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!

 

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

By Leena Khandwala

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

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

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

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

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

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

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Leena:

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

Sahiyo Stories – Women in the U.S. Share Stories on Female Genital Cutting

Sahiyo is excited to announce the launch of our digital story project: Sahiyo Stories! The project brought together nine women from across the United States to create personalized digital stories that narrate the experience of undergoing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and/or the experience of their advocacy work to end this form of gender violence.

It was created and organized by Mariya Taher, co-founder of Sahiyo, and Amy Hill, Silence Speaks Director at StoryCenter. Over the course of the next 10 weeks, Sahiyo will be sharing one story a week created by the nine participants: Renee Bergstrom, Zehra Patwa, Maria Akhter, Salma Qumruddin, Maryah Haidery, Leena Khandwala, Aisha Yusuf, Severina Lemachokoti, and Mariya. Subscribe to Sahiyo’s YouTube channel to watch them all! sahiyo1.jpg

Every woman who attended the workshop was facing her own challenge with FGC and was in a different phase of coming to terms with the practice. Some women had only recently discovered they had undergone FGC and were grappling with its emotional and physical impacts, while others were deeply invested in advocacy efforts to prevent it from happening to other girls.

Though each digital story reflects a different perspective, the collection is woven together through shared experiences and a united sentiment. The women’s joint hope in creating and sharing these videos is to build towards reaching the critical mass of voices needed to prompt social change. They hope their stories demonstrate that there is an increasing trend of support for abandoning this harmful practice in every community where FGC occurs.

If you are interested in learning more about the project or hosting a screening of Sahiyo Stories, contact mariya@sahiyo.com.

We also welcome your support in promoting these videos among your social networks. For this first two weeks, we invite you to watch and share: Making Sahiyo Stories” and “Shattered Silences.”

To share the videos on social media, click links below:
Twitter – 
http://bit.ly/2NS7oe0
Facebook – http://bit.ly/SahiyoStories

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

By Aisha Yusuf.

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

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

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

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

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

 

More about Aisha:

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

 

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

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

As the workshop’s logistics coordinator and a Bay Area native, I was heavily involved in turning this project from a seed of an idea to a fully-formed weekend workshop. I watched the workshop take unexpected turns and grow into something much larger than what was originally planned.

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

I remember fighting back tears as we shared a space around a table and told our stories.

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Maria Akhter with Zehra Patwa at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

For those ten minutes, we were allowed to feel vulnerable, insecure, afraid and seek advice, support, and shared empathy from others.

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

More importantly, in my story, I touched on my mother’s empowering decision not to have me undergo khatna. The decision wasn’t formed alone. My mother, grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all instrumental players in choosing to spare our family’s daughters from a harmful tradition. My video explores the newfound gratitude I began to feel for something I did not know I needed to be grateful for.

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

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Maria:

MariaAkhterMaria Akhter joined Sahiyo as an activist last year after becoming more aware of the activist community working to end FGC. She hopes to use her narrative to spread awareness about families and individuals choosing to stand against FGM. Maria has used her skills of blog-writing and communication to create communication material for Sahiyo and create positive social change. She currently works as an associate publicist for a publishing company in Berkeley. As a Bay Area native, she enjoys spending her free time hiking and exploring the Bay, trying global cuisines, and traveling.  

 

On The Supreme Court Hearings and The Pro-Khatna FAQs Circulated by Bohras

By Shabana Feroze
Country: Bahrain

The Supreme Court of India is very close to deciding a ban on Female Genital Cutting (FGC) or khatna, and I couldn’t be happier. As a survivor of FGC myself (I live in Bahrain but had khatna done to me in a shady house in Hyderabad, India), I want to see this practice legally banned.

The Supreme Court observed it goes against the Constitution of India to make any changes to a young girl’s private part. In my opinion, Female Genital Cutting goes against not only the Constitution, but child rights and human rights as well. The argument by pro-khatna Bohras against this is always “religious freedom”, as is evident in the name of the group at the forefront of defending khatna: the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom.

What religious freedom? You’re allowed to do anything in the name of religious freedom?

I really hope that the Supreme Court rules to have this practice declared illegal once and for all so Bohra moms stop bringing their daughters from all over the world to get a part of their anatomy removed for no reason.

But what scares me is that even if it gets banned, the practice may go underground and still continue. A few members of the Bohra community who are pro-khatna (and the Syedna, the leader of the community) vehemently defend the practice, saying that it’s their right to do it, and that parents don’t need the consent of a 7-year-old girl child to make non-medical changes to her clitoris. They also claim that the procedure is done for “taharat” or “religious purity”. There was even a document circulated on WhatsApp recently, called “Female Circumcision, as practiced by the Dawoodi Bohras: Understand it, before condemning it!”.

The document is structured like an FAQ, listing all the arguments against FGC and countering them with their supposedly good and right reasons in favour of this practice.

This document claims that the Bohra form of FGC is not the same as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and that khatna does not cause any physical harm, trauma or even pain. This claim ignores all the personal stories of women who have said that it caused harm, long-lasting trauma, and terrible pain to them (including myself). The authors of the document also state that the World Health Organization (WHO)  has “over-reached” in including Bohra khatna in their classification of FGM. Do they think they are smarter than the World Health Organization?

