Upcoming Webinar: Addressing Female Genital Cutting in the Clinic

By Sandra Yu

Female genital cutting (FGC) is an often overlooked issue in medical curriculums, and medical care for survivors is rarely a topic of discussion. As part of the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence, Sahiyo is hosting a webinar to inform individuals about the necessity for trauma-informed care for survivors of female genital cutting.

Join Sahiyo for “FGC In the Clinic: A Dialogue between Survivors and Healthcare Professionals” at 6 p.m. EST on Tuesday, December 8th. This panel discussion aims to gather the perspectives of clinicians and survivors as they discuss their in-clinic experiences. Renee Bergstrom, EdD, and Sarata Kande will be speaking about their experiences in connection to receiving medical care related to FGC. Karen McDonnell, PhD, Dr. Margaret Dow, and Dr. Deborah Ottenheimer will respond and discuss the current state of healthcare for survivors of gender-based violence. Mariam Sabir, a fourth-year medical student, will speak about her advocacy for supporting survivors in healthcare settings.

Renee Bergstrom, EdD works toward ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by sharing her survivor story as a white, Midwest American. She is a retired patient educator who now focuses her energy on the art of weaving. 

Margaret Dow, MD is a laborist at Mayo clinic, where she serves as Clerkship Director. She works with medical students, peers, and the community in education and advocacy for survivors of FGM/C and in trauma-informed care practices, as well as practices that promote equity in healthcare.

Deborah Ottenheimer, MD is the Director of the Women’s Holistic Health Initiative at Harlem United/ URAM, Nest Community Health Center where she is focused on immigrant health as well as the development and implementation of a multispecialty medical service for women and girls affected by FGM/C. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Ottenheimer spends a significant portion of her professional time assisting asylum-seeking women who have suffered human rights violations. Dr. Ottenheimer is an active member of Physicians for Human Rights, and serves as faculty at the Human Rights Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, the Weill Cornell Clinic for Human Rights, and the CUNY School of Medicine Human Rights Collaborative aiding survivors Gender Based Violence, including female genital cutting, domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking in their applications for asylum. She has published and lectured extensively on human rights violations against women, with a focus on FGC. She has also worked in Haiti, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo, helping to improve the health and lives of women in low resource settings.

Karen McDonnell, PhD is a public health program evaluation and implementation specialist with over 15 years of experience working with community groups, public health agencies, and health care systems both locally and globally to ensure the health and well-being of women and children. McDonnell’s expertise lies in using mixed methods to look at complex public health issues and programs. Her most recent work is leading a team to evaluate gender-based violence in immigrant communities, development, and testing of a community-centered FGM/C prevention project, evaluating the National Domestic Violence Hotline/loveisrespect Helpline and evaluating multi-systems changes in the Clinical Translational Science Institute with Children’s National and The George Washington University. 

Mariam Sabir is a fourth-year medical school student at the American University of the Caribbean. She aspires to become a family physician that provides comprehensive care. She became an avid Sahiyo supporter when she discovered how prevalent female genital cutting is, particularly in her very own community. While rotating through different fields of medicine such as obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry, pediatrics and family medicine, she discovered her passion for educating health care professionals on how to provide culturally sensitive care for women who have undergone FGC.

Register here: bit.ly/addressing-fgc-in-the-clinic 

Facebook updates: https://fb.me/e/3QaNwkvWE

Sahiyo participated in key virtual events with global organizations in October

October was an incredibly busy month for Sahiyo, and we were honored to take part in many events to highlight the issue of female genital cutting (FGC) to various audiences in a multitude of virtual events including a medicalization webinar with #EndFGM Media Campaigns, Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar with StoryCenter, A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C, Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference, North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child, and Taboo Conversations with RAHMA.

#EndFGM Media Campaigns: Medicalization Webinar

On October 13th, the Global Media Campaign to End FGM and UNFPA hosted a webinar exploring effective media campaign strategies and approaches to work toward countering a growing trend of medicalization within practicing communities. Speakers included Dr. Amr Hassan, Diana Kendi, Ayotomiwa Ayodele, Hoda Ali, Dr. Mariam Dahir, and Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. To watch a replay of this webinar, visit https://fb.watch/1yN240JQra/

Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

In honor of the International Day of the Girl, the U.S. End FGM/C Network hosted an event on October 13 titled, “Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Eliminating FGM/C,” as a means to raise awareness and foster important dialogue around ending the harmful practice of FGM/C. The webinar focused on recent developments around the adoption of federal and state-level legislation to end FGM/C in the U.S. and where future policy efforts should focus; common barriers to developing and implementing effective FGM/C abandonment programs (i.e., lack of funding, data, awareness, etc.) and how the community can overcome them; and solutions for prioritizing FGM/C abandonment on the global stage. To watch a recap, view here.

