Saved by a lie: A story of female genital cutting

By Zainab Khambata

Age: 17

Place of residence: Mumbai, India

My maternal grandmother prides herself on being the perfect blend of modernity and religion. But when it came to her own daughter who is my mother, in spite of her misgivings, she still fell in line and got my mother circumcised or cut. Ask my grandmother why she did it and the reasons are numerous. Her mother asked her to do it. She lived in a joint family and all the cousins were cut. She didn’t know how to openly defy social norms and say no. The oddly mystifying voice of reason: if everybody is doing it, maybe it is the right thing to do. That is how Bohri women still continue to be cut in this day and age by their mothers and aunts and grandmothers. 

My mother still remembers the day she was cut as a child very vividly. She wasn’t told anything at all, simply pounced upon by her aunts and a “maasi,” or auntie, who used a razor on her. Then she was asked to rest to let the bleeding stop, given a bar of chocolate, and as a bonus, no school the next day. Life went on for my mother as usual without any mention of the incident or what had transpired. 

All was good and forgotten until my paternal grandmother started hounding my mom to get me cut. It was this whole maahol, or social environment, where mothers of girls my age were more than happy to play reminder and ask if I was cut yet because they had already had their little girls cut. My mom read about it and realised the physical repercussions of it, the bleeding and scarring, emotional repercussions and trauma, and in some cases, even sexual frigidity. You may never really forget what happens to you even though you are not informed about it at all. Upon inquiry, my mom never got a satisfactory answer as to why girls are cut besides the fact that it’s Sunnat, or encouraged. Some moms said it was for hygiene purposes; others said it would keep a girls’ potentially “sinful” thoughts of a sexual nature at bay. But the final straw was when she was told it may heighten mental and physical intimacy between couples. She realised then that many people have a myriad of confusing reasons to justify cutting.

When the pressure became too much from my grandmother and the other moms around her, my mother resorted to the only way she knew to keep me safe, by telling everyone that the deed was already done.

My paternal grandmother, who was hell bent on getting me circumcised like all my cousins to uphold her own religious morals and beliefs, made it a point to cross-check with my maternal grandmother whether I was truly cut. My maternal grandmother was smart enough to say yes, mostly to atone to my mom and not let history repeat itself for the sake of my bodily autonomy. In this way, my paternal grandmother was satisfied and she let it rest once and for all.

My mom had actually managed to prevent my cutting by telling everyone I had undergone the practice. Ingenious or devious? No matter what, I am grateful.

Sahiyo and StoryCenter to host parallel session at the 65th Commission on the Status of Women meetings

On March 16th, 10:30 am EST, Sahiyo and StoryCenter will be hosting the parallel session webinar, “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C,” at the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women meetings. 

At this event, we will introduce our collaborative Voices to End FGM/C project, which centers on storytelling by survivors and those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as a tool to challenge social norms that perpetuate the practice. Using a combination of didactic presentation, audience participation, and short videos, we will explore the theoretical underpinnings of the Voices Project, highlight the success of our digital storytelling workshops, and share how the project has supported women in their healing journey and furthered efforts to prevent future generations of girls from enduring this form of gender-based violence. 

Sure to be an eye-opening exploration of one of StoryCenter’s and Sahiyo’s most impactful and transformative programs, “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C” is open to all who wish to attend. 

In order to attend the event, please follow these registrations steps:

  1. Register to attend and become a CSW advocate on the NGO CSW65 virtual platform here. Registration is free.
  1. Once your registration is confirmed, you can log on to the virtual platform
  1. Navigate to the Agenda page by hovering over the “Schedule” heading in the top navigation bar of the NGO CSW65 virtual platform website and choosing “Agenda”.
  1. Once you are on the Agenda page, choose “Tuesday, March 16th” from the dates listed at the top of the page. When you reach the page that lists all of the events happening on Tuesday, March 16th, scroll down to the 10:30 am time slot. 
  1. Find our event titled “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C.” Click on the ‘plus’ button in the right hand corner of the event description. The platform will automatically add our event to your CSW65 agenda.
  1. You can add our event directly to your calendar by going to the event page and choosing “add to my calendar.”
  1. On the day of the event, just click on the link to our event on your agenda, or find the event again by following steps 1-4. 

You can also watch this short video on YouTube with a step-by-step tutorial of how to register on the NGO CSW65 virtual platform and find events!

