The Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat I attended in March of 2019 felt big to me. In the days after, I told people it blew me away, meaning that it occupied my thoughts as it was all I could talk about and think about for a while. There were parts of it that felt like group therapy, something I had not expected. I just had not expected how deeply moving it is for someone else to say, “That happened to me, too.” We all know that there is an entire social movement around the #metoo hashtag, but it is more than a hashtag. It felt like when you are doing an exercise, and the teacher comes up to you, adjusts you a little, and then the whole exercise changes.
A lot of the time during the retreat, it felt like someone was reaching inside me and physically shifting an organ or two. For one other woman to say to me “I get a lot of urinary tract infections, too” just made me want to cry. The crazy thing is that other women have said that to me. Tons of friends have said that, but I always remembered thinking, “Ok, but you weren’t cut.” But this time, this one time, when the other woman said it, I suddenly felt a rush of gratitude and warmth and unparalleled comradery. I wasn’t crazy, and if I was, I wasn’t alone in being crazy. I just had no idea how moving it would be to be in a group where I could hear others talk about their experiences, for me to feel normal in being abnormal.
I had always thought individual therapy was valuable, but I simply had no idea that a group can offer a kind of cathartic experience that is impossible to achieve by yourself. To be honest, I thought group therapy was for people who couldn’t afford individual therapy. But I was completely wrong. They are completely different and utterly valuable in their own ways. If you have been cut, and you are skeptical, and jaded, and private (like me), you can really trust that you can enter this space and never feel pressured to speak. You can speak when you are moved to speak. And even if all you do is listen, it is transformative and life-changing.
In the weeks since the retreat, it also seems like I have been feeling all the feels. While I was there, it felt like a high. Even in the couple of weeks after it, I was finally openly dealing with a lot that had just been buried. I felt like I grew and stretched. I talked about it more than I ever had. But no matter what, it all still happened, and that can’t be erased. And there are moments I still feel fucked up and uneasy about it all. Maybe that is what I just have to learn — how to hold it all at the same time.
This blog post is the fourth in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This fourth installment provides a final analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part three here.
In this research, I have contextualised the type of cut, stakeholders involved, on-going discussions on FGC locally and internationally, and FGC’s hiddenness. I hope this allows for a deeper understanding of the specific and unique type of FGC and the situation surrounding it in Singapore. My discussion of the reasons for FGC in Singapore is also non-exhaustive, but to my interlocutors, cleanliness, religion, tradition, and the control of female sexuality, are some of the most pertinent to their lived experiences. To the best of my ability, I have tried to represent fairly the perspectives and opinions of the various people with whom I spoke. In her book, The Twilight of Cutting, Saida Hodzic accurately pointed out that “differently positioned women take a variety of political positions toward cutting/anti-cutting campaigns, and the larger governance of their lives.” In these concluding paragraphs, I will further explore the continuity of this practice, ways to encourage productive and meaningful discourse about it, as well as policy implications.
FGC has been an unquestioned tradition in Singapore for centuries. I believe we need to place a critical lens on FGC and question the motivations of this practice. While taking into account the possible individual, family and social meanings that have been attributed to FGC, it is also important to question its necessity and impact on a young girl. I end most interviews by asking interlocutors if they think FGC will continue, and 70% of my interlocutors answered in the negative. Conversations about FGC and debates on it have been ignited, and more young parents are questioning the cut’s necessity. Once parental pressure is no longer a factor and this procedure has skipped a generation, FGC will be much harder to revive or continue. Sometimes the type of FGC done in Singapore does not leave visible scars or markings. Those against FGC have said that they know of young parents who choose to say their daughter has been cut even if she hasn’t, and no one is any wiser.
It is also important to take note of the vernacular languages that are used when discussing FGC, and determining the appropriate ways to debate FGC in the Malay community. Currently, the debates on FGC happen amongst specific circles of young Malays who are highly educated. It is important to engage with the older generation and those who may not have access to tertiary education about this practice. It is only in sincere conversations, which aim to listen, engage in dialogue, and not necessarily debate that perspectives will shift.
