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

By Nicole Mitchell

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

Evangelical America

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

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

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

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

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

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

Female genital cutting

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

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

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

By Anonymous

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

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

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

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

Women should not be harmed because of societal norms 

By Sakshi Rajani 

Age: 17

Country: India

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

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

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

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

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

Sahiyo takes part in a variety of virtual NGO CSW 65 Forum events in March 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 65th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meetings took place virtually March 15-26, with thousands of individuals from civil society from across the globe taking part to collaborate and connect with each other on the pressing issues of our times and the progress we have made toward achieving gender equity and equality. 

Every year the NGO CSW/NY organizes the civil society side of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The NGO CSW Forum runs parallel to the official session taking place at the U.N. Headquarters. This provides civil society the opportunity to engage in the processes and CSW sessions without ECOSOC-accreditation or a U.N. grounds pass.

This year, Sahiyo co-hosted, organized, and was a speaker at the following parallel sessions: 

March 16th

Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C

Sponsored by Sahiyo & StoryCenter

Sahiyo and StoryCenter introduced their collaborative Voices to End FGM/C project, which centers on storytelling by survivors and those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as a tool to challenge social norms that perpetuate the practice. Using a combination of didactic presentation, audience participation, and short videos, the presentation explored the theoretical underpinnings of the Voices Project, highlighted the success of our digital storytelling workshops, and shared how the project has supported women in their healing journey and furthered efforts to prevent future generations of girls from enduring this form of gender-based violence. 

Read a recap of the event here. View the event here

March 19th

The Power of Digital Media and Achieving Gender Equality

Sponsored by Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA)

Digital media has been a powerful resource toward achieving gender equality. It has been integral in raising awareness for issues pertaining to gender-based violence; equity and equality in social communities; and economic participation for women. It also has been a resource to provide financial literacy and economic opportunities for women on a global scale.

This panel convened nonprofits, corporations, digital media experts, and activists to bring forth a comprehensive dialogue on how current and future digital/social media tools can further accelerate the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. CSW 65 theme is an assessment of current challenges that affect the implementation of the Platform for Action and the achievement of gender equality, and the empowerment of women, and its contribution towards the full realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. View the event here.

Panelists:

Mariya Taher | Co-founder, Sahiyo

Sali Mahgoub | Deputy Director at Obama Foundation

Holly Weckler | Developer Innovation Lead at Synctera

March 23rd

Amplifying The Voices On Ending Female Genital Mutilation

Sponsored by Soroptimist International

Co-sponsored by North American/European Caucus

This event addressed violence against girls, focusing on female genital mutilation/cutting in North America, Europe and beyond which hinders women from achieving gender equality and empowerment. Various aspects of this issue were addressed by experts and survivors who work to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and end all forms of violence against women. Furthermore, it addressed the lifetime trauma FGM/C has on victims’ wellbeing and the effect of COVID-19 on the lived experiences of the girls and women in relation to FGM/C. View the event here.

March 24th

Partnerships to Accelerate Global Action to End FGM/C by 2030

Sponsored by Global Platform for Action to End FGM/C

When the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted, estimates suggested that 133 million girls and women had experienced female genital mutilation/cutting in Africa alone. With improved data, estimates now suggest 200 million girls and women globally have been affected. If action to end FGM/C is not accelerated, an estimated 68 million girls will be cut by 2030. The COVID-19 has further impacted progress towards abandonment of FGM/C. Hearing first-hand from grassroots activists and survivors, this session explored models of success from specific communities across different continents that have led to sustained reductions in FGM/C prevalence and have the potential to accelerate progress through broader adoption. The Global Platform for Action to End FGM/C, an international group of organizations advocating to stop FGM/C, of which Sahiyo is a founding member.

Read the reflection blog post here. View the event here.

