Voices reflection: A journey of self discovery

By Lola Ibrahim

Storytelling is an important aspect in ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and finding closure for survivors emotionally and mentally. You are able to pour out all of these random thoughts and feelings you bottled up for so long. It gives you the opportunity to begin the healing process and start a journey of self discovery.

I participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop because I know sharing my story would help me heal, and inspire people to make a change. The storytelling workshop was fun, entertaining, and the message was delivered in a subtle, but effective way.

I know my voice can make a difference.  My pain can help others understand what FGM survivors go through. For a long time I didn’t have the courage to face myself. Telling my story opened my vulnerability; and it’s okay to be vulnerable. The experience was therapeutic for me. I was empowered. I was transformed. I met a group of strong women who, like me, share the passion to end FGM. To those who are interested in participating in a Voices workshop, I say go for it. It is a journey of self discovery.

My personal goal is to have women at every table where decisions that affect them are being made, a future free from stigma, stereotypes, misogyny, patriarchal practices and armed violence. A future that is peaceful and sustainable with equal rights and opportunities. A future free from all harmful traditional practices. 

To all FGM survivors like me, I leave you with one of my favourite quotations:

“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and twice as beautiful as you’d ever imagined.” – Rumi

Voices reflection: Finding my voice

By Hunter Kessous

When I first joined Sahiyo’s team as an intern, I was told to take a look at the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) project on YouTube to get a glimpse of how Sahiyo uses storytelling in its approach to ending FGC. I was probably only expected to watch two or three videos, but I watched every single one in a single sitting. The bravery of every survivor who so beautifully shared their story was enthralling and inspiring. 

Several months later, my mentor at Sahiyo suggested I join the upcoming Voices workshop. Advocates and allies were being welcomed into the program for the very first time. I was hesitant. What place did my story about misguided professors have amongst the breathtaking, moving stories of survivors? I joined the workshop regardless, and I was open with the group about the sense of imposter syndrome I had. My fellow participants, activists and survivors alike, were very encouraging and some even shared my same concern. The most important thing was that we were all united by a common goal: to raise awareness about FGC and hopefully end the practice. Through this shared desire, we built a supportive network, and I soon felt less like a participant in a workshop and more like a member of a community. 

My biggest takeaway from joining this community was finding my voice in speaking out against FGC. I gained confidence in sharing my story about the issues of FGC education in college, because I was assured that it is a story worth sharing. It can be frightening to talk about an issue that is so taboo and to challenge higher authorities. I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed the Voices workshop to become a better advocate for women’s rights. I’m excited to share my Voices video and continue speaking out against FGC. 

Voices reflection: Revealing my hidden narrative

By Absa Samba

When I signed up to participate in the Voices to End FGM/C online digital storytelling workshop, I starting thinking about what story I would tell. So many incoherent ideas ran to my mind. It wasn’t until I attended the first session that I knew what story I wanted to tell. During the session, we watched sample stories that really centered my idea.

I have shared my experience as a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting many times, but it wasn’t until this workshop that I realized that there was a part of my story that I had never shared. It was the opportunity to be surrounded by people with both an interest in ending the practice of FGM/C and lived experience that gave me the confidence to share this part of my story. When I speak about my experience as a survivor of FGM/C, people ask, “Why would anyone subject a person to an inhumane practice?” As an activist, I ask myself why I cannot convince some of my family members, the people I love, about the harmful effects of this practice.

The opportunity to participate in the workshop created a space for me to be vulnerable and feel supported while sharing the space with people who are doing just the same. Together, we learned, shared, supported and healed.

Female genital cutting: A poem

By Zainab Khambata

Country of Residence: India

As the blade pierced through my skin,

All I could feel was pain.

I looked into my mom’s eyes,

And she shrugged helplessly in vain.

I was yet another girl,

Subjected to female genital cutting.

As a mere child of seven,

I did not contest,

I wasn’t even aware,

That all my dignity as well as my rights,

Were stripped from me bare.

“It is done in the name of religion,” they said.

And it is this ideology I dread.

It is done to curb a woman’s desires,

To subdue her voice and her fire.

My grandmother said “It’s all right, all girls must go through this in their life.”

Why has society rendered women unaware?

To the point where they do not know and do not even care.

They torment innocent children,

With everlasting scars,

But yet this practice they refuse to stop,

Fearing from society’s eyes they will drop.

When will this age-old tradition come to an end?

So that without emotional trauma,

The rest of their lives little girls can spend.

It is time to speak up about this,

And make people aware,

It’s time to show that we care.

Using purity as a means to control women through Christianity and female genital cutting

By Nicole Mitchell

Many communities struggle to accept female sexuality even in today’s modern world. While it is common to see female sexuality in pop-culture, this doesn’t necessarily reflect a universal acceptance. Frequently, a woman’s value is tied to her “purity” or virginity. This prejudice manifests in obvious ways, such as female genital cutting (FGC), and in more subtle ways like  teaching women and girls that their worth is tied to their abstinence. These methods of oppression are also not mutually exclusive and occur in many communities around the world including the Western, Christian community.