When I first found out about the FGC performed on me when I was a baby, and questioned my parents about it, they insisted that it was mandatory and that they did it for my own good. They said FGC was necessary for “religious and health reasons, and so I won’t be adulterous.” These are similar to the reasons my interlocutors shared as well. As I went about my research, and interviewed religious leaders, medical practitioners, and feminist activists, I slowly clarified my parents’ beliefs, and today they no longer see it as mandatory (“though still good to do”), but I do think chipping away at their long-held beliefs has been successful. Similar to my interlocutor’s sharing that the language of female sexuality, children’s rights and consent is foreign or even “Western,” I think it is important that we find the right language and vocabulary to discuss these issues in Malay so that it is more readily accessible.
I hope to see more people and stakeholders engaging in these conversations. In particular, I hope this blog post would encourage medical practitioners, religious leaders, religious bodies and health ministries to enter the conversation about FGC in Singapore. From my ethnography, there are various undercurrents and rumors of the perspectives and policy positions engaged by these stakeholders. For instance, a medical practitioner said that there is a register of doctors who perform it and who have informally agreed to abide by a set of guidelines in order to standardize the procedure. However, neither this guideline nor register is publicly available. Having them come out with actual statements would clear various misconceptions about FGC’s necessity and its health and religious implications.
I would urge the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to replace the fatwa it removed with a new one, so that religiously, the Muslim community can be assured of the ruling for FGC. The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association (MHPA) also have a responsibility to the larger Singapore community to ensure our safety and health. Because all doctors are registered and regulated under MOH, it is up to MOH to determine if FGC is aligned with the medical oath to do no harm. At the same time, it would be interesting to find out the positionality of medical practitioners performing FGC. Do they believe it to be necessary? Do they abide by the guidelines stated, especially given the spectrum of FGC that my interlocutors underwent? What are their specific reasons for performing FGC? Silence only breeds confusion. It is definitely time for the religious and health authorities to step up and clearly state their positions on FGC in Singapore. There is the very real fear that if FGC were banned in Singapore and practitioners disallowed from practicing it, this would lead to FGC being performed underground, where conditions are much less hygienic and can be more harmful. But, if the relevant authorities can counter the health, religious and female promiscuity reasons given for FGC, this practice will be regarded as unnecessary and might no longer be practiced here.
According to Hodzic, “Hahn and Inhorn testify to the persistence of one of the founding principles of applied medical anthropology, which is the notion that anthropology can and should provide cultural knowledge necessary for improving public health and health care.” I hope this research has provided a holistic, balanced, and informative understanding of the reasons for FGC in Singapore, and will be useful for religious leaders, medical practitioners, activists, and especially Malay women as we continue to critically analyze and discuss this practice.
Saza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations.
I can recall with crystal clear memory my mother taking me at around age 7 to a dilapidated old Chawl style building in a Bohra Mohalla in Bhendi Bazaar. My mom wore a dark orange saree with a green, white and light orange geometrical design. We climbed up broken wooden steps to go to the first floor on which there were several rooms with closed doors. We knocked on one of those doors and a lady quietly let us in.
We sat down on the bare carpet and my mom greeted her with a salaam. The lady disappeared behind a curtained door. I know she came back with washed hands because my mom made me do the traditional salaam that we do to the elders, and her hands were wet and smelled of soap as I kissed them.
The lady sat down across from us and I kneeled down to do the salaam. As I was finishing the salaam the lady pulled my pants down. My mom pulled me back, held my hands and covered my face with her sari and put her face in the sari folds so I could see her face, too. I felt a searing pain between my legs and I began to cry, and my mom made big scolding eyes (that’s how she always silenced me to show me her disapproval), and I reduced my crying to a slow whimper. I was very frightened and had no idea what was happening.
The lady squeezed the tip of my clitoris firmly with a ball of cotton soaked in red mercurochrome as a final move. She told me to keep that ball of cotton in place and not to touch it until it remained stuck to my clitoris. My pants were pulled up and I sat in my mom’s lap sobbing. The lady appeared again from behind the curtained door and was drying her hands now on a napkin. She pried open my clenched fist and forced two Parle G glucose biscuits into it, and I clutched them while clinging to my mom in a petrified state with the other hand. My Mom did salaam to the lady with an envelope filled with money and we began to leave.
I walked out very slowly holding my mother’s hand and we began to descend the staircase. My mom picked me up and carried me down. I remember that moment most vividly today because my mom had stopped carrying me since I was so tall and grown up. I was relieved and happy that she was carrying me because she had not done that in a very long time.