Why one Bohra woman shared her experience with female genital cutting publicly

By Jenny Cordle

On February 5th of last year, one day before the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), Zahra Khozema, 24, shared her deeply personal story of having been cut as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra sect in Pakistan.

“Being part of the Bohra community is feeling like a part of something,” Khozema said. “Though we are scattered around the world, we’re tightly knit. You can find a Bohra person in a crowd because of the colorful ridas women wear. And I promise you even if you don’t know them, they will approach you. I could be stranded in any city, and if I saw a Bohra person (from their clothing) I would sigh in relief because I know they’d let me in their home, or help me in any way they could. We’re a big family and we refer to everyone as brother and sister.”

Despite being considered a progressive community, many members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Islam still prioritize female genital cutting, or khatna, for girls as young as 7 years old. The Dawoodi Bohra population comprises up to one million people in countries such as India, Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, Egypt, Tanzania and South Africa. Diaspora communities also live in Europe, Australia and the United States. 

“I hate that even though our community does so much good work, it’s small and not mainstream, and we’re only going to be remembered for this practice by people who don’t know Bohras in real life,” she said. 

Khozema, who currently resides in London, said this in reference to the 2018 U.S. case of a Michigan doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, who was initially charged with performing FGM/C on at least nine girls with the alleged help of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, his wife, Farida Attar, and five other residents of Michigan and Minnesota. Judge Bernard Friedman dropped the FGM/C charges, declaring the 1996 federal ban on FGM/C as unconstitutional, in what pro-khatna people may have considered a victory. But on January 5th of this year, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law criminalizing FGC in the U.S., stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice.

It was in reading about the 2018 case that Khozema realized that what happened to her was a source of buried trauma. 

“I will never stand by the practice, but I’m glad the case was an awakening for many Bohras like me to really think about the way we treat girls and women and why — because so many men didn’t even know about it,” she said. “A couple of my Bohra guy friends told me they stopped coming to the mosque after they read this story because they only found out about it then. These are men in their mid-twenties. That alone says a lot.”

Because of the secrecy surrounding the practice, Khozema was hesitant to share her experience with anyone. Her younger sister discouraged her from writing it altogether. But Khozema felt an urge to share it, despite potential repercussions. Many outspoken FGM/C activists face significant backlash within the Bohra community. This backlash can entail being ostracized, shamed, or having internet trolls harass those that speak out, claiming that speaking out is a “defamation of the faith, its leader and those who practice” khatna. Her piece was one of the top 50 stories of the year for Broadview Magazine in 2020. As she suspected, many women sought her out to share their stories of having been cut. 

“I wasn’t that surprised because 90% of the women I know have been through it,” Khozema said. “I was surprised that they just responded to my story positively. Non-Bohra friends assured me that this happens a lot in their own countries like India and Egypt.”

“A lot of people called me brave and strong for putting such a personal topic out there, but I honestly didn’t think it was,” she said. “I felt quite small and vulnerable, and even petty for not sharing it with the people who needed to see it the most — Bohra people my parents’ age.”

Khozema does not encourage women to share their stories if they are not ready. Instead, she encourages women and men to open up dialogue about khatna within their communities.

“I would encourage Bohra men and women to talk to their parents, and most importantly, new moms of girls,” she explained. “Ask them if khatna is something they’re considering and really ask why. ‘Do you really know why you’d do it to your daughter or are you just following blind tradition? Are you really willing to take your child to someone with scissors in a dark basement?’”

She said writing and sharing the piece did help her to heal in a sense.

“I spoke to so many people who assured me it was okay to write this,” Khozema said. “I also learned to face that some people will always be okay with it, and to know when to stop fighting with people who have made up their minds.”

After having written and shared the piece publicly, Khozema is in a better place and feels “lighter.” But psychologically and physically, the harm remains. “Intimacy, unfortunately, will always be difficult for me,” she said. “The shame I feel about not fully having control of my body will always be there.”

Stay Tuned: Sahiyo’s More Than a Survivor Campaign for the #16daysofactivism

November 25th marks the start of 16 Days of Activism, a collective and global time-period to observe and spread awareness on gender-based violence. 

During this year’s 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, Sahiyo is highlighting our More Than A Survivor campaign. Sahiyo understands that being a survivor of female genital cutting (FGC) is just one moment of an individual’s life and only one part of who they are as a person. Yet, oftentimes, being labeled as a survivor can prevent people from seeing a person in any other context beyond survivorship.

