. This retreat help me see how khatna is part of a large system. Just as there are many factors that perpetuate this practice (culture of shame, silence, and devaluation of female sexual experience) there are also many ways in which we have leverage to act.

The retreat highlighted different areas in which we can act to both support survivors and end this practice through the legal system, the medical establishment, in our places of worship, our homes, and our families. At the foundation of all of this is storytelling. Without survivors and allies sharing their stories, the topic remains shrouded in silence.

My hope is that the retreat will help grow our community of activists. And that there will be other safe spaces for people to talk, share stories, and connect. Most importantly, for us to create new models of being in the world, creating new spaces and communities.