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.

Forced Clitoridectomies on Athletes

By Masuma Kothari

(Several female athletes have been coerced to undergo partial clitoridectomies to participate in competitive sports. Read about female genital cutting (FGC) in sports here.)

“Let me try to feel this, as if I was you.

As a child I am embellished a rosy world of toys
which could draw up to any passerby without a doubt
what I am.

I grow fast and in symphony my speed at running, too,
adapts, I lean toward the world of athletics and
fitness treats.

I am changing, there are things happening to me,
fine hair shows up where they never were,
softer and fuller I feel,
I start to menstruate.

I definitely know what I am.

My emotions attract me toward wonderful boys,
They lure me into fantasies rolling up my eye.

I definitely know what I am.

All along I perform well, I score medals
after medals, I get noticed with victory bells

I get trained, I sit among the best runners,
my mind shifts into a resilient achiever with thick endurance,
representing every honour, I win all my fears
and I run like a cheetah after his dinner.

I still definitely know what I am.

What more evidence do you need,
I may be gifted
I may look testerone high
but how can you disregard
all that I have?

I am faced with a choice at
the time of my youth
the time when I am bleeding
to reach my dreams from root
Simply put, I have more courage
than being wise
so
I sit under the knife
And now you tell me if that is nice?”

FGM/C in sports: Why some female athletes are being coerced into partial clitoridectomy

By Zahra Qaiyumi 

Imagine you are a professional female athlete who is told that you must agree to undergo a partial clitoridectomy in order to continue participating in your sport. This might sound like a far-fetched scenario, but due to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy, this is a reality for some hyperandrogenic athletes. Partial clitoridectomy falls under the classification of female genital mutilation/cutting (FMG/C), a practice that is recognized internationally as a violation of the rights of girls and women. 

Hyperandrogenism is characterized by high levels of testosterone in females. Individuals with hyperandrogenism often present with an enlarged clitoris, excess hair growth, acne, and decreased breast size, among other characteristics. High testosterone levels can be caused by many different conditions, including polycystic ovarian syndrome and androgen-secreting tumors. 

Testosterone levels have caused long-standing controversy in the realm of professional athletics. Many believe that higher than average testosterone provides some female athletes with an unfair competitive advantage. One olympian, South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, has been at the center of this debate in recent years. Semenya, 29, has attempted to appeal a new policy regulating the testosterone levels of female middle-distance runners by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) with little success thus far. The policy mandates that female athletes with differences in sex development (hyperandrogenism) must demonstrate a testosterone level of less than 5 nmol/L. This value must be maintained for a period of time before and during international competition in order to remain eligible. 

By enacting this policy, the IAAF is equating elevated androgen production with athletic advantage. The reality, however, is that there is no universally agreed upon scientific evidence that establishes a relationship between excess endogenous androgen production, or androgens that are produced naturally by the body, and athletic advantage in female athletes.

The IAAF’s policy, although controversial, does not require or recommend any surgical alteration of the bodies of female athletes. However, similar regulations enacted in years past have lead to unintended consequences, such as coercion into FGM/C. In 2014, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also established a policy to regulate hyperandrogenism in female athletes. The IOC’s policy mandates that national Olympic committees “actively investigate any perceived deviation in sex characteristics.” This investigation includes observation of the athlete’s genitals by doping officers while providing a urine sample. If an enlarged clitoris is observed, this counts against the athlete as a perceived deviation in sex characteristics. 

The IOC policies surrounding hyperandrogenism have caused unintended outcomes as countries attempt to comply with the rules. Most notably, medical procedures were performed on four young female athletes who were found to have hyperandrogenism. The procedures performed included a partial clitoridectomy and gonadectomy (in this case given the underlying condition, removal of the testes). The gonadectomy procedure resulted in the removal of a part of the body that produces androgens, thus technically serving the IOC’s goal to regulate hyperandrogenism. However, the partial clitoridectomy did not serve any medical purpose, and in no way related to actual or perceived athletic advantage. 

As stated earlier, partial clitoridectomy is a form of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Performing the procedure on these four young women is antithetical to the decades-long mission to end FGM/C globally, which has been addressed by the World Health Organization. In terms of its impact on the individual, partial clitoridectomy has the potential to cause life-long biological and psychological consequences, including damage to sexual sensation and function for these athletes. Notably, the athletes were perfectly healthy before this procedure was performed and were in compliance with the IOC’s policies regarding cheating and doping. 

The IOC and IAAF policies regarding hyperandrogenism, though not meant to undermine medical recommendations, have put some female athletes in danger of undergoing unnecessary clitoridectomy. Many countries take the loosely-worded policy and create country-specific guidelines for compliance. This leads to the policing of young female athletes and placing pressure on them to undergo unnecessary procedures such as the partial clitoridectomy, which is a human rights violation.