Mom then called for a passing taxi cab. We took taxicabs only for special occasions like a wedding or if we had too many people in a group. I looked up and asked her, “Mummy, we are going in a taxicab to uncle’s home? It is only half full?” And she just smiled and asked me to eat the biscuits.
The taxicab drove us to my uncle’s home (my mom’s brother) and as I was playing outside a few hours later, I overheard my mom talking quietly to my aunts (her sister and sister-in-law). “Oh, I thought Rashida would cry and scream,” she said. “She was so good, and look she is already running around. You cannot even tell it has happened. I was told she would shout and kick her feet. But she is all okay.” Mom said she was relieved that the deed was done.
Later that afternoon, I told my mom about the bloody ball of cotton that was still loose and lying around in my underwear and she threw it away for me. My brothers were playing around and my 11-year-old brother asked me, “What happened to you? Did somebody do something to you?” He must have overheard the adults talking. He does not remember this incident. I just ran away too scared to answer.
The community is getting regressive and male-dominated and under the influence of clergy clout. Despite FGM/C education, the social pressure to follow the diktats is palpable, real and fearful. Social boycott and fear of Laanat holds back the followers in shackles of complete submission.
The issue of equality is a blatant cover-up. The clitoral hood is clearly called “Haram ni Boti” in all sermons and all discussions that are held privately in the community. “This piece of flesh has to be taken out or the girl will be sexually promiscuous.” The Sabak or lessons given by the priests and their wives at the mosques, preach to the parents and especially to the mothers that “your daughters will have an extramarital affair or pre-marital sex if you do not do this. Save your family’s name by doing khafz.”
I do not hate my mother for doing FGM/C to me. She was an educated woman of her times with a BSc, B.Ed., and an M.S. in Chemistry. She was a teacher and retired as principal of her school. She was a victim of this procedure, too.
My mother thought she was saving me. I am sure there was a lot of social pressure from the family and community. My only conversation with her was a casual single comment she uttered as she overheard my friend complaining about health issues her young daughters were facing. My mom quietly said, “We do a procedure to our girls that prevents urinary tract infections in young girls.” I was embarrassed and knew she was referring to FGM/C. So I said, “No, mom, that is wrong and not true!” Mom just walked away. My friend had no idea what we were talking about.
We had no conversation about FGM/C or what happened to me at all thereafter. My mom passed away very young at 61 years of age and I will never have my questions answered. I love my mother dearly and she will be the strongest woman I will know in this lifetime.
I do know that my mom would support my anti-FGM/C stance today if she were alive, provided that my father would not stop her. My dad would be very angry with me today if he knew I was opposing the Syedna in any shape or form.
I run in full marathons and ran my first marathon at age 46. In total, I have run seven full marathons, including those in New York, Chicago, and Washington, and plan to continue running until I die. Running brings me peace of mind and strength. I truly believe I am the oldest woman of Indian heritage still running in marathons and the only Bohra woman my age running, yet I do not feel that the community acknowledges this accomplishment. I am considered a rebel for this act of running as well as for my stance against FGM/C. I will turn 51 soon and will be running the Philadelphia marathon in November of this year, and it will be my eighth full marathon.
My mom used to say, “There should be hope in life. If there is no hope, there is no life.” I hope to see a law banning FGM/C in India. There is no mention of this practice in the Quran and it actually predates Islam. I hope to see the practice of female khatna/FGM/C stopped globally.
With so many issues in the world that need to be addressed, we have to pick and choose our battles, whether it may be poverty, education, inequality, or gender violence. The majority of people choose something that they can most relate to via personal or cultural experiences. With this first blog I will write about my personal journey of discovering female genital cutting (FGC) in 2011 and why it took me eight years to finally do something about it.
My sister is my confidant, as I am hers. I was 17 years old when my sister pulled me aside urgently to talk to me about something she could not fathom. She had just discovered FGC. I was still in high school and did not grasp the gravity of the situation. A few years later, I was sitting in my healthcare ethics course in undergrad and my professor breezed over the topic of female genital cutting. My mind started to spin. This could not possibly be what my sister was talking about? I called her immediately after class and she confirmed it. I was enraged as though I was hearing it and truly understanding it for the first time. It felt like a conspiracy. No one in the community talked about it. How many of my cousins, friends, and aunts had gone through this and had never spoken of it?