Evangelical America

I grew up as a minister’s daughter and one of eight children with five sisters and two brothers. My dad was a minister at an evangelical church in Boston, Massachusetts. While the evangelical movement is considered to be one of the more progressive, modern branches of Christianity, we still subscribed to such beliefs that a woman ought to be submissive to her husband by honoring him as head of the household, church and state. If you were to ask my dad and other fellow religious leaders their opinions on this now, they would probably avoid the question. Over the years, evangelical Christians have softened their voices, particularly in regard to the role of women and the LGBTQ community. This may be attributed to the growing resistance from millennials and younger generations against exclusive ideologies. 

As a young girl, I was taught that men and women had different, God-given strengths. Examples of female strength focused on traits such as empathy, caring and kindness, whereas male strengths included leadership, power and physical prowess. While men and women could embody both traits, such as being an empathetic leader — I was taught that a woman could never lead over a man. Essentially, the message was that women aren’t really leaders; they can just help organize other women. When I questioned this, I would often have scripture cited to me: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). Even more blatantly, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22-24). This belief was demonstrated in both my dad’s church I attended and in the larger, global ministry we were a part of, as there were no female head pastors. Women could be guest speakers during services, but never the head of the church. This idea that certain personality traits are reserved for specific genders, specifically leadership and power belonging to men, highlights a deeper division in how communities view a woman’s overall personhood and more specifically, her sexuality.

The concept of a person being both spiritual and sexual was never discussed in my upbringing. As a woman, I felt that acknowledging sexuality or sexual desires was in direct conflict with being spiritual; one simply could not be both at the same time. Consummating a marriage was fine, but admitting to having sexual urges was considered not godly (i.e., Christian). Leaders and parents exhibited different attitudes in the way a boy versus a girl would be treated when admitting to participating in sexual acts or behavior. 

“Boys will be boys,” was the typical attitude when a young man admitted to sexual behavior before marriage. However, if a girl was promiscuous, within the church and my community, there was a substantial attitude of judgement toward her as if she was now deemed unclean, even sometimes suggesting that she was at fault for the boys “mistake” because of the clothes she wore or the way she carried herself. This wasn’t a direct principle preached in sermons; but it demonstrated the way purity and modesty were so heavily emphasized in my childhood. I know my brothers did not experience this emphasis, certainly not to the level I did. For example, every year my mom would take a few of my sisters and I to a women-only conference in New York called PureLife. Women from our global ministry would speak on a variety of topics with a focus on maintaining purity and a “clean spirit” with God. I remember the shame surrounding impurity was a heavy and distinct feeling. It is possible to surmise that when an idea is subtle or silent, it becomes more powerful because it is more difficult to challenge. This purity prejudice was further backed by scripture.

One of the most fundamental stories in the Bible about Adam and Eve, instructs that mankind was doomed due to a woman pursuing knowledge. Eve’s interest in the tree of knowledge is portrayed as her ultimate downfall. Much like I would have been disgraced for exploring my sexuality at a young age, Eve was banished from heaven for pursuing knowledge according to the story. One could even surmise that the Bible is alluding to sexuality, not knowledge, given the level of shame Eve received. 

This idea that a woman should suppress her knowledge or sexuality is seen clearly in another important story in the Bible. The birth of Jesus Christ comes quite literally from a virgin mother. In theory, this teaches that the “ideal woman” would never explore her sexuality. After all, the “savior of the world” came from a “sexless” and “pure” woman. A woman pursuing her own sexuality or knowledge is not encouraged, but rather a sin. The Bible as it was written by men over time has a unique ability to reward submissive behavior, while inciting fear in women who might explore their own body. As a young Christian girl, it was clear my role model was to be Mary and not curious Eve. Again, while these principles were not overtly stated in the church, they were powerful, nonetheless.

Female genital cutting

The continuation of female genital cutting (FGC)  in the modern world is further evidence of the oppressive undercurrent that defines a woman’s value based on her perceived purity. FGC is often practiced as a way to curb female sexual desires by preventing a girl or woman from becoming ‘unclean’ through procreation. While sometimes FGC is viewed as simply a way to preserve tradition, the root of that tradition comes from an attempt to control and suppress a woman’s humanity, which includes her sexual freedom. 

To be human, is to acknowledge and cultivate all parts of yourself: the mental, the emotional, the spiritual and the physical. When a woman is taught to suppress her physicality or passion, she becomes divided within herself. A woman divided, is a woman denied her humanity. Passion, physicality and sexuality should not be shamed, but embraced. Women from all types of communities should be treated as equals and not as a shrine of virginity and purity. This pedestal is misleading and leads to harmful practices such as FGC. It is crucial that we end the shame linked to female sexuality in all communities and promote women’s rights to experience the fullness of what it truly means to be human.

