Sahiyo participated in key virtual events with global organizations in October

October was an incredibly busy month for Sahiyo, and we were honored to take part in many events to highlight the issue of female genital cutting (FGC) to various audiences in a multitude of virtual events including a medicalization webinar with #EndFGM Media Campaigns, Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar with StoryCenter, A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C, Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference, North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child, and Taboo Conversations with RAHMA.

#EndFGM Media Campaigns: Medicalization Webinar

On October 13th, the Global Media Campaign to End FGM and UNFPA hosted a webinar exploring effective media campaign strategies and approaches to work toward countering a growing trend of medicalization within practicing communities. Speakers included Dr. Amr Hassan, Diana Kendi, Ayotomiwa Ayodele, Hoda Ali, Dr. Mariam Dahir, and Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. To watch a replay of this webinar, visit https://fb.watch/1yN240JQra/

Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

In honor of the International Day of the Girl, the U.S. End FGM/C Network hosted an event on October 13 titled, “Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Eliminating FGM/C,” as a means to raise awareness and foster important dialogue around ending the harmful practice of FGM/C. The webinar focused on recent developments around the adoption of federal and state-level legislation to end FGM/C in the U.S. and where future policy efforts should focus; common barriers to developing and implementing effective FGM/C abandonment programs (i.e., lack of funding, data, awareness, etc.) and how the community can overcome them; and solutions for prioritizing FGM/C abandonment on the global stage. To watch a recap, view here.

The U.S. End FGM/C Network is a collaborative group of survivors, civil society organizations, foundations, activists, policymakers, researchers, healthcare providers, and others committed to promoting the abandonment of FGM/C in the U.S. and around the world.

Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar

Since 1993, StoryCenter has collaborated with individuals, grassroots groups, and organizations to centralize first-person stories in social justice efforts. The current political reality demands ever-more creative approaches to advocacy. On Oct 14th, in this one-hour free webinar, StoryCenter defined their approach to advocacy with an eye toward clarifying what kinds of stories are effective at community, institutional, and policy levels. They then highlighted research on the role that sharing and listening to personal stories can play in advocacy, and presented a case study of how they have worked with Sahiyo on the Voices to End FGM/C project to position digital storytelling as a key advocacy strategy. 

A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C 

On the 14th of October, Cinema for Peace organized a screening of A Girl from Mogadishu together with the University of Southern California. The event included a panel discussion on FGM/C, taking Ifrah’s case as seen in the film, and its current state in the U.S. where 11 states still don’t have laws against it

Democracy, Populism, Coronavirus & Enduring Patriarchal Traditions

The first webinar in a series for the Patriarchal Inscriptions: Female bodies contested, invaded defended and owned, this October 15th webinar focused on the persistence of the practice of ‘female circumcision’ and how their encoded cultural undergirding raise critical issues of systemic injustice in the body politics cross-culturally. Speakers included Leyla Hussein OBE, Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher, Ghada Khan, Julia Antonova, Habiba Al-Hinai and Chiara Cosentino. The event explored the following topics: 

  • What weaknesses have come to obstruct efforts to end female genital mutilation?
  • How have governments’ mis/management of the pandemic exacerbated existing fault-lines of gender precarity?
  • How has progress in challenging and abolishing FGM practices been vitiated by widely applied government policies and measures that embrace lockdowns of large parts of public government services, curfews, household quarantine and mandatory individual isolation?
  • How has opposition among members of minority communities in Western societies – when it comes to governments’ FGM policies, deeply felt subtexts of prejudice and popular scapegoating – been appropriated and instrumentalized to serve populist exclusionary aims that demonize entire marginalized cultures?
  • What does the failure of enforcement of anti-FGM legislation uncover about political will, identity politics, the hierarchy of suffering and about inter-/national feminist ambivalences?

Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference 

Council of the Great City Schools held its 64th Annual Fall Conference virtually in October. Under the banner “Championing Urban Education,” the conference gave big-city school superintendents, board members, senior administrators and college deans of education a forum to discuss issues and share information and best practices to improve teaching and learning. On Oct 16th, Sahiyo participated in a panel event, Unmasking Danger: Identifying High-risk Situations for Urban Students, in which the issues of trafficking and female genital cutting were brought to light and the need to take into consideration that students may be at risk or affected by them. A resource guide created by Council of the Great City Schools on FGM prevention for U.S. schools was also discussed. The guide helps schools to put policies in place to support and identify at risk students. 

