Sleeping researchers and lack of data on female genital cutting in Pakistan

By Huda Syyed

Two decades ago, I flipped through Reader’s Digest to distract my mind from schoolwork and the sweltering summer heat of Pakistan. My eyes glanced at the brief excerpt displayed mid-page with a glossy picture of a famous Somalian model, Waris Dirie. She exuded a sense of resilience, and I knew there was a meaningful story behind this woman. I was immersed in the daunting narrative of how she was blindfolded by her own mother to be cut. The pain was physically traumatizing, and she passed out. By the age of thirteen, Waris Dirie was coaxed by her father into the idea of an arranged marriage to an older man. Her dismay toward this proposal culminated into a desire to run away from home. 

She eventually found her way to London as a model. She still carried the realization that female genital cutting (FGC) extended beyond physical invasion, and resulted in health complications and deaths for many girls in Somalia. This encouraged her to become an activist, and she has dedicated herself to ending FGC. 

As I grew older and gravitated toward research and data collection, I found an article that mentioned FGC being practised in Pakistan. I was determined to gather contemporary data and historical understanding on it. Upon further readings, it became clear that FGC was a secretive practice in Pakistan in the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

A collective discernment of these realities pushed me to dig deeper and write a research paper that explored this practice and its socio-sexual effects. Apart from a few newspaper articles about FGC, there was not much information. It happens, but nobody talks about it. People from other communities are usually unaware that khatna is practiced in Pakistan. I was met with reactions of disbelief when I had discussions about it with non-members of the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Sahiyo was one of the few reliable sources that recorded important data regarding FGC practices within the South Asian region (it also included Pakistan). Sahiyo focused on creating a culture of dialogue to uncover this practice; they also recorded numerical data, which could be helpful in tracing the frequency and historical context of FGC. Cutting is discreetly performed in residential spaces and not usually practised in conventional medical environments in Pakistan. Sahiyo surveys revealed this piece of significant information, which I later correlated with my own qualitative data. The interviews I conducted with a few participants in Karachi revealed that most of the young girls were cut at secluded spots inside a home, where some woman is well-versed with the physical practice of genital cutting. 

My main point of emphasis is that there is minimal research data on FGC in Pakistan, understandably so, because minority communities feel threatened or shamed for their cultural practices. 

Minorities in Pakistan have faced prejudice and threats in the past; hence, the need for cultural sensitivity while addressing FGC is imperative. Moreover, Pakistani society follows a patriarchal mindset, where female genitals or sex are uncomfortable topics to discuss publicly. This makes it challenging to have verbal discourse for the acquisition of qualitative data, because many women feel FGC should remain a secret. The lack of credible statistical data in Pakistan makes it difficult to track the frequency of FGC in contemporary culture. It is important to collect more data on FGC in Pakistan so it can be correlated with the socio-economic conditions, family set-up and religious leanings of young girls and women. Information of this sort could allow for a deeper understanding of bodily autonomy and factors that are more likely to foster a mutual respect for their bodies and its protection. 

There is a dire need for dialogue and engagement with the Dawoodi Bohra community from a culturally respectful distance. It is important for their community to feel unharmed and safe because this approach could lead to meaningful qualitative data that could help everyone understand the near permanence of FGC. 

Interviews, verbal discourse, and discussions are a gateway to accessing the historical, emotional, and psychological attachment of community members to this physically invasive practice. One of my interview participants expressed that FGC was a way of ensuring that a woman does not stray from her husband (possibly due to decreased sexual desire or libido response), and she did not see it as a harmful act. Keeping in mind such sentiments, it is vital to bridge the insider versus outsider dynamic by listening, recording, and preserving the anonymity of data respondents. 

If young girls and women in the Dawoodi Bohra community of Pakistan feel comfortable and secure discussing this topic with outsiders of the community, there will be more possibility of gathering useful data that could be utilized in creating support groups and spaces for those that have experienced physical or psychological strain or trauma due to cutting. 

Finding participants for qualitative data collection was a tedious task because very few women were willing to speak about this. Even within one community, there are those that deem FGC as a problematic practice; but there are also those that associate religious and cultural significance with it.

Researchers must take a softer approach that refrains from shaming the community for ancestral practices. The objective should be to safely record community narratives and observe their historical reasoning for FGC, so that long-term solutions can be sought that diplomatically create safe options and spaces for young girls to celebrate the freedom of bodily autonomy.

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 forty and divorced, but I’ve recently met someone nice, a non-Bohra, and we’ve grown close. Should I tell him about my experience with khatna? How do I start that conversation? Is it even important to dredge up that old trauma?

Divorcée Duriya

Dear Divorcée Duriya,

Hurray for your new relationship! It makes sense that you’re trying to figure this question out. Let me start by saying that sharing personal information is always your choice, and there are some pros and cons to consider.

Let’s start with the benefits:

Benefit #1: Sharing your vulnerabilities can build intimacy and trust.  I think this is especially true for trauma because it often happens in a context of secrecy, shame and isolation. Talking with a loved can be corrective; it breaks the silence and you can feel less alone. 

Benefit #2: When our loved ones understand how a trauma can trigger us emotionally, physically or sexually, they can be better allies in our healing. 

Here’s an example: Once in a while a certain kind of touch causes me to have a freeze response. My partner is attuned to me, knows about khatna, and will help me pause and get grounded again.  

Consider what triggers might exist for you, and then educate your loved ones on how to support you.

CAVEAT: KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

This takes us to the potential drawbacks:

Drawback #1: If your loved ones are not skilled at being compassionate and/or don’t understand that khatna can be traumatic, they can inadvertently minimize or invalidate your feelings, or judge you. This can feel re-traumatizing, especially if you’re not prepared for it. 

One way to mitigate this is to share information before sharing your story.  I wrote this blog post for that reason. Check out the Sahiyo blog and WeSpeakOut website for more useful articles and videos.

Drawback #2: Talking about trauma—even with someone supportive—can leave us feeling raw or overwhelmed.  If you think this could happen for you, make sure you have ready access to someone who can help, for example, a good friend or counsellor. One way to test this is to rehearse what you might say, and notice what feelings arise.

