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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

I still don’t get why my mom took me there: A Bohra survivor of female genital cutting speaks out

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: India

Age: 31

Many communities across the world continue to practice female genital mutilation (FGM). In India, it’s mainly the Bohras, a sub-sect of Shias who practice FGM, also known as khatna. The clitoris and/or labia of little girls is cut or mutilated with the belief that it would curb their sexual desires and stop premarital sex. Many of the women performing khatna have no medical qualifications and are typically women who have learned to perform the cutting from their ancestors. Many midwives perform this in the name of salwaat (or blessings). But they hardly know why they are doing this.

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Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

When you are a child, your parents and grandparents are people you trust the most. They tell you about not interacting with strangers or not allowing any stranger to touch you in your private areas. Still it’s your close family who takes you for khatna, allowing a complete stranger to touch you inappropriately and cut your clitoris. It’s like being betrayed by the people you believe in and trust the most.

I am writing this to share my experience. At the age of six, I was taken out by my mom like any normal day, although most of my childhood memories haven’t made as strong of an impact as this one. We reached a stranger’s place. I went inside the house with my mom. My trousers were removed and then I was told to lie down. I felt extreme pain in my private area. I could feel, although I was instructed to look at the ceiling. I was doing that, and within a few minutes, my mom said, let’s leave. I was still experiencing the pain. The pain was terrible when I urinated.

I never really understood why my mom took me there. I still don’t get it. Why do something terrible to a girl which can leave a psychological scar in their mind which never heals?  In fact, when I became a teenager, I asked my mom why she allowed this khatna to happen to me. The answer I got was tradition, and that it prevents cancer. Then the other question which immediately popped up for me was, “Why only us?” Later I found out it’s mostly done to curb the sexual desire of girls. This practice ultimately leads the girls to mistrust the people they are supposed to trust the most.

It’s not in that instant you realize what happened, but gradually the memory becomes too vivid. Just because something is practiced for generations doesn’t mean it should go on without questioning its existence. People have to change their thinking about existing rules and guidelines to follow in the name of customs. The problem is that if you come out of the shadows and rebel, you may be thought of as an outcast. It’s not us we are afraid of but people we know. Family and friends will be treated differently as well. I believe in taking small steps of at least opening up about what you feel will help you to let go of that which you are suppressing. That will ultimately will give you the confidence of coming out of the shadows and facing the light.

My experience at the Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat made me reflect on my khatna

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Age: 45 years old

I often wondered what the two women closest to me thought about khatna. I wondered because I never really talked with my sister or my mom about it. Well, we talked, but not with much purpose. I thought they were against it, just like me. I told them that I was going to a Sahiyo Activist Retreat where I would meet other Bohri women who are against khatna, otherwise known as female genital cutting. They said okay.

At the retreat, I realized that before I advocate publicly, I needed to process my own situation privately. I had khatna performed on me when I was young. I have not talked much about it. My story is much like most. I was probably under 10 years old at the time. Seems like most remember it being done when they were seven. Perhaps that was also the age when it was done to me. I was playing outside with a friend. I’m not sure what we were playing, but it seemed like a normal day and I was doing something perfectly normal. An aunt called out and said we were going somewhere. Was I to go get ice cream? I remember not wanting to leave my playmate and crying. I was taken to a relative’s home not too far from where we lived. It’s been decades, but the memory is vivid. We walked up the stairs. There were two women at the house. One held my hand. The other pulled down my panties. I remember crying. It drowned out what was happening to me.

A sharp pain. Blood. Blade. That’s what I remember. I don’t remember how I got home.

For the next few days, I remember the pain. I could not walk properly. I was sore. I walked with my legs apart, afraid of scraping the area that hurt.

Time moved on. And I suppressed my memory of what happened.

Years later, we heard of an African woman talking about FGM in the news. We all were outraged. A cousin told me that what happened to us when we were young was FGM. What? I was surprised. And somewhat glad. Because I was able to finally understand what happened when I was younger. Khatna was FGM. It was like solving a mystery of my life.