North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child

On October 23rd, speakers from around North America and Europe joined in on a virtual meeting to draw attention to the issues of child marriage and female genital cutting. The event was organized by the core group of the Europe and North America CSW/NGO Caucus, including Ulla Madsen, Mary Collins, Zarin Hainsworth, Daniela Chivu, Patricia Masniuk, Luci Chikowero and Nina Smart. Invited FGC Speakers included Isatu Barry, Dr. Ann-Marie Wilson, Mariya Taher, Chiara Cosentino, Angela Peabody. Child Marriage Speakers included Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, Honorable Jackie Weatherspoon, Dr. Rochelle Burgesse, Kate Ryan, Dr. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, and Beverly Bucur.

Taboo ConversationsOn October 28th, RAHMA organized a Facebook Live Discussion in partnership with Sahiyo & Global Women Peace Foundation to discuss female genital cutting in the U.S. and the importance prevention work needing to be done, as well as ways to support and empower women and girls affected by FGC. View the recording here.

Sahiyo staff spoke in a symposia entitled Mothers and daughters: continuity, love, fear and belonging

Sahiyo Communications Coordinator Lara Kingstone and co-founder Mariya Taher were honored to speak on behalf of Sahiyo in a symposia entitled, Patriarchal Inscriptions: Female Bodies Contested, Invaded, Defended & Owned, hosted by King’s College London Faculty of Arts and Humanities. 

The session that Sahiyo participated in served to address feminism, survivors’ relationships with mothers, other forms of gender-based violence and abuse, as well as systemic injustice. The symposia in general served to address the following questions: “Feminism has made the exploration of relations between mothers and daughters central to its project. How are these considered fraught, damaged, broken, or, in the eyes of FGM-supporters, strengthened by clitoridectomy? How does FGM compare to other abuses women endure that fracture their inclination to identify and support one another, instead of becoming invested in, or complicit with, systemic injustice?”

Taher and Kingstone discussed and presented Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C: Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms & Enhance Prevention as part of the panel on Mothers and daughters: continuity, love, fear and belonging. Many storytellers and survivors explore fraught or strengthened relationships with their mothers in their digital videos as part of the Voices to End FGM/C program in collaboration with StoryCenter. By sharing these stories with participants, Sahiyo aimed to further understanding regarding the deeply complex mother-daughter relationship in the context of FGM/C.

Read the full program.

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

Dear Maasi is a new column about everything you wanted to know about sex and relationships but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, and is for all of us who have questions about khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexualities and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi,

How do you navigate being a public advocate on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) while being so exposed and having your identity conflated with such a deeply personal issue? This is particularly tough in the world of online dating.  

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

This is a great question, and I think many survivors who have chosen to be “out” in the public realm have had to grapple with this situation. To be clear, it is a choice to be a public advocate, and everyone has to make the choice that’s best for them.

People assume so many things about us FGM/C survivors, don’t they, Anonymous? It’s such a stigmatized issue, that people don’t understand that we are all different. We remember differently. We have different symptoms. We have different sexual functioning. We have different religious beliefs and connections to our families and communities. In other words, you can’t assume anything about an FGM/C survivor. And yet people do. These assumptions create shame and can be entirely inaccurate.

Many of us, at the time of the original trauma, were told, “This is nothing; don’t cry,” and “This is a secret; don’t talk.” Therefore, speaking publicly about how FGM/C is harmful can seem wrong or shameful.

At the same time, as kids, we probably didn’t understand what was happening to our bodies; and as a coping strategy, children tend to blame themselves rather than the trusted adults. Thinking it’s our fault creates shame.

All of this to say that FGM/C can leave us with a lot of shame. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

I’ve been an activist since 2015, but I was super nervous about being public. I admired and envied my activist sisters who could openly discuss their survivor experiences. While they were the best role models and supporters, I couldn’t follow their examples. When I tried, I’d dissociate, feel exhausted and unwell; my body signaled a big “no” to me. I wasn’t ready.

The hitch was that I was finishing a novel about FGM/C in my community, and I knew that I’d be asked about my personal connection to the issues at festivals and in media interviews. Despite the dread I felt, I knew I had to work through my anxieties and become ready. But this wasn’t a simple process. I returned to therapy. I did mock interviews where friends asked the most intrusive questions, and I had to sort out my boundaries and decide how to answer. I had to challenge my own beliefs and stereotypes about what it means to be a survivor. I wrote Seven Things Not to Ask A Khatna Survivor, both for myself,my friends and readers. Still, I was nervous.