How to start the conversation:

There are many ways to talk about khatna. Here’s a guide. Skip the steps that don’t apply to you and edit to your own style.

  1. Preamble: 

There’s something I’d like to share with you. It’s a personal and vulnerable thing to talk about.

I’m telling you because you’re important to me. 

I just need you to listen and later I can answer any questions you might have. 

Is this a good time to talk?

  1. Give them some info about the practice in general, but not too much: 

My community practices a form of genital cutting called khatna. It happened to me when I was a child. It’s a taboo subject and is considered traumatic. 

  1. Tell them the personal impact (this part can vary widely, so this is just an example): 

I’m okay, but sometimes thinking about it can upset me, and every so often, in some sexual situations, I find myself getting tense. 

  1. Tell them what you need from them (this part can also vary widely): 

I don’t need you to say or do anything right now.

I wanted to share this with you because it’s a part of my life experience. And it might help you understand why I react in certain ways.

  1. Offer to give them resources so they can learn more: 

If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them. I can also point you to some articles and videos if you’d like.

Well, Divorcée, I really hope that your new beau works out! If you decide to tell him, may it be a healing experience for you.

—Dear 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.  Pre-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.

Rejection of khatna must be a step in the liberation of Bohra women

By Zarina Patel

Khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) within the Dawoodi Bohra community, is not a distinct or unique ritual. It has a context and it is important that Bohra women (and men) understand that context if they are to free themselves holistically, not only from the ritual itself, but from all that promotes it. 

Khatna is an imposition of a patriarchal system, a male-controlled system, that seeks to assign a gendered role or designated place for women and imposes rules and regulations to maintain these assigned roles. For women, that role is strictly within the family unit where her duty is first and foremost that of caring for her family, especially the husband or parents; giving birth, including ensuring the survival of humanity; nurturing the progeny; and upholding and promoting this culture and these customs which are largely defined by the patriarchs.

No boy child has his destiny mapped out at birth within the Bohra community, but the idea of a girl child choosing and planning her destiny is considered as entirely secondary and trivial to her so-called God-given role. In this era of the internet and women’s liberation globally, it has seemingly become even more imperative for the patriarchs to keep their women (who, of course, they may consider as their property) in their place.

Nothing works better than religious persuasion, but it so happens that nowhere in the Holy Quran is khatna mentioned, let alone made mandatory. So the patriarchs have concocted a variety of restrictions: women’s dress code is ordained for them; the baggy and unsightly rida is designed to make them feel ashamed of their bodies and to limit their movements; if women must work outside the home, it has to be in family circles or at most in a Bohra environment; if widowed, she must observe total seclusion for four months; associating or travelling with strangers is frowned upon, and so on.

Khatna confers absolutely no benefit, medical or moral, to the girls who are cut. It can be traumatic with long-lasting effects both physical and psychological. It is one more such tradition, which at a very young age instills into the girl child that she is tainted and impure, and hence, it is normal for her to be violated and controlled. Is it surprising then that as adults, most Bohra women meekly accept the various restrictions placed on them.  

But women are the greatest defenders of the practice, we are told. True, very true – and some of those women are doctors and the like, educated, so to speak. 

Sahiyo has done, and is doing sterling work in exposing the harmful practice of khatna, and encouraging opposition to it. The rejection of khatna must be a step in the liberation of Bohra women.

 

Survivor: Female genital mutilation as a form of ritual abuse

by Nevaeh Novak

(Trigger warning: Below is one woman’s account of her experience with female genital mutilation in the United States. This story is deeply disturbing and may be triggering for some. We thank her for being brave and sharing her story with us.)

My experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) was not due to any religious belief, nor was it a cultural practice, as is most FGM. It was intended only to be cruel and torturous. For most of 16 years of my childhood I was ritually, sexually abused. 

On my 13th birthday I was taken to a barn where my “fixing” ceremony would be performed. I was secured to a table and feet stirrups with chains and straps, leaving me unable to move any part of my body. I saw the blade as he prepared to cut me. All of a sudden, I felt a burning pain. It was so excruciating I don’t have words to describe it, other than feeling like I was on fire. He either stitched me or cauterized me almost all the way closed. He let my legs drop then he strapped them together. I was still unable to move. I was left alone in that position, in and out of consciousness, for a couple days. 

The man that called himself my father did this to me and said, “Now no one will ever want you.”

 It wasn’t until almost 43 years later when a doctor explained to me exactly what happened; that my clitoris had been cut out, that my labia had been removed, and that I had been mostly stitched closed. Until then I only knew I had been hurt, and was ruined.

Although I know I may not “fit” into the typical category women who have undergone FGM, I want what happened to me to be known because there are other women who have been hurt like me. But, ritual abuse is just not talked about. I want to be a voice for them, so that they know these survivors are not alone, and that there is help and hope.

N.N.
Nevaeh Novak

What is ritual abuse? 

In a 1989 report, the Ritual Abuse Task Force of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women defined ritual abuse as “Ritual abuse usually involves repeated, prolonged sadistic abuse, especially of children, over an extended period of time (sometimes years). It is almost impossible to imagine the realities endured by victims of ritual abuse: multiple abusers with systematic motives coordinated with the sole purpose of perpetrating and maintaining a cycle of abuse. It is carried out in contexts where children are in groups, and within families or groups of families.

The physical abuse is severe and can include beatings, electroshock, torture (even death), confinement and/or forced ingestion of drugs, blood, and feces. The sexual abuse is painful, humiliating, and sadomasochistic– intended as a means of gaining dominance over the victim. The psychological abuse is devastating and involves the use of ritual indoctrination. It includes mind control techniques which convey to the victim a profound terror of the cult members – most victims are in a state of terror, mind control and dissociation. These activities are kept secret from society at large, as they violate norms and laws.