Why are we doing this? A Thaal pe Charcha participant questions female genital cutting

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: India

Age: 32

I have been part of the Sahiyo Thaal Pe Charcha group meetings for a while and have found it an eye-opening concept. The more I’ve been involved, I’ve become more aware of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). In the first meeting, I came to know it as a social stigma that we women face due to misguided traditions. Knowing that more people support the cause made me feel a bit more confident to talk about it. Hearing about the issue of FGM/C made me more aware that people blindly do it because their familes do it. Some of them may do it out of fear and for the approval of society.

During the recent February meeting we were shown a movie, A Girl from Mogadishu, based on the life of a Somalian FGM/C survivor and activist, Ifrah Ahmed. Her whole life she believed the tradition of FGM/C needed to be followed, as her ancestors did the same, so she never questioned it. But migration opened her eyes to the fact that what happened to her was not right. She did not deserve to suffer pain just because her society carried this practice for centuries blindly.

I, myself, find a lot of people like my family and friends who are afraid to ask the questions: Why are we doing this? Is it necessary to hurt a girl in childhood? That psychological wound is so deep and may never be healed.

No one can remember their childhood memories perfectly, but when something painful happens for some, it’s impossible to forget. I really want more people to share their experiences, come out of denial and support the cause to pledge to not let the next generation or anyone undergo the same pain they, themselves, might have undergone.

How COVID-19 may increase gender-based violence, including FGM/C

The UNFPA and UNICEF Joint Program on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) released a technical note about how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect women and girls adversely in regard to violence and inequalities. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to allow an additional two million cases of FGM/C due to restricted movement and confinement of people globally, disrupting the Sustainable Development Goal 5.3: Eliminating FGM/C by 2030. The closing of schools, restricted mobility and the inevitability of health care workers prioritizing COVID-19 patients heightens the need for supporting community-based women and youth groups identifying at-risk girls vulnerable to violence, including FGM/C.

The brief is meant as a guide for UNFPA and UNICEF Joint Program staff and partners, other United Nations agencies, governments, civil society, and non-governmental organizations, on how to assess the impact COVID-19 may have on FGM/C programs. The call to action includes integrating FGM/C in COVID-19 preparedness and response plans; access to prevention, protection, and care services and community-based protection; alternative approaches to community-based interventions promoting the abandonment of FGM/C; opportunities presented by the pandemic; and adaptive monitoring and evaluation.

 

Sahiyo Partner Organization Highlight: StoryCenter

StoryCenter creates spaces for transforming lives and communities, through the acts of listening to and sharing stories as a vehicle for education, community mobilization, and advocacy. Since 1993, they have helped over 20,000 individuals tell their stories. They collaborate with organizations around the world on workshops in story facilitation, digital storytelling, and other forms of participatory media production. In 2018, Sahiyo, in partnership with StoryCenter, launched an inaugural digital storytelling workshop. Nine women’s stories have since elevated the conversation about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in the U.S. and globally. The stories were distributed online and via media channels, as well as at live community screening events. They are being used as educational tools to support discussion among survivors within their communities, with a focus on challenging the social norms sanctioning FGM/C, and encouraging an end to the practice. Sahiyo is honored to have Amy Hill, StoryCenter’s Silence Speaks director, partner with Sahiyo on the Voices to End FGM/C project to expand the number of digital stories since the first 2018 workshop.

1) When and how did you and your organization first get involved with Sahiyo?

I first met Mariya when she attended a digital storytelling workshop I was leading with alumni of the Women’s Foundation of California’s Women’s Policy Institute in 2017. She produced a stunning video about her own journey of sharing her female genital cutting story, as part of her advocacy efforts against the practice. I had always been interested in doing work on the topic as part of our global women’s rights efforts, and I felt that Mariya, with her focus on personal storytelling as method for breaking the silence, ending stigma, and building leadership among women for speaking out against FGM/C, would be the perfect collaborating partner. I approached her, and together, we put on a pilot digital storytelling workshop for women survivors of FGM/C. It was a deeply powerful experience for everyone involved. I think even Mariya and I were a little surprised by how effective StoryCenter’s core methodology in digital storytelling was, for working with this issue.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo and StoryCenter as a joint partnership involve?

Our first digital storytelling workshop grew into a global effort called Voices to End FGM/C, which brings survivors and advocates from practicing communities together to share stories and craft them into short digital videos as a way of building nurturing, healing relationships and solidarity, and mobilizing the storytellers to become further involved in efforts to address and prevent cutting. So far we’ve done a total of four digital storytelling workshops: three in person, and one fully online, to create a collection of more than 40 poignant and compelling short videos. Mariya and I have co-facilitated all of the workshops, and Sahiyo has done a brilliant job of continuing to engage with the storytellers afterward. They’ve written blog postings about the storytelling experience, made presentations at public screenings and conferences and more. Sahiyo’s skill in getting the stories out into the world is almost unparalleled in my 20-year history of work at StoryCenter. They are very sophisticated with social media outreach and have been able to bring a lot of media attention to the stories, which is exciting. 

