Speaking the truth about my experience with female genital mutilation

By Aisha Yusuf

(Aisha is one of our Sahiyo Story participants who continues to use her voice to advocate for change on female genital cutting.)

At the Pro-Voice storytelling event at the Frogmore in Boston on March 31, there were three storytellers, including myself. The event was organized by Rev. Susan Chorley to contradict the narrative of shame, judgement, and stigma directed at women’s bodies and women’s lives. It was intimate in the sense that we created a small circle and we also paired in groups to engage in discussion with the attendees after each storyteller presented their piece. I was the second storyteller.

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I told the crowd I experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) when I was five, but I didn’t really process it until I was thirteen. It took me many years to understand it and its impact on my life. I speak about it because I don’t want to be silent anymore.

For me, I’m still getting the hang of storytelling and so I was nervous when I first got up, but the feedback I got after the event was over made me glad I shared my story. A lot of the attendees were shocked to learn about the prevalence of FGM around the world and how many women it affects. One woman in particular stated that she was unaware that such a practice was happening here in the United States, and they were shocked to find out that it impacted so many girls around the world.

During our small group conversation after my speech, we discussed a cultural or family practice we would undo for our people or community and how it would change our lives. I gave a brief example of a 10-year-old girl who died as a result of FGM in Somalia last July. I stated that I wanted to undo this practice so that innocent lives do not have to suffer like the girls who’ve died because of FGM, and many other girls who will potentially experience it.

When each storyteller told their story, the attendees would write something positive on three cards for the storyteller, which they would get to take with them at the end of the event. After the last discussion, Rev. Chorley, who is also the Executive Director of Exhale, thanked the storytellers, attendees, volunteers and gave storytellers a book along with cards.

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Overall, I was happy to share my story with the general public, I didn’t expect to receive so much positive feedback. One woman in particular I remembered stated that she was moved by my story. After the event was over people were networking. This older American woman came up to me and stated that she was not ready for the story I told. She was in disbelief that this had happened to me and thanked me for sharing my story and bringing awareness to such a private and intimate practice. This moment in particular made me realize why it was important to tell my story of surviving FGM. She added that hopefully what I am doing can bring change for girls.

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

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Age: 45 years old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Survivor of Mumbai: Plight to End Female Genital Cutting

By Brionna Wiggins

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

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

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

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Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brionnabiopic

 

More on Brionna:

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

 

Wrestling with trust and fear in regard to female genital mutilation

By Farzana Esmaeel

Country of Residence: United Arab Emirates

Trust and fear are two emotions that have an interesting correlation to input and output of human behavior. One emotion, trust, establishes safety and comfort for individuals whilst the other, fear, displaces the very premise of safety and comfort. At the age of 7, you don’t articulate emotions; you feel them. And your mother is your beacon of trust. She loves you, comforts you, cares for you and sacrifices for you. Then, when trust is removed, it’s only natural to feel extreme pain and deceit at her hands the most.

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My sister and I were taken to a dilapidated, dimly lit building at the far end of the city on the pretext that we were going to meet an aunt for a check-up. At the tender age of 7 when mum tells you we are going for a check up you don’t appreciate entirely its meaning, and at the time it meant to me that we were going to see a doctor.

What followed was unprecedented, and a memory that will be etched in our minds forever. Sadly.

The pain was too much to bear as 30 years ago, female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Dawoodi Bohra community was generally more practiced under callous and less “sterile” ways. (Yet, even today, when it is practiced by licensed white coat doctors under more hygienic conditions, it doesn’t make the practice correct.) The overarching feeling I took after my experience 30 years ago was deceit.

My mother is a simple, non-confrontational, less informed person, who at the time of my sister and my cutting, played into the hands of a community (mindset) that propagates fear: fear of being ‘ostracized’ for not having FGM done, fear of her daughters being ‘impure’, fear of standing up against cultural norms and practices. Though today, this same woman hasn’t once told either of her daughters to carry out this inhumane practice on her granddaughters. She now understands the pain and futility of it all.

FGM is a practice entrenched with ‘fear,’ stripping human ‘trust,’ and inculcating in young girls early on to be apologetic about their sexuality and their desires. It is on us to be the change. We must question this violation of human rights and ensure that we raise our voices against this harmful practice, not just for our daughters, but the many more daughters all around us.     

 

Experiencing Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat in Mumbai

By Xenobia

Country of Residence: India

There are those who talk about change, and then there are those who do things and bring about the change.  I would like to tell you about the time I decided to be a part of the Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat in Mumbai, and met such wonderful people who, in my eyes, were nothing short of superwomen.