Life went on. I became sexually active and curious. Sex hurt and orgasm was hard. I asked my doctors about it. Most of them did not know. I asked my gynecologist to check me out. They said they saw a nick, but nothing much. Nothing much.

I often wonder if it is in my head if the pain I feel is because of something else. The pain is sharp. And, when certain parts are touched, it is unforgiving.

There is so much silence around khatna that there is not a good understanding of the harm to women. I do not know if I am the only one, or if there are others who feel this way. Are there others like me who are suffering from khatna decades later? Are there others like me who can’t have healthy sexual relationships with their husbands? Are there others like me suffering in silence?

After coming back from the retreat, I talked to my mom about my experience with khatna. She was surprised to know that it had impacted me long-term. I was surprised to learn that she was not impacted by it at all. I also talked to my sister. She said that she blindly follows the Bohri teachings and is neutral on the issue. And, like my mom, it has not impacted her long- term. I thought my sister would automatically be against it. But I was wrong.

Next day, I recapped the story to my husband, who does not share my religion. While he was sympathetic, his anger turned into islamophobic rhetoric and a focus on my “crazy” culture. There are so many “crazy” cultures, and perhaps mine is another use case for patriarchy.

I don’t hate my culture, the people who performed khatna on me, or the people who defend the practice. I want the judgment to stop. I want the fear to stop. I want to create a safe place for conversation and understanding.

I know there is work to do to change attitudes about khatna. I learned that the work is much closer to home than I thought.

 

Survivor of Mumbai: Plight to End Female Genital Cutting

By Brionna Wiggins

(An alias was provided to protect the survivor’s identity and family.)

There was once a girl who was seven-years-old in Mumbai, India. She and her mother visited a woman so that she could have her “khatna” done. Her mother was an educated woman and later a principal of a school. Today, she was having done to her daughter what her mother had done to her. The mother did her research too, because the woman they visited was known to be quick and effective. There were claims that she inflicted the least amount of pain possible. The little girl paid her respects to the woman who would do the khatna without quite knowing why she was there. Before she knew it, she felt the pain. Then the woman guided her to the sink to wash her hands and pressed two cookies in her small palm–cookies that had been a favorite treat until then.

After the procedure was over, the mother carried the girl down the stairs. She was considered a “big girl” at the time and hadn’t been carried in ages. They got a taxi as well, despite the family being poor. The mere presence of the taxi testified to the importance of the event, not to mention the trouble she would have walking back to her uncle’s house. The mother spoke with an aunt there, saying she thought her daughter would cry for hours; but she seemed fine now, though. However, she was far from fine. Fatima wouldn’t talk about this event for another four decades.

closeup photo of yellow taxi
Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

As an adult, Fatima gained the courage to speak up about FGC. Three years ago, when Masooma Ranalvi started to advocate against the practice, Fatima found her voice. A survey by Sahiyo was also done, which revealed that no one spoke about the practice, but continued it even though the community that practiced it was considered educated and progressive. Female genital cutting (FGC) was a generational secret that about 80% of the surveyed population underwent. There is an understandable cause for worry within the community if one does not undergo it. Skipping out on the procedure could lead to a handful of issues, including a loss in social standing, or the local clergy harassing parents if you’re in the United States with your family back in India. Families persuade their women to have their daughters cut they believe to purify them and prevent promiscuity. Some succumb to the pressure, while others lie that the procedure was done so the constant nagging can subside. There’s also the option of vacation cutting (sending the girl away on a “vacation” for her to be cut) for those in America. Even all the way in Detroit, a personal shame makes it so that one may only talk about it amongst their closest friends. Fatima knows another woman, a lawyer in Houston, who went to Pakistan at age seven in order to be cut. It’s believed by some to be the ideal age because the girl is young and submissive, but old enough to remember what was done to her and continue the tradition when she has daughters.