With over 200 million women affected by female genital cutting (FGC) across the globe in over 92 countries, Sahiyo looks to spotlight the women who have boldly come forward to share their stories, and to recognize them and their identities through our #MoreThanASurvivor campaign. This campaign captures the multidimensional interests of female genital cutting survivors, and transcends the “Victim-Survivor” binary. 

Our campaign,  #MoreThanASurvivor, explores our individuality and shows the world what makes us unique. After all, who we are is made up of all the moments in our lives, not just one. 

In aiming to show different aspects of the person, we will be creating a mosaic to represent different moments of an individual’s life. 

We plan to run #MoreThanASurvivor during 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, starting November 25th (International Day of Elimination of VAW) to December 10th (Human Rights Day), 2020.

Crying out our mothers’ grief: How we allowed female genital mutilation to flourish in our communities

By Tamanna Taher

When I began writing an article on female genital mutilation (FGM), I was adamant that my research be thorough, and my opinions be carefully articulated. However, I did not realise the mammoth task the latter would become. It has been two years since I started writing this article. I was a sophomore in college when I began, and I sit here as a senior, writing to pledge my solidarity to end FGM. My parents had managed to shield me from the hushed conversations that I always knew were happening.

I was 14 years old when I was finally let into the discussions recounting personal experiences and stories from survivors in the family. I remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car, asking what they were whispering about. My father said it was okay to tell me, and explained FGM, or khatna, as it is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community.

“It is when a female is circumcised.”

“Circumcised? How? What?”

“They (carefully separating us and them), believe that for a woman to be pure, she must undergo a surgical procedure in which she is circumcised.”

“Oh.”

At this moment, I was as any teenager finding out about such an issue would be – very uncomfortable. Deciding not to ask anything else, I sat back and wondered what exactly was there to be circumcised down there. This went on for a few very silent weeks. However, I finally mustered enough courage to ask the question that had been haunting me. Had it been done to me?

I remember awkwardly questioning my mum one day, asking whether I was so young that I did not even remember. She informed me that she was vehemently against it, and neither me, nor my sister, had this procedure done. She said she would never, as she was a victim of it herself: a victim of family traditions and beliefs, and another one of the countless victims of groupthink. She said that she remembered her experience, and it was not something a woman forgets. She was seven years old.

My mum never called herself a victim. She told me that she had never understood it fully. At the time she drew a parallel between being cut and getting an ear piercing. That is why, she explains now, she never questioned her mother. That is why she believes her mother never questioned my great grandmother. She thought of it as a necessity of growing up – not a religious doctrine, but a cultural tradition. 

I have chosen the words victim and survivor very purposefully. I believe if this had truly been something she did not feel was an injustice to women around the world, my mother would have chosen us to carry the burden of the tradition. But she stepped back, separating herself from the powerful clutches of “Log kya kahenge?” (“What will people say?”) She saved her daughters from the injustice she was too young to save herself from. 

I will forever be grateful to my mother, for being so brave and standing up against members of the family she loved and trusted, fighting them and protecting us from the practice that she had to suffer from herself, of which countless others still have to suffer the consequences.

I began asking the women around me whether they had been subjected to any form of FGM. I was appalled at how many of them said yes. I was even more revolted when I found out that my family had been divided by this issue. There were people around me that agreed with what was happening, so much so that they decided to boycott all the members of the family who saw FGM for what it was – child abuse. This was a confusing time for me. I was very close to a cousin of mine who defended the right to have been cut. She saw it as something that should be a choice. I was almost swayed by her.

I regret that I allowed that to happen, and I am embarrassed that I did not realise sooner the repercussions of staying silent in such situations. I see now that khatna is not a choice. The girls who are cut are not consenting. They are usually ignorant about what is being done to them – realising the effects only in adulthood, and at which point they must silently bear the psychological pain and trauma. A girl, in the moment, might only feel the excruciating pain of the instrument being used to perform the procedure, but when she becomes a woman, she will realise that the cuts run deeper than what she previously thought. 