 For more information about this issue:

https://endritualabuse.org/  

https://survivorship.org/  

https://survivorship.org/frequently-ask-questions/#rabroad

http://ra-info.org/ 

Protecting the girl child: The need for an anti-FGM law in India 

By Anjali Shah

“Girls are not property. They have the right to determine their destiny.” – Anthony Lake, Former Executive Director, UNICEF

Religious dogmas have gained focus with women coming forward to challenge the subversion and repression that they have been subjected to for decades. This has brought into the limelight the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which thrives in the shadows of our society with little recognition. It is the fear of social exclusion that has prevented women from lifting the veil of secrecy, resulting in more girls being victimized. 

Some women of the Bohra Muslim community, where FGM is widely practiced, have justified FGM to be their religious and cultural right. However, a practice that demands such standards of purity from girls and women so as to remove a part of their body to curb their sexuality raises important questions pertaining to their right to live with dignity, equality, bodily integrity, and also their right to freedom from inhumane treatment.

It may be argued that FGM can be practised under Article 25 of the Constitution of India that guarantees the right to religious freedom. However, this is not an unfettered right but is subject to the constitutional restraints of public order, health and morality. The content of morality is founded on the four precepts emerging from the preamble, i.e., justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, which assures dignity for human life. The test of constitutional morality is to bow to these norms. FGM is a practise that reduces a girl child to chattel. It makes her right to live with dignity conditional upon actions beyond her control. Moreover, it is a practise which can cause life-long impairment, including difficulties with urination, kidney damage, infertility and psychological problems. Thus, taking into account the consequences of FGM on the life and well-being of a girl, FGM may not justify itself to be a practice validated on the basis of any religious tenet. 

While some people categorise FGM as discrimination against women, it is often the women of the community who are the perpetrators of this practice. It thus boils down to FGM being a facet of religion governed by individual belief. Autonomy is the premise for religious freedom and only stands legitimised when applied to one’s own choice to undergo FGM. It cannot be used as a blanket protection to permit actions, which can be categorised as a crime causing grievous hurt under the criminal statutes of the country. The Supreme Court of India has observed that depriving freedom to choose on the basis of faith is impermissible. Given that FGM is largely carried out on girls, who have little or no knowledge of the atrocity they are being subjected to, this results in an implicit denial or deprivation of the freedom to make a choice to undergo cutting. This appears to be in direct violation of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The focus on elimination of FGM by international organizations has driven several countries to enforce laws against FGM. Sadly, in India, neither the political leaders nor the judiciary is playing its part to ban FGM.  The Public Interest Litigation filed in 2017 before the Supreme Court of India to enact an anti-FGM law is still pending after being referred to a larger bench. Additionally, the Minister for Women and Child Development in 2017, who once sought a ban on FGM, later released a statement to say that there is no data in existence of FGM in India.

From the surveys conducted on FGM in India, it is apparent that girls and women are willing to raise their voices against FGM, but are prevented many times from doing so due to the fear of expulsion from the community. To ensure effective support, a specific anti-FGM legislation is of utmost significance. Such a law may play an important role to instill fear in the minds of the people who allow FGM or are indifferent towards it. It may serve as a tool for community members to combat societal pressure in regard to FGM. An anti-FGM law may reinforce confidence among the girls and women to report cases of FGM. It may also help to put in place a mechanism for mandatory reporting of cases and also adequate protection measures. A strong political will is the key to end the practice of FGM in India. It is only when the political leaders are sensitised about the consequences of FGM to women and girls, that there may be a positive change towards enacting an anti-FGM legislation. The next key element will be the capacity building of lawyers, judges, police personnel, and social workers, who will be the driving force to identify and prevent cases of FGM in the country by systematic enforcement of laws and policies. 

However, one needs to be mindful that while a law may serve as a deterrent, the perpetrators are almost always mothers, grandmothers and other family members. Thus, the fight towards abolition of FGM requires a sensitised and a holistic approach. This includes awareness programmes that stress on the issue of FGM, framing comprehensive policies and guidelines and also education about the consequences of FGM to overcome religious barriers and give importance to human life.

Finally, societal change also requires a strong opposition from the men in their roles as fathers, community leaders and husbands who many times in the past have had a passive role in encouraging FGM. If they were to make the decision to abandon the practice, it would have widespread impact and help shift the mindset around FGM, thus aid to abolish the practice.

There is a need for a change in the way people think and perceive others and their rights. This change will allow breaking the barriers of the age-old customs and traditions that allow subjugation of women, and will aid in protecting the girl child.

 

How COVID-19 impacts programs devoted to ending gender-based violence, including female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down, so it is unsurprising that gender-based violence (GBV), including female genital cutting (FGC), has also been affected. Hidden Scars and Magool came together to co-host the Africa Led Movement Webinar series. In May, I had the pleasure of attending the second part of the series which addressed GBV during the current pandemic. 

Speakers included Bethel Tadesse, Hidden Scars; Leyla Hussein, Magool; Wanjiru Wahome, Samburu Girls Foundation; Christine Alfons, Safe Engage Foundation; and Domtila Chesang, I Am Responsible Foundation (I Rep Foundation)

Three panelists, Wahome, Alfons and Chesang, discussed the impact of COVID-19 on their work. Wahome and Chesang have both noticed an increase in GBV, specifically FGC, rape, and domestic violence. They add that the Kenyan government has forcibly closed all safe houses, sending thousands of girls back to their homes. Coupled with the closure of schools and the restriction of movement, more girls and women are stuck in places where they are not safe or comfortable. Additionally, it seems as if GBV may be the least of the government’s priorities in Kenya, as all resources and focus are currently being devoted to the pandemic. Alfons noted that in her region of Kenya, FGC only occurs every two years. Therefore, FGC is not rising in cases at the moment, but child marriage has increased significantly. 

The panelists were asked how their organizations have responded to the rise in violence prompted by the pandemic. All three are using the radio as a tool to prevent FGC by interviewing healthcare professionals and community leaders on air and playing jingles to remind listeners not to cut their girls. Upon hearing the devastating news of the closed rescue houses, I was relieved to hear that Wahome and Chesang have been going door-to-door to check on the girls they had to send back home. Alfons has been working to get girls sanitary products. Additionally, Alfons’ volunteers are making masks and supplying them to at-risk girls and women. 