Fatima is happily married with her husband and has two adult children, both boys. However, if she ever had a daughter, she would not have let her undergo FGC. A friend of hers commented on this once, claiming she was fortunate to not have to deal with female issues, like urinary tract infections. Fatima’s mother was visiting at the time and overheard their conversation.

Her mother said something along the lines of, “Oh, our girls don’t get infections because we have this done to them,” referring to FGC.

The friend did not know of FGC and probably would have asked more if Fatima didn’t interject. “That’s not true,” she told her visibly shocked mother. “Let’s not talk about it now.”

Unfortunately, the time to talk about FGC never came for Fatima and her mother. When thinking about her late mother, Fatima believes that she would be upset with herself in learning that while her mother had the intention to genuinely help Fatima, the incident only harmed her at seven-years-old, and still does today.

Fatima doesn’t have any physical problems as a result of being cut, but the trauma from the event still resides within her. After all these years, she remembers the pain. She believes that she lives a relatively normal and happy life, but the memory of being cut is there.

She can’t talk about it without crying, even though she doesn’t want to cry. “Why was this done to me?” Fatima said that she didn’t want her tears to weaken the message to end cutting. Fatima wants FGC survivors to open up, speak up, and get the help they need. The next generation needs to be protected and supported. Fatima said that even with leading a relatively normal life, the trauma is still there. “I will never be a full woman. I will never know [the] full sex experience, and I will never know how it feels to be uncut.”

Brionnabiopic

 

More on Brionna:

Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.

 

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 5: The “C” Word… and I Don’t Mean Circumcision

(This article is Part 5 of a seven-part series on trauma related to Female Genital Cutting. To read the complete series, click here. These articles should NOT be used in lieu of seeking professional mental health and counseling services when needed.)

By Joanna Vergoth, LCSW, NCPsyA

Since the ritual of Female Genital Cutting (FGC)  involves the clitoris, it seems important to learn more about this organ and its function. But first a bit of history, or—more appropriately—herstory.

In over 5 million years of human evolution, only one organ exists for the sole purpose of providing pleasure — the clitoris. Yet, from ancient times to the present, the anatomy of the clitoris has been discovered, repressed, and rediscovered. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, born circa 460 B.C., called the clitoris “columella”: the little pillar. About 500 years later, Galen, an anatomist renowned in Rome, denied its existence. Centuries later, the 1901 edition of Gray’s Anatomy included a drawing of the female pelvis in cross-section, showing a small protrusion with the label “clitoris” (Gray, 1901). In the 1948 edition of Gray’s Anatomy, there is an analogous illustration of female genital anatomy (Goss, 1948). Yet, the label of the clitoris is now gone. The clitoral protrusion of the older illustration is also removed. As a result, the clitoris has now been erased (Moore & Clarke, 1995).

Just The Tip of The Clitoris

In reality, what we generally think of as the clitoris—what we can see and feel—is just the pea size tip of the clitoris, called the “glans”. The glans, located at the top of a woman’s vulva, at the point where the labia majora meet (near the pubic bone), contains approximately 8000 sensory nerve fibers—more than anywhere else in the human body. In fact, the amount of sensory nerve fibers in the glans is twice the amount found on the head of a penis.

More Than Meets The Eye

Many people assume that all there is to the clitoris is the glans, but with the clitoris, what you see is not what you get. Helen O’Connell, an Australian urologist, and her colleagues have corrected that misconception (O’Connell, Sanjeevan, and Hutson, 2005). Using modern imaging techniques such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), O’Connell has shown that there is much more to the clitoris than what meets the eye. They discovered that the glans of the clitoris is simply the tip of an extensive organ.