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I cannot even begin to describe how amazing it is to meet like-minded people all driven by the same cause. It is honestly inexplicable. In today’s times, do you know what good, honest peer support feeling is like? Let me tell you: it was out of this world amazing! Did a couple of seemingly insignificant days change my life? Yes, they did. Prior to this event, was I feeling anxious and apprehensive about what it would turn out to be like? Oh, extremely. Was I nervous? Yes. Was I also curious about what would I take away from this retreat? Yes. Did I think it was going to be all about a bunch of women getting together to purely rebel against a cause? I will admit, yes.

I knew about Sahiyo, and the cause that they are fighting for. I admired and respected them because I had been fighting for the same cause all my life, too, but silently. Many members of the Bohra community do not react well to independent thinkers, so it takes a lot of courage and true liberation to speak your mind on a public platform. Naturally, one ‘black sheep’ tends to have heard about the other. But immense respect for them aside, I was partly curious about what I would really learn here, and partly interested in what could be done to rightly channel the feelings I felt toward the people who endorse female genital mutilation (FGM).

Needless to say, I couldn’t stop talking about this retreat when I returned home! There were some brilliant, fantastic people there from all walks of life, sharing their experiences, sharing their stories and how they heard of FGM, how it has impacted their lives, and what they are doing about it. Our co-hosts Insia and Aarefa were warm as ever, right from introductions and group bonding activities, to efficiently addressing counter arguments and introducing us to a world of relevant introspection, as opposed to traditional garish rebelling. There was also a talk given by a reputed gynaecologist, where we learned so many essential truths about the details of FGM that no one else talks about. So enlightening!

It was as if there was a strange connection between all of us toward the end of the program. It’s not news that Bohras suffer from a major identity crisis anyway, considering most cultural aspects are borrowed from different parts of the world with no real roots anywhere. For someone who always found it hard to really fit in anywhere, it was as if I had found home at last. In spite of everyone at the retreat coming from such different backgrounds, locations and mindsets, it was really amazing.

I, personally, have always felt very strongly about FGM/C and the concept of a random third person deciding what should be done with my body without my consent. But this experience and interaction has not only changed the way I see things, but has also made my resolve and conviction stronger – about fighting for every girl child out there, subjected to any such torture and abuse, until I have no life left in me, irrespective of how long it takes.

For showing me how to efficiently channel all that I feel toward all forms of injustice done to women, and for this beautiful chapter of my life, I will be forever grateful to Sahiyo.

 

How doctors responded to my genital mutilation: An American woman’s 70-year journey

By A. Renee Bergstrom, EdD

Country of Residence: United States

Renee chronicles her experiences with American physicians from the time she was cut at three years of age until seventy years later when she became an advocate against female genital mutilation. She also shared her story during the Sahiyo Stories Workshop to encourage other women to speak out.

  • 1947—age 3—My mother took me to a doctor because she was concerned that my little face turned red when I touched my clitoris. This fundamentalist Christian physician believed masturbation to be a sin and practiced his religion with a scalpel in a Wahpeton, North Dakota, clinic. He removed my visible clitoris. Some of my sensitive tissue fused to my inner labia.