Voices23

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your own organization’s work?

Speaking of social media, StoryCenter helps people create amazing content that can be circulated widely online and via mobile phones, and yet our main focus has typically been not on distribution, but on putting together and facilitating participatory media workshops that truly enhance the wellbeing of storytellers. While all of my work has focused explicitly on how stories can be useful in the world for creating change, it’s not the norm for our programs. But the Voices to End FGM/C project has inspired more of our staff to push for innovative ways to publicly circulate stories that come out of our processes, and Sahiyo’s Communications Coordinator even met recently with one of my colleagues who is jump-starting our Instagram presence and was interested in looking at Sahiyo’s approach to featuring the Voices stories as a model. We’ve also joined the U.S. Network to End FGM/C, which is exciting for us to be part of a larger group of individuals and organizations committed to ensuring future generations of girls do not go through what some of our Voices storytellers have endured, as a result of being cut. Our partnership with Sahiyo has evolved so beautifully and organically. I feel that it has helped me trust more than I already did the idea that our work at StoryCenter has to be based on solid human relationships and shared visions for change, rather than on rigid agendas or desires to be successful in a conventional way.

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting StoryCenter, Sahiyo and the movement against FGM/C?

Stories matter. Everyone’s voice is worthy of being heard, and creating spaces where individual perspectives can be aired, where people’s pain can be witnessed, really does build solidarity and is essential to movement-building. FGM/C is a form of trauma; trauma fractures our ability to connect in healthy, intimate ways; and storytelling is a way to repair those rifts, to enable people to find solace and support and strength for the difficult parts of the journey together. 

 

Survivor: Why labia elongation is female genital mutilation

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

By Jenny Cordle

When Comfort Dudzai was 9 years old, her father’s two sisters and her nanny took her and her cousins to her family’s rural home in Chipinge, in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe outside of Harare. In six long weeks the three women taught the girls a combination of lessons on hygiene, virginity and marriage. 

Each morning the group would gather in the forest near hot springs off the Save River for a lesson. One morning the 9-year-olds were taught how to elongate their labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva, arguably one of the most sensitive parts of female anatomy. 

“The men in our culture expect that you have your labia the (length) of your middle finger,” Comfort said. “For the first few sessions, the older ladies actually pull on the labia minora for you.”

Her aunts used their hands and secret herbs for the elongation. “It was a holistic teaching about womanhood, and the labia pulling is just one of the components.” 

There is a myth about the herbal mixture being made of bat wings. 

“It is painful,” Comfort said. “You cannot cry. You endure.” 

Comfort had an allergic reaction to the herbs. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong until I started facing complications,” she said. “I felt safe because these are women I trust and love, and women I know who love me and want the best for me.” 

Comfort’s pain didn’t end with the initial allergic reaction. She had complications with the delivery of her first son as a result of the labia elongation, and eventually had a surgical operation due to many infections. 

Although there are various forms of female genital mutilation/cutting and different classifications in terms of severity, the World Health Organization (WHO) stops short of explicitly listing labia elongation as Type 4, which “includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.”

Labia elongation is encouraged to enhance sexual pleasure not only for men, but for women as well. Whether the prior WHO classification, which actually included “stretching of the clitoris and/or labia,” was altered after two researchers published a study suggesting that Rwandan women experience labia elongation as positive is unclear. 

Types 1-3 classify what can be construed as reductive types of female genital mutilation/cutting. But labia elongation is not considered reductive since nothing is cut away. Instead the labia is pulled during a series of sessions, in what some deem as modification because the process appears to be devoid of violence. Consent is key.

For Comfort, the idea that girls are coerced into altering their genitals for the pleasure of men, and even for themselves, can be psychologically damaging. She is sharing her story to bring awareness to the process and to protect girls in the future. 

“Psychologically, it tells a girl that you’re not enough,” she said. “You need to alter something and there’s something deep about telling a young lady that age that you need to make yourself this way for a man. You’re not good enough. There’s even stories about women who get returned from their marriage — that they need to go and pull that labia longer. It’s very damaging to women. It places the value of the man over the woman.”

Labeling elongation, pulling or stretching as labia modification undermines the harmful effects on girls and connotes agency, whereas in many girls experiences, they aren’t given a choice.

Labia elongation is or has been practiced among groups in several African countries including Benin, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the BBC, it is reportedly happening in the United Kingdom among diaspora communities. 

Comfort (Dondo) Dudzai participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop led by StoryCenter and Sahiyo, and funded by the George Washington School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.