The U.S. End FGM/C Network is a collaborative group of survivors, civil society organizations, foundations, activists, policymakers, researchers, healthcare providers, and others committed to promoting the abandonment of FGM/C in the U.S. and around the world.

Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar

Since 1993, StoryCenter has collaborated with individuals, grassroots groups, and organizations to centralize first-person stories in social justice efforts. The current political reality demands ever-more creative approaches to advocacy. On Oct 14th, in this one-hour free webinar, StoryCenter defined their approach to advocacy with an eye toward clarifying what kinds of stories are effective at community, institutional, and policy levels. They then highlighted research on the role that sharing and listening to personal stories can play in advocacy, and presented a case study of how they have worked with Sahiyo on the Voices to End FGM/C project to position digital storytelling as a key advocacy strategy. 

A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C 

On the 14th of October, Cinema for Peace organized a screening of A Girl from Mogadishu together with the University of Southern California. The event included a panel discussion on FGM/C, taking Ifrah’s case as seen in the film, and its current state in the U.S. where 11 states still don’t have laws against it

Democracy, Populism, Coronavirus & Enduring Patriarchal Traditions

The first webinar in a series for the Patriarchal Inscriptions: Female bodies contested, invaded defended and owned, this October 15th webinar focused on the persistence of the practice of ‘female circumcision’ and how their encoded cultural undergirding raise critical issues of systemic injustice in the body politics cross-culturally. Speakers included Leyla Hussein OBE, Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher, Ghada Khan, Julia Antonova, Habiba Al-Hinai and Chiara Cosentino. The event explored the following topics: 

  • What weaknesses have come to obstruct efforts to end female genital mutilation?
  • How have governments’ mis/management of the pandemic exacerbated existing fault-lines of gender precarity?
  • How has progress in challenging and abolishing FGM practices been vitiated by widely applied government policies and measures that embrace lockdowns of large parts of public government services, curfews, household quarantine and mandatory individual isolation?
  • How has opposition among members of minority communities in Western societies – when it comes to governments’ FGM policies, deeply felt subtexts of prejudice and popular scapegoating – been appropriated and instrumentalized to serve populist exclusionary aims that demonize entire marginalized cultures?
  • What does the failure of enforcement of anti-FGM legislation uncover about political will, identity politics, the hierarchy of suffering and about inter-/national feminist ambivalences?

Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference 

Council of the Great City Schools held its 64th Annual Fall Conference virtually in October. Under the banner “Championing Urban Education,” the conference gave big-city school superintendents, board members, senior administrators and college deans of education a forum to discuss issues and share information and best practices to improve teaching and learning. On Oct 16th, Sahiyo participated in a panel event, Unmasking Danger: Identifying High-risk Situations for Urban Students, in which the issues of trafficking and female genital cutting were brought to light and the need to take into consideration that students may be at risk or affected by them. A resource guide created by Council of the Great City Schools on FGM prevention for U.S. schools was also discussed. The guide helps schools to put policies in place to support and identify at risk students. 

North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child

On October 23rd, speakers from around North America and Europe joined in on a virtual meeting to draw attention to the issues of child marriage and female genital cutting. The event was organized by the core group of the Europe and North America CSW/NGO Caucus, including Ulla Madsen, Mary Collins, Zarin Hainsworth, Daniela Chivu, Patricia Masniuk, Luci Chikowero and Nina Smart. Invited FGC Speakers included Isatu Barry, Dr. Ann-Marie Wilson, Mariya Taher, Chiara Cosentino, Angela Peabody. Child Marriage Speakers included Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, Honorable Jackie Weatherspoon, Dr. Rochelle Burgesse, Kate Ryan, Dr. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, and Beverly Bucur.

Taboo ConversationsOn October 28th, RAHMA organized a Facebook Live Discussion in partnership with Sahiyo & Global Women Peace Foundation to discuss female genital cutting in the U.S. and the importance prevention work needing to be done, as well as ways to support and empower women and girls affected by FGC. View the recording here.

Sahiyo staff spoke in a symposia entitled Mothers and daughters: continuity, love, fear and belonging

Sahiyo Communications Coordinator Lara Kingstone and co-founder Mariya Taher were honored to speak on behalf of Sahiyo in a symposia entitled, Patriarchal Inscriptions: Female Bodies Contested, Invaded, Defended & Owned, hosted by King’s College London Faculty of Arts and Humanities. 