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  • 1959—age 15—I drove myself to the same clinic not realizing this was where my mutilation took place. I complained to the doctor about the uncomfortable tugging sensation from my scar. He did not examine me or offer a solution. (Separating the scar may have solved the problem.) Instead, he gave me a brochure on the sin of self-pleasuring.
  • 1965—age 21—During my premarital examination (why were these required?), I told the doctor I was not sure I would be able to have “normal” orgasms like other women. He faced the wall and did not comment.
  • 1967—age 23—During my first childbirth, my scar did not stretch, so second stage labor came to a halt. I was given anesthesia against my will and did not wake up until four hours after our daughter was born. My obstetrician had performed an extensive episiotomy to enable her to be delivered vaginally. He did not mention the details of my birthing experience while I was in the hospital or at my six-week postpartum checkup. Later, when intercourse was uncomfortable and my vagina seemed lumpy, I returned to discuss the problem. He showed me pictures of normal female genitalia in an anatomy book and said, “Renee, you don’t look like other women.” He thought I could have had a bike accident as a child. He was shocked when I told him my story. I believe he prescribed lubricating gel to use until I healed completely, which took a couple of months.
  • 1968—age 24—When I was pregnant with our second child, I made an appointment with the same obstetrician. I waited and waited in the examination room and finally another obstetric physician came in. He said the other doctor was leaving to put IUDs in African women and would not be available to provide my care. In retrospect, I think his experience with me touched him deeply and he couldn’t face me to say goodbye. I came home crying and my husband thought there was something wrong with the baby. I had hoped to continue my obstetrical care with this compassionate physician so I felt a great loss. The next doctor assigned to me urged me to allow him to connect me with William Masters and Virginia Johnson of the research team. He thought they would be interested in my sexual response and would pay me well to participate in experiments. He suggested this at every visit and I repeatedly declined. He anesthetized me for the delivery. I awakened in a cold delivery room with my feet still in the stirrups, my episiotomy unstitched and my struggling son in a bassinet out of my reach. The OB team had left me to attend to another woman’s emergency.
  • 1970—age 25—I gave birth to our second son eleven months after his brother was born. I was semi-awake as he moved through the birth canal. The baby urinated immediately and the doctor held him so he peed in my face. I missed the first two birthing experiences and this rude, unfeeling man tainted the one when I was alert. Being cut took away my dream of the deeply spiritual joy of birthing.
  • 1981—age 37—I began my End FGM advocacy when I received funding from the Women’s Desk of the Lutheran World Federation to spend two weeks in Geneva, Switzerland, discussing the issue with international organizations there. My empathetic primary care physician was required to write a letter confirming that I was indeed cut.
  • 1981—In preparation for my 1981 Geneva trip, I attended the University of Minnesota Week of Enrichment designed to help doctors, pastors and therapists respond compassionately to those who bring a variety of sexual issues to them. This allowed me to practice telling my story in a small group supportive environment. When word got out that I was in attendance, a surgeon came and offered to create a faux clitoris for me with one of my nipples. I thought about it for awhile, then declined the offer in the parking lot while she stood next to her car. She was visibly angry, so I responded, “Why should I allow another part of my body to be mutilated when sexual intercourse is sufficiently satisfying?”
  • Later 1980s—age 40s—Two physician interactions stand out in my memory. I saw a dermatologist for a boil on my labia. When I shared my genital history, she was furious. Such a refreshing response! Previous physicians hid their emotions as if to protect the medical profession. The second experience was disturbing. I fell on metal bleachers at our children’s track meet with a resulting large hematoma on my labia. The beautiful young emergency room physician appeared to suggest that my husband had caused the injury, probably because she saw my strangely mutilated body. I didn’t provide details because there were thin curtains separating me from other patients. A couple of weeks later, we read that she walked into a lake and ended her life. I wonder if she just couldn’t tolerate witnessing the abuse cases she faced in the E.R.
  • 1997—age 53—My genital scar began to separate. My very caring female primary Unknowncare physician helped me deal with the pain and taught me to massage the area to speed the process, finally ending fifty years of the annoying tugging sensation.
  • 2017—age 73—After several years of sharing my story with compassionate physicians in the Academy of Communication in Healthcare, a male senior faculty member apologized to me from the medical profession for what I suffered. Accepting his apology helped free me to move forward with END FGM advocacy.

 

My decision as a mother to not cut my daughters

By Masuma Kothari

Country of Residence: United Kingdom

A vivid memory of my cut has lived through so many years that I can recall the entire act. This experience always intrigued me and it did lead me to the insights of child psychology as to how tender a 7-year-old is. Even though my personal experience was not very excruciating, I clearly remember the sense of betrayal, and it never went away.

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I was never convinced with the benefits theory that was proclaimed, and honestly, nobody really knew at a deeper level the real reason to follow this practice when I sought guidance. Because of the social influence, it was apparent that herd mentality, unexposed details, unquestioned thoughts promoted this practice.

When my elder daughter was near the age, I had to figure out for myself if my daughter should also be cut. It felt as if I had Godlike power to alter something natural belonging to my daughter’s body forever, and that did not feel right. For me, the decision was a chaotic fight between the cultural beliefs and the scientific quest. I reached out to a few of my doctor family members to understand if there was any scientific aspect. All of them discouraged the practice. That is when the light in my heart beamed strong.

I chose courage and discussed this openly within my group of Bohra friends. Surprisingly, I found most of the women were also against it and this strengthened my defiance! In fact, my mother secretly regretted having the practice done to me, too.

I was sure I did not want to take away what God had bestowed on my daughters. With this clarity, I announced it to my family that we won’t be conducting this on our daughters. One additional powerful advantage was that we resided in the United Kingdom. Since it is a criminal offence here, it was an easy argument to assure a few of our noisy family members back in India.  Because we as parents were strong, nobody really questioned or bothered to enforce this. It was simply about standing up for what we thought to be correct.

My husband was firm from day one that he was not willing to get this done for our daughters, yet he had given me the ownership of making this decision in case I was convinced that it had to be done. My decision scale had a chunky weight on anti-FGM, which was also a major influence in my decision to not cut my daughters.