They also compare nose and ear piercings to FGC. The document claims:

“Nose & ear piercings, a very popular practice world over, is commonly performed on small girls for non-medical purposes. Nose & ear piercings are painful and cause a publicly visible & permanent change on the human body. Yet they are considered perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, female circumcision, which is a mild & harmless practice causing no visible change, is considered to be a human rights violation!”

Making a piercing in the cartilage of the nose and ear is very different to cutting off a piece of genitalia. The genitalia is connected to your sexual organs and reproductive system. It’s not a harmless procedure. Nose and ear piercings are harmless procedures, available at hospitals and pharmacies, and are done by trained professionals. The WHO doesn’t have a problem with it. It’s not banned in several countries. So the comparison of nose and ear piercings to FGC/ khatna is not on the same level.

Looking at the Bohra community’s arrogant defiance to continue this practice, even in the face of organizations such as WHO, I’m scared that even if the Supreme Court makes it illegal, it will continue to happen. It’ll just be shrouded in more secrecy. The Syedna himself needs to declare it to be an outdated and unnecessary tradition that needs to be stopped. If he doesn’t and it becomes illegal in India, a huge network of home-based cutters might grow, and women might continue to take their daughters, granddaughters and nieces to dark homes in small alleys to get it done.  

Why I Chose to Tell My Story About Female Genital Mutilation at the Sahiyo Stories’ Workshop

By Renee Bergstrom, EdD

I chose to tell my story of FGM because I am aware that being silenced is a universal issue for those who have experienced it. When I read my story the first day at the StoryCenter, I was surprised that my voice cracked with emotion. Our sisterhood developed quickly from the strength of shared history in spite of differing cultures, and I felt so privileged to be included. The world needs to hear all our voices in order for this female injustice to end.

The storytelling process was beautifully orchestrated and we were guided to compose our messages for the greatest impact. All apprehension regarding telling my story dissipated. Before my story became public knowledge, my advocacy was focused on developing and distributing brochures in collaboration with my Somali friend Filsan Ali. Pregnant infibulated Somali women give this bilingual brochure to their physicians and midwives to plan safe labor and delivery and prevent unnecessary C-Sections.

IMG_0951
Renee Bergstrom at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

In 2016, the time was right to share my story because so many young women were standing up to their political, cultural and religious leaders, matriarchs, and patriarchs. Instead of being seen as a Western woman imposing my beliefs on another culture, I am supporting their efforts. Recently, other white Christian women from North America have contacted me with their FGM stories, thus my current advocacy plans involve listening, but also connecting these women with resources and opportunities to share their stories.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Renee:

Version 2Renee Bergstrom, EdD, is an educator who advocates for relationship-centered medical care. She and her husband, Gene, have been married 53 years. They have three children, ten grandchildren and one great-grandson. They live in a dynamic art town in Midwest America where they are very involved in the community. Renee loves to read, watercolor paint, weave, garden and bike. She has been an advocate for women’s justice throughout her life.

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

By Salma Qamruddin

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

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

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

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

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Salma and other participants during Sahiyo Stories Workshop

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

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

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

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Salma:

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

To All of You Extraordinary Women Who Survived Female Genital Mutilation, You Are Strong

By: Nada Qamber
Country: Kingdom of Bahrain

The day I heard about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), my jaw dropped. A friend of mine who has grown to become one my closest friends was a victim of this practice. When she told me, my heart broke. I never thought that any culture could do that to their little girls and think that it’s okay. Harming a woman’s gift from the universe is a practice that must be changed across the world. It’s an awful experience to go through at such a young age. Today, I’m not going to bash the cultures that practice this, but praise its strong survivors.

I don’t know much about the communities that practice this requirement, nor do I purely understand their reasons behind it, but I know enough to support the idea that young girls should grow up without experiencing pain like this. Children shouldn’t have to block a horrific memory from their minds and get flashbacks of it later in their lives.

So, I praise you, my fellow women. You have gotten your stems cut off while you were just a flower bud and were left to grow up with a scar that didn’t make sense for so many years. You are still growing.

I praise you, my fellow females. You have gone through a dreadful experience that your mothers forced upon you, and cried until your lungs were sore. You have a voice.

I praise you, my fellow ladies. You fought your mothers, your grandmothers, your aunts, and the person who did this to you. You have courage.

I praise you, my fellow badass warriors. You know that you cannot change what happened to you but you are fighting to change the lives of young girls after you. You are fierce.

Finally, I praise you, fellow beauties, for your growth, your voice, your courage, and your strength to fight to change the minds of the force-makers, the religious leaders, the head of the household, and most of all, fight for the lives of young girls. You have power.

Coming in as an outsider who was fortunate to be spared from this practice, my heart goes out to all of you who went through this experience, and I pray that all of us together are strong enough to make a change and let future girls live a fruitful childhood.

Seeing Sahiyo Stories on Female Genital Cutting Come to Life

By Mariya Taher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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