I was desperate to talk to someone about this. Surely there must be somewhere I could go to get more information. I called the first person that came to mind, my mother. I could sense her discomfort in talking about this subject. She told me it is a Bohra custom, a social norm within our community that people feel compelled to perpetuate without questioning, even by my grandmother as well. My mother admitted that it was a traumatic experience, but did not want to indulge further.
I was not satisfied. I called my aunt. My aunt is more liberal and expressive; she writes poetry and is an activist in her own ways. Surely, she would have more to say about this. She told me it was done supposedly to moderate a woman’s sexual urges to prevent premarital or extramarital affairs. To my dismay, this was the end of our conversation.
My attempt to gather information seemed like an impossible task. I did not know where to go or who to talk to, so I pushed my thoughts aside until that summer when I went back home to Dubai. I was curious to see how much Bohra men knew about this. I met up with an old Bohra friend and told him what I had discovered. He immediately said, “Well, men get it done, too.” I was disappointed. I told him that male circumcision and FGC were not equivalent, that FGC was much more psychologically and sexually damaging for a female. He continued to defend the custom saying there must be a reason why Moula (the leader of our community) recommends it. There must be a long-term benefit from the procedure that we don’t know about. I was in disbelief. How could he not think it was wrong? I was left more confused and angry after that conversation. Was I making this a bigger deal than it needs to be? Why is no one else speaking up about this?
I attended medical school and the more I learned about female anatomy, the more upset I got thinking about FGC. I felt powerless until I heard a friend talking about Sahiyo. I was shocked and relieved. It was comforting to know that I share the same views as many other women. Up until then, I felt like my emotions of anger and distrust were out of proportion and unjustified. There was finally a safe space to discuss FGC, gather information and truly understand its origins.
Through Sahiyo, I learned more about how we can create awareness and discussion about such a sensitive and taboo subject. In retrospect, I wish I had handled the conversation with my Bohra male friend differently. It was presumptuous for me to think he would understand what women went through. Afterall, it is our body, not his. I wish I had the tact and knowledge to educate him about the long-lasting effects of FGC, to tell him that it is not a small-community problem but a human rights issue. That taking a child at the age of seven and altering her anatomy forever is not okay. That depriving a woman from experiencing pleasure during sexual activity is not okay. That potentially causing severe pain and complications for women’s reproductive health is not okay. That tampering with God’s creation of a perfect body is not okay. That perpetuating patriarchal standards by continuing this practice is not okay.
All the secretiveness around this topic should be a red flag for everyone who blindly follows this practice. So let’s question it. Let’s drop the secrecy. Let’s drop the shame. Let’s create awareness. Let’s educate each other.
I first found out about female genital cutting, or khatna, in my community in my twenties; my mother told me it had been done to her. At the time I was shocked. I thought this was something that happened to other people in far off places, not to my mom or Nani or Masi. It was only after talking to other Bohra women that I realized that I was not unusual in knowing a survivor. Every woman in our community is a survivor or knows a survivor.
As I began talking to people about khatna, I started to receive some pushback. Even people who admitted the practice was outdated and unnecessary were uncomfortable speaking about it. In the grand scheme of things, I was told, this is so small. It’s such a small pinch of skin. It’s just a moment in a girl’s life. It’s not indicative of who we are and all the good things we have done and built.
But I believe the opposite, it is precisely in small moments that we show what we value and who we are. Khatna is more than a cut, it is the manifestation of so many other underlying problems.
As activists we focus on khatna for a few reasons. First we believe this practice itself is traumatic, unnecessary, and has long lasting implications for women’s health and sexuality. It is a straightforward violation of bodily autonomy. Second, the culture surrounding it speaks to the way in which we are shamed, silenced, diminished, threatened, and put in our places.
Earlier this year I attended the Sahiyo Activist Retreat. This retreat help me see how khatna is part of a large system. Just as there are many factors that perpetuate this practice (culture of shame, silence, and devaluation of female sexual experience) there are also many ways in which we have leverage to act.
The retreat highlighted different areas in which we can act to both support survivors and end this practice through the legal system, the medical establishment, in our places of worship, our homes, and our families. At the foundation of all of this is storytelling. Without survivors and allies sharing their stories, the topic remains shrouded in silence.
My hope is that the retreat will help grow our community of activists. And that there will be other safe spaces for people to talk, share stories, and connect. Most importantly, for us to create new models of being in the world, creating new spaces and communities.
