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

By Jenny Cordle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art, Activism, and Healing webinar: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting

By Cate Cox

Across the world, millions of women and girls are at risk of female genital cutting (FGC). FGC can have severe physical and psychological impacts that last a lifetime. As the painful effects of FGC are brought to light more and more, activists and therapists alike are looking for more ways to support survivors and protect future girls from this practice. Art is an underutilized tool to create awareness about this issue and support survivors’ healing.

As an organization whose mission is to use storytelling to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing, Sahiyo is one of the key advocates for utilizing art as a means of supporting these effectors. From the Voices To End FGM/C campaign, the #MoreThanASurvivor collages, and the Faces for Change project, art and activism have long been part of Sahiyo programming. 

On January 19th, 10 a.m. EST, Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, Art, Activism, and Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting. During this inspiring event, you’ll hear from four expert panelists, Owanto, Andrea Carr, Sunera Sadicali, and Naomi Wachs, as they discuss art and its role in supporting survivors’ healing, how activists and survivors alike can use art to make a change in their communities, and working toward prevention efforts to end female genital cutting. 

Following the vein of one of our previous webinars, Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing, the speakers will first introduce their work and their personal journeys related to this subject and then we will have a question and answer session led by Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher. 

To hear more about how art can help you as a survivor and/or an activist, please register for the event. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Register Today: https://bit.ly/ArtActivismAndHealing 

Owanto is a multi-cultural Gabonese artist born in Paris, France. She was raised in Libreville, Gabon, and later moved to Europe to study philosophy, literature, and languages at the Institut Catholic de Paris in Madrid, Spain. Her multidisciplinary practice emerges from a 30-year career where she explores a variety of media, including photography, sculpture, painting, video, sound, installation, and performative works. Her practice enables her to engage with consciousness through the notion of memory, both personal and collective.

Andrea Carr has worked across a broad spectrum of the performing arts, bringing vitality to global ecological and social themes. Embracing change along the way, her work often distills into designs that move between art installations and immersive environments. Her work has been included in the U.K. representation of the World Stage Design Exhibition, in the Aesthetica Art Prize anthology, and in the ‘Designers Lead’ section of the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) 2019 exhibition at the V&A. Andrea is also studying Process Orientated Psychology. She works from her Peckham Studio, her ‘dream palace,’ where she goes to ground her ideas, make models and mock-ups, and as a space for collaboration.

Sunera Sadicali was born in 1982 in Mozambique and later moved to Lisbon. She grew up in a family that was part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only members in Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. She underwent female genital cutting, or khatna, at the age of 8 in Pakistan, while visiting her grandparents on vacation. She moved to Spain to study medicine at the age of 19 and finished her Family Medicine residency in Madrid. Since 2015, she has lived and worked in the south of Sweden with her partner and three lovely kids. She has been politically active since the birth of her second child in 2012, with a focus on women’s issues, decolonial feminism, anti-racism, and healthcare activism.

Naomi Wachs has a B.S. in Theater from Northwestern University and a Masters in Social Work (A.M.) from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. While at S.S.A., her concentration was in clinical social work with a focus on art-based methods, LGBTQ affirmative practice, and trauma-informed practice. From 2015-2017, as a German Chancellor Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation under the guidance of Tobe Levin von Gleichen, she explored art-based practices as a tool for trauma healing and restorative dialogue with immigrant and refugee communities affected by FGM/C and other forms of gender-based violence. Currently, Ms. Wachs is a psychotherapist at Connections Health in the Chicagoland area where she works with individuals, couples, families, and groups with anxiety, depression, trauma, eating disorders, and relationship and identity concerns. 
This event is sponsored by Sahiyo.

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Isabel Panno Shepard

Isabel joined Sahiyo as a Communications Intern. She studied cultural anthropology and human rights at Duke University. She is interested in the use of alternative media for social justice and believes in a multimedia approach to storytelling. Her work aims to center experiences and expressions of girlhood across communities and individuals. She joined Sahiyo to empower those affected by FGC through listening to, elevating, and advocating on behalf of their stories.

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I joined Sahiyo as a communication intern a couple of months after I graduated from Duke University last spring. When I came across the job listing and read about programs like Voices to End FGM/C, I wanted to be a part of Sahiyo’s mission to end FGC through survivor-centered advocacy and collective storytelling. So, I sat down, wrote my application, interviewed, and here I am!

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

One of my favorite parts of being a Sahiyo intern is that I’ve been able to work on a wide variety of projects that introduced me to a lot of awesome Sahiyo staff, interns, and volunteers. Beyond the intern standard pack of tasks (think MailChimp, Doodle Polls, and Google Calendar), I’ve assisted with and participated in a storytelling workshop on the intersection of FGM/C and global systems of oppression, created storyboards from Voices workshops, and even drafted a few official organization policies.

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

Sahiyo has grounded in me such a profound respect for the power of story. It’s an honor to witness the vulnerability and strength of the women (and men) who come together to speak out about FGC through their experiences both shared and not. This community has taught me that stories can unite us, heal us, and empower us – as long as we respect and make space for one another.