In fact, three-quarters of the clitoris is inside the body. As shown below, the clitoris is a MRI clitwishbone-shaped structure that is about 3 ½ in. (9 cm) in length and 2 ½ in. (6 cm) in width. The glans extends backward into the clitoral body. The glans then split into the two leg-like parts, the crura, which are composed of erectile tissue and are next to the vagina and urethra (see MRI photo below of internal clitoris). The vestibular bulbs are two elongated masses of erectile tissue situated on either side of the vaginal opening.

The Clitoris and Its Place within the Vulva

The vulva is a single term used to describe all the external female genital organs. These sub parts internal clitorisorgans include the labia majora, the labia minora, the clitoris, the vestibule of the vagina, the bulb of the vestibule, and the glands of Bartholin. The two sets of labia (lips) form an oval shape around the vagina. The labia minora are smaller and surround the vagina. The labia majora are larger, and, after puberty, the outer part of the labia majora is covered with pubic hair.

Since there are large portions of the clitoris extending through the pubic area, sexual responsiveness is not limited to direct or indirect stimulation of the clitoral glans (Wallen and Lloyd, 2011). Due to this extended internal structure, the clitoris can respond to stimulation of the external vaginal labia, the vagina itself, and the anus. As a woman draws closer to orgasm, the clitoris can swell by 50 percent to 300 percent. According to O’Connell, “The vaginal wall is, in fact, the clitoris.” If you lift the skin of the side walls of the vagina you will find the bulbs of the clitoris (O’Connell 2008). O’Connell proposed the notion that during vaginal intercourse it is the “clitoral complex” that is stimulated.

Clitoral anatomy and FGC: Removing the glans of the clitoris does not mean the whole organ is destroyed.

The issue of clitoral anatomy is also significant concerning the practice of image5clitorectomy. Type 1 FGC: Often referred to as clitoridectomy, is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals), and in some cases, only the prepuce or hood (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris). The clitoral hood varies in size, shape, thickness, and other aspects of its appearance from woman to woman. Some women have large clitoral hoods which appear to cover the clitoral glans. Others have much smaller hoods which leave the clitoral glans exposed. While the biological function of the clitoral hood is simply to protect the clitoral glans from friction and other external forces, this body part is also an erogenous zone. It provides natural lubrication, which makes stimulation of the clitoral area more pleasurable. As the clitoral glans itself is often too sensitive to touch, many women gain pleasure from having the glans indirectly stimulated through the clitoral hood. 

Although female sexual pleasure is often hindered by clitoridectomy, many women report that they are still able to enjoy sex (Lightfoot-Klein, 1989, Kelly and Hillard, 2005). One researcher has found that even infibulated women may still have the ability to achieve orgasm. Dr. Lucrezia Catania, who has studied and treated FGC-affected women in Italy for two decades, has found that when some of the sensitive tissue of the labia minora and clitoris remain intact, infibulated women can experience orgasm, while others cannot and instead feel pain.

Pelvic Nerve

The clitoris has enormous potential for arousal, but what may affect sensitivity is the supply of nerve endings and the individual pattern of each clitoris, which explains the variation in women’s preference for stimulation. The pelvic nerve branches in individual ways for every woman. The pathway distribution is quite different and far more diffuse from male sexual wiring, which is much more uniform.

Some women’s nerves branch more in the vagina while other women’s branch more in the clitoris, or in the perineum (the skin between the anus and vagina) or in the mouth of the cervix. No two women—not even identical twins—have the same pattern and distribution of nerves. This complex system of nerve endings extends into the pelvis and is in fact far larger on the inside than it is on the outside. When stimulated, the erect clitoris tightens around the vagina. This means that “vaginal orgasms” are actually caused by the clitoris, not nerves on the vaginal walls themselves. Whether brought on by penetration or external stimulation, all orgasms are clitoral. 

Not only can the anatomical facts of the clitoris help alter cultural biases and mythologies, but correct knowledge of clitoral anatomy may help enhance a woman’s appreciation and experience of her body.