The session that Sahiyo participated in served to address feminism, survivors’ relationships with mothers, other forms of gender-based violence and abuse, as well as systemic injustice. The symposia in general served to address the following questions: “Feminism has made the exploration of relations between mothers and daughters central to its project. How are these considered fraught, damaged, broken, or, in the eyes of FGM-supporters, strengthened by clitoridectomy? How does FGM compare to other abuses women endure that fracture their inclination to identify and support one another, instead of becoming invested in, or complicit with, systemic injustice?”

Taher and Kingstone discussed and presented Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C: Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms & Enhance Prevention as part of the panel on Mothers and daughters: continuity, love, fear and belonging. Many storytellers and survivors explore fraught or strengthened relationships with their mothers in their digital videos as part of the Voices to End FGM/C program in collaboration with StoryCenter. By sharing these stories with participants, Sahiyo aimed to further understanding regarding the deeply complex mother-daughter relationship in the context of FGM/C.

Read the full program.

Dear Maasi: a new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a new column about everything you wanted to know about sex and relationships but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, and is for all of us who have questions about khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexualities and relationships. We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi,

How do you navigate being a public advocate on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) while being so exposed and having your identity conflated with such a deeply personal issue? This is particularly tough in the world of online dating.  

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

This is a great question, and I think many survivors who have chosen to be “out” in the public realm have had to grapple with this situation. To be clear, it is a choice to be a public advocate, and everyone has to make the choice that’s best for them.

People assume so many things about us FGM/C survivors, don’t they, Anonymous? It’s such a stigmatized issue, that people don’t understand that we are all different. We remember differently. We have different symptoms. We have different sexual functioning. We have different religious beliefs and connections to our families and communities. In other words, you can’t assume anything about an FGM/C survivor. And yet people do. These assumptions create shame and can be entirely inaccurate.

Many of us, at the time of the original trauma, were told, “This is nothing; don’t cry,” and “This is a secret; don’t talk.” Therefore, speaking publicly about how FGM/C is harmful can seem wrong or shameful.

At the same time, as kids, we probably didn’t understand what was happening to our bodies; and as a coping strategy, children tend to blame themselves rather than the trusted adults. Thinking it’s our fault creates shame.

All of this to say that FGM/C can leave us with a lot of shame. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

I’ve been an activist since 2015, but I was super nervous about being public. I admired and envied my activist sisters who could openly discuss their survivor experiences. While they were the best role models and supporters, I couldn’t follow their examples. When I tried, I’d dissociate, feel exhausted and unwell; my body signaled a big “no” to me. I wasn’t ready.

The hitch was that I was finishing a novel about FGM/C in my community, and I knew that I’d be asked about my personal connection to the issues at festivals and in media interviews. Despite the dread I felt, I knew I had to work through my anxieties and become ready. But this wasn’t a simple process. I returned to therapy. I did mock interviews where friends asked the most intrusive questions, and I had to sort out my boundaries and decide how to answer. I had to challenge my own beliefs and stereotypes about what it means to be a survivor. I wrote Seven Things Not to Ask A Khatna Survivor, both for myself,my friends and readers. Still, I was nervous.

And then something unexpected happened at the beginning of my book tour. I didn’t feel dread. My body began to say yes to public speaking. I saw the questions that came my way as opportunities, not intrusions. I haven’t stopped talking about it since I started, over three months ago. And I’ve been fine. Better than that, I’ve felt liberated from the shame. 

This is a long way of saying that people will continue to make assumptions about me—and to conflate khatna/FGM/C with my identity, perhaps for the rest of my life—and because I have no shame about it, I no longer care. 

I have a feeling that this works similarly with any marginalized identity or experience we hold. When we surface and work through our internalized shame about being racialized, or women, or Muslim or fat or poor or disabled or queer or older or depressed or chronically ill, we liberate ourselves.

The process of moving from shame to liberation will look different for each of us. I think the first step is acknowledging any shame you might feel. Here are a few questions to ask yourself (and while doing so, notice your emotions and your body’s response):

-What myths or assumptions exist about FGM/C survivors? List them. Which do I believe, even a little bit?

-Is the cut to my genitals shameful? Are my genitals shameful? In what ways?

-How do I feel if a neighbour or a colleague or a stranger knows I am a survivor? 

This brings us to online dating. It’s standard practice to Google a potential date and to scan their social media profiles. There’s probably no way to escape people knowing about us before they meet us.

