On June 1, Sahiyo and StoryCenter launched a pilot online digital storytelling workshop – Global Voices to End FGM/C, which is supporting ten women impacted by female genital cutting in sharing and audio-recording their stories.
During June, storytellers attended a series of webinars that helped highlight the storyteller process and how to go about drafting their story scripts as well creating a storyboard for their digital story. During July and August, the storytellers will continue working on their digital stories by collecting illustrations for their stories. The stories will be illustrated with a combination of personal images (photos and video clips) provided by the storytellers, and images contributed by participating women artists.
The storytellers come from a variety of countries including: Tanzania, United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Singapore, and Bahrain. “As a survivor of FGC, it is empowering to be able to share my story in my own words, with my own choice of visuals, as opposed to my story being told by someone else,” said Aarefa Johari, one of the participants of the workshop.
All participants’ digital stories will be released in late September.
The Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat I attended in March of 2019 felt big to me. In the days after, I told people it blew me away, meaning that it occupied my thoughts as it was all I could talk about and think about for a while. There were parts of it that felt like group therapy, something I had not expected. I just had not expected how deeply moving it is for someone else to say, “That happened to me, too.” We all know that there is an entire social movement around the #metoo hashtag, but it is more than a hashtag. It felt like when you are doing an exercise, and the teacher comes up to you, adjusts you a little, and then the whole exercise changes.
A lot of the time during the retreat, it felt like someone was reaching inside me and physically shifting an organ or two. For one other woman to say to me “I get a lot of urinary tract infections, too” just made me want to cry. The crazy thing is that other women have said that to me. Tons of friends have said that, but I always remembered thinking, “Ok, but you weren’t cut.” But this time, this one time, when the other woman said it, I suddenly felt a rush of gratitude and warmth and unparalleled comradery. I wasn’t crazy, and if I was, I wasn’t alone in being crazy. I just had no idea how moving it would be to be in a group where I could hear others talk about their experiences, for me to feel normal in being abnormal.
I had always thought individual therapy was valuable, but I simply had no idea that a group can offer a kind of cathartic experience that is impossible to achieve by yourself. To be honest, I thought group therapy was for people who couldn’t afford individual therapy. But I was completely wrong. They are completely different and utterly valuable in their own ways. If you have been cut, and you are skeptical, and jaded, and private (like me), you can really trust that you can enter this space and never feel pressured to speak. You can speak when you are moved to speak. And even if all you do is listen, it is transformative and life-changing.
In the weeks since the retreat, it also seems like I have been feeling all the feels. While I was there, it felt like a high. Even in the couple of weeks after it, I was finally openly dealing with a lot that had just been buried. I felt like I grew and stretched. I talked about it more than I ever had. But no matter what, it all still happened, and that can’t be erased. And there are moments I still feel fucked up and uneasy about it all. Maybe that is what I just have to learn — how to hold it all at the same time.
I first found out about female genital cutting, or khatna, in my community in my twenties; my mother told me it had been done to her. At the time I was shocked. I thought this was something that happened to other people in far off places, not to my mom or Nani or Masi. It was only after talking to other Bohra women that I realized that I was not unusual in knowing a survivor. Every woman in our community is a survivor or knows a survivor.
As I began talking to people about khatna, I started to receive some pushback. Even people who admitted the practice was outdated and unnecessary were uncomfortable speaking about it. In the grand scheme of things, I was told, this is so small. It’s such a small pinch of skin. It’s just a moment in a girl’s life. It’s not indicative of who we are and all the good things we have done and built.
But I believe the opposite, it is precisely in small moments that we show what we value and who we are. Khatna is more than a cut, it is the manifestation of so many other underlying problems.
As activists we focus on khatna for a few reasons. First we believe this practice itself is traumatic, unnecessary, and has long lasting implications for women’s health and sexuality. It is a straightforward violation of bodily autonomy. Second, the culture surrounding it speaks to the way in which we are shamed, silenced, diminished, threatened, and put in our places.
Earlier this year I attended the Sahiyo Activist Retreat. This retreat help me see how khatna is part of a large system. Just as there are many factors that perpetuate this practice (culture of shame, silence, and devaluation of female sexual experience) there are also many ways in which we have leverage to act.
The retreat highlighted different areas in which we can act to both support survivors and end this practice through the legal system, the medical establishment, in our places of worship, our homes, and our families. At the foundation of all of this is storytelling. Without survivors and allies sharing their stories, the topic remains shrouded in silence.
My hope is that the retreat will help grow our community of activists. And that there will be other safe spaces for people to talk, share stories, and connect. Most importantly, for us to create new models of being in the world, creating new spaces and communities.
Many communities across the world continue to practice female genital mutilation (FGM). In India, it’s mainly the Bohras, a sub-sect of Shias who practice FGM, also known as khatna. The clitoris and/or labia of little girls is cut or mutilated with the belief that it would curb their sexual desires and stop premarital sex. Many of the women performing khatna have no medical qualifications and are typically women who have learned to perform the cutting from their ancestors. Many midwives perform this in the name of salwaat (or blessings). But they hardly know why they are doing this.
When you are a child, your parents and grandparents are people you trust the most. They tell you about not interacting with strangers or not allowing any stranger to touch you in your private areas. Still it’s your close family who takes you for khatna, allowing a complete stranger to touch you inappropriately and cut your clitoris. It’s like being betrayed by the people you believe in and trust the most.
I am writing this to share my experience. At the age of six, I was taken out by my mom like any normal day, although most of my childhood memories haven’t made as strong of an impact as this one. We reached a stranger’s place. I went inside the house with my mom. My trousers were removed and then I was told to lie down. I felt extreme pain in my private area. I could feel, although I was instructed to look at the ceiling. I was doing that, and within a few minutes, my mom said, let’s leave. I was still experiencing the pain. The pain was terrible when I urinated.
I never really understood why my mom took me there. I still don’t get it. Why do something terrible to a girl which can leave a psychological scar in their mind which never heals? In fact, when I became a teenager, I asked my mom why she allowed this khatna to happen to me. The answer I got was tradition, and that it prevents cancer. Then the other question which immediately popped up for me was, “Why only us?” Later I found out it’s mostly done to curb the sexual desire of girls. This practice ultimately leads the girls to mistrust the people they are supposed to trust the most.
It’s not in that instant you realize what happened, but gradually the memory becomes too vivid. Just because something is practiced for generations doesn’t mean it should go on without questioning its existence. People have to change their thinking about existing rules and guidelines to follow in the name of customs. The problem is that if you come out of the shadows and rebel, you may be thought of as an outcast. It’s not us we are afraid of but people we know. Family and friends will be treated differently as well. I believe in taking small steps of at least opening up about what you feel will help you to let go of that which you are suppressing. That will ultimately will give you the confidence of coming out of the shadows and facing the light.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 care 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.