Saved by a lie: A story of female genital cutting

By Zainab Khambata

Age: 17

Place of residence: Mumbai, India

My maternal grandmother prides herself on being the perfect blend of modernity and religion. But when it came to her own daughter who is my mother, in spite of her misgivings, she still fell in line and got my mother circumcised or cut. Ask my grandmother why she did it and the reasons are numerous. Her mother asked her to do it. She lived in a joint family and all the cousins were cut. She didn’t know how to openly defy social norms and say no. The oddly mystifying voice of reason: if everybody is doing it, maybe it is the right thing to do. That is how Bohri women still continue to be cut in this day and age by their mothers and aunts and grandmothers. 

My mother still remembers the day she was cut as a child very vividly. She wasn’t told anything at all, simply pounced upon by her aunts and a “maasi,” or auntie, who used a razor on her. Then she was asked to rest to let the bleeding stop, given a bar of chocolate, and as a bonus, no school the next day. Life went on for my mother as usual without any mention of the incident or what had transpired. 

All was good and forgotten until my paternal grandmother started hounding my mom to get me cut. It was this whole maahol, or social environment, where mothers of girls my age were more than happy to play reminder and ask if I was cut yet because they had already had their little girls cut. My mom read about it and realised the physical repercussions of it, the bleeding and scarring, emotional repercussions and trauma, and in some cases, even sexual frigidity. You may never really forget what happens to you even though you are not informed about it at all. Upon inquiry, my mom never got a satisfactory answer as to why girls are cut besides the fact that it’s Sunnat, or encouraged. Some moms said it was for hygiene purposes; others said it would keep a girls’ potentially “sinful” thoughts of a sexual nature at bay. But the final straw was when she was told it may heighten mental and physical intimacy between couples. She realised then that many people have a myriad of confusing reasons to justify cutting.

When the pressure became too much from my grandmother and the other moms around her, my mother resorted to the only way she knew to keep me safe, by telling everyone that the deed was already done.

My paternal grandmother, who was hell bent on getting me circumcised like all my cousins to uphold her own religious morals and beliefs, made it a point to cross-check with my maternal grandmother whether I was truly cut. My maternal grandmother was smart enough to say yes, mostly to atone to my mom and not let history repeat itself for the sake of my bodily autonomy. In this way, my paternal grandmother was satisfied and she let it rest once and for all.

My mom had actually managed to prevent my cutting by telling everyone I had undergone the practice. Ingenious or devious? No matter what, I am grateful.

Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C: Event Reflection

By Cate Cox

Sahiyo was honored to join StoryCenter to host the webinar, “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C,” during a parallel event for the 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women on March 16th. 

Sahiyo and StoryCenter staff had the opportunity to introduce the collaborative Voices to End FGM/C project, which centers on storytelling by survivors and those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as a tool to challenge social norms that perpetuate the practice. 

From outlining the storytelling process to hearing from the participants themselves, the parallel event offered an in-depth exploration of the power that storytelling has to heal and create change on a global scale. 

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and the U.S. Executive Director began by giving the audience an introduction to Sahiyo’s work and the Voices project. Next, the co-founder of StoryCenter’s Silence Speaks program, Amy Hill, explored the methodology behind the Voices project, and why storytelling in general can have such a big impact on individuals, communities, and policy. 

Former Voices participants Aarefa Johari, Severina Lemachokoti, Sunshine Bayor, Zehra Patwa, and Maryum Saifee shared their experiences with the project. Both organizations introduced three new storytellers: Absa Samba, Hunter Kessous, and Somaya Abdelrahman. After watching their amazing Voices videos which will be released in May, each participant had the chance to answer a few questions about their experiences and their plans for moving forward. Panelists emphasized the importance of survivor-centered advocacy, mental health, and trauma services for survivors, as well as encouraged the audience to become involved in advocacy.    

A Chorus of Voices by Aarefa Johari

Panelists also answered select audience questions about their work and experiences of creating their videos. Intimate and brave, the panelists opened up about their fears of backlash and the ways that their videos still impact them. Both organzations shared resources with the audience to further educate themselves about the work Sahiyo and Storycenter are doing and to learn more about the Voices to End FGM/C project. 

“Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C” was an ode to the power storytelling has to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing. It also highlighted the amazing work everyone at Sahiyo and StoryCenter are doing in their own capacity to advocate for women’s rights and shined a light on the often-overlooked work being done by grassroots organizations across the world. 