The information for this article was sourced from:

  • Blechner, Mark, J., “The Clitoris: Anatomical and Psychological Issues.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 18:3 (2017): 190-200.
  • Wolf, Naomi. Vagina A new Biography. New York: Harper Collins, 2012
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clitoris

The images included were researched from internet sources.

About Joanna Vergoth:

Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in trauma. Throughout the past forma logo15 years she has become a committed activist in the cause of FGC, first as Coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, and most recently with the creation of forma, a charity organization dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women affected by FGC, and also offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy and awareness training to hospitals, social service agencies, universities and the community at large.

Not all damages are physical. Not everyone religious is morally ethical

Name: Xenobia (name changed)

Age: 27
Country: India

Today, social media is raging with thoughts and opinions on empowering women, being pro-choice, violating someone’s privacy and their body, and the role of consent, among others. Some say rapists must undoubtedly be hung to death, while some talk about punishing molesters and eve-teasers as well, so that the right patterns are set at the grassroots level and so that they think twice before taking advantage of girls again.

But what happens when the people taking advantage of a helpless 7-year-old girl are none other than her own family and community? Who, then, takes accountability for that? I’m not going to cry about my personal story here, but present some basic facts for you to consider. I am a Bohra Muslim raised in India. While the world sees us as a non-confrontational, peace-loving, business-thriving community, we have a secret tradition of circumcising 6-7-year-old girl children that we call khatna.

There are plenty of arguments about how this is “needed” from a health point of view for males and how it helps them in their sex life eventually, but the most educated and civilised people agree that this practice is harmful to a woman’s physical, psychological and emotional health, especially since it is not supervised or is often performed by untrained aunties in basements. This practice is officially termed as “Female Genital Mutilation” (FGM) everywhere else in the world and it is increasingly treated as a crime committed on helpless female children.

Why? What’s the reason?

Some say purity, some say patriarchy. Some do it because it’s a mandatory tradition and if the priest says so, who dares to refuse? Some do it out of peer pressure, some do it to avoid being blacklisted or labelled rebellious. The popular conclusion for those seeking out answers has been, to moderate or curb a woman’s sexual desires. Sure, this might have worked well in an era when we lived in deserts and tribes were always on the lookout for stealing another’s woman.

Irrespective of the reason today, does it even matter? However good your reasons may be, you still don’t have the right to decide what to do to a woman’s body without her consent. Whoever you may be. No matter what your intentions, the damage is done and you are still no different from a criminal.

So what does this mean for the victims?

The custom practiced by us is allegedly ‘Type 1’ and is different from that practiced by some African communities – Type 2 and Type 3 (based on levels of severity). As recognised by the World Health Organization, Type 1 FGC is described as the cutting of the clitoral hood and/or the clitoris, which poses a range of physical and emotional consequences such as infections, excessive bleeding, burning sensations while urinating, etc. The practice can adversely affect mental health as well since many young girls feel personally betrayed, helpless and confused. The child can also experience fear of sexual intimacy and mistrust of community members later in life as a result of the trauma. Sounds familiar?

But aren’t there thousands of other women who have gone through the same thing, and claim they are not facing sexual problems?

Just like most people don’t talk to others about what happens in their bedrooms, there are FGM survivors who don’t talk about their sex lives in public either. Some of them scream in pain through the night or are unable to have a healthy “bedroom life”. Plenty of these women are regular patients of doctors, sexologists, counsellors, and therapists. Yes, they manage to get pregnant (which is not very hard to do, with or without a man) but is the process peaceful and pain-free? No.

Everyone talks about divorce rates going up but nobody realises why. They don’t see that in general, women are subject to a lot of curbing throughout their upbringing. Things have always been decided for them and whatever the gender might be, it’s not like we are brought up in a community that breeds leaders or independent decision makers. We are a herd of brainwashed followers. And with the recent #metoo revolution, women have just started discovering their voice.