Mariya Karimjee talked about her experiences with dating, sex and being a public advocate on the Sex Gets Real podcast (Jan 29, 2017). At about the 48-minute mark, she describes the two kinds of men she’s met through online dating: the first who is “totally freaked out” by what they assume to be her “baggage,” and the second who imagines himself as someone who can “fix her with his magic penis.” We can assume that both these types of men are not worthy of anyone’s attention, Anonymous! 

A third type of date might be someone who understands that psychological and sexual trauma is common and their aftereffects varied. They don’t make any assumptions about us. This is the sort of person you can have interesting, complex and intimate conversations about your experiences, including those about being an FGM/C survivor and advocate. Check out September’s column for some tips on how to have these conversations.

I’m hopeful that as we continue to do our advocacy, we’ll normalize conversations about FGM/C, and more people—including our neighbours, colleagues and potential dates—will be this kind of person. While you search for them, I hope that you will be shameless in the best kind of way.

Maasi

About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor:

Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at www.farzanadoctor.com.

Disclaimer:

While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

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

By Tamanna Taher

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

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

“It is when a female is circumcised.”

“Circumcised? How? What?”

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Reflection on Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting

By Cate Cox

On Thursday, October 22nd, Sahiyo partnered with three award-winning and multi-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 FGC, how FGC can impact sexuality, and how survivors may be  working toward healing. Passionate, honest, and bold, this webinar explored some of the most difficult and taboo subjects surrounding FGC, and allowed survivors and non-survivors alike space to better understand the process of healing after FGC.   

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and U.S. Executive Director, guided our speakers through conversations about the psycho-sexual impacts of FGC and how they have worked to help survivors heal. Vergoth, a trained psychoanalyst, gave the audience a detailed and uncensored explanation of how the physical and mental impacts of FGC can make it difficult for survivors to experience sexual pleasure, and what methods survivors can use to move toward their own emotional and sexual healing. Karim-Kamara boldly explored her own experience with sexual healing, and spoke of her struggles and victories in a way that moved many in the audience to tears. Finally, Doctor also explored her own process of sexual healing and how her latest novel, Seven, gives readers a greater view into the complexities and struggles of sexual healing for survivors of FGC. 

Certainly, one of the most powerful and enjoyable moments of the webinar was the opportunity the audience had to ask the panelists questions at the end. We spoke to two audience members about their questions. The first audience member, who was a survivor herself, asked the speakers for advice on whether or not one should undergo the surgical process of clitoral restoration. Each speaker had a slightly different answer to this question, but the heart of each of their messages was the same: explore your own body first, find a trusting partner to help you, and read up about healing before you make a decision — but ultimately the decision is yours alone to make. Our second audience member asked the speakers to explore how to create a safe and educational space for young people to heal from FGC and continue activism to end the practice. The speakers explored their roles in their organizational and activism efforts. For those who are interested in learning more about their work, our speakers helped to found forma, Keep the Drums and Lose the Knife, The End FGM/C Canada Network, and WeSpeakOut

From exploring the intricacies of sexuality and mental health, what it means to heal from FGC, and how to mobilize a healing movement, Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting was a powerful and radical event. With guests hailing from the United States, the Netherlands, India, Canada, Iran, and other countries, it is clear this event is part of a global movement that is pushing for FGC activism to expand outside the realm of ending this practice to include a movement focused on helping survivors move toward healing.  

For those who were unable to attend, 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 here.  

Read the transcript here.

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

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

by Priya Goswami

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key points to understand the situation in India:

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

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

By Isabel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Maasi: A new sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a new column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships. In the Bohra context, Maasi means auntie. We welcome you to send your questions to info@sahiyo.com. Please feel free to use a pseudonym if you’d like.

Dear Maasi,

I’m 26 and have had three serious relationships in my life (two guys, and most recently with a woman). I like intimacy, but penetration (with anything) often hurts. I sometimes have avoided sex altogether and this has caused tension in my relationships. I saw a doctor who said everything ‘down there’ was normal. But honestly, I feel really abnormal.

I had khatna, and I’m wondering if it had an impact on me. But this makes no sense to me because they cut my clitoral hood—they didn’t harm my vagina, right?

—Freaked-Out Fatema

Dear Fatema,

First off—I want you to know that everything you’re talking about is normal, and not uncommon.  

There are many reasons why penetrative sex can hurt, including dryness due to hormones, vaginal infections, injuries, and conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease, fibroids or endometriosis. 