Watch the recording of this event.

To learn more about Sahiyo’s work, Sahiyo staff will be hosting a webinar in partnership with The US End FGM/C Network and the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence on April 15th, at 2:30 pm EST over Zoom. Learn more about how to register.

Sahiyo and StoryCenter to host parallel session at the 65th Commission on the Status of Women meetings

On March 16th, 10:30 am EST, Sahiyo and StoryCenter will be hosting the parallel session webinar, “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C,” at the 65th session of the Commission on the Status of Women meetings. 

At this event, we will introduce our collaborative Voices to End FGM/C project, which centers on storytelling by survivors and those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as a tool to challenge social norms that perpetuate the practice. Using a combination of didactic presentation, audience participation, and short videos, we will explore the theoretical underpinnings of the Voices Project, highlight the success of our digital storytelling workshops, and share how the project has supported women in their healing journey and furthered efforts to prevent future generations of girls from enduring this form of gender-based violence. 

Sure to be an eye-opening exploration of one of StoryCenter’s and Sahiyo’s most impactful and transformative programs, “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C” is open to all who wish to attend. 

In order to attend the event, please follow these registrations steps:

  1. Register to attend and become a CSW advocate on the NGO CSW65 virtual platform here. Registration is free.
  1. Once your registration is confirmed, you can log on to the virtual platform
  1. Navigate to the Agenda page by hovering over the “Schedule” heading in the top navigation bar of the NGO CSW65 virtual platform website and choosing “Agenda”.
  1. Once you are on the Agenda page, choose “Tuesday, March 16th” from the dates listed at the top of the page. When you reach the page that lists all of the events happening on Tuesday, March 16th, scroll down to the 10:30 am time slot. 
  1. Find our event titled “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C.” Click on the ‘plus’ button in the right hand corner of the event description. The platform will automatically add our event to your CSW65 agenda.
  1. You can add our event directly to your calendar by going to the event page and choosing “add to my calendar.”
  1. On the day of the event, just click on the link to our event on your agenda, or find the event again by following steps 1-4. 

You can also watch this short video on YouTube with a step-by-step tutorial of how to register on the NGO CSW65 virtual platform and find events!

Your questions answered: Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting

Last fall Sahiyo partnered with three award-winning and talented speakers Farzana Doctor, Sarian Karim-Kamara, and Joanna Vergoth to host Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from these speakers about the mental and emotional consequences of female genital cutting (FGC), how FGC can impact sexuality, and how survivors may be working toward healing. Our guests had a lot of questions for our speakers, some of which we were not able to answer during the webinar. Nevertheless, we felt these questions and their answers were important to share. 

Below you will find the answers licensed psychotherapist Joanna Vergoth graciously answered for our guests. If your question is not addressed below, you may find it answered later in the recorded portions provided by Sarian Karim-Kamara on the Sahiyo YouTube page or on the Dear Maasi page. 

Joanna Vergoth’s responses to participants’ questions:    

  1. Do you have any strategies for breaking the taboo around FGM/C and how community-based organizations can work directly with community members to end the practice in the U.S.?  

Silence regarding FGM/C perpetuates the practice so it is important to find a way to broach the subject sensitively in order to encourage conversation. And, when working with community members, it is advisable to identify and recruit folks who support the abandonment of this practice in order to create dialogues that can help persuade proponents of the practice to reconsider their position. Also, sponsoring a community event that focuses on women’s health and well-being can provide an opening for discussion. In addition, showing a film about FGM/C, such as “Desert Flower,” or “The Cruel Cut,” can also open hearts and minds.

  1. Is part of the healing process ever confronting the person who betrayed you?

Betrayal trauma occurs when the people a person depends on for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being. It is understandable, then, that being cut by a trusted family member can have lifelong consequences with powerful emotions that can be difficult to process. 

Confronting the person who betrayed you can provide psychologically healing relief if your feelings are acknowledged and respected and if the ensuing conversation supports an honest discussion. However, every situation is unique and not everyone will feel the need or desire for confrontation. One can heal without confrontation. It all depends on the individual survivor and her particular circumstances. 