This is why so many people have begun to speak up. This is exactly why Sahiyo – United Against Female Genital Cutting as an organization exists. Children cannot make these decisions, and you cannot legally call them consenting beings. They do not have full knowledge, and they do not realise the gravity. To anyone who argues otherwise, I would like to present several stories. One of the women I spoke to told me that she had been promised ice cream if she went. She was only 8 years old; an adult would recognise that as manipulation. Another told me that her mother said she was going to see a doctor because she was sick. That is universally recognised as deceit. I even had someone tell me that her mother had slapped her and told her that she was doing this for God. That is plain and simple coercion. But, most importantly, all of the above is child abuse, manifesting in its verbal, emotional and physical forms. 

You might be thinking, but what will speaking up do? We need you to understand that every voice matters because we are speaking for those that had been stripped of theirs. You may also be thinking there is so much awareness. The number of girls subjected to this must be falling. That is far from the case. The number has been steadily rising, and is projected to rise to 4.6 million girls in the year 2030. Anything more than zero is already too many.  Speak up against injustice and pledge to fight for all the little girls around the world being dragged into apartments or doctors’ offices and having their bodies permanently changed. Speak up for your daughters, your sisters, your cousins, your mothers, and your aunts. Speak up because this is not a choice; it is oppression.

Digital advocacy: The future of activism for survivors and activists

by Sandra Yu 

Activism is the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.

Prior to Sahiyo, I thought to be an activist was to be loud. Anything less than protests and demonstrations picketing for change outside the White House was not really activism. Actionable change came from legislation and policy changes. I scoffed at digital activism – trending hashtags and posting black squares on Instagram didn’t mean you were an activist.

At Sahiyo as a programs intern, I gained a new appreciation for storytelling and digital advocacy as forms of healing and activism, respectively. In contrast to the physical mobilization of masses in protests, picketing, and policy-based activism, storytelling is a distinctly emotional and psychological mobilization. I remember watching my first Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) video – Change by Rhobi Samwelly.  She shared her story in the short span of 3 minutes and 51 seconds, and in that short period of time, I felt as if I had visualized her pain, trauma, and conviction to end FGM/C. It is through storytelling that one will understand the need for activism; the picketing will come later.

Storytelling is particularly impactful in activism against FGM/C. As a harmful and pervasive social norm in many cultures, FGM/C is silently maintained across generations under the guise of cultural normativity. To break the culture of silence is to risk ostracization from their families and communities. Yet, many survivors have taken that plunge and have engaged in storytelling to protect future women from being cut. As allies, it is our job to amplify their stories so that more people may hear them and become inspired to create change.

I recently attended a webinar that spoke about how we can best amplify voices through digital advocacy. Digital Storytelling and Advocacy: How Stories Can Support Progressive Change was hosted by StoryCenter and moderated by Amy Hill; one of Sahiyo’s co-founders, Mariya Taher, presented on the Voices campaign as a panelist. In the webinar, Amy speaks about the need for storytelling as an avenue of advocacy. She presents research on how telling and listening to stories can increase self-esteem and wellbeing, help communities bond and become politicized, and inspire people to take action for change. I translate that as storytelling allows for transformation. It allows survivors and community members to transform the trauma of FGM/C on their bodies and mental health into a point of connection with others of the same community.

Across activist communities, storytelling allows for a transformation from discomfort to vulnerability. Isabel, another intern at Sahiyo, wrote about her experience with StoryCenter and Sahiyo’s co-hosted webinar, Intersecting Stories, where she engaged in intimate storytelling that glimpsed into “the magical nature of storytelling – how words weave friendships, trust, and respect.”

I believe storytelling has a way of transcending the individual to bind communities together through shared values and experiences. In the current age of digitization, we see stories framed in a variety of mediums such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. While it may be easy to get lost in trends, hashtags, and stories in digital activism, I find that digital advocacy is equally powerful as traditional media in allowing us to amplify the voices and stories of survivors. The process of connecting people and communities across the world through a screen is an important concept to develop. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that creates change through digital advocacy and storytelling.

मैं किसके साथ सोती हूँ यह फैसला मेरा दिमाग करता है, मेरा ‘क्लिटोरिस’ नहीं

(This post was originally published in English on March 22, 2017. You can read the English version here.)