In a vulnerable moment, they spoke with honesty about how the pandemic has personally impacted them. They shared the sentiment that their work has been frustrating and emotionally draining. I’m certain many advocactes would agree when Chesang stated this is not a job; it is personal, and you take it with you wherever you go. Alfons relies on other activists to stay sane. The panelists were asked what gives them hope to continue, and I found Wahome’s answer to be particularly poignant. She says when a girl is rescued, at the time she is viewed as a wife, but within a few months she transforms back into a child. 

Finally, the panelists shared what their asks would be if they could ask anything at all of the viewers. Chesang wishes for a car, or even just fuel, to allow her to visit at-risk girls and women more easily and more often. Wahome’s organization is in need of food to take the girls, as the virus has left many families without any income. Alfonso asks for sanitary pads, food, and assistance in building a website to better spread their message and work. If any readers can offer assistance, please visit their websites (linked above) or reach out to Bethel Tadesse for contact information. 

The webinar ended with an important call to action: keep amplifying the voices of the grassroots organizations working to end FGC and GBV. For more information on how the virus is impacting programs devoted to ending FGC and GBV, read here.

Let’s Talk FGC: A fireside chat with Mariya Taher and Farzana Esmail

Mariya Taher, U.S. Executive Director and co-founder of Sahiyo, and Farzana Esmail, FGC survivor, mother and advocate, sat down together for a virtual fireside chat on female genital cutting (FGC): part interview, part sincere exchange of stories, and part education. Farzana and Mariya intertwine pieces of their personal experience with the facts and information they provide on female genital cutting. This webinar explores FGC as a global practice, the many ways in which it is performed, how it impacts survivors, and related legislation. Mariya and Farzana share the progress toward abandoning FGC that has been made to date, the impact of COVID-19 on this progress, and Sahiyo’s theory for social change. 

Farzana: Mariya, thank you so much for doing this. Before I go on to introduce your illustrious background, if I could take just a few minutes to set the context of our conversation. This is a subject that is extremely personal because I have lived through this. I have long fostered the idea of bringing my story and sharing it in the hope that it triggers conversations, and, in time, banishes the fear and discomfort that surrounds it. We are discussing female genital cutting. 

Mariya, you have been named one of the six experts on female genital cutting by News Deeply. You have worked for over a decade in the anti-gender violence field, from research to policy, program development, and direct service. You have attained your masters in social work from San Francisco State University and went on to pursue a qualitative study titled, “Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the United States.” You have been diligently working on the issue of domestic violence within a number of organizations. In 2015, you founded Sahiyo, an internationally recognized, award-winning organization, to empower Asian communities to end female genital cutting. You sit on the inaugural Steering Committee to end female genital cutting with the U.S. End FGM/C Network. In Massachusetts, you work with The Women’s Bar Association to pass state legislation that would ban FGC and create education and outreach programs for survivors. The Manhattan Young Democrats named you 2017 Engendering Progress Honoree and ABC News did a special feature on you. You have been a prolific writer in fiction and nonfiction essays and short stories that have appeared on NPR, The Huffington Post, the Fair Observer, and a number of credible publications. 

Mariya, the first time that I spoke about FGC with a group of friends I experienced a sense of relief. It was almost cathartic, but I also sensed disbelief, despair, and huge discomfort. There are those who have perhaps never heard of this practice, then there are those who have heard but choose not to speak about it, and then there are those, like us, who have lived through this. So if we can begin today by you just defining for us what in fact is female genital cutting?

 

Mariya: Sure, well, thank you, Farzana, so much for inviting me to speak and for that wonderful introduction. And, this is an incredibly important topic for me as well, as you have spoken a bit about my background. It is also one because I grew up in it, and I underwent it myself when I was seven years old. I wanted to just give that context first before I explain what female genital cutting is because I think it is important to recognize that many girls who have undergone it actually don’t know what they have undergone or even realize that what they have undergone is female genital cutting, or another term that it’s referred to as is female genital mutilation, but for the purposes of our conversation I will tend to refer to it as female genital cutting or FGC. 

So, according to the World Health Organization, female genital cutting involves all procedures involving cutting or removal of part [or all] of the external female genitalia for nonmedical reasons. There are various forms of it. The World Health Organization has actually categorized it into 4 types, but each of these types are very broad in itself. So, type 1 is something that usually involves cutting or excision of the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, but it is very broad and could also include removal of all of the clitoral hood and also part of the clitoris. Type 2, which is considered more severe, involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora – so it’s the inner and outer lips of the female genitalia. Type 3 is narrowing of the vaginal orifice by creation of a covering seal, so it is generally the most severe form. It is also known as infibulation, and it can involve removing all of the labia minora and labia majora as well. Then there is type four which is considered the “other” category, and this is really something that involves anything that doesn’t fit in types 1 through 3 which can be pricking, piercing, cauterizing. Those are the 4 broad categories defined by the World Health Organization. Just to give you a little more information of the statistics that we have on female genital cutting, about 90% of women and girls who undergo it undergo types 1 and 2. So, type 3 which is the most severe form only really accounts for about 10% globally, and I think that is really important to recognize, too. 

Farzana: Sure, Mariya, you know when I started to follow Sahiyo, I also got acquainted with a lot of survivor stories, and some of these stories resonated, and I could identify completely. For most of us, the impression that I gathered was that it happens between the ages of 7 and 9. It’s almost something that is led on by either your grandmother, or an aunt, or your mother. The backdrop is a dilapidated dimly lit building where an elderly aunt answers the door and performs the practice. Immediately after that, there is a celebration. While the survivor has gone through an incredible amount of pain, confusion, and almost a sense of betrayal. However, as I went on to read and follow Sahiyo over the years I learned that this practice isn’t skewed to a community or culture, but in fact is being practiced around the world, in many geographies, by indigenous communities. How right is that assessment?

Mariya: That’s correct. What’s interesting is that when people have heard of female genital mutilation/cutting, they have often heard of it in relation to it happening within the African context or amongst African diaspora communities. It’s a myth actually that it only happens within African communities or contexts. I think what you’re bringing up is the opposite because of where you grew up knowing this is something that happens within South Asian communities and the Dawoodi Bohra community, which is the community we both grew up in, but it wasn’t publicly acknowledged that it happened within this community. 