And then something unexpected happened at the beginning of my book tour. I didn’t feel dread. My body began to say yes to public speaking. I saw the questions that came my way as opportunities, not intrusions. I haven’t stopped talking about it since I started, over three months ago. And I’ve been fine. Better than that, I’ve felt liberated from the shame. 

This is a long way of saying that people will continue to make assumptions about me—and to conflate khatna/FGM/C with my identity, perhaps for the rest of my life—and because I have no shame about it, I no longer care. 

I have a feeling that this works similarly with any marginalized identity or experience we hold. When we surface and work through our internalized shame about being racialized, or women, or Muslim or fat or poor or disabled or queer or older or depressed or chronically ill, we liberate ourselves.

The process of moving from shame to liberation will look different for each of us. I think the first step is acknowledging any shame you might feel. Here are a few questions to ask yourself (and while doing so, notice your emotions and your body’s response):

-What myths or assumptions exist about FGM/C survivors? List them. Which do I believe, even a little bit?

-Is the cut to my genitals shameful? Are my genitals shameful? In what ways?

-How do I feel if a neighbour or a colleague or a stranger knows I am a survivor? 

This brings us to online dating. It’s standard practice to Google a potential date and to scan their social media profiles. There’s probably no way to escape people knowing about us before they meet us.

Mariya Karimjee talked about her experiences with dating, sex and being a public advocate on the Sex Gets Real podcast (Jan 29, 2017). At about the 48-minute mark, she describes the two kinds of men she’s met through online dating: the first who is “totally freaked out” by what they assume to be her “baggage,” and the second who imagines himself as someone who can “fix her with his magic penis.” We can assume that both these types of men are not worthy of anyone’s attention, Anonymous! 

A third type of date might be someone who understands that psychological and sexual trauma is common and their aftereffects varied. They don’t make any assumptions about us. This is the sort of person you can have interesting, complex and intimate conversations about your experiences, including those about being an FGM/C survivor and advocate. Check out September’s column for some tips on how to have these conversations.

I’m hopeful that as we continue to do our advocacy, we’ll normalize conversations about FGM/C, and more people—including our neighbours, colleagues and potential dates—will be this kind of person. While you search for them, I hope that you will be shameless in the best kind of way.

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.

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.

A Reflection on Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting

By Cate Cox

On Thursday, October 22nd, Sahiyo partnered with three award-winning and multi-talented speakers Farzana Doctor, Sarian Karim-Kamara, and Joanna Vergoth to host Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from these speakers about the mental and emotional consequences of FGC, how FGC can impact sexuality, and how survivors may be  working toward healing. Passionate, honest, and bold, this webinar explored some of the most difficult and taboo subjects surrounding FGC, and allowed survivors and non-survivors alike space to better understand the process of healing after FGC.   

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and U.S. Executive Director, guided our speakers through conversations about the psycho-sexual impacts of FGC and how they have worked to help survivors heal. Vergoth, a trained psychoanalyst, gave the audience a detailed and uncensored explanation of how the physical and mental impacts of FGC can make it difficult for survivors to experience sexual pleasure, and what methods survivors can use to move toward their own emotional and sexual healing. Karim-Kamara boldly explored her own experience with sexual healing, and spoke of her struggles and victories in a way that moved many in the audience to tears. Finally, Doctor also explored her own process of sexual healing and how her latest novel, Seven, gives readers a greater view into the complexities and struggles of sexual healing for survivors of FGC. 

Certainly, one of the most powerful and enjoyable moments of the webinar was the opportunity the audience had to ask the panelists questions at the end. We spoke to two audience members about their questions. The first audience member, who was a survivor herself, asked the speakers for advice on whether or not one should undergo the surgical process of clitoral restoration. Each speaker had a slightly different answer to this question, but the heart of each of their messages was the same: explore your own body first, find a trusting partner to help you, and read up about healing before you make a decision — but ultimately the decision is yours alone to make. Our second audience member asked the speakers to explore how to create a safe and educational space for young people to heal from FGC and continue activism to end the practice. The speakers explored their roles in their organizational and activism efforts. For those who are interested in learning more about their work, our speakers helped to found forma, Keep the Drums and Lose the Knife, The End FGM/C Canada Network, and WeSpeakOut

From exploring the intricacies of sexuality and mental health, what it means to heal from FGC, and how to mobilize a healing movement, Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting was a powerful and radical event. With guests hailing from the United States, the Netherlands, India, Canada, Iran, and other countries, it is clear this event is part of a global movement that is pushing for FGC activism to expand outside the realm of ending this practice to include a movement focused on helping survivors move toward healing.  