There is absolutely no need to do this. If you are a parent struggling with the obligation to have this done, just say no to this age-old trauma-enabling practice and move on guilt- free with loud pride that you have made the right choice.

Reflections on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting & Intergenerational Trauma

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

I am not a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). In fact, my father is vehemently opposed to the practice. Even though I was shielded from FGM/C, I know loved ones who have undergone the procedure. One of those survivors is my mom.

 

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My parents are from Somaliland, which lies on the northwestern part of Somalia, but we now live in the United States. FGM/C has evolved into a cultural practice in Somaliland that has strong social roots. There is a lot of stigma if you aren’t cut (guilt, shame, neglect). My experience within the Somali community is that FGM/C has been discussed within the realm of religious theology as an acceptable form of practice. The only problem is that there is no religious text in the Quran that advocates or allows this practice. Granted, FGM/C is practiced around the world for a variety of reasons. But it is vital to highlight our personal experiences which will enable us to find collective solutions to end the practice.

I didn’t know much about FGM/C until I immigrated to the United States. The irony is that it’s a common practice passed down through generations, but it’s a closely guarded secret. No one talks about it unless it’s your time to undergo the procedure. After I looked into the different forms of FGM/C and the harmful effects, I was immediately repulsed by the actions of my community. I was enraged that the perpetrators of FGM/C were not held accountable for committing a human rights violation. I just can’t fathom how my community would eagerly rally against islamophobia, but turn a blind eye to FGM/C.

I faced a dilemma. I was harboring these feelings against my community because I just couldn’t understand the rationale of the people who are advocates of FGM/C. I was concerned that my emotions were clouding my judgment. One day I built up the courage to ask someone who could provide me some context: my mom. I am not sure why I waited until the end of this year to ask my mom why FGM/C is so prevalent in our community, but perhaps I was petrified of how she would react. I was fortunate to have the guidance of Mariya Taher (co-founder of Sahiyo) to prepare me for this day.

The type of FGM/C procedure that my mom endured is common amongst Somali women. Known as infibulation, it is typically the most severe form. My mom was very candid in her experience as she vividly disclosed the trauma and pain she went through. During our intense conversation, I interrupted her because at some point, it was too painful to digest. In the end, she confided in me. “We weren’t educated at that time, and we just did what we thought was right,” she said.

We can’t trace when the practice of FGM/C had its initial roots in my family, but something clicked inside my head in relation to intergenerational trauma. My grandmother was exposed to the same FGM/C procedure as my mom. Despite the agony, my grandmother is convinced it was the right thing to do. After all, that’s all she knows. Even though my grandmother made the decision for my mom to go through FGM/C, it doesn’t mean that she is a terrible individual. If I had to describe my grandmother, the first thing that would come to mind is her independence. She is fierce, loving, generous and vocal. She would never hesitate to express her opinion. It’s a shocking that my grandmother advocated for the practice of FGM/C because it just didn’t fit in with her persona. This is where intergenerational trauma comes into effect.You endure a traumatic experience and one of the ways to cope with that specific experience is to normalize it. If you are not provided the proper mechanisms to manage trauma, it will manifest itself often at the expense of your loved ones.

For a long time, I believed that FGM/C was only practiced in my community. Then I was exposed to data that demonstrated the wide reach of FGM/C. I believe that education and dialogue are crucial to creating solutions for the practice to end. We must not shame communities, but bring awareness of the life threatening risks associated with the procedures that so many girls endure. I believe in humanity and even though the practice of FGM/C is harmful, there is still room for hope.

Sahiyo Stories screened in Massachusetts

In May 2018, the Sahiyo Stories 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.

The video stories created at the workshop have since then been released on YouTube (you can watch them here). In November a public screening of Sahiyo Stories was held in Massachusetts.

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Lesley University, Massachusetts

On November 9th, Sahiyo took part in Violence Against Women Conference hosted by Lesley University. This day-long, interdisciplinary event aimed to “provide a platform for scholars, artists and community activists to explore the interplay between global representations of violence against women and historical and contemporary discourses.” Sahiyo held a screening of the Sahiyo Stories digital stories, with an introduction on ‘What is Female Genital Cutting’ by Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher, and a post-viewing Questions & Answers session with Renee Bergstrom, one of the Sahiyo story participants.

At the Lesley University screening, the audience included a mixture of folks, with a majority of the participants being Lesley students interested in gender equity, human rights, international women’s issues or a unique cross of these fields.