I think that the stories you are describing are very typical of the stories that we hear from survivors who have experienced it within the Bohra community, but there are elements that also ring true for survivors from various different communities. One of the reasons Sahiyo engages in storytelling, and a lot of work is around collecting stories and making this subject that was for so long known as taboo come out into the public, so that we are recognizing that it is okay to talk about that. It’s important to talk about that, to share your stories, and to recognize that there [are] a multitude of stories out there. So, we have heard the stories of girls who are taken by their mothers or aunts under false pretenses, and the dilapidated building you spoke about is an element of a story we hear girls who have gone to Mumbai and had it done often talk about. But, we have also had stories of girls who have been taken to health care professionals and had it [done]. We have other stories of girls who are older and have had it [done]. In the Bohra community it’s typically done around 7 to 9, but globally it’s done in many different communities. There is evidence now that it’s being performed in over 92 countries globally, and it can be done anywhere from birth to adolescence. Even adult women undergo it. So it’s very much a global issue. It is found in every continent of the world, except for Antarctica. It’s something that just in the last few years that we are really recognizing how global it is. 

Farzana: It’s interesting you say that, Mariya, because in one of the surveys I was reading on one of your webinars there was mention that there was research done with 400 women where about 80% of them said that they had undergone FGC and 81% of them, in fact, said that they would not want it to continue, and they wouldn’t do this practice on their own daughters. Then why is it that we still see the prevalence of this practice?

Mariya: That’s a good question. Sahiyo, one of the first things we did when we came together, was we realized that we needed to do a larger scale study to understand how prevalent it was in the Dawoodi-Bohra community. Previous to that there were a couple of small-scale studies, but we wanted to do something to get a larger number. We did this small study where we had women who grew up in the Bohra community globally take part, and we had over 400 women take part in it. About the statistics you referred to, we analyzed, I think, about 384 women’s data after we collected it all. We found that, out of that number, 80% of the women had undergone FGC, which confirmed for us that it was prevalent. That’s something that we anecdotally knew but didn’t have evidence. We also found that 81% said they did not want it to continue onto the next generation. That was surprising to us, and, at the same time though, what it made us realize is that female genital cutting, or khatna as it is called in the Dawoodi Bohra community, is a social norm – meaning it has been justified in all these ways, and that one way in which it is continuing is that, because it has been justified, there’s a sense of belief that even if you don’t want it to continue, you think others in your community are continuing it, so it is being continued. There’s a term in psychology called pluralistic ignorance, and that is basically what we found happening, and part of it was because nobody was talking about this. And if nobody is talking about this then, of course, nobody knows that people are suffering the physical, sexual, emotional consequences of undergoing this. People don’t know that other people don’t want it to continue. So, the first step in terms of combating that pluralistic ignorance is storytelling. It’s coming out in the open. It’s speaking about that, and that’s really the basis of our work and why we do storytelling was because of that research, because we found that there was this huge population that didn’t want it to continue, so we were like how do we break the silence. So that’s really our theory of change; that’s what we recognize and need to work towards. 

Farzana: That’s very, very interesting, again, Mariya, because I personally believe that these kinds of practices go back institutionally in terms of legitimizing fear. There is a shame around it, as well, that makes it difficult for people to have conversations on this. In fact, we are discouraged– systematically discouraged– to have any kind of discourse. What I also found interesting is the reference you made in terms of it being more than just a physical violation, because primarily this practice, that does come across as a violation of physical well being, but, in fact, is almost like an onion peel where there are so many layers that you can keep peeling and those are so deeply entrenched with fear, with purity culture, patriarchy, gender roles, promiscuity, shame. It’s, therefore, so important to be able to see this with a much wider prism, more holistically. This is not just a physical violation, but an emotional violation. It’s a mental violation. In your experience of working with survivors, what do you believe is one of the biggest challenges to overcome?

Mariya: That’s such an important question, but a very hard question. I think it’s important to also recognize that the repercussions of FGC vary from survivor to survivor. Of the stories that I have heard, personally, through our blog and in support groups, I think what I always come away with is the emotional impact that it has regardless of a person’s background, the severity they have undergone, how they underwent it – that emotional impact is something that lasts a lifetime. It comes across in many different ways: we have stories from women who don’t remember being cut, which is actually very common, because with trauma, the way your brain protects you, it switches it off. We have had stories of women who do not remember they were cut, and, sometimes, until somebody else told them they were cut, didn’t even realize it. But in determining that information it’s almost like going through PTSD again, too, and for some women it is almost like piecing together pieces of a puzzle. They are recognizing or wondering if certain impacts on their sexual lives are a part of it. It is something that, unfortunately, there’s not enough research around the sexual impact, particularly amongst Type I, we don’t really know. But, again, sexuality is very much connected to your emotional state and to your mind. So that’s one thing across communities and individuals that I come away with is that emotional impact. But, again, this is something that affects people physically, sexually, in many different ways. It’s important to recognize every survivor is going through their own journey in terms of what they are dealing with. 

Farzana: You know, in my case, if I could just use my reference, just for a few minutes here. Perhaps this analogy will sound a bit absurd, but I will go with this analogy. It’s like childbirth: you forget the physical pain, because the emotional sense is so heightened with joy. Similarly here, the physical pain is forgotten. I don’t remember the pain, but the sense of deceit at the hands of my mother has been huge. But again, I completely recognize that my mother came from a generation that was less educated, less informed, less encouraged, perhaps not encouraged at all to speak their mind. But again, it is the same woman who today hasn’t enforced on me or has expressed those views for me to practice it on my daughter. So I do believe there is a huge hope of change, and because Sahiyo is so dedicated to ending FGC. In your opinion, how far are we from the day that this is something that we won’t see happen? I know you don’t have a crystal ball but…[laughs]

Mariya: Social change takes time, it takes a lot of work. There is a lot of work to still be done, but…

Farzana: How far perhaps– sorry to interrupt– if perhaps you could tell us how far have you come from the time that you started?