Many communities across the world continue to practice female genital mutilation (FGM). In India, it’s mainly the Bohras, a sub-sect of Shias who practice FGM, also known as khatna. The clitoris and/or labia of little girls is cut or mutilated with the belief that it would curb their sexual desires and stop premarital sex. Many of the women performing khatna have no medical qualifications and are typically women who have learned to perform the cutting from their ancestors. Many midwives perform this in the name of salwaat (or blessings). But they hardly know why they are doing this.
When you are a child, your parents and grandparents are people you trust the most. They tell you about not interacting with strangers or not allowing any stranger to touch you in your private areas. Still it’s your close family who takes you for khatna, allowing a complete stranger to touch you inappropriately and cut your clitoris. It’s like being betrayed by the people you believe in and trust the most.
I am writing this to share my experience. At the age of six, I was taken out by my mom like any normal day, although most of my childhood memories haven’t made as strong of an impact as this one. We reached a stranger’s place. I went inside the house with my mom. My trousers were removed and then I was told to lie down. I felt extreme pain in my private area. I could feel, although I was instructed to look at the ceiling. I was doing that, and within a few minutes, my mom said, let’s leave. I was still experiencing the pain. The pain was terrible when I urinated.
I never really understood why my mom took me there. I still don’t get it. Why do something terrible to a girl which can leave a psychological scar in their mind which never heals? In fact, when I became a teenager, I asked my mom why she allowed this khatna to happen to me. The answer I got was tradition, and that it prevents cancer. Then the other question which immediately popped up for me was, “Why only us?” Later I found out it’s mostly done to curb the sexual desire of girls. This practice ultimately leads the girls to mistrust the people they are supposed to trust the most.
It’s not in that instant you realize what happened, but gradually the memory becomes too vivid. Just because something is practiced for generations doesn’t mean it should go on without questioning its existence. People have to change their thinking about existing rules and guidelines to follow in the name of customs. The problem is that if you come out of the shadows and rebel, you may be thought of as an outcast. It’s not us we are afraid of but people we know. Family and friends will be treated differently as well. I believe in taking small steps of at least opening up about what you feel will help you to let go of that which you are suppressing. That will ultimately will give you the confidence of coming out of the shadows and facing the light.
[This is Part 2 in a series of posts about Jenny’s experience of learning about female genital cutting happening within the Malian community in which she lived. Part 1 details her stumbling upon the aftermath of a cutting in Konza.]
As the editorial intern at Sahiyo, I’ve been reading the stories of women who’ve been sharing their experiences with female genital cutting with the world. Each story is so important, and reminds me of the stories of girls and women who shared their experiences with me during my time in Mali, West Africa. I lived in Mali from 2006-2009, but I went back in 2014 to work on a project about FGC within my community.
Five years after my Peace Corps service, my old mud brick house in Konza was occupied and Mali was hotter than I remembered. I flew back to visit friends, but I also wanted to explore the impact female genital cutting (FGC) had on community members. Cutting in Mali is as ingrained in society as pounding millet for dinner. The Sikasso region of Mali in which I lived maintains a 90.9% prevalence rate of FGC.
I had Kodak prints with me taken on the day of the cutting in Konza that I’d been privy to years prior. There were 21 girls of varying heights who gathered under a tree for a photo — all barefoot, and all wearing long fabric over their heads with colorful patterns of stripes, leaves, acorns and sunbursts. The girls in the group photo were adorned in head wraps, a symbol of their new status in the community as having been cut. They stood in a crescent shape in front of a mango tree. Only one adult woman out of the four present was wearing a long piece of solid white fabric covering her head. There was a lone silver tea kettle sitting in the dirt in front of them. Even though I can hardly look at the prints because of the emotion that’s palpable on their faces, it doesn’t occur to me that showing them to others during my search girls may be triggering for the girls in the photos.
I remembered a meeting I held with the community elders in a round mud brick structure near the end of my time in Konza during Peace Corps. Women hardly ever attend these meetings, let alone call them and set the agenda. About ten men sat on the floor ready for my monologue. I’d worked for a year with Binta, the midwife and the only health practitioner in the community. She hadn’t been paid in six months. The community had given her grain for sustenance, but didn’t give her monetary compensation. Binta was in Sanso, a mining town with her husband, and wasn’t present for the meeting.