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

Slow down and listen.

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

By Tamanna Taher

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

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

“It is when a female is circumcised.”

“Circumcised? How? What?”

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital advocacy: The future of activism for survivors and activists

by Sandra Yu 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction, Truth, and Female Genital Cutting: A reflection of the fireside chat with Farzana Doctor

On October 4th, Sahiyo partnered with acclaimed Canadian author and WeSpeakOut cofounder Farzana Doctor to host Fiction, Truth, and Female Genital Cutting: A Fireside Chat. During this intimate conversation, we had the opportunity to hear from Doctor about her latest novel, Seven. Compelling and passionate, Seven follows the journey of Sharifa, a woman trying to better understand her past of having undergone female genital cutting (FGC) in order to move forward. The first of its kind, this novel takes an unflinching look into the reality of the fight to end FGC, or khatna, as it is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

During the conversation with Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo, Doctor explored how the book was influenced by her own family history and experiences, and the delicate line she had to walk while trying to discuss such a difficult topic. Particularly powerful was her explanation of how writing the book, and her activism in general, has helped shape her understanding of khatna. While Seven certainly condemns the practice, Doctor also works to show the complexities that come with practices like khatna, such as the fact that the perpetrators are sometimes victims of the practice, as well. While the book specifically looks at the practice of khatna, its overall message about the importance, albeit difficulty, of trying to end the cycles of shame and violence that burden women speaks to the reality of women everywhere.  

After the formal Q&A, the guests had the opportunity to ask Doctor questions about her writing process, activism, and to share their own experiences. While Farzana Doctor was the main speaker of the event, participation from all who attended was really what helped the chat flourish. The fireside chat proved not only to be an opportunity for guests to learn about Doctor’s work, but a chance for them to expand their community and share their experiences in the fight to end FGC globally. Attendees were from the United States, India, and Germany.

From exploring the intricacies of sexuality, marriage, female friendship, cultural norms, and the ongoing fight to end khatna, Fiction, Truth, and FGC: A Fireside Chat with Farzana Doctor was an eye-opening and educational event. For those who were unable to attend, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the link to the event recording and transcript of the formal Q&A portion of this event is attached below.

Listen to the formal Q&A portion of this event.

Read the full transcript of the event.

Purchase Seven via the following links:

United States: bit.ly/orderSevenUS 

Canada: bit.ly/orderseven

Audiobook: bit.ly/sevenaudiobook

Is legal action against female genital cutting enough to end the practice?

Understanding the impact of a Sahiyo co-founder’s documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, in India

by Priya Goswami

In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court referred a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the prevalence of female genital cutting (FGC) in India to a five-judge constitution bench. My documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, was quoted as evidence by the Supreme Court of India to establish the prevalence of the practice. As the filmmaker, I was overjoyed with what my film had managed to do and become – the first audio visual evidence on the practice of FGC in India. 

There is no law in India against FGC. The PIL had been filed in 2017 by a Delhi-based lawyer seeking a ban on the practice of FGC in India. While other survivors of the practice joined in the petition against FGC, they were opposed by a counter-petition filed by a pro-FGC group within the Dawoodi Bohra community. That group claimed that FGC is not harmful and should be considered a part of their constitutional right to religious freedom. Accordingly, they demanded that the practice be scrutinized through this lens by a larger constitution bench of the court – an appeal that the court finally granted

With that said, a small part of me shrank hearing the news. I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change. As an activist on the ground, I understand change requires sustained conversation. A law against the practice of FGC may become a mandate, but may also end up hindering the progress made by activists on creating a room for dialogue by years. 

“I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change.”

A broad evidence base for this is how some Dawoodi Bohra community members in the United States (U.S.) and Australia have hushed the practice, pushing it further underground, as the community members were charged in both countries with practicing FGC, or khatna as it is known in the Bohra community, and publicly spoke about it in the media. A federal judge dismissed all of the FGC-related charges in the U.S. case; whereas Australia’s High Court ruled all forms of FGC are illegal. While the cases against the community members in the U.S. and Australia have opened up the dialogue on the issue and more survivors have come forward, it has also instilled fear in the minds of some community members. This has, in turn, supported the movement toward medicalization of khatna, which is an equally dangerous trend. As an activist and a communication designer, I ask myself often – is pushing people to abandon the practice because the law says so ever a complete solution? 

Nine years ago, if you would have asked me what my goal with A Pinch of Skin was, I would have said to convince people to abandon the practice. Today, I say the same, except with the awareness that change requires time and persistent and effective communication, which involves the community from within.