My personal take

Yes, I was ‘cut’ too. I don’t remember the details, but I remember flashes. I was taken to meet “some aunty” and I remember not having a very good feeling about it, but you do what you’re asked to do anyway. We went to her gloomy house in Calcutta and she asked me to stand over an Indian-style toilet with my legs apart and I remember seeing blood fall. That’s all.

I definitely remember having a hard time peeing for a week after that. Since this clearly does not qualify as a regular dinner conversation, it was just never spoken of after that. At age 16, I came across this ‘Muslim practice’ in Jean Sasson’s book – Princess. Among other terrible things done to women in Saudi Arabia, this was described in detail and that awoke something in my memory.

At first, I was scared and terrified because I didn’t know what to do with that information. It didn’t make any sense. Why would something that awful be done to me? What was the purpose? Was this religious? Was this medical? Gradually, I started asking other people of my age about it. Thanks to the internet, I started understanding a lot more of this ‘barbaric’ practice and how it is just another side effect of our patriarchal world, where random men decide how we must lead our lives and what is good for us.

What I couldn’t wrap my head around was how parents would let that happen to their own kids. When your daughter is at the peak of her innocence and brimming with nothing but pure love for you, you violate that basic trust. And then you actually hand her over to the monster who does that to her?

So your religion asks you to cut her body. And you see nothing wrong with that. And what about the repercussions and damages – physical, mental and emotional? She deals with those all her life. And if this is something you truly feel isn’t wrong, then why the hush-hush? Why the secret? Tell everyone about it, celebrate it, like you do for a misaaq ceremony? Why stop there? Of course, there are always exceptions too. Plenty of well-wishers keep trying to tell me that’s it’s not my fault and I shouldn’t worry about it, and I say, “Yes I know, and yet, I’m the one paying the price.”

What is really sad is that so many girls out there probably still don’t even know or remember this incident taking place. They are living under the impression that sex is bad and painful, and perhaps the problem is with them. Like most of our teachings. All the more reason why I am grateful to Sahiyo for this amazing platform for women to share their stories, to empathise, to let girls like me know that I am not the only damaged one and that I don’t need to see myself as a victim. Empowering women through storytelling seems like a glorious part of our culture that they are taking forward!

 

Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 4: Psycho-sexual functioning

(This article is Part 4 of a seven-part series on trauma related to Female Genital Cutting. To read the complete series, click here. These articles should NOT be used in lieu of seeking professional mental health and counseling services when needed.)

By Joanna Vergoth, LCSW, NCPsyA

When discussing psychosexual functioning following FGC, it is critical to acknowledge and recognize that many women who have undergone FGC will not experience sexual health problems. It is also important to note that many women with intact genitals do experience sexual difficulties. Female sexuality is a complex integration of biological, physiological, psychological, sociocultural and interpersonal factors that contribute to a combined experience of physical, emotional and relational satisfaction.

Nevertheless, symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can interfere across the continuum of sexual behavior affecting desire, arousal, physical and/or psychological pleasure. The amygdala is the organ in the brain that alerts us to possible danger and responds to the danger by triggering the fear response along with the release of the stress hormones.  A state of negative hyperarousal persists for those who have been re-triggered by some person, place or memory associated to the original trauma while suffering from PTSD (see The Body and The Brain). Biopsycholsocial factors impacting sexual function

For some women affected by Female Genital Cutting (FGC), re-traumatizing triggers can be their initial (and ongoing) sexual experiences. Not only can the physical position (identical to that required for FGC) induce a flashback, but the already traumatized genital area can feel repeatedly violated with sexual activity, gynecological exams—or childbirth itself. [Note. in Sahiyo’s Exploratory Student on FGC in the Bohra community, 108 women reported that their FGC (khatna) had adversely affected their sex life – See Graph on the right]  Khatna sex lifeWhen these flashbacks occur the brain’s fear circuitry takes over and the hippocampus can no longer communicate effectively with the amygdala to allay its fears. This condition often leaves those affected feeling emotionally charged with generalized fear(s) that persist even after the traumatic event has passed. (See also ‘The Clitoral Hood – A Contested Site’) 

There are 3 primary psycho-sexual complications commonly associated with FGC:

  • painful intercourse (may be due to narrowing of vaginal canal; or excessive scarring, or clitoral neuromas, or infibulation or chronic infection);
  • difficulties reaching orgasm;
  • and, absence or reduction of sexual desire. 