लेखक: सबाहत जहाँ

उम्र: 24
देश: भारत

मैं एक कैफे में बैठकर सोच रही हूँ, क्या मैं अपनी बेटी के साथ जननांग विकृति जैसी दर्दभरी प्रथा को निभाना चाहूँगी या नहीं, जैसा मेरी माँ ने मेरे साथ मज़हब के नाम पर किया था।

मैं 24 साल की हूँ, पत्रकारिता की पढ़ाई कर रही हूँ, एक ऐसे समुदाय की मुस्लिम लड़की हूँ जो आज भी अंधे होकर महिला जननांग विकृति (Female Genital Mutilation – FGM) की प्रथा को ढो रहे हैं। पूरी जिंदगी मेरा भरोसा था कि FGM मेरे स्वास्थ्य के लिए अच्छा है, और कि जो भी पेशाब संबंधी दिक्कतें मुझे हो रही हैं उन सबका इससे कोई संबंध नहीं है। मुझे अहसास ही नहीं था कि मेरी सबसे बड़ी समस्या यह थी कि मेरा क्लिटोरिस सात साल की उम्र में काट दिया गया था।

मुझे तो यह भी याद नहीं है कि यह कैसे हुआ था, या इसमें मुझे दर्द हुआ था या नहीं। और मुझे कभी सोचने का मौका नहीं मिला क्योंकि जब मेरी माँ ने कहा कि यह मेरे स्वास्थ्य के लिए अच्छा है तो मुझे उन पर भरोसा था। मैं उनको दोष नहीं देती हूँ लेकिन मैं प्रथा को दोषी मानती हूँ। बहुत से मुस्लिम फिरके इसे नहीं मानते हैं लेकिन मेरा समुदाय मानता है।

पहली बार एफजीएम के बारे में मुझे तब पता चला जब मैंने लेखक अयान हिरसी अली की किताब पढ़ी। उसके बाद मैंने हिंदुस्तान टाइम्स में सहियो के बारे में पढ़ा था। मैं गहरे सदमे में थी और मैंने मेरी माँ को कॉल किया। शांत दिमाग से मैंने उनसे पूछा, “माँ, आपने मेरे साथ ऐसा क्यों किया?” उन्होंने कहा, “बेटा क्योंकि यह यौन उत्तेजनाओं को नियंत्रित करेगा, तुम संभोग के लिए आतुर नहीं रहोगी और तुम्हारा कुँआरापन बना रहेगा।” मैंने सोचा, यह सब कुँआरेपन के लिए है! क्या इसीलिए मुझे समय-समय पर पेशाब संबंधी दिक्कतों से जूझना पड़ता है?

किसी के साथ सोना है या नहीं यह मेरा मामला है, मेरी इच्छा है। यह मेरा दिमाग है जो इसका फैसला लेगा, मेरा क्लिटोरिस नहीं! मेरे पास अपनी माँ से कहने के लिए कुछ नहीं था, मैंने बस कहा “ठीक है” और कॉल को काट दिया। मुझे उनके ऊपर गुस्सा नहीं है, उन्होंने तो वह किया जो उनकी संस्कृति और मज़हब ने सिखाया था। हाँ, शारिरीक सम्बन्ध के दौरान मुझे दिक्कतें होती हैं। यह दर्दभरा है और यह समस्या भरा है। इस प्रथा से मेरी यौन उत्तेजना नहीं रूकी बल्कि इसने मेरे लिए शारीरिक संबंध को मुश्किल बना दिया।

मैं एक पढ़ी-लिखी महिला हूँ और मैं FGM के खिलाफ खड़ी हो रही हूँ। लोगों को अहसास कराने के लिए कि यह गलत है, मैं हर मुमकिन कोशिश करूँगी। साथ खड़े होने और इस बारे में बात करने के लिए मैं सहियो को धन्यवाद देती हूँ।  मुझे खुशी है कि इस बारे में बात करने को लेकर जो शर्म का माहौल था वो खत्म हो गया है और मैं एक FGM पीड़ित के रूप में अपना दुख साझा कर सकती हूँ।

(इस पोस्ट का लेख मूल रूप से 23 फरवरी, 2017 को इस ब्लॉग पर छपा था: Wanderlustbeau)

Get involved with the next cohort of the Voices to End FGM/C project!

Since 2015, Sahiyo has provided various storytelling platforms for women and community members from all over the world to share their experiences of female genital cutting (FGC), in hopes of preventing this harmful practice from occurring to the next generation of girls.

Now, we’re excited to announce our 2021 Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling workshop, as part of our continued partnership with StoryCenter. This workshop is open to all individuals based in North America and Canada. Due to the pandemic, this workshop will be held virtually. 

When: Six online sessions held on consecutive Wednesdays, from January 13th through February 17th. 3:00 pm -5:00 pm Pacific Time / 6:00 pm-8:00 pm Eastern Time.