I began by telling them that she works all hours of the day birthing their babies and burying placentas, as well as taking care of other ailments and injuries outside of her purview. They understood but expressed that they simply did not have the money to pay her. Paying her would involve pooling a small amount of money from every household in the community monthly. I paused. And then I let the words roll off my tongue in Bambara. “When cutting season comes, you find the money to pay the cutter to cut your girls, but you won’t find the money to pay the midwife.” The chief of the village, nearing 100 years old, had been lying on a cot. I was sitting on the edge. He bolted upright next to me and said, “Crazy woman!” to the men in the room. I laughed. I told them if they didn’t pay her they would not be receiving another volunteer. A few weeks later, they paid Binta for the full six months.
They welcomed me into their community and I threatened them by conjuring one of their most sacred traditions. I felt powerless that young girls in the community were being violated and no one was doing anything about it to my knowledge. I also could not understand how you could avoid paying the midwife for birthing your children. I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that the community members live in one of the poorest countries on Earth. But my reasoning was simple: if you can pay a person to inflict pain in the name of tradition, then you can pay a midwife to ensure your wife and children have access to safe delivery.
I had brought the printed portraits of the girls I photographed the day of the cutting in 2007, in hopes that I could interview them about their experiences with FGC. None of my friends could identify the girls. My translator suggested we try to interview the girls I photographed in a different series I also had with me called The Chair Portraits. Since the girls in that series lived in close proximity to me, my friends knew who they were and and where they could be found. Most of these girls were now teenagers who worked in the field all day. They too had all been cut years before.
One had moved to another community to work in a gold mine. Another, Yaya Kone had gotten married and moved to a nearby village. Jemani Kone moved five kilometers away to Kouale, a nearby community on the main road to Sikasso. Several were still in Konza.
Jenebou Kone was the first to agree to talk about how and where the cutting took place, and how it affected her. We walked to the northern part of the village for privacy and sat under a tree. I pulled out my RCA digital voice recorder and after she gave me her consent, I pressed record.
(This blog is the second in a series of blogs meant to inspire a larger, global conversation about girls’ and women’s health and rights, cutting as a practice, and ideas for positive change. The third blog will unpack my conversation with Jenebou and other community members in Mali. A series of conversations about cutting in my community in Mali led me to advocacy work at Sahiyo. My hope is that collectively we can gain understanding of the practice, and in doing so, encourage abandonment.)
On January 30, 2019, I presented the workshop: Patient Engagement through Brief Focused Videos featuring the Sahiyo Stories at the Academy of Communication in Healthcare (ACH) Winter Course in Scottsdale, Arizona. ACH endeavors to promote empathy and better communication among health care providers, patients and families.
I prepared throughout my adult life to someday share my story to advocate to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). This groundwork included learning through formal education, plus strengthening the emotional, social and spiritual foundation of my being. The purpose in showing the Sahiyo videos was two-fold: to promote deeper understanding of female genital mutilation’s impact on survivors, and to discuss the storytelling process and the feasibility of ACH engaging patients’ trauma stories through focused videos.
Three women attended the workshop I hosted, including the president of the organization who is a nurse midwife.After the workshop, their evaluations were positive.
“I think this was a powerful video that was personal to Renee,” a participant said after watching my video. “It provided an example of what might be possible to create for patients through ACH. That would be an entire different brainstorm session. This video was so impactful that it was hard to move on in this session.”
“Pre-work (writing story) was very helpful and heightened my receptivity/engagement.”
I found it crucial to share Sahiyo’s work with the very caring doctors and nurses who are fellow faculty members and have placed the link to the Sahiyo stories on the ACH library page.
Renee Bergstrom, EdD, is an educator who advocates for relationship-centered medical care. She and her husband, Gene, have been married 53 years. They have three children, ten grandchildren and one great-grandson. They live in a dynamic art town in midwest America where they are very involved in the community. Renee has been an advocate for women’s justice throughout her life.
One day, fifteen years ago, while Karen McDonnell was teaching reproductive health at George Washington University (GWU), a student of hers was absent from the class. While that may not seem out of the ordinary, it was quite strange for this particular student. He was a diligent medical doctor from Guinea who attended the university for a Master’s in Public Health. He never missed a class before. Upon his return, Karen asked him if everything was okay.
He told her that he had almost lost his wife.
His wife had given birth to their first child, but when she was young, she underwent female genital cutting (FGC), and it caused complications during the delivery. No one knew how to properly care for her at the hospital while she delivered, and she nearly bled out. In short, those caring for her were unprepared for her case.