  1. I hope you can answer this question, please. Is it normal to not feel any impact by FGM? I am Iraqi and had FGM when I was around 7. I have no memories of this. I don’t have problems climaxing, and I am worried I may be blocking all of this out but I have no recollection of this at all.

Although post-traumatic stress symptoms can remain in remission for years, I don’t think you should think you have a problem because you can’t remember undergoing FGM. There are many women who do not remember their FGM/C [experience]. And, FGM/C is not necessarily an impediment to sexual function. In fact, many women report that they have no difficulties experiencing orgasm.  

  1. How do you offer community support to white women who have survived FGC from surviving cults, since their experience is different from women of color who may have community/cultural support?

Unfortunately, I do not know of any community support for Caucasian FGC survivors who have also survived cults. Here is the first link and the second link of resources for cult survivors. Hopefully, these women may be able to find support and other FGC affected survivors

  1. Any experience with sexuality after clitoral restoration?

The procedure, often called clitoral reconstruction or restoration, is viewed with caution by some medical experts. The World Health Organization says that while there are some promising reports that the operation may relieve pain, there is not yet enough evidence of safety and effectiveness. The organization advises against raising unrealistic expectations, especially for women seeking sexual improvement. However, that being said, a recent systematic review evaluated the effects of reconstructive surgery. The results indicate that about three women out of four regain a visible clitoris. Self-reported improvements in pain during sex, clitoral function/pleasure, orgasm, and desire are in the 43– 63% range; but up to 22% reported a worsening in sexual outcomes.  It is important to remember that female sexuality is a complex integration of biological, physiological, psychological, sociocultural, and interpersonal factors that contribute to a combined experience of physical, emotional, and relational satisfaction.  And within this combination of factors, every woman is uniquely different.

Hear about one FGM/C survivor’s successful experience of her clitoral restoration surgery.

Art, Activism, And Healing: Reflecting on our conversation around female genital cutting

By Cate Cox

On January 19th, Sahiyo held the webinar, Art, Activism, And Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from four speakers Owanto, Naomi Wachs, Sunera Sadicali, and Andrea Carr about how they have used art as a tool to encourage the abandonment of FGC and to work toward healing. From sculptures to videos and sound bites, this webinar explored how art in all its many forms can be used to uplift the voices of survivors and continue to push the conversation around FGC.     

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and U.S. Executive Director, began our webinar by giving the audience an introduction to Sahiyo’s many programs that involve art and activism, including Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C and #MoreThanASurvivor campaigns. Next, our speakers Owanto and Andrea Carr introduced us to their work as career artists, and how they are championing this cause in some of the most prestigious galleries and institutions around the world, as well as in community settings. They reminded us that art can be a tool to spark hard discussions and give people the space to have their own stories seen and heard. Sunera Sadicali and Naomi Wachs helped to expand on that conversation by taking us through their own journeys and explaining the psychological reasons behind why art is such an effective tool for trauma healing. The insight and experience of our panelists not only helped our audience to understand what has been done in the field of art and activism surrounding FGC, but stood as an inspiration for how we all can engage in art and activism in our own personal lives. 

At the end of our webinar, our audience had the opportunity to ask our panelists questions about their experience and knowledge. The questions explored how our panelists were able to get people to open up about their experiences with FGC and how they were able to use art to encourage education and conversation around this issue. Coming from their multi-disciplinary backgrounds, each of our panelists were able to speak to a unique aspect of these questions. Despite their diversity of experience, they each emphasized the importance of art as a conversational medium, that allows people to take control of their own narrative, and when a safe space is created, encourages healing. 

Art, Activism, And Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting (FGC) explored the often underutilized tool that is art to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing. It reminded us that activism and healing take many forms, and that, as Owanto said, “There is light.” For those who are interested in learning more about art and activism, Sahiyo is hosting a screening of our Voices to End FGM/C videos coming up this February. You can register here to attend!  

If you were unable to attend this webinar, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the transcript and recording of this event are attached below.

Watch the recording of this event.  

Read the transcript.

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 one of the top 50 stories of the year for Broadview Magazine in 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.”