Voices reflection: Hear it from a Hindu girl, FGM/C has nothing to do with religion 

By Priya Goswami

I was 11 years old when my mother said I was ‘impure’ now that I got my periods. The idea of ‘impurity’ in front of God enraged the eleven-year-old me. I wanted to know if my Muslim and Christian friends were also told not to ‘touch God’ or go near him in the temple, mosque, or church during their periods. 

I got around asking that question through a street play, Chakravyu*, in my undergraduate college years. A play through which we spoke about the cultural subversion of women and how every religion has its way of propagating patriarchy via religion and culture. 

When we performed the play out in public, often, we would meet the gaze of someone religious who thought our street play too slanderous to their religion. We would meet their gaze even more vociferously by mixing a Hindu chant with a Muslim Azaan

I am sad to share this, but I know deep down in my bones that I can no longer mix a Hindu chant with a Muslim Azaan**. I know performing such a play in today’s India would get my collegiate pals and me arrested or lynched even. 

That is the India my country has grown to become. 

I will not deny that we are an intolerant nation where Muslim friends are offered separate utensils in bigoted homes. Hindus feel superior because of their choice of eating meat or being vegetarian. But, despite the bigotry, I could never imagine that my country would become so intolerant to the point that one’s choice of eating meat would get them openly lynched. 

When I started to make ‘A Pinch of Skin’ in 2011, I was deterred by many senior voices asking me not to take up such a polarising subject, especially since I am a Hindu girl, with my religion written all over my last name. 

I chose not to listen to them, and I am glad.

During the shooting of A Pinch of Skin,  over six months of shooting, I was always met with open arms, warm smiles, and offers to take me out for lunch by the people I interviewed because the people I met saw me as a human being first. Sans my last name. 

I cry, thinking about what my country has become today. 

What would happen if I were to shoot my documentary or perform Chakravyu with my collegiate pals in today’s India?

My Voices to End FGM/C story, The Medium, reflects my decade-long experience working on female genital mutilation/cutting, as the crescendo on Islamophobia increases in India and around the world. 

I want to proudly say that those who believe in the xenophobic narrative don’t know what they are missing out on. 

My own experience informs me that religion has nothing to do with a social norm. In one way or another, all religions attempt to control the female sexual experience, the very essence of patriarchy. And that is why FGM/C continues and is a lot more complex than what meets the eye. 

Let’s leave religion and reading into the last names of people to stereotype.

Notes

*Chakravya: The word Chakravya is a mythological reference to the unbreakable cycle in the Hindu holy book of Mahabharata. 

**Azaan: Azaan is the Urdu/Farsi word of the religious call to prayer, recited by the priest at a designated time of the day, usually early morning and early evening.

A reflection on Sahiyo’s virtual U.S. Activists’ Retreat

By Anonymous

The aim of Sahiyo’s third annual Activists’ Retreat in the United States was to continue to work toward building a network of U.S.-based Bohra activists against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by strengthening relationships with one another, sharing best practices, and providing tools for activists to utilize in their advocacy work moving forward. Below, a participant shares their experience from the virtual Activists’ Retreat.

Why did you want to attend the virtual retreat?

The main reason was because I had attended the in-person retreat in 2019. I made it a goal to keep attending. In 2020, I was planning on going to the in-person one. I wanted to participate. I have a personal experience with FGM/C. It was kind of a big deal that I attended in 2019 and it was quite eye opening. There was a lot about the issue I didn’t really know or understand and going was quite an experience in a good way, in a positive way, and I just wanted more. It was definitely something I want to continue to learn about. Apart from my own experience, I don’t know much about it as far as facts and figures are concerned, tangible facts. It was very helpful. It was interesting to understand. It was an emotional rollercoaster. There’s so much more to do and learn. 

What have you learned or most enjoyed at the virtual retreat?

The biggest thing I enjoyed was seeing all these new people. I was proud to see so many more people join this. I had an idea that a lot more people were going to join. But seeing so many people attend and engage was really nice. It was really cool to see people not let the virtual aspect of it simmer everything down. Newer people were still engaging and wanting to learn more about it. Men joined this time, and it was cool to see them engage and ask questions and try to understand. It’s never something that people talk about within our own age group.

How and why are you involved in the movement to end FGC?

To be totally honest, I am still trying to figure out the how part. Maybe it’s part of my personality. I get very overwhelmed by so many things. Just the fact that I attended the retreat and I’m so glad I didgoing there was a huge step for me, in general. As much as I enjoyed it, I was able to participate in something I hadn’t before. Toward the end, I felt like I could do a little bit more. I attended the retreat with friends and there was more confidence to participate in something like the retreat because we had a level of comfort. And we all agree that a group like Sahiyo is doing good work.

How do you think this virtual retreat will inform your work as an individual and/or activist?  