Sexual difficulties can occur because for FGC survivors, positive sexual arousal mimics the physiological experience of fear. Once these hormonal and neuroanatomical associations have been forged through the intense experience of trauma and the associated PTSD symptoms, it can be difficult to uncouple them. PTSD SexIn these instances, arousal frequently signals impending threat rather than pleasure. Thus, the biology of PTSD primes an individual to associate arousal with trauma and this impairs the ability to contain the fear response—which in turn impedes sexual functioning and intimacy.

Due to repeated pain during sexual activity, women may develop anxiety responses to sex that restrict arousal and increase frustration—all of which can contribute to vaginal dryness, muscular spasm, painful intercourse and/or orgasmic failure. Women may actively avoid sexual activity to minimize feelings of physical arousal or vulnerability that could trigger flashbacks or intrusive memories. Others have reported that merely the fear of potential pain during intercourse and the frustration around delayed sexual arousal contributes to the lack of sexual desire. Recurring pain triggers memories adversely affected by the cutting. Chronic pain and distasteful memories reinforce each other and create a situation of mutual maintenance.

Emotional and/or physical pain during intercourse diminishes the enjoyment of both the woman and her partner. Complications such as these can contribute to feelings of worthlessness, inhibit social functioning and increase isolation. In fact, many women have expressed feelings of shame over being different and ‘less than’. Some may experience their circumcised genitals, now deemed ‘different’, as shaming. Others may feel responsible for the relationship distress that results and carry a burden of guilt for being unavailable to “provide” sex. They may perceive their anxiety and difficulty about permitting penetration as something they must overcome.

The psychological issues for younger women who have undergone FGC and are living in Westernized societies may be especially complex. These women (and their partners) are subjected to different discourses of sexuality that centralize erotic pleasure and frame orgasm as the endpoint of sex for women and men. Some women may struggle with what are deemed irretrievable losses. Feelings of aversion may extend beyond sex to physical closeness or even intimate relationships in general. In other situations, a woman may feel inferior to other women or less entitled to positive relationships, so that she may engage in an unsatisfactory or even damaging relationship which could further diminish her self-esteem. Another underlying belief behind FGC is that women’s genitals are impure, dirty or ugly if uncut. As a result of this perception, the female body is viewed as flawed—forcing women to modify their physical appearance to fit standards far removed from health, well-being and gender-equality objectives.

Unfortunately, the very nature of this subject often doesn’t allow for much insight, since FGC has always been shrouded in secrecy. Women may be reluctant to disclose because of the fear of being judged, since FGM/C is perceived by outsiders to be illegal, and abnormal. The belief that sexual matters are to be kept private also makes FGC-affected women inclined to keep quiet about their symptoms and suffer in silence or attribute their pain to other sources. However, healing from the trauma through talk therapy as well as open discussions about strategies for obtaining sexual pleasure after FGC can be critical for women to regain control of their sexual identity.

For more information about the Psychosexual Consequences affecting the Clitoris see Trauma and Female Genital Cutting, Part 5: The “C” Word…and I Don’t Mean Circumcision.

About Joanna Vergoth:

Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in trauma. Throughout the past 15 years she has become a committed activist in the cause of FGC, first as Coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, forma logoand most recently with the creation of forma, a charity organization dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women affected by FGC, and also offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy and awareness training to hospitals, social service agencies, universities and the community at large.