Mariya: I want to recognize also that there have been women and researchers even within the Bohra community that have been bringing this to the world’s attention prior to Sahiyo, as well. I want to also just acknowledge the women from past generations and men from other communities that have been working on this topic in various cultures and communities, too. Just to recognize that is something that’s been ongoing and there has been a lot of amazing important work being done for decades. Having said that, I do think that we have seen a lot of progress in the last five years, as well, in terms of acknowledging that this happens within many Asian countries and communities. And that is something we are seeing from the largest levels from looking at systematically, even looking at the UN in terms of measuring FGM/C. There is something called the Sustainable Development Goals which have come out from the UN. The Sustainable Development Goals are a framework which every country who signs onto the SDGs they are responsible for making progress towards those goals. Then there’s SDG number 5 which is specific to FGC and decreasing FGC globally. I am bringing that up because prior to the Sustainable Development Goals, there was a platform called the Millennium Development Goals that was a similar framework towards measuring achievement towards various social ills globally. Within the MDGs they did have a target to decrease FGC globally, but it was only amongst what they considered relevant countries, so countries that had prevalence rates, which was mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. So at that time, it was only amongst, I think 29 or 30 countries. The SDGs, this new framework, actually accounts for the fact that it is global. It is no longer just counting the estimates within those 29-30 countries, it’s actually globally. It’s a huge, huge deal because it’s recognition that this is a global issue. That is progress within itself. I just want to mention that in terms of the highest levels. 

In terms of the lower level, the communities and individuals, we are hearing more stories. More survivors are sharing their stories. More people are coming out to publicly say we shouldn’t do this. That’s huge, and I do think that we are getting to that tipping point that we need. There’s research that shows once you get 25% of a community to reach a certain tipping point, that’s when you see change within social norms. I feel like we are getting to that tipping point. I want to recognize that I don’t think that– I want to be hopeful that it ends in my lifetime. But, I also want to recognize that change is happening, and I think we need to celebrate that change and those small wins along the way. 

Farzana: Sure, of course. Legislatively, what does it look like? Are more and more countries warming up to the idea of putting a ban to this practice? Is that something that is a huge hurdle to cross?

Mariya: That is. I think legislation is important because it is a framework in which countries can, and it is a tool you can use for prevention. We are seeing more and more countries passing legislation. Within the U.S., it’s a very long story, but our federal statute was actually challenged, and so our Congress is working on a stronger piece of legislation. Individual states have been working on state laws. So, that has been amazing to see the past few years. Within Africa, most countries have it banned. It’s challenging within Asia. That is because Asia has only recently come on the map in terms of FGC being performed, and it is a very different circumstance where it is actually protected in various countries. We are seeing people challenging those social norms and that legislation. In India, we are seeing groups working towards passing a state law and are really urging the Supreme Court in India to have a ban on FGC. In that context it’s being challenged as, ‘Are we protecting girls from harm versus a religious minority right?’ You’re seeing different challenges, but you’re seeing overall that the conversation at a global level is increasing. Again, that is a first step in the right direction. 

Farzana: Apart from [countries in] Africa, are there any other countries that have gone ahead and banned the practice?

Mariya: Yeah, there are many countries that have laws against it. I don’t know off the top of my head the number. But, for instance, in Europe there are many countries that have legislation against FGC, recognizing that it happens in various countries there. Australia does as well. There was a court case that really brought it to light a few years ago. There’s attempts to strengthen the legislation within Australia, too. It is something that you are seeing in many different countries.

Farzana: In one of the stories that led me to further read was khatna [as FGC is called in the Bohra community] packages, travel packages. It was almost as if you could do a khatna tour. So if it was a practice that was forbidden in the country of residence, you could actually take a trip down to India for four to five days, have this practice done, and then come back again. So that was extremely disturbing to know that they were actually selling it is a package for tourists. 

Mariya: I had not heard of the khatna packages, but it is very common to hear. There’s a term I don’t really like using, but it’s vacation cutting: the idea that girls are taken to various countries and countries of origin to have their FGC done. It sounds like this is the khatna package that you have heard of.

Farzana: Yes, yes, that’s right. 

Mariya: I wasn’t aware of that term, but it can be more complicated than that, too. In my circumstance, it wasn’t that my parents took me to India to have it done, specifically. It was that we went to India to visit relatives and it was the summer that I was 7 that it happened. But it is a growing concern that, as countries are creating laws and policies, that might be a repercussion or unintended consequence that they might be taken to other countries. There also are laws. For instance, in the U.S., there is a vacation cutting provision, where if a girl is taken out with the intention to have that done in another country, a person can still be prosecuted. So that’s one thing to be aware of. As we are talking about legislation in general, I think law is an important framework, but I dont think law alone will end this practice. I do think it is really important to recognize that we need community education. We need to work in a very multi-sectoral approach. We are really looking at changing against social norms, and you really need to have community dialogue and education. It is much more important than legislation, but legislation does help to reinforce that something is not acceptable within a community. But, it is really that changing of a mindset that is what we are trying to do. 

Farzana: I completely agree. I think it becomes even more incumbent upon us to be able to come out and share these stories. Change can only come out if there are conversations happening around it. We have got to somehow muster up enough courage to share our stories and hopefully that should bring change. Mariya, you also touched upon something that I have questioned several times, and that is the role of men. How important is the role of men in this practice of FGC? 

Mariya: Involving men is very important, and something Sahiyo really tries to do, as well. We really look at FGC as a community issue, and we are really trying to show that FGC affects obviously the survivor, the women who undergo FGC, but it also affects the entire community. Particularly, we have stories from men who talk about hearing how it impacted their mothers. We have stories from men who have talked about how it impacted their wife and their own marital relationship. We have stories from brothers who have talked about learning that it happened to their sister and wondering if that is part of what divided them in terms of their relationship. It is something that we need to recognize as a community. We have to come together to work to make sure nobody is harmed – future daughters, future sisters, future mothers are protected from this form of gender-based violence, which can impact their lives in many different ways throughout their lives. It’s something that we work very hard to make sure that men’s voices are heard, that they are allies, and that they also are sharing their stories. Particularly, for a very long time within the Bohra community (and this isn’t true for every community, but is in an element that you find often). But for a long time within the Bohra community, men were not aware of this issue or it was something that was considered a women’s issue. That is changing. I think it is changing because of social media, because of technology, because people are just talking about it more, and, so now, in the younger generation, everybody knows about this issue now, it seems like. That’s a huge cultural shift, too, where you see, just a decade ago, men not being very aware of this to now recognizing that men are aware and can be allies and help protect future generations. 