It definitely showed us that it’s a lot easier to connect with more people this way. One thing I noted after the in-person oneI know that they had calls after the in-person retreat. Attending this virtual retreat, you definitely don’t have an excuse to not interact or reach out to people who attended. In that sense, it was encouraging to see that people were in completely different parts of the country and we could attend. We’d never met before and interacted in person. I wish that we had more time. Action planning was really informative.

What work are you doing currently or hoping to do in the future?

I think the most immediate thing that I feel like I could do, and I had offered to participate in that part as well. We have physicians in our family and I know 100 percent that they would advocate against FGM and we were trying to figure out how to put together a network of physicians and informing or coming up with informational texts to [explain] what happens with your body. Most people I know who have undergone it, just plain and simple [don’t know] the effects of it. My reaching out to some of the physicians of our family to help out with that is an immediate goal. I know some people that are my age. We’ve briefly spoken on the subject and I would really like them to join the next retreat. These couple of things are things I could actually do something about. 

Have you attended a Sahiyo retreat in the past, and, if so, what was it like to attend this virtual activist retreat in comparison to the in-person retreat?

The virtual retreat went a lot better than I expected. It’s so easy to mute yourself and turn your video off versus to participate. There was way more participation than I expected and good conversations. I still think the in-person one made me feel like you are part of this community. There was a sentiment there that everyone was sharing and the organizers, the way they set it upit wasn’t super formal. People were comfortable and friendly. Just the experience of it was very comforting and safe; and I think that made a really big difference overall for the weekend. They did this over the virtual retreat, too, and they did what they could, and that was very well appreciated.

Voices reflection: Sharing my narrative

By Zahara

Before I participated in this year’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) workshop, I had seen blurbs from previous years. In my head, the Voices program was an in-person workshop where a community of people got together to share their stories. However, COVID-19 happened, and this in-person experience was transformed into a virtual series. I was nervous going into the workshop. I missed the first two live sessions because of time-zone differences, and when I finally made it to a live session, the community already knew each other. Yet, I was embraced with much warmth and found myself comfortable to share my story almost immediately. 

A part of the Voices program is to tell your stories through a video narrative. It is almost paradoxical that I chose somewhat chirpy tunes and colorful images to accompany my story of coming to terms with khatna, or female genital cutting as it is known in the Bohra community. Though I was sharing a narrative I have hidden in the crevices of my mind for years–a story I am just weaving together, a fact that still brings me pain– I wanted to emphasize the radiance and calm that came with healing. I wanted to leave the viewer on an upbeat note–a note of hope. 

This coming together of a community of women sharing stories, tears, joys, aspirations, dreams, fears, and sacrifices was healing. The film editing is over, the written drafts are ready to be published, but the cathartic part of this workshop will live on in me. Coming together with this community has allowed me to come to terms with myself. Something in me was always reluctant to voice my story before the workshop. I wrote about it, preferred to text about it, but refrained from talking. My voice is louder; I am more willing to share; and maybe I will have a conversation face-to-face one day.

Understanding female genital mutilation/cutting: An ally’s call for action

By Farhanaz Hazari 

Age: 18

My fight against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) can be traced back to the day my mother and sister had a discussion with me on how young girls from the age of 7 are subjected to FGM/C or khatna, as it is known in the Bohra community. They explained it in simple terms, as I was still in school and unfamiliar with the practice, and guided me on how to approach the subject. They educated me on who conducts this act and where it is conducted and for what reasons. They told me that it was taboo to talk about it freely and also to never ask if anyone had been subjected to khatna. 

After hearing this from two people that are close to my heart, I trusted their word and never asked anyone about it. I had no idea little girls were subjected to such pain and trauma. They are children, after all. Aren’t they supposed to play with dolls and fight for the window seat on the bus ride home? Why are people insisting on controlling girls from such a young age? Why are they putting them through this mental trauma? Why isn’t anyone speaking up against it? All these questions were flooding my mind and all I wanted was someone to tell me this isn’t happening anymore. To think I was hurt and frustrated would be an understatement. I was angry and sad at the same time. I thought this is a tradition that had been shunned and looked down upon by many communities around the world. But to my misery that was not the reality. 

The next time I came across the word khatna in one of the books in The Princess Trilogy by Jean Sasson, it brought me to tears. At that point I knew I had to do something to raise awareness against it or simply make it known to people that it is a violation of a girl’s body. I read up about female genital mutilation/cutting and learned about how its roots were traced back to Egypt. I learned about the four types and how there is no scientific evidence to help women medically in any way. 

Being a student of law, I have the opportunity to speak up and back my reasoning with legal knowledge. FGM/C infringes upon the girl child’s human rights, such as the right to bodily autonomy, equality, right to life and personal liberty, which includes the right to be free from any form of violence. 