Other common reasons for pain are vaginismus (where the vaginal or pelvic floor muscles spasm or clench upon penetration) or vestibular vulvitis (inflammation around the nerves around the vaginal opening). These can be linked to trauma. More on this in a bit.

I recommend that you get a second medical opinion. Many doctors are not comfortable with sexuality, and as a result, are not thorough enough in their assessments. Look for one who has experience with sexual difficulties. I highly recommend listening to Episode One of the Bodies Podcast for a deeper dive into this issue. 

As for your question regarding the links between khatna and your pain, khatna does involve cutting the clitoral hood, and sometimes also the clitoris, rather than the vagina. Still, there is research to suggest that this cut can affect sexuality: in a Sahiyo survey conducted in 2017, 35% of respondents reported that FGC had affected their sex life, and of those, 87% felt that it had been impacted negatively. In a 2018 WeSpeakOut study, nearly 33% of respondents said the same. I highly recommend reading some of their quotations that describe pain, triggers, and trauma (pages 47-60) — it might feel validating.

Trauma is the outcome of a distressing event that overwhelms our ability to cope and make sense of the experience. Most survivors describe khatna as a distressing, confusing and painful experience that sometimes involves a significant amount of denial, gaslighting or lies from older, trusted relatives. 

I’d say khatna fits the definition of trauma.

Our minds and bodies can hold trauma in ways that sometimes feel indirect or confusing. Take a look at this comic to understand what I mean. It makes sense to me that our vulvas and vaginas might hold tension from khatna. Speak to a trauma-informed therapist to understand if khatna might have impacted you in this way. 

Fatema, I want you to know that it’s possible to recover and heal from this. You have a right to a pleasure-filled sex life! 

—Maasi

About Maasi, aka Farzana Doctor:

Farzana is a novelist and psychotherapist in private practice. She’s a founding member of WeSpeakOut and the End FGM/C Canada Network. She loves talking about relationships and sexuality! Find out more about her at www.farzanadoctor.com.  

Order her newest novel, SEVEN, which addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity and khatna within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Disclaimer: While Farzana is full of good advice, this column won’t address everyone’s individual concerns, and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical or psychological care.

Conversations with my mom about khatna and betrayal

By Zahara Kagalwalla

I am a chatty person. I call up my best friend and prattle to him even about the most mundane development in my life like the latest teatime snack I gobbled (muesli, definitely a poorly thought out choice). So when I am distressed, there is furor on the phone. Despite my love for babbling and our nine years of friendship, Phiroze did not know about my khatna experience, or female genital cutting, until very recently. I preferred to tuck it away in a corner of my brain because if I don’t acknowledge it, I can avoid processing the trauma. 

When I departed for university, things changed. I picked up a gender studies major and began learning about concepts such as informed consent and an individual’s right over their own body. This made me more and more uncomfortable with my “ignorance is bliss” policy. The trauma that I had successfully managed to bury in my subconscious emerged, and I finally began the journey toward understanding what happened to me ten years ago. Simply, I was cut, and I don’t like it. In fact, I was infuriated. 

One fine day, I decided to dial-up my mom and have a conversation, but really it wasn’t a conversation. I went in ready to pick a fight. I was the victim and my mother was the perpetrator. How could you? My accusatory tone coupled with my hot tears put her in defensive mode. She justified her actions:

“We took you to a doctor, not to an unqualified middlewoman in Bhendi Bazaar. You experienced no pain.” 

“Khatna doesn’t affect your life; it is ritualistic.”

“Maasi, I, and aunty have all undergone khatna. We are just fine even thirty years later.” 

With emotions running high, I was unable to communicate my point. Whether it hurts or not, whether the procedure was done in a doctor’s clinic or not, nothing changes the fact that it is my body and my rules. This definitely wasn’t a conversation.

Two years later, I realized that I left empathy at the doorstep during my first discussion about khatna with my mother. I disregarded that she came from a place of love, and she never intended to cause me any harm. I did not even bother to understand the kind of social pressure she faced from my extended family, and how her expressions of discomfort with the ritual were severely squashed.

I failed to acknowledge the constant guilt she lives with for compelling her daughter to partake in a primitive tradition, particularly when she witnesses my personal struggle toward self-acceptance. She fought for me, but the tremendous social pressure did not let her win.

Always uncomfortable and unsure about the ritual, my mother has now taken a stance against it. She couldn’t protect me, but she will protect her future granddaughter. Now we fight against khatna together, confident that my daughter will not face female genital cutting.