“This isn’t something I was interested in yesterday,” Karen said, alluding to the years she’s spent on this project and reflecting on how far she’s come in understanding FGC. She remembers hearing about it in undergraduate school. Back then, FGC was simply an issue mentioned in passing during class. For the students in her graduate school at that time, it may not have seemed like there was anything to be done about it. “It’s a cultural practice, you can’t change culture. So let’s make it safer,” Karen said the instructors told students. The best solution at the time was medicalization, perhaps even providing clean blades. Karen knew that it still didn’t seem right and didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. The blade may be cleaner, but the potential health issues would remain.
Karen pressed on working at George Washington University, spending decades focusing on domestic violence in her work. But the incident with her student sparked the motivation for advocacy. “That student changed my life in opening my world to [FGC].”
Since then, Karen has worked with the former students and current students to educate others about how to care for those who have undergone FGC. She simply started by talking more in-depth about the practice with her students so they were made aware of the topic. Then two years ago, when the Office on Women’s Health came out with a funding mechanism for a medical project, Karen thought, Finally, we’re getting some attention here! They began working with survivors and RAHMA: a DC-based organization that addresses the stigma around HIV/AIDS in the American-Muslim community, as well as advocates against FGC. The team at GWU was awarded the health-focused funding to do work on a project that would teach other health practitioners how to give provisional care for those who have undergone FGC. Thus started the development of an online toolkit to educate women and healthcare providers on a topic that was once shrouded in secrecy. This toolkit is intended to be easily accessible and resource-filled with proper terminology and answers to questions that aren’t usually asked.
The members of the team include a variety of survivors, advocates, health professionals, and others on-board with the multi-year program. In-depth interviews were conducted for both survivors of multiple countries and health-care providers that worked with survivors. The interviewers asked a myriad of questions: Tell us your experience? How did you get involved? If you had a toolkit, what would you want in there? What would you want providers to know? What do you want women to know?
What’s even better is that women are coming forward with the willingness to share their stories, thanks to increased awareness and support from organizations such as Sahiyo that encourage them to do so. A turning point for these women had to do with their health: they started questioning why they had urinary infections and trauma they’ve carried since childhood. Beginning this conversation was the first step.
The online toolkit is useful for survivors, their doctors, and others in the community. It will have an optimized search and curated content, which ensures that the information is scholarly, reliable, accurate, and useful for the website visitors. While doctors would ideally ask their patients about certain conditions that affect them, this resource can potentially fill in their gaps of knowledge when interacting with their patients. Additionally, the kit would cover essential concepts for survivors to ask health professionals. The team plans to have a community tool section that can be used by men and religious community leaders.
Karen and many others are making a difference by working on this resource for survivors and their doctors. By understanding the complications that accompany their condition, it will ensure they receive proper support.
More on Brionna:
Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.
I may not be able to share the same emotional or physical experiences of some of the other Sahiyo participants who attended the Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat in March 2019 and who have undergone khatna, but I have a story to tell. My mother, myself, nor my daughter have undergone khatna, and that is not the end of the story, but the beginning of this restlessness in me to do something for others in my community who have undergone it.
Khatna conversation made landfall on my household when my daughter was 7-years- old. There was pressure from my mother-in-law to have my daughter cut. Her argument was that she would never suggest something that was bad for her granddaughter. There was no Sahiyo platform to educate my family members then so one could imagine my struggle twelve years ago. Seeing my mother-in-law so upset, my sisters-in-law got involved and they insisted that I should just lie to my mother-in-law to end the matter. I had been told to shut my mouth in my monthly Bohra menij groups, also. “Don’t do it, but speak about it otherwise.”
Let’s fast forward to after the Sahiyo retreat that I attended in March. A few days later, I met a friend at a gathering who had brought her 9-yr-old daughter along. I was very curious and worried if she had gotten her daughter’s khatna done, so I asked the question. She replied that she hadn’t and that she was, in a strange way, thankful that the conversation about the Detroit incident happened at the same time as when it was time for her daughter’s khatna. She saw all that was happening with the case and thought against the act. She wanted to know if I knew more about the case and I was thankful I attended the Sahiyo retreat, as I was able to give her more details about the case and was comfortable and confident to hold a dialogue on khatna.
My thought is that the Detroit case is very important. Even if the outcome may or may not be to our liking, it did cause a big stir in our Bohra community and at least one more girl was spared the blade.