I have been part of the Sahiyo Thaal Pe Charcha group meetings for a while and have found it an eye-opening concept. The more I’ve been involved, I’ve become more aware of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). In the first meeting, I came to know it as a social stigma that we women face due to misguided traditions. Knowing that more people support the cause made me feel a bit more confident to talk about it. Hearing about the issue of FGM/C made me more aware that people blindly do it because their familes do it. Some of them may do it out of fear and for the approval of society.
During the recent February meeting we were shown a movie, A Girl from Mogadishu, based on the life of a Somalian FGM/C survivor and activist, Ifrah Ahmed. Her whole life she believed the tradition of FGM/C needed to be followed, as her ancestors did the same, so she never questioned it. But migration opened her eyes to the fact that what happened to her was not right. She did not deserve to suffer pain just because her society carried this practice for centuries blindly.
I, myself, find a lot of people like my family and friends who are afraid to ask the questions: Why are we doing this? Is it necessary to hurt a girl in childhood? That psychological wound is so deep and may never be healed.
No one can remember their childhood memories perfectly, but when something painful happens for some, it’s impossible to forget. I really want more people to share their experiences, come out of denial and support the cause to pledge to not let the next generation or anyone undergo the same pain they, themselves, might have undergone.
On 17th November 2018, Sahiyo hosted its seventh Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India, with a diverse group of 17 participants. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. For the November event, two participants travelled specially from Pune and Kerala respectively.
During this TPC, participants were divided into two groups that drew up plans for taking the movement against FGC forward through two different approaches. One group discussed engagement with lawmakers, medical professionals and other social stakeholders, as well as raising social awareness about FGC through animation videos and other such media.
The second group discussed taking Thaal Pe Charcha itself forward, by reaching out to more and more members of the community and bringing in new participants along with them for the next TPC. They also discussed plans to reach out to Bohras in rural areas and organising their own TPC events with their friends and relatives. The groups formed separate Whatsapp groups to stay in touch and monitor the progress of their activities.
On 4th August 2018, Sahiyo hosted its sixth Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna.
The TPC in August was unique because in addition to several regular and new participants from the Bohra community (five of whom were men), the event also featured women leaders and activists from various non-profit organizations working on women’s rights. They were invited to interact with participants and share their experiences, struggles and the knowledge gained in their journeys as women’s rights advocates.
One of the activists was Flavia Agnes, a veteran feminist lawyer from Majlis, who was at the forefront of India’s women’s movement in the 1980s. Agnes shared her story of surviving domestic violence and going on to become a prominent lawyer helping other women with legal support in their fight for justice.
Other guest speakers included Noorjehan Safia Niaz, the co-founder of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), a prominent Muslim women’s organisation, and her team of two women Qazis (Islamic jurists) from BMMA. The three of them spoke about their struggle to get the practice of unilateral instantaneous divorce or triple talaq to be recognised as unconstitutional in India, as well as their efforts to bring justice to Muslim women by training women to become Qazis — a profession only open to men within traditional Islam.
Dr. Sheroo Zamindar, a gynaecologist from Ahmedabad, also explained the medical consequences of undergoing Khatna.
Participants of the TPC were enthusiastic in their interactions with the guest speakers and in their feedback to Sahiyo, mentioned that they appreciated the diverse perspectives that they offered during the event.
On January 27, 2018, Sahiyo hosted its fourth Thaal Pe Charcha (loosely translated as “discussions over food”) in Mumbai, India, with a diverse group of 18 participants. TPC is a flagship Sahiyo program where Bohra women are brought together in a private, informal setting to bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, particularly Female Genital Cutting or Khatna.
The participants, six of whom were men, discussed ongoing developments around the movement to end khatna. Men were invited to share their own experiences of male circumcision as well as comment on the Khatna experience of young girls in the community or within their families. The participants were eager to be proactive in raising awareness about the harmful effects of Khatna on girls. One male participant shared that he convinced his mother and wife not to cut their seven-year old daughter by explaining the possible damage it could do to a child’s body and mind. He said, “I have also convinced my friends and their wives to refrain from doing this practice. There is just no need for it.”