For those who were unable to attend, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the transcript and recording of this event are attached below.

Watch the recording of this event here.  

Read the transcript here.

Fiction, Truth, and Female Genital Cutting: A reflection of the fireside chat with Farzana Doctor

On October 4th, Sahiyo partnered with acclaimed Canadian author and WeSpeakOut cofounder Farzana Doctor to host Fiction, Truth, and Female Genital Cutting: A Fireside Chat. During this intimate conversation, we had the opportunity to hear from Doctor about her latest novel, Seven. Compelling and passionate, Seven follows the journey of Sharifa, a woman trying to better understand her past of having undergone female genital cutting (FGC) in order to move forward. The first of its kind, this novel takes an unflinching look into the reality of the fight to end FGC, or khatna, as it is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

During the conversation with Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo, Doctor explored how the book was influenced by her own family history and experiences, and the delicate line she had to walk while trying to discuss such a difficult topic. Particularly powerful was her explanation of how writing the book, and her activism in general, has helped shape her understanding of khatna. While Seven certainly condemns the practice, Doctor also works to show the complexities that come with practices like khatna, such as the fact that the perpetrators are sometimes victims of the practice, as well. While the book specifically looks at the practice of khatna, its overall message about the importance, albeit difficulty, of trying to end the cycles of shame and violence that burden women speaks to the reality of women everywhere.  

After the formal Q&A, the guests had the opportunity to ask Doctor questions about her writing process, activism, and to share their own experiences. While Farzana Doctor was the main speaker of the event, participation from all who attended was really what helped the chat flourish. The fireside chat proved not only to be an opportunity for guests to learn about Doctor’s work, but a chance for them to expand their community and share their experiences in the fight to end FGC globally. Attendees were from the United States, India, and Germany.

From exploring the intricacies of sexuality, marriage, female friendship, cultural norms, and the ongoing fight to end khatna, Fiction, Truth, and FGC: A Fireside Chat with Farzana Doctor was an eye-opening and educational event. For those who were unable to attend, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the link to the event recording and transcript of the formal Q&A portion of this event is attached below.

Listen to the formal Q&A portion of this event.

Read the full transcript of the event.

Purchase Seven via the following links:

United States: bit.ly/orderSevenUS 

Canada: bit.ly/orderseven

Audiobook: bit.ly/sevenaudiobook

Is legal action against female genital cutting enough to end the practice?

Understanding the impact of a Sahiyo co-founder’s documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, in India

by Priya Goswami

In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court referred a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the prevalence of female genital cutting (FGC) in India to a five-judge constitution bench. My documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, was quoted as evidence by the Supreme Court of India to establish the prevalence of the practice. As the filmmaker, I was overjoyed with what my film had managed to do and become – the first audio visual evidence on the practice of FGC in India. 

There is no law in India against FGC. The PIL had been filed in 2017 by a Delhi-based lawyer seeking a ban on the practice of FGC in India. While other survivors of the practice joined in the petition against FGC, they were opposed by a counter-petition filed by a pro-FGC group within the Dawoodi Bohra community. That group claimed that FGC is not harmful and should be considered a part of their constitutional right to religious freedom. Accordingly, they demanded that the practice be scrutinized through this lens by a larger constitution bench of the court – an appeal that the court finally granted

With that said, a small part of me shrank hearing the news. I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change. As an activist on the ground, I understand change requires sustained conversation. A law against the practice of FGC may become a mandate, but may also end up hindering the progress made by activists on creating a room for dialogue by years. 

“I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change.”

A broad evidence base for this is how some Dawoodi Bohra community members in the United States (U.S.) and Australia have hushed the practice, pushing it further underground, as the community members were charged in both countries with practicing FGC, or khatna as it is known in the Bohra community, and publicly spoke about it in the media. A federal judge dismissed all of the FGC-related charges in the U.S. case; whereas Australia’s High Court ruled all forms of FGC are illegal. While the cases against the community members in the U.S. and Australia have opened up the dialogue on the issue and more survivors have come forward, it has also instilled fear in the minds of some community members. This has, in turn, supported the movement toward medicalization of khatna, which is an equally dangerous trend. As an activist and a communication designer, I ask myself often – is pushing people to abandon the practice because the law says so ever a complete solution? 