Here’s what Lara Kingstone, Sahiyo’s Communication Assistant had to say about the event:

The Q&A session allowed for followed was a frank and informative discussion of FGC, social change, and the nature of community traditions. Having both Mariya and Renee present added a layer of personal connection to the screening, and I believe that guests and facilitators alike (and myself, the Communications Assistant!) came away feeling energized, informed and connected by the session. ~ Lara

 

Female Genital Cutting Diaries: My first encounter with the tradition of female genital cutting

by Jenny Cordle

A decade ago I lived in a practicing, rural community situated in the lush, southern region of Mali, West Africa. Out of nearly 2,000 inhabitants living in mud-brick houses, a dozen were Christian. The rest were Muslim, and remain among the loveliest people I’ve ever met. Out of love and many other complicated reasons, the Sunni Muslim community members cut their girls, as is the case for why many Shia Muslim Dawoodi Bohra mothers and fathers perpetuate the practice 5,000 miles away in India and among diaspora communities such as the one in Detroit, Michigan.

I am struck by how the impetus to cut has no bounds; how an impoverished Malian community that runs out of grain in the cold season finds the money to pay a cutter; and the lengths an educated, wealthy community such as the Dawoodi Bohras will go to protect the practice.

My first encounter with the longstanding tradition of female genital cutting in Mali punctuated my Peace Corps service in Konza. The local midwife reluctantly confessed that a mass cutting was occurring; I’d made her promise to tell me the next time it happened. I ran to my house, grabbed my camera, and navigated the maze of mud bricks until I stumbled upon several elderly women and a group of girls in the midst of lining up for washing. I was visibly furious and knew I needed to calm down. I didn’t know what I expected to see, or if I would be capable of stopping it, but I had to go.

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photo by Jenny Cordle

There’s a particular kind of hush that falls over Konza during a ritual cutting of girls. The pounding of millet is stifled by a thick silence. What is typically a loose order tightens its reins over a large pocket of the community, with children scattered along the edges.   

At least a dozen girls sat shirtless on the floor of a small dark room with their heads wrapped in patterned scarves typically reserved for women, and wearing small skirts of a different fabric. I searched their faces. There were dried tears and fresh ones. They were silent, their lives having been marked with a before and after by a woman who made it her job to perpetuate a harmful practice. Most of them looked about eight years old—the year I started writing stories and met my lifelong best friend, and thought about what outfit my Barbie should wear.

I’d taken many portraits of youth in Konza. They were intense, gorgeous people with secrets I wanted to know but may never be able to handle. At the time I couldn’t process that they’d been physically and emotionally violated, but my shock and anger was apparent—too visible to the elderly women.

I missed the cutting and thought I missed the cutter. I knew the cutter had come from Djobo, a neighboring community, based on conversations I had with friends. I envisioned her wielding an unsterilized razor, delegating older women to hold the girls down and making a series of quick, but painful cuts. I could see her promptly packing up, blessing the girls who bled too much and praising the ones who silently endured it.

I could see her mounting a motorcycle, and then her back in the dust with her head wrap billowing. I knew she had money wrapped in her skirt: payment for a day’s work. I knew of her need for secrecy, which was honored by everyone in the village. No one would share exactly who she was or where she lived or why I couldn’t speak with her.

I called a meeting with the village chief, along with my landlord and a few elders—the midwife, Binta, sitting next to me in the night as I spoke. I brazenly called for an end to the cutting. I mentioned the harmful effects—that these girls could die. Baji Kone, the chief, promptly told me that it would never happen again and thanked me for the visit. A few weeks later, many other girls were cut. I’d been appeased—but as a white American woman, who was I to pressure the chief to end one of the oldest rituals in Mali?

I would learn that cutting in Mali was a sacred tradition that would not be cast in a violent light. It would be protected and blessed and carried on years later in Konza. I decided as a volunteer that it was not my place to interfere; doing so may have undermined my work in the community.

It wasn’t until years after my service that I realized I wanted to explore and understand the motivations behind the practice of cutting. I knew the girls in Mali. They’d sat in my best woven chair under a porch made of tree branches and chatted with me daily. I wanted to know the cutters. Who were these women paid to inflict pain in the name of honor and purity? I’d learned Malian birthing customs, and experienced how many Muslims embrace death as God’s will, but the rites of passage for girls into womanhood was kept from me, so I ran toward it.

(This blog is the first in a series of blogs meant to inspire a larger, global conversation about girls’ and women’s health and rights, cutting as a practice, and ideas for positive change. A series of conversations about cutting in my community in Mali led me to advocacy work at Sahiyo. My hope is that collectively we can gain an understanding of the practice, and in doing so, can encourage abandonment.)