Farzana: And that’s reassuring. Again, here if I can use an anecdote of my personal story where my father was an extremely protective father. He was extremely careful about the way that we were brought up. But, this was one of those issues where he was almost sidelined by my aunt, by the women in the family, because this was something that men did not get into. Like I said, systematically this is devised to be so patriarchal in nature, and that’s why it’s thriving. It’s also sprinkled with fear. It’s almost, you can’t be questioning the establishment and, therefore, you can’t be questioning the practice. That, I think, is intrinsically one of the reasons men don’t know enough about it, don’t know about it at all, and those who know about it perhaps couldn’t say very much. But, it is reassuring to know that’s changing because that is important. They are also stakeholders in this process of change. 

Mariya: I agree. 

Farzana: Mariya, we possibly cannot reflect on the times we are living in, which is the pandemic. It is really, really disheartening when one reads that across the world we are seeing a huge surge in domestic violence during this period of lockdown. There are some estimates that the UN has put out saying they are expecting about 31 million new cases to emerge if the lockdown continues another six months. That’s a hugely staggering number. How does FGC fit within the spectrum of the pandemic?

Mariya: That’s a great question. I was actually listening to a webinar the other day and right now it seems like there might be a difference in terms of the impact of COVID within African communities and amongst Asian communities. I think last week even there was a headline that came out with some initial findings from an organization in Somalia. FGC had increased significantly there because people were at home, so they were taking advantage of the fact that girls were not at school, so they would have the time to heal. Cutters were going door to door. Their economic well-being depended on this business, so they were looking to see if they could cut girls. So you are hearing that happen. Anecdotally within Asia, you’re not hearing that as much. The speakers on the webinar, one of them was my fellow co-founder Aarefa (I should mention I co-founded Sahiyo with four other women) – so, Aarefa was on that webinar and me and her have had some conversations on this issue about what we have been hearing. Anecdotally, we are not hearing an increase of FGC amongst the Bohra community at this time. I think there might be several reasons. One part might be that it tends to be more medicalized now, and so as hospitals and health care professionals are overwhelmed with COVID, that’s sort of becoming secondary. But also the fact that within the Bohra community it doesn’t have to happen at seven. Seven is sort of the minimum age, so people could potentially be waiting a few months, or however long, to have it done. A couple of the other guest speakers from countries within Asia were saying that they feel it might be being postponed, too. I think within Asia, too, we do see it happen as a more medicalized version, and we do see Type 1 and Type 2 much more often than we see Type 3. Again, there is no official high level data on this, but anecdotally it might be actually halted right now due to the pandemic. So it’s interesting to see the difference in how it is emerging amongst different continents. I think we will really see the impacts after the pandemic is over and once we are really able to collect more data on this. What I do want to say though, is even if the prevalence rate might be different, the fact that there’s survivors seeking out support – that is something that is having a huge impact right now. Sahiyo has had a few support groups and some of the things that we are hearing is the sheltering in place, the pandemic type atmosphere that we are having is actually triggering some trauma responses by being in lockdown, and feeling like having a lack of control. And the fact that it’s harder to seek out support right now in terms of mental health professionals or being able to chat with others. That is an impact that we are seeing, in terms of being able to receive services if you need it, as a survivor. 

Farzana: Yes, this pandemic has been unprecedented for many reasons and this is something perhaps that if we can reach out with more and more stories hopefully we will be able to give comfort. Mariya, we can go on, but I am also cognizant that we have a time limit. Thank you so much for doing this. Kudos to your team, to you, for having done such wonderful work. May you continue to make a difference, change lives, and hopefully come to that point in our lifetimes where we could probably see the end to this practice. If I can just end the conversation on a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”

Mariya: That’s a wonderful quote to end with. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Farzana: Thank you, I really appreciate this. Thank you so much.

Part II–Medicalising khatna within the Bohra community: A Struggle of Tradition and Modernity

By Fatema Kakal

(This is Part II in a series about female genital cutting within the Bohra community. Read Part I here.)

While religion and religious leaders, along with culture and tradition can be drivers of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), law can play an additional critical role in disincentivizing khatna. The arrests in the U.S. and Australia due to the medicalisation of FGM/C, led to the reiteration of laws in countries that prohibited FGM/C. Laws in many countries around the world critique FGM/C as a human rights violation and child abuse. While some consider these laws to be racist, this leads to a feeling of marginalization and alienation due to the attack on traditional and cultural value systems. People became more conscious of the laws, and began reconsidering khatna, because of the risks involved. These laws helped initiate dialogue and discourse.

The Bohras are a fairly progressive and modern community, where traditions are not separate from their modernity, but play a crucial role in consolidating their Bohra identity. Continuing khatna defies Western notions of modernity and embraces tradition. Instead of abandoning tradition, the Bohras are renegotiating the traditional practice and embrace modernity through medicalising khatna. Medicalisation is a tool to modernize and legitimize khatna, but also serves as a technique for social control. By supporting medicalisation, validated by modernity, and establishing khatna as a safe and religious practice, the clergy is reinventing and perpetuating khatna as a traditional practice, responding to external pressures that threatened to marginalize or alienate the Bohras. The clergy is thus reiterating and reinforcing Bohra identity as being one of modernity and tradition.