Nine years ago, if you would have asked me what my goal with A Pinch of Skin was, I would have said to convince people to abandon the practice. Today, I say the same, except with the awareness that change requires time and persistent and effective communication, which involves the community from within.

Key points to understand the situation in India:

  • The conversation of female genital cutting in Asian communities is a relatively new one, as it is still largely believed to be an African problem.
  • The subject was brought to public attention in India as an anonymous petition under the pseudonym ‘Tasleem’ was launched in 2011 or 2012. This was followed by media attention to A Pinch of Skin in 2013.
  • In 2015, two collectives were formed to speak about the subject: Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, both being the only organizations worldwide working on the subject of khatna prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
  • In 2017, the two organizations, Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, were invited by the National Commission of Women and Child Development to speak with Menaka Gandhi.
  • The Indian government, after gathering first-hand evidence from survivors (also the co-founders of the two organizations), did a u-turn denying the evidence against the practice until this landmark judgment by the Supreme Court. Read this detailed report.
  • The Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom continue to discount efforts against FGC under the umbrella of religious freedom. 
  • Following the PIL, the Supreme Court of India ruled that FGC could be charged under The POCSO Act.

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 26 and have had three serious relationships in my life (two guys, and most recently with a woman). I like intimacy, but penetration (with anything) often hurts. I sometimes have avoided sex altogether and this has caused tension in my relationships. I saw a doctor who said everything ‘down there’ was normal. But honestly, I feel really abnormal.

I had khatna, and I’m wondering if it had an impact on me. But this makes no sense to me because they cut my clitoral hood—they didn’t harm my vagina, right?

—Freaked-Out Fatema

Dear Fatema,

First off—I want you to know that everything you’re talking about is normal, and not uncommon.  

There are many reasons why penetrative sex can hurt, including dryness due to hormones, vaginal infections, injuries, and conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids or endometriosis. 

Other common reasons for pain are vaginismus (where the vaginal or pelvic floor muscles spasm or clench upon penetration) or vestibular vulvitis (inflammation around the nerves around the vaginal opening). These can be linked to trauma. More on this in a bit.

I recommend that you get a second medical opinion. Many doctors are not comfortable with sexuality, and as a result, are not thorough enough in their assessments. Look for one who has experience with sexual difficulties. I highly recommend listening to Episode One of the Bodies Podcast for a deeper dive into this issue. 

As for your question regarding the links between khatna and your pain, khatna does involve cutting the clitoral hood, and sometimes also the clitoris, rather than the vagina. Still, there is research to suggest that this cut can affect sexuality: in a Sahiyo survey conducted in 2017, 35% of respondents reported that FGC had affected their sex life, and of those, 87% felt that it had been impacted negatively. In a 2018 WeSpeakOut study, nearly 33% of respondents said the same. I highly recommend reading some of their quotations that describe pain, triggers, and trauma (pages 47-60) — it might feel validating.

Trauma is the outcome of a distressing event that overwhelms our ability to cope and make sense of the experience. Most survivors describe khatna as a distressing, confusing and painful experience that sometimes involves a significant amount of denial, gaslighting or lies from older, trusted relatives. 

I’d say khatna fits the definition of trauma.

Our minds and bodies can hold trauma in ways that sometimes feel indirect or confusing. Take a look at this comic to understand what I mean. It makes sense to me that our vulvas and vaginas might hold tension from khatna. Speak to a trauma-informed therapist to understand if khatna might have impacted you in this way. 

Fatema, I want you to know that it’s possible to recover and heal from this. You have a right to a pleasure-filled sex life! 

—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.  

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.

How female genital cutting is portrayed in television series

By Hunter Kessous

Female genital cutting (FGC) is an international human rights violation and a form of gender-based violence. As the public becomes increasingly aware of this harmful practice, survivors of FGC are being portrayed in media and pop culture. FGC involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injuries for non-medical reasons. Producers of Orange is the New Black (OITNB), Call the Midwife, and The Good Doctor have incorporated FGC into their storylines. Warning: spoilers ahead!