Who: The workshop is open to women who have experienced FGM/C, as well as family members, friends, advocates, and others of any gender identity who would like to share a story. There is capacity for up to 12 storytellers.

What: Each participant will create their own video through the use of voiceover audio, still images, and video clips. This participatory media process will be guided by facilitators from Sahiyo and StoryCenter. 

For those interested in taking part, fill out the application by Friday, December 11, 2020. 

Following the workshop, Sahiyo will support storytellers in publicly sharing their videos as part of our ongoing education and advocacy work to end FGM/C.

If you would like more information on this revolutionary storytelling experience, email Mariya at mariya@sahiyo.com

To see digital stories from previous “Voices to End FGM/C” workshops, click  here.

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.

Sahiyo and StoryCenter host virtual storytelling event on the intersection of race and female genital cutting: A reflection

By Isabel

I began interning with Sahiyo in June. A recent graduate into the fields of cultural anthropology and human rights, I was eager to learn how Sahiyo used participatory media and community-based advocacy to end female genital cutting (FGC) and break down the culture of silence that surrounds it. Daily, I grew more exposed to the collective healing fostered among survivors and advocates against the practice. As I listened to the many voices of women – and a few men – speaking out against the practice, I felt the strength, resilience, and bravery that empowered them to tell their own stories. 

I realized I could never understand the full extent of their vulnerability and power after I participated myself – for the very first time – in a Sahiyo storytelling workshop. On September 17, Sahiyo and StoryCenter co-hosted “Intersecting Stories,” a virtual event bringing together survivors and advocates against FGC to ask questions of race, identity, and privilege, and what it means to be an ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. My role in the workshop began as back-end support – helping draft the event description, supporting outreach – until Mariya and Lara invited me to attend as a participant. 

The truth is, I wanted to say no. I felt uncomfortable, like I had no story to tell and no place telling the stories I could. Who was I – a white, cisgendered woman who spent most of my life ignorant to the global practice of FGC – to speak on the intersection of the practice and racism? But I didn’t want to disappoint so I agreed. It’s not that I didn’t want to participate, but rather felt I shouldn’t. So, in the days leading up to the workshop, I wracked my brain trying to prepare a story. I asked friends for advice, and family members, too.

The morning of the workshop I had yet to come up with a story – I was anxious, nervous, and really clueless as to what to do. I felt caught between my desire to step up as an intern, and my desire to respect the safe space I had seen Sahiyo work so intentionally to create. Just an hour before the virtual start time, I texted Lara, the Communications Coordinator and also my direct internship supervisor. I told her I was nervous and that I felt uncomfortable inserting myself and my story in a forum meant for those directly affected by FGC. 

Just minutes after reaching out to Lara, I received back a voice message set to a soundtrack of New York City honks and horns. I listened as she told me she understood where I was coming from and encouraged me to participate only to the extent I felt comfortable. But after easing my self-inflicted pressure, she continued to say that she believed I did have a place in the workshop and a story to tell. As an advocate against FGC, she told me, my story was my story no matter how my entry point diverged from the other participants. Ending the message with an offer to hop on the phone to discuss, I readily accepted. 

By the start of the workshop, I had decided that if I were to share in the story circle, it would only be if there was still extra time after the other participants had shared. The workshop began, and I listened in awe as each participant shared their stories – stories about the experiences of nature, of childhood, of immigrating that formed who they are today. I was humbled and inspired as I watched a community form through vulnerability and story. 

When there was no one left to go, I made a decision. I spoke up and I told my own story. I spoke of my small town, of my time in middle school, and of who I see myself to be today. I was still scared, but I felt something else: a desire to share, to divulge the same way I had been divulged to, and to honor the community that had taken shape in only a couple of hours. When I reflect, I realized through our stories we found places of unity – ways to both share our complex individuality, and engage in the collective experience of a racialized world – no matter our entry points or backgrounds. We told stories of childhood, our school years, nature, and immigrating. We told stories of bullies and friends, family and strangers.

So, where does this bring me? I will never feign to know what it is like for those affected by FGC to share their often intimate stories of what it means to speak power to silence. But participating in the Intersecting Stories event gave me the slightest glimpse into the strength of so many women who have bravely made themselves vulnerable to protect others. More so, as a participant I witnessed firsthand the magical nature of storytelling – how words weave friendships, trust, and respect.