Key points to understand the situation in India:

  • The conversation of female genital cutting in Asian communities is a relatively new one, as it is still largely believed to be an African problem.
  • The subject was brought to public attention in India as an anonymous petition under the pseudonym ‘Tasleem’ was launched in 2011 or 2012. This was followed by media attention to A Pinch of Skin in 2013.
  • In 2015, two collectives were formed to speak about the subject: Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, both being the only organizations worldwide working on the subject of khatna prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
  • In 2017, the two organizations, Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, were invited by the National Commission of Women and Child Development to speak with Menaka Gandhi.
  • The Indian government, after gathering first-hand evidence from survivors (also the co-founders of the two organizations), did a u-turn denying the evidence against the practice until this landmark judgment by the Supreme Court. Read this detailed report.
  • The Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom continue to discount efforts against FGC under the umbrella of religious freedom. 
  • Following the PIL, the Supreme Court of India ruled that FGC could be charged under The POCSO Act.

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

By Isabel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleeping researchers and lack of data on female genital cutting in Pakistan

By Huda Syyed

Two decades ago, I flipped through Reader’s Digest to distract my mind from schoolwork and the sweltering summer heat of Pakistan. My eyes glanced at the brief excerpt displayed mid-page with a glossy picture of a famous Somalian model, Waris Dirie. She exuded a sense of resilience, and I knew there was a meaningful story behind this woman. I was immersed in the daunting narrative of how she was blindfolded by her own mother to be cut. The pain was physically traumatizing, and she passed out. By the age of thirteen, Waris Dirie was coaxed by her father into the idea of an arranged marriage to an older man. Her dismay toward this proposal culminated into a desire to run away from home. 

She eventually found her way to London as a model. She still carried the realization that female genital cutting (FGC) extended beyond physical invasion, and resulted in health complications and deaths for many girls in Somalia. This encouraged her to become an activist, and she has dedicated herself to ending FGC. 

As I grew older and gravitated toward research and data collection, I found an article that mentioned FGC being practised in Pakistan. I was determined to gather contemporary data and historical understanding on it. Upon further readings, it became clear that FGC was a secretive practice in Pakistan in the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

A collective discernment of these realities pushed me to dig deeper and write a research paper that explored this practice and its socio-sexual effects. Apart from a few newspaper articles about FGC, there was not much information. It happens, but nobody talks about it. People from other communities are usually unaware that khatna is practiced in Pakistan. I was met with reactions of disbelief when I had discussions about it with non-members of the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Sahiyo was one of the few reliable sources that recorded important data regarding FGC practices within the South Asian region (it also included Pakistan). Sahiyo focused on creating a culture of dialogue to uncover this practice; they also recorded numerical data, which could be helpful in tracing the frequency and historical context of FGC. Cutting is discreetly performed in residential spaces and not usually practised in conventional medical environments in Pakistan. Sahiyo surveys revealed this piece of significant information, which I later correlated with my own qualitative data. The interviews I conducted with a few participants in Karachi revealed that most of the young girls were cut at secluded spots inside a home, where some woman is well-versed with the physical practice of genital cutting. 

My main point of emphasis is that there is minimal research data on FGC in Pakistan, understandably so, because minority communities feel threatened or shamed for their cultural practices. 

Minorities in Pakistan have faced prejudice and threats in the past; hence, the need for cultural sensitivity while addressing FGC is imperative. Moreover, Pakistani society follows a patriarchal mindset, where female genitals or sex are uncomfortable topics to discuss publicly. This makes it challenging to have verbal discourse for the acquisition of qualitative data, because many women feel FGC should remain a secret. The lack of credible statistical data in Pakistan makes it difficult to track the frequency of FGC in contemporary culture. It is important to collect more data on FGC in Pakistan so it can be correlated with the socio-economic conditions, family set-up and religious leanings of young girls and women. Information of this sort could allow for a deeper understanding of bodily autonomy and factors that are more likely to foster a mutual respect for their bodies and its protection. 

There is a dire need for dialogue and engagement with the Dawoodi Bohra community from a culturally respectful distance. It is important for their community to feel unharmed and safe because this approach could lead to meaningful qualitative data that could help everyone understand the near permanence of FGC. 

Interviews, verbal discourse, and discussions are a gateway to accessing the historical, emotional, and psychological attachment of community members to this physically invasive practice. One of my interview participants expressed that FGC was a way of ensuring that a woman does not stray from her husband (possibly due to decreased sexual desire or libido response), and she did not see it as a harmful act. Keeping in mind such sentiments, it is vital to bridge the insider versus outsider dynamic by listening, recording, and preserving the anonymity of data respondents. 

If young girls and women in the Dawoodi Bohra community of Pakistan feel comfortable and secure discussing this topic with outsiders of the community, there will be more possibility of gathering useful data that could be utilized in creating support groups and spaces for those that have experienced physical or psychological strain or trauma due to cutting. 

Finding participants for qualitative data collection was a tedious task because very few women were willing to speak about this. Even within one community, there are those that deem FGC as a problematic practice; but there are also those that associate religious and cultural significance with it.

Researchers must take a softer approach that refrains from shaming the community for ancestral practices. The objective should be to safely record community narratives and observe their historical reasoning for FGC, so that long-term solutions can be sought that diplomatically create safe options and spaces for young girls to celebrate the freedom of bodily autonomy.