Towards the end of the event, Sahiyo organised a special healing session for the women participants, conducted by a well-known alternate healing therapist who specializes in reconnective healing therapy. The therapist, Shabnam Contractor, is a member of the Bohra community and was able to understand how FGC might have affected the women participants. In the hour-long session, she helped participants explore aspects of their lives that may have been affected by undergoing FGC. After the session, most women experienced a sense of relief and expressed an interest in more such sessions in subsequent events.
On May 11, Sahiyo India hosted a special Thaal Pe Charcha “Iftar” dinner in Mumbai during the holy month of Ramzan. The event was attended by 24 women and men from the Bohra community, who came together to break their Ramzan fasts and also mark two years since Sahiyo launched its flagship programme of Thaal Pe Charcha.
Loosely translated as “discussions over food”, Thaal Pe Charcha provides community members with a safe and intimate platform to share their stories, experiences, and feelings about the practice of Female Genital Cutting, while bonding over traditional Bohra food. At least 50 community members have participated in Thaal Pe Charcha events over the past two years, and the Iftar dinner on May 11 saw five new participants join in, with several questions about the nature of the practice of FGC in the community, the arguments for and against it, and the work done by the movement against the practice.
Two of the participants also brought their children for the event, including the seven-year-old daughter of Zohra, an FGC survivor. Girls in the Bohra community are typically cut at age seven, and Zohra expressed pride in the fact that she would not be continuing the practice on her daughter.
The first Thaal Pe Charcha in Pune city
Earlier, in April, a Bohra FGC survivor and activist from Pune city hosted a small Thaal Pe Charcha lunch at her own home. The survivor, who identifies herself with the pseudonym Xenobia, had participated in Sahiyo India’s 2019 Activists’ Retreat in January. One of the workshops at the retreat was about hosting one’s own Thaal Pe Charcha in order to expand the conversations about FGC to more people. Xenobia was one of the first participants to volunteer to host her own Thaal Pe Charcha after the workshop, and the lunch she hosted at her house had 7 participants.
Read about Xenobia’s experience of hosting the lunch in her own words, by clicking here.
Earlier this year in January, I attended the Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat in Mumbai, where I met some brilliant, fantastic people from all walks of life. Women shared their experiences, stories and life-lessons, and talked about how female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) had impacted their lives, either directly or indirectly, and what they were doing about it.
Shortly after I returned home to Pune, my mind was filled with a bunch of ideas that involved reaching out to more Bohra women, hearing about their experiences with the community in general, and speaking to more women of substance. One of the training sessions at the Sahiyo Activist Retreat was on how to host one’s own ‘Thaal Pe Charcha’ (TPC, loosely translated as ‘discussions over food’).
Thaal Pe Charcha is a flagship Sahiyo program that brings Bohra women together in an informal, private space, so that they can bond over traditional Bohra cuisine while discussing FGM/C and other issues that affect their lives.
I felt that the next logical step for me was to host my very own TPC. It would give me the opportunity to meet and talk to more women from my city about certain community-centric issues that affect all our lives.
Even though I have never really been an activist myself, I knew of Sahiyo, and the cause that they have been fighting for. I admired and respected them, and I had silently been fighting for the same cause all my life, too.
Did I have my fair share of apprehensions? I absolutely did. And why wouldn’t I?
In a closely-knit community like ours, where one person’s word is law, it is so hard to try to reason with women and mothers, to give them more clarity by pleading with them to not hurt their children. Often, they never seem to be able to see beyond how you are “going against the community” or “against Moula”, even though the point has never been about that. There is a fine line between following someone and blind faith. No matter which country you are in, child abuse is still child abuse, irrespective of what you choose to call it or who performs it.
For my TPC, I managed to invite a few women for lunch – a mix of friends, cousins, acquaintances and colleagues. It was also the first time I had ever hosted a Bohra get-together by myself, without the usual family members around to really help me. So for me, that itself was a personal milestone. Strangely, I felt it brought me a step closer to warmly embracing other nicer aspects of our culture – getting people together, bonding over food, and discussing the many facets of our little world.
