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.

On the path to healing: My journey after experiencing female genital cutting

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Every woman that has been cut has a story to tell. I tell my story not to offer a universal account of female genital cutting (FGC), but one that is specific to me. At a young age, I underwent Type II female genital cutting, known specifically as “taharah” (purification) within the Egyptian community, in which only part of the clitoral hood was removed and partial removal of the labia minora/majora. The taharah took place in Cairo, Egypt, while visiting relatives. This was the second time I visited my parent’s homeland. My parents were unaware, or at least this is what I’d like to believe, of what had occurred, as my sister was in a coma at the time and her prognosis was poor. They agreed that I travel to their homeland with my auntie to avoid the negative effects of witnessing what my sister was going through. My aunties had convinced me that this was a rite of passage, and what I was about to embark on would make me a “woman.” 

One week after arriving in Cairo, my auntie took me to a medical office where a doctor performed the surgery. She remained in the room while I underwent FGC, while my other auntie waited by the phone to hear the “good news.” I have no recollection of the surgery, as I was under anesthesia. However, I awoke to excruciating pain that would last for weeks. I remember my family members visiting to celebrate—bearing money and gifts. Upon returning home my parents realized that something was different about me. Already small-framed, I had lost ten pounds. I notified them of what occurred, and I remember them speaking with my aunties. However, the details of the discussion were unknown to me.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In 2001, while taking a women’s psychology course, I learned that FGC was considered a human rights violation. Students in the class, including those from countries where this was practiced, were surprised and “disgusted” that FGC continued to be practiced. I was taken aback, as I had assumed this was a custom that many practiced. I began opening up to female friends from similar and varying backgrounds. I quickly discovered I was alone in having had it done to me.

I started looking into the practice of FGC and found that there were many factors contributing to the perpetuation of FGC. Some linked it to geographical location, religion, customs, sexuality, marriageability and education. I realized this was a complicated custom that could not simply be thought of as being continued by “ignorant” people. In fact, much of my family are college educated, wealthy, and progressive in terms of religion, and advocate for the rights of women. However, the reasons given for its continuation had been rationalized by them and somehow given cultural significance. I needed answers, and began a long journey that would ultimately lead to my decision to become a social worker, and work with women who have also been cut.

Mapping the Healing Journey

I was left feeling extremely confused, particularly as most of my family had decided to discontinue the practice due to religious reasons (stating that FGC is “haram” or a sin, and is not a “sunnah” or religious obligation. I searched for answers—or perhaps a place where I would feel accepted and learn to accept myself. I immediately reached out to gynecologists, gender violence organizations, and social workers. Much to my dismay, all were unaware of the FGC practice. Gynecologists stared blankly at my genitals stating, “At first glance, it looks intact.” However, they were unsure the extent of the “damage” done. Gender violence organizations stated that they dealt with different forms of gender violence. “This isn’t something we specialize in,” I was told. They referred me to organizations that had more familiarity. However, they were located overseas.

Social workers were unfamiliar with the practice but verbalized their strong beliefs about it. They reacted with words such as “disgusting,” “barbaric,” and “horrific.” They “encouraged” and “empowered” me to advocate for change against the oppressive practice that they assumed was justified by Islam and patriarchal oppression. They also questioned the reasons that parents would allow for such a thing to happen to their little girl. This was extremely difficult to hear given my close relationship with my parents. I walked away feeling judged, ashamed, and defective. For the first time, I began to experience symptoms of depression, which led me to become more embarrassed and secretive about what had occurred. 

Approximately eight years later, while reading a newspaper article, I came across the name of a Sudanese woman who started a grassroots organization for women who have been cut. The only experience I knew was one in which providers gawked at me when I told them what had occurred. I reached out to this woman, and she invited me to dinner to speak on a more personal level. Upon arriving to the restaurant, I was greeted with a warm smile. For the first hour of our meeting, she did not bring up the conversation of FGC. Surprised, I inquired, “So are we going to talk about… you know.” She replied, “When you’re ready, I am here to listen.” For the first time in a long time, I felt acknowledged, understood, accepted, and supported. We all begin our journey of healing somewhere. I am delighted to be a part of the Sahiyo team—and truly look forward to being a part of the healing process for others.

I was impressed with the courage of young women at Sahiyo’s Activist Retreat

By Rashida Rangwala

In March 2019, I attended my second Sahiyo Activist Retreat. For me it was an occasion to meet friends I had made last year at the 2018 retreat, share the progress I had made as an activist over the course of the past year, and demonstrate how much the first retreat had helped me in achieving that progress. My anti-female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) activism has involved talking to reporters and young students ranging in age from high schoolers to college students about the practice of FGM/C in the Bohra community. I have also counseled and educated young mothers and girls on FGM/C and its harmful impact on the girl child. 

I learned at the retreat to take a step back, slow down and listen to the pro-FGM/C people. Don’t make them so angry that they won’t talk to you and you reach a zero communication status. Give them a fair hearing, educate them, dispel misconceptions, break—slowly, but surely—break whatever resistance they have and poke holes in their thinking process until it completely falls apart, until they think for themselves, “Oh, wait a minute, I think I’m not going to do it to my daughter.” Start talking to the mother early and make her strong with knowledge about the harmful impacts of the procedure, so that when her child is seven years old, she makes an informed decision.

I spoke to a high school student that Sahiyo connected me with. She was writing a paper for her school project, interviewed me, and cried a little bit with me when I shared my story with her. I sent her pictures of myself to be used when she made her presentation. In the past, I would only give a name when I shared my story. But I realized that unless you have a picture to associate with the name, people can’t relate to your story on the same personal level. I’m now able to give my picture and have become more public when I share my story, something I didn’t do before the Sahiyo retreat because I was afraid to do so. 