Thus, khatna was no longer taboo, and a growing discourse has led to people taking increasingly different positions, and making more conscious decisions about continuing the practice. While mothers and women of the family used to be primary decision-makers of continuing khatna for the daughters of the family, fathers are increasingly involved in making the decision. It is no longer an extremely hidden practice, and parents do research before making the decision whether or not to cut their daughters. While some people follow mandates by religious leaders, others find it important to follow the law. People are conscious of the potential harm. For the devout, tradition must be followed, but by ensuring that harm is minimized. They choose to visit medical professions for khatna. For others, the risks of khatna outweigh its religious importance, and they have decided to abandon the practice. For others, consent is crucial, and believe khatna requires a girl’s consent. Since children are incapable of giving informed consent, people believe their daughters can choose to undergo the procedure as an adult, thereby making an informed decision.

Thus, the religious clergy’s pastoral power plays an important role in influencing people’s decision to continue khatna. Medicalisation of FGM/C can help negotiate embracing tradition and modernity. However, law also plays an important role in helping end the practice. The growing discourse around the practice has led to people making informed, conscious decisions about following khatna. FGM/C is conceptualized as a health and human rights issue, and a children’s rights issue, which is universal.

Thus, efforts against FGM/C should be focused on balancing universalization of children’s rights, human rights, and multiculturalism. Additionally, law plays a crucial role, because legislation can provide a universal stance against the practice, which can be used as a strong justification against it. Thus, community-wide change is required for individual families to abandon FGM/C, through education and activism from within the community, backed by law.

Reflections on the Voices alumni COVID-19 storytelling workshop

By Lara Kingstone

Sahiyo held a StoryCenter-led COVID-19 storytelling session for Voices To End FGM/C alumni in May. The session was created to continue building community online and offer a space for women to share their stories during the pandemic. 

This workshop was designed to be an informal and relaxed space for those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). By sharing lived experiences during the time of COVID-19, we sought to provide a space where these women could express emotion, thoughts and questions to a sisterhood of nonjudgmental ears. I was reminded, as I am in so many of the spaces created by women, how unbelievably resilient we are even now. Participants shared stories of their lives and I was blown away by the resilience, grit and sustained strength these women exhibited.

It must be noted that this session was held days after the shameless murder of George Floyd, as protests against police brutality and hundreds of years of structural racism began to spark. 

It was incredible, speaking to women from different locations in the world, in different kinds of quarantines, some with families, some alone. We all are experiencing this chapter differently, but share common threads. 

Multiple participants spoke to the experience of being overwhelmed, angry and uncertain. 

The content spoken about during this session was confidential, but themes of frustration with the flawed systems in the United States continued to rise.

Trauma has come up for a lot of people in the past few weeks, and months as well. We need to consistently allow ourselves time to reflect, and vent and process. I’m so grateful that part of Sahiyo’s work is creating these opportunities for healing.

How I learned female genital mutilation is happening in India

By Thirupurasundari Sevvel

Country of Residence: India 

How do I start? How do I explain my first realization that there is a practice called female genital mutilation? It was a typical day. During my master’s program in France, I was working with a couple of my friends talking about so many different random things. The topic shifted to sexuality, human rights, and how the female body is viewed. I said as long as the female body is looked at as property or a commodity, the problem won’t be solved. Everyone wants to take ownership. Anyone can talk about bodies or sexuality. They can try to shut us inside the doors of the world. But what we as women do with our bodies is in our hands. 

“What if that essense of your body is taken from you?” a friend asked. “What if there is a sense of ugliness thrusted inside your mind about being sexual, and your sexual organ is scrapped and sewed up?”

Silence filled the room.

That’s how I learned about female genital mutilation. It was shocking to realize it is happening in India. I realized it has actually happened to someone I personally know, but someone who was defending the practice and saying, this is our culture and it’s not wrong. It was shocking that something I thought was happening in different parts of the world, has happened in the state I lived in. The friendship with her became strained because she felt I was talking against her religion, her faith, her family, and her community. For a second I thought–am I doing something wrong, am I intruding on someone’s faith? But her sister gave me another point of view of how it affected her emotionally, and I started meeting other women. That’s when I understood. It was social conditioning at play–being made to believe it is right and has to be done. There has been a lot of backlash, but even if one child could be spared or saved–the struggle would be worth it. 

My friend has a daughter now and has taken a stand that she won’t do it to her. Our friendship isn’t public anymore since her family feels I am the reason for her becoming a rebel. When will they understand that it is a human rights violation? 

In 2015, I started doing storytelling for adults and children on the topics of body positivity, FGM, the human body, understanding the body, and consent in the Tamil language. This is a very small way to create awareness and a basic step to change the social construct and mindset. The storytelling resonated with a lot of participants. We realized many wanted some time to talk to someone who could listen without judgment.

When we have a discussion, we start with this quotation from the book Desert Flower by Waris Dirie, who is a Somali model, author, actress, and human rights activist in the fight against FGM, and let each participant share points on what they feel about it. I feel that God made my body perfect the way I was born. Then man robbed me, took away my power, and left me a cripple. My womanhood was stolen. If God had wanted those body parts missing, why did he create them? I just pray that one day no woman will have to experience this pain. It will become a thing of the past. People will say, “Did you hear, female genital mutilation has been outlawed in Somalia?” Then the next country, and the next, and so on, until the world is safe for all women. What a happy day that will be, and that’s what I’m working toward. In’shallah, if God is willing, it will happen.

The impact of organizations, books, movies, videos, social media campaigns, study materials, and awareness posters is huge. The problem is that it’s a secretive ritual. As children, they may also think that it happens to every girl, or they may try to block the painful memory.

Sahiyo, which means female friend, started to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution toward ending FGM. The materials, information, and stories shared created a lot of change and awareness. A video that came out in 2018 of three firsthand accounts of khata in India created an impact on social media. The work of Masooma Ranalvi, an FGM survivor and activist from India, founder of WeSpeakOut, has also created a lot of ripples and change. In February 2019, a group of women from the community urged political parties in India to take steps to end FGM in their community and made the issue part of their poll manifestos. 

The collective works of these organizations and individual voices can put an end to this practice. There may not be many official records about FGM in India, but that does not mean it is not happening. It is a practice everyone should be against so that the girl children from the next generation do not undergo FGM. Speaking up is the only way forward.