The conversations bordered around what each one was doing in their lives, professionally and otherwise. We discussed issues such as soft-feminism, journalism, opinions on certain movies and the debate on whether wives should take their husbands’ surnames after they are married. For a couple of the women who attended, FGM/C was a new concept they had never spoken about before. They asked questions about why it is performed, when they heard of it, and why we needed to stop practicing it on the next generation, especially since conversations around this topic have always been taboo for some strange, secretive reason in our community. The younger minds agreed that all customs with no solid reasoning usually always die a natural death, because no one likes doing things without a valid reason.
Having access to the right answers and accurate information definitely helped each of them in getting more clarity on the topic, even though not every single person wanted to necessarily talk about their personal experience. It is still daunting to talk about something so personal in front of a bunch of strangers.
But for me personally, it was important that the topic was at least touched upon, so that other women realise that this is a safe, non-judgemental place and that they could reach out to me if they wanted to speak about anything that bothered them at all. Apart from that, I do enjoy bringing new people together and nurturing relations with those I care about. So all in all, this was extremely special to me.
While this event was still pretty small-scale, I would love to host and be a part of bigger TPCs eventually, where more women can come together and share their stories, opinions and ways to raise awareness about the harms caused by the practice in question, and how we can all work together to promote the abandonment of FGM/C and save the many generations of girls and women in the future from physical, mental, emotional and psychological damage.
I grew up in India, and when I moved to California a few years ago, I didn’t know anybody from the Bohra Jamaat (congregation). The Sahiyo ‘Thaal pe Charcha’ event came at a time in my life when I had been thinking a lot about sharing through storytelling. What a powerful tool it is to get people together and find ways to let go, heal and learn from our shared experiences. Sitting in a room full of Bohra women, sharing a meal in a thaal (a large circular steel dish), and exchanging laughs and a few cries too, I felt a strong sense of belonging. I soon learned that we all had very different upbringings outside of our Bohra lives, yet very similar experiences as women within the community.
My mother had her storytelling circle − her group of women friends who met once a month at each other’s homes, shared a meal together and talked about their lives. She always came back from those gatherings with a glow on her face, as if a heavy burden had been lifted off her shoulders. She felt safe within that group, and the group was built on trust, love, respect, and compassion for each other.
As one of the facilitators of the California Thaal pe Charcha event, I was hoping to create a similar space for all our participants. I knew it would be a challenge since this was the first time we were all meeting, and it takes time to build trust and friendship. But it was heartwarming to see everyone feel so comfortable right from the beginning. The rest of the afternoon was full of rich and insightful discussions about what it meant to grow up Bohra in California, the multiple lives and identities that a woman has to balance, what we value about the community, the pressures, daily challenges and barriers that women faced within the community.
Interactive activities throughout the afternoon allowed participants to share something unique about their lives, and think about what community and freedom meant to them. And just when we needed a break to take in a few deep breaths, and process everything that we had discussed, we were treated to a hot cup of ‘chai’ that warmed our hearts and minds!
We ended the afternoon with many questions, dreams, and hopes in our minds. And I think that is the magic of such gatherings. It pushes us outside our comfort zones but allows us a space to share, to feel important, to know that our voices, our thoughts, and perspectives are appreciated and heard, and most importantly, a reminder, that we are never alone.
I look forward to many more gatherings where we can learn and grow together.
On Oct 21st in Berkeley, CA, a team of Sahiyo activists organized the first California Bay Area Thaal Pe Charcha (TPC). This Sahiyo flagship program allows Bohra women to come together in a private, informal setting so that they can bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, like Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. The program started in Mumbai, India in 2017 and is being piloted in the United States in 2018 in New York and California. For the organizers of the California Bay Area TPC, the weeks leading up to the event were full of excitement and anticipation for what they hoped would the start of new friendships in the Bay Area.