Orange is the New Black Season 7, Episodes 9 and 10

OITNB’s most compelling season brought in Shani, an asylum seeker from Egypt. While in the detention center, she becomes intimate with an inmate, Niky. When their sex life begins to struggle, Shani opens up to Niky about the FGC she underwent at 11 years old. Her mother said she needed to get rid of a bug, a common justification for FGC that girls hear around the world. There are many aspects of Niky’s story that real-life survivors of FGC share. I was very impressed with the writers of OITNB for addressing the struggle with sexuality that FGC survivors face. FGC comes with a multitude of psychological impacts which harm survivors’ emotional and sexual functioning. Yet, too little attention is given to these consequences. Even research is lacking in this area. 

Niky does an excellent job of portraying how partners of FGC survivors should react. Niky researches alternative ways to make Shani feel good that don’t involve clitoral stimulation. In their next sexual encounter, Niky ensures Shani is relaxed and moves slowly. When pain arises, Niky stops immediately and promises that they will keep communicating until they find what works. The relationship between Niky and Shani is truly heart-warming. The actress who played Shani, Marie-Lou Nahhas, is a Lebanese American anti-FGC activist, who traveled with the UNFPA to meet with FGC survivors in Ethiopia, and uses her social media platforms to share information on FGC. Nahhas recently hosted the launch of Farzana Doctor’s newest novel, Seven, about women’s relationships, marriage, infidelity, religion, tradition, and sensitively exposes the practice of khatna or FGC among the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Call the Midwife Season 6, Episode 6

Call the Midwife painted the story of a pregnant woman, Nadifa, from Somaliland in the 1960s in England. At a young age, she was infibulated, meaning her outer labia were sewn together in order to form a seal, which narrows the vaginal opening. Like Shani, Nadifa thought what had happened to her was typical. The doctor and midwives had never seen FGC before, but handled her case graciously. When Nadifa went into labor, the midwife realized the panic she was experiencing was a result of a flashback to having been cut, and helped calm her. Mental health consequences are another component of FGC that are rarely discussed.

Nadifa gave birth en-route to the hospital, and the midwife had to cut her open in the ambulance. The day after her baby was born, Nadifa’s little sister was sent back to Somaliland by her mother’s orders to be cut. The midwives were enraged at this news and asked Nadifa how she could allow her sister to be held down and cut by a man, the same procedure that could have killed her. Nadifa informs the midwives, to their shock, that it is a woman, not a man, who performs FGC. She says her sister must be cut to ensure she is respected, clean, and able to find a good husband. The reasons Nadifa gave for her sister to undergo FGC are common justifications in many communities around the world. The midwives are unable to prevent Nadifa’s sister from leaving, as her boat for Somaliland leaves before they can reach her. The redeeming factor of this sad ending is that Nadifa decides not to allow her own daughter to be cut. 

The Good Doctor Season 2, Episode 2 

In this episode of The Good Doctor, a patient named Asha goes to the emergency room seeking vaginal rejuvenation. She says at the age of two she was tied down and cut. According to a research study on FGC, for survivors who sought reconstructive surgery, repairing the visual stigma of their genitals was a major motivator. Asha, whose real name is Mara, is of African ancestry, but her story highlights that FGC is occurring in the U.S. 

The surgeons create an elaborate plan to make her an outpatient so she can be home at the end of the school day. The plan goes awry when Mara awakes from surgery in pain. This signals that she has nerves that may be used to reconstruct the clitoris. Her parents and surgeon argue over whether Mara should undergo the reconstructive surgery or have the remaining nerves killed. The safer option would leave Mara permanently unable to experience clitoral stimulation. Mara chooses not to undergo the reconstruction. The surgeon awakes her once more without her parents present and tries to convince her to undergo the clitoral reconstruction. The surgeon goes ahead and performs the clitoral reconstruction without Mara’s consent. When Mara wakes up and realizes what happened, she thanks the surgeon. For the second time in her life, Mara’s body was altered without her consent. For many FGC survivors, this would be psychologically distressing.

Another major flaw we see in this episode, is that the doctor repeatedly calls FGC “butchering.” This language is very harmful and is demeaning to communities that practice FGC. This word choice is alienating, and can promote discrimination and reinforce stereotypes. Language such as this is counterproductive to the movement to abandon FGC.

Overall, I was very impressed with the portrayal of FGC in these TV shows. FGC is a complex issue, and I was happy to see facets such as sexuality, mental health, culture and treatment being addressed. When I embarked on this project, I was preparing myself for stereotypes and myths. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. In fact, some common misconceptions were addressed. I believe the media is great for increasing public awareness.

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.