After the young girls are cut, they may die, or bleed continuously and/or develop an infection, which violates their right to have a healthy life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. Justice Chandrachud also stated, “One has supreme authority over genitalia. It is central to one’s identity, dignity and autonomy.” The recognition of the harms of FGM/C is increasing day by day as many are filing petitions, raising their voices and sharing their stories with the help of nongovernmental organizations. I have the opportunity to voice my thoughts against the practice with the help of Sahiyo, and for that I am eternally grateful. The Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai said, “There’s a moment when you have to choose whether to be silent or to stand up.” 

I say stand up. Raise your voice and help put an end to FGM/C.

Voices reflection: Building our stories for the world

By Anonymous

Being anonymous does not mean that I am powerless. 

Being anonymous does not mean that I don’t have a name, or an identity. 

Being anonymous does not mean that I don’t have words.

Being anonymous does not take my freedom away from me. 

Behind that anonymous, is a mind and a body. Whole. Full. 

Circling around joy and grief, pain and laughter, love and fear. 

Sometimes broken, other times repaired. 

I’ve waited many years to share my life’s experiences as a Bohra woman through a story. I’ve held my chest tightly closed, hidden with memories of being a girl in this world dominated by male power. I’ve longed to scream from a mountain top and tell them to just stop. These men, these systems, that continue to harm us and break us and tear us apart. 

This short story is my beginning. An opening of my chest.

Through this storytelling workshop organized by Sahiyo and StoryCenter, I was ushered into a safe women’s circle that I had been waiting for all my life. I wish I could describe to you the experience that I had in my mind and body during the six sessions that we had together, building our stories for the world. One by one, we brought images and symbols that served as metaphors for pain and trauma that we had all experienced in so many different ways.

I remember closing my eyes to listen to the voice recordings and be immersed in every single word. I remember turning inward gently, raw and tender, and really seeing that courage rising. I remember that care and love that we all felt for each other even though we had never met. Our shared challenges brought us together, making our collective voices stronger and louder.  

I offer you my story with both humility and hope. There is a lot I share in four minutes, and yet it is not enough and feels incomplete. I hope that this film inspires you to learn more about FGM/C and find ways to support this work. I hope it inspires you to support us as we navigate and stand up to the day-to-day battles we continue to face.  

Voices reflection: Speaking freely about my experience

By Somaya Abdelrahman

It is safe to say that the day I underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) was by far the worst day of my life. I grew up in a country that is infamous for the high rate of FGM in the region in Egypt. I was cut at the age of 10. I have always been very concerned about women’s rights and gender equality. This passion and concern was what inspired me to produce documentary work that brings this crime to light. For me, projecting a story visually through photography offers a medium to expose the ugly truth, to tell a story, or to spotlight underrepresented groups of people. I want to protect every girl who could be cut from this painful experience, which is an outright violation of women’s rights. 

Through the Voices to End FGM/C workshop, I was able to express my feelings and speak freely about my experience. I really would like to thank Mariya from Sahiyo and Amy from StoryCenter for supporting me throughout the virtual digital storytelling workshop.

Voices reflection: An advocate’s journey

By Nesha Abiraj

Sometimes, our path chooses us. 

I became a lawyer 12 years ago because I wanted to help people who had been wronged get legal justice. If I had left that conversation and did nothing, knowing the risk millions of girls face, and knowing that the law was not even on the side of survivors or those at risk, I would be betraying my own sense of justice and morality. I  strongly believe that if you have a platform which you can use to further amplify the voices of survivors, you should use it. 

For these reasons, I stepped outside of my comfort zone to make this video for the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) project. As lawyers we are trained to advocate based on principles of law and fact, and under no circumstances are we to become the story, so for me this digital storytelling workshop was a new and uncomfortable space to step into. I remember feeling like I did not belong in the beginning. Honestly, it was the courage of the survivors impacted by FGM/C who participated in the workshop that really gave me the strength to stay with it. It’s hard to tell someone else’s story, but even more difficult having to look within yourself. It opens you up to vulnerability and fear, which I learned dissipates when surrounded by allies.

In doing this work, I started understanding the why of it all for me. In my life my pursuit of justice on behalf of others was always fueled by the desire to give to others the legal recourse to justice that I did not have and which I could not give to others in my childhood. In participating in the workshop, I recognized that although we did not have the same shared experience that caused us harm and pain, like some of the other participants I knew that feeling of powerlessness as a child and to have the consequences of that follow you throughout your life. I understood all too well that feeling of disappointment and perhaps even betrayal by the people closest to you and yet, part of you still wants to protect them.   

I have always tried to live my life to be a light for others. It is my hope that this video will be a light of inspiration to others to take action and a light to survivors and those at risk to know that they are not alone. They have allies that see them, hear them, and stand with them in this fight to bring about survivor-centered solutions guided by principles of human rights for every child at risk.  