This is what one organizer, Sabiha Basrai, has to say about the program:
“Sharing space with an inter-generational group of Bohra women was healing and inspiring. I was able to embrace my Bohra identity in a new way and celebrate the special bonds that we build in our community, take pride in our cultural and religious history, and of course, enjoy a shared meal around a thaal. It is difficult to talk about the patriarchy that exists within our jamaats and I am grateful that TPC created a safe and confidential space to hear each other’s stories and to remind one another that we are not alone in these struggles. We are all figuring out how to practice our faith with feminist values. This means challenging certain social norms that are oppressive to women, such as khatna or female genital cutting, while recognizing that empowering women is a very Muslim thing to do.
I am grateful for the patient and supportive work of Sahiyo and look forward to the continued work bringing about gender justice in our communities.”
I had been hearing about Thaal pe Charcha (TPC), an event organized by Sahiyo, on a regular basis in Bombay India and it seemed like a very interesting concept to me. I felt inspired to host one at my home and bring together New York Bohra women for such an event. I reached out to few friends and acquaintances who I thought would be interested in being a part of this inaugural Thaal Pe Charcha event in the United States, and who would feel comfortable opening up about their daily lives.
One aspect about TPC that I found very vital is that the event is about creating a safe space where people can speak openly without fear of reprisal for their beliefs. I assured the women who attended that the TPC at my house would be a safe environment where we could speak openly about issues like Khatna (Female Genital Cutting), Iddat, and other topics that can negatively impact women in our community.
We all also agreed that there were some very good things about the Bohra community that we all appreciated, such as the feeling of community, the food, and the mannerisms also known as ‘Adab’ in Gujarati and ‘Tehzeeb’ in Urdu that helps guide our lives, such as food and eating etiquette, how we dress, how to be respectful, how to keep your house, cleanliness, and how you treat others. Yet, even with Adab, there certainly is a wide range of thought amongst the Bohra community regarding how strict certain rules and cultural activities must be, which at times can be oppressive as well.
After hosting this first TPC, a personal hope of mine is that the women and I will form strong relationships and trust with one another so together we can take action to change the parts in our community we find harmful.
I hope we will continue to organize more events like these in the future and form a supportive group of friends who will stand by one another.
Are you interested in hosting a Sahiyo Thaal Pe Charcha event in your own city or town in the U.S.? If yes, get in touch with Sahiyo at firstname.lastname@example.org”
Sahiyo’s fifth Thaal pe Charcha event in Mumbai on April 7 was perhaps its most special one so far. On popular demand by the regular participants of the group, this Thaal pe Charcha was a miti sitabi — a special women’s meal hosted in honour of the Prophet’s daughter, Ma Fatema. At Sahiyo’s event, this special meal was hosted as a tribute to those Bohra girls who were not allowed to participate in miti sitabis if they were not circumcised.
Thaal pe Charcha, which loosely translates as “discussions over food”, is a Sahiyo flagship programme that brings together Bohra women and men in a safe space to share their feelings, experiences and views on Female Genital Cutting or khatna, while bonding over traditional Bohra food. This programme began in February 2017 with a group of 16 Bohra women and now has more than 30 women and men associated with it.
The April 7 Thaal pe Charcha had 21 of those participants, including five men. In fact, while there were two women-only thaals (traditional large dishes for seating 8 people) for the miti sitabi meal, this was the first time that a group of Bohra men had their own historic miti sitabi thaal. The meal began with traditional jaggery and roti, which is eaten at the start of every miti sitabi. At the end of the meal, participants completed the traditions by applying henna, perfume and small gifts with each other.
The only tradition that this miti sitabi did not follow was that of khatna, of using khatna as a definer of who a true Bohra is and who gets to sit at special community thaal events. This miti sitabi was open to all.
At the Thaal pe Charcha event, participants also shared stories about their journeys after they started speaking out about FGC. One participant, who was attending a Thaal pe Charcha for the first time, talked about how she resisted family pressure and managed to spare her younger daughter from the cut, even though she could not save her older daughter. Another participant shared her experience of having a khatna discussion with her father, who was convinced that FGC was mandated by the Shariat. However, after she had a heartfelt conversation with him, her father acknowledged the pain she had been put through and apologised to her. Participants concluded the Thaal pe Charcha with a lively discussion on other kinds of social norms, besides khatna, that patriarchal communities use to repress women.