Reflection on Sahiyo’s Activists’ Retreat: Creating an impact to end female genital cutting

By Anonymous

I had the opportunity to attend Sahiyo’s second virtual Activists’ Retreat (my first one) last month and absolutely loved every second of it. I had been feeling extreme Zoom fatigue leading up to the weekend, and wasn’t exactly looking forward to spending an entire weekend on Zoom. But as soon as the weekend started, I forgot about how tired I felt and immersed myself in all of the activities. My favorite part of the entire weekend was definitely just interacting with all the other attendees: getting to know them, hearing their stories and ideas, and feeling a sense of community even though we were all miles apart from each other. Together we created a space that was truly welcoming and inclusive. During one of the sessions, a past participant even privately messaged me. She noticed I had been quiet and encouraged me to share my thoughts. She gave me the push I needed to speak up and share my ideas, something I would not have normally done.

It seems crazy to say that the Activists’ Retreat created change over the span of three days of virtual sessions. But after participating in it first hand, I can confidently say that it did have an enormous impact on the overall movement to end female genital cutting (FGC). During our closing session, I noticed other attendees, myself included, simply reflecting on everything we had learned. We learned about the long legal history of FGC in the U.S. and globally, about sexual health in the context of FGC, about the experiences, actions, and ideas of other attendees. There were first time attendees who participated in the retreat unsure of where they stood on the issue that ended the weekend with a lot to ponder. We also outlined action items, both individually and as a group, of tangible things we wanted to work on and accomplish over the next year, from raising money so Sahiyo can continue to sustain itself to work toward policy change at the state level. One of my goals was to speak to my own friends from mosque, something I had been wanting to do for a while, but always felt too scared. Last week, I had dinner with one of these friends, and at the end of the night I just decided to go for it and ask her about FGC. We were able to have a long conversation about it and I got to learn her perspective, and she learned mine. She said she didn’t have enough knowledge about the topic but was thankful I had brought it up to her. She said she would do more of her own research when she got home.

Without the Activists’ Retreat, I don’t know if I would have had the courage or mindset to have this conversation with my friend. But knowing there were other people who were also having these difficult discussions and were pushing themselves to advocate against this issue motivated me to do the same. Throughout this year, I am going to continue working toward my goal to talk to more of my friends about FGC, and in doing so, broaden the conversation so we can protect the next generation of girls.

To learn more about the 2021 Activist Retreat, take a look at our Report.

A reflection on Sahiyo’s Activists’ Retreat: A sense of belonging

By Amena

I attended Sahiyo’s Activists’ Retreat because it stands for a cause I believe in to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) for future generations of girls. This was the first time I was able to connect with people who have a similar stance on this cause and meet allies and people who have been through a similar experience as me, or know someone who has been through it. It was such a pleasure to be a part of something like this retreat. 

I learned and realized that everyone has different experiences regarding FGM/C. For something that is so taboo to talk about, it’s hard to know, understand, and even accept that there are allies out there creating change in our community to end FGM/C. To be specific, women often feel like they are alone in regard to this subject. Having men actively wanting to be allies and support our efforts to create change is nice to see, and so it was helpful for me to know there were male participants at our Activists’ Retreat.

I’m also currently an intern for Sahiyo U.S., and I’m hoping to make some significant contributions during my time with them. I think attending this retreat was a great way for me to get my foot in the door with this cause, and that it can help others who may want to get involved. It can also give you a sense of community as it did for me. 

I look forward to attending the Activists’ Retreat in the future, hopefully in person next time.

To learn more about the 2021 Activist Retreat, take a look at our Report.

Women should not be harmed because of societal norms 

By Sakshi Rajani 

Age: 17

Country: India

Female genital cutting (FGC): the term sounded ruthless the first time I heard it. It was not long ago that I was introduced to this term. While going through my Instagram feed, I read a story about a law student who was spreading awareness about FGC, and I was clueless about what it was. Immediately I searched this issue online and learned how serious it was. Then, I pondered why I hadn’t known about it earlier. Why had no one around me talked about it? 

Upon researching it further, I came to know how deeply rooted this problem was in communities and cultures. My will to do something to end it became stronger. I looked for organisations working to end FGC and came across Sahiyo. I soon joined the organisation. 

The first time I spoke about FGC to my friends they said, “What is that?” I wasn’t surprised by their reaction because I, too, was unfamiliar with it. I asked them to research it on their own, and then I explained more about the harms. I told them the World Health Organization and the United Nations declared FGC a human rights violation. Then I introduced them to the groundbreaking Mumkin app created by two co-founders of Sahiyo, Priya Goswami and Aarefa Johari, where my friends could learn more valuable information about this issue.

What are the hurdles in encouraging abandonment of or ending FGC? FGC is also often seen as a necessary ritual for initiation into womanhood and can be linked to cultural ideals of femininity, purity and modesty. A strong incentive to continue the practice is family pressure to adhere to conventional social norms. Women who break from this social norm can face condemnation, abuse and rejection from family or community members. Patriarchal society can help perpetuate it generation after generation. 

Female genital cutting should stop immediately, as a woman should have full rights over her body and no woman should be harmed because of societal norms and expectations. I am now an advocate to make sure FGC ends.

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!