Reflecting on the critical intersections between anti-racism and female genital cutting

By Sarah Boudreau

In late July, Sahiyo held its webinar, Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher moderated the panel discussion that included four expert speakers: Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Sunera Sadicali, and Aissata M.B. Camara. The event included thoughtful commentary on the overlap between racism, oppression, culture, and FGM/C, as well as the struggles the panelists have faced while working to spread awareness and bring an end to FGM/C. 

Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM/C with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Hussein works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM/C around the world. Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Johari is a senior reporter with Scroll.in, where she covers gender and labour. She has been speaking out against female genital cutting since 2012 and is one of the five original co-founders of Sahiyo. Sunera Sadicali grew up in a family that was a part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only Bohras in the Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. Sadicali is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism. Camara is a professional with over a decade of program development and management, strategic planning, and relationship-building experience in non-profit, local government, and international affairs. A social entrepreneur and advocate, she was featured in The Guardian, PBS, RFI, Deutshe Welle and Brut for her advocacy to end female genital mutilation/cutting. Camara is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nations.

The four panelists, who are survivors of FGM/C, answered questions about how FGM/C intersects with other forms of oppression, including racism, violence, and “othering.” They also discussed the lack of legislation and law enforcement surrounding the practice, and challenges to passing laws to protect girls at risk. One notable part of the discussion occurred when Hussein made the point that survivors can become gatekeepers and have the opportunity to change the way that they are perceived. She relayed that when people hear about FGM/C, they may dismiss it and attribute it to cultural practice, but by naming FGM/C as child abuse rooted in patriarchy and oppression, survivors can draw attention to the issue for what it is in order to truly show people the harm being done.

Toward the end of the webinar, Camara discussed other movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter and how allyships must be formed in order to generate more traction in the media to spread FGM/C awareness. By teaming up with other survivors, resources, officials and organizations, more conversations about FGM/C can lead to change. 

In conclusion, the Critical Intersections webinar allowed panelists from diverse backgrounds to share their views on racism and FGMC. Several ideas were brought up about how to spark change and dialogue in both local communities and globally. But the common thread among all the speakers was that change is not always easy, but always worth fighting for. For the sake of women and girls everywhere, the future holds hope for justice, healing, and change.

Read the webinar transcript.

Voices reflection: Feeling connected even when you may not be

By Anonymous

How do you associate yourself with a community you are not actively part of? How do you find comfort in a space that is familiar and foreign at the same time? How do you find answers and solace from strangers across continents? 

It is through experiences and stories. That’s what Sahiyo and Storycenter’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) program brought to me. The Sahiyo team reached out to me, asking if I would like to share my story of FGM/C through the participatory storytelling project. At first, I was excited at the opportunity, but then I was apprehensive. Did I have a story to tell? 

I was raised in the Bohra community, and knew about FGM/C. My curiosity to understand the practice pushed me to focus my Master’s thesis on FGM/C.  While I had the opportunity (with Sahiyo’s help) to understand FGM/C from an academic perspective, I never really gave myself a chance to reflect on my own experiences and feelings about the practice, except that I was vehemently against it. 

The Voices project gave me the opportunity to do so. I could not join the live workshop due to the difference in time zones, but watching recordings of the workshop made me feel connected to the other women. I heard their stories, empathized with them, and dug deeper within myself to find my own story and voice, as well. 

I learned more about FGM/C – a practice I understood, did not undergo, but still felt deeply connected to. I dedicated time to understanding my own relationship with FGM/C – one of not being a survivor, but one of being affected by it. I learned more about women like me, and also very different from me, and we all shared something in common. I felt closer to the global  community of voices against FGM/C. 

Thank you, Sahiyo, and the participants of the workshop for sharing your stories and helping me find mine!

Voices reflection: Forging bonds

By Arefa Cassoobhoy

Every Wednesday evening for six weeks earlier this year, I logged on to my computer for a video meeting with 12 other women for the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) digital storytelling workshop hosted by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. I did this to create a video that motivates others to speak up and stop this useless and harmful practice forced on young girls in the United States and elsewhere. We were from around the globe and while our stories all centered on FGM/C, each of us had a unique experience and outlook. I didn’t expect so quickly to forge a bond between the women in the group, but I did. The space was safe for us to share our experiences, hear each other’s comments about our project, and feel the compassion radiating through the group. 

Beyond the topic of FGM/C, I learned about the art of digital storytelling, as each week we added layers narrating our script, adding visual images, audio elements and video. I was amazed and inspired by the video drafts the other women shared along the way. Some had utilized beautiful photography or incorporated digital art tools, and crafts like crochet to convey their story. I recorded painting henna on my hands. What started as a simple conversation shared with the group developed into a digital story that I hope will influence others to protect their daughters from FGM/C.