Right at the beginning, on day one of the Sahiyo Retreat, I was happy to see that we had nearly doubled the number of anti-FGM/C activist participants attending the retreat from 11 in 2018 at the first retreat to 21 in 2019. This time around, I had the chance to become acquainted with women from ages 21-28 years old. Talking to them over the course of the 3-days was very insightful. What amazed me was how self aware these young girls were about FGM/C. For me, FGM/C was vague knowledge that was always there in the back of my brain, but these girls knew exactly what had happened to them and were so aware of its consequences and so vocal about sharing their stories and being against it. That was a big insight for me. Perhaps this generational change could be because of social media; it’s in the news. They do have that advantage, which my generation did not. They have more sources of information today,

I was impressed with their courageous resolve to bring about change in thought in the Bohra community. To me, these young women were simply brave souls. Some of these young FGM/C survivors had opened up conversations with their mothers about performing the procedure on them. While others had yet to speak to their mothers about FGM/C, they were in the process of building up the stamina they needed to take up that challenging task. I had a chance to tell them, “Don’t delay it.” It’s too late for me. My mom passed away and I never got to talk to her.

It was amazing to see the collaboration between generations of women at this year’s retreat. We are certainly making progress in creating awareness in our community about how harmful FGM/C is to the girl child and we are bringing about a change in the thought process of the new generation so that they will abandon FGM/C. I am looking forward to the 2020 retreat and how it will spread our message slowly, but organically, one activist at a time. 

The unexpected gift of attending the U.S. Sahiyo Activist Retreat and connecting with other survivors

By Anonymous

The Sahiyo U.S. Activist Retreat I attended in March of 2019 felt big to me. In the days after, I told people it blew me away, meaning that it occupied my thoughts as it was all I could talk about and think about for a while. There were parts of it that felt like group therapy, something I had not expected. I just had not expected how deeply moving it is for someone else to say, “That happened to me, too.” We all know that there is an entire social movement around the #metoo hashtag, but it is more than a hashtag. It felt like when you are doing an exercise, and the teacher comes up to you, adjusts you a little, and then the whole exercise changes. 

Sahiyo Activist Retreat

A lot of the time during the retreat, it felt like someone was reaching inside me and physically shifting an organ or two. For one other woman to say to me “I get a lot of urinary tract infections, too” just made me want to cry. The crazy thing is that other women have said that to me. Tons of friends have said that, but I always remembered thinking, “Ok, but you weren’t cut.” But this time, this one time, when the other woman said it, I suddenly felt a rush of gratitude and warmth and unparalleled comradery. I wasn’t crazy, and if I was, I wasn’t alone in being crazy. I just had no idea how moving it would be to be in a group where I could hear others talk about their experiences, for me to feel normal in being abnormal. 



I had always thought individual therapy was valuable, but I simply had no idea that a group can offer a kind of cathartic experience that is impossible to achieve by yourself. To be honest, I thought group therapy was for people who couldn’t afford individual therapy. But I was completely wrong. They are completely different and utterly valuable in their own ways. If you have been cut, and you are skeptical, and jaded, and private (like me), you can really trust that you can enter this space and never feel pressured to speak. You can speak when you are moved to speak. And even if all you do is listen, it is transformative and life-changing. 

In the weeks since the retreat, it also seems like I have been feeling all the feels. While I was there, it felt like a high. Even in the couple of weeks after it, I was finally openly dealing with a lot that had just been buried. I felt like I grew and stretched. I talked about it more than I ever had. But no matter what, it all still happened, and that can’t be erased. And there are moments I still feel fucked up and uneasy about it all. Maybe that is what I just have to learn — how to hold it all at the same time. 

The complexities of female genital cutting in Singapore: Part IV

Concluding thoughts on the practice in Singapore

By Saza Faradilla

Country of Residence: Singapore

This blog post is the fourth in a four-part series about female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore. This fourth installment provides a final analysis and concrete methods of engaging with discourses on FGC at the individual, community, governmental and international levels. Read part one here. Read part two here. Read part three here

In this research, I have contextualised the type of cut, stakeholders involved, on-going discussions on FGC locally and internationally, and FGC’s hiddenness. I hope this allows for a deeper understanding of the specific and unique type of FGC and the situation surrounding it in Singapore. My discussion of the reasons for FGC in Singapore is also non-exhaustive, but to my interlocutors, cleanliness, religion, tradition, and the control of female sexuality, are some of the most pertinent to their lived experiences. To the best of my ability, I have tried to represent fairly the perspectives and opinions of the various people with whom I spoke. In her book, The Twilight of Cutting, Saida Hodzic accurately pointed out that “differently positioned women take a variety of political positions toward cutting/anti-cutting campaigns, and the larger governance of their lives.” In these concluding paragraphs, I will further explore the continuity of this practice, ways to encourage productive and meaningful discourse about it, as well as policy implications.

Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

FGC has been an unquestioned tradition in Singapore for centuries. I believe we need to place a critical lens on FGC and question the motivations of this practice. While taking into account the possible individual, family and social meanings that have been attributed to FGC, it is also important to question its necessity and impact on a young girl. I end most interviews by asking interlocutors if they think FGC will continue, and 70% of my interlocutors answered in the negative. Conversations about FGC and debates on it have been ignited, and more young parents are questioning the cut’s necessity. Once parental pressure is no longer a factor and this procedure has skipped a generation, FGC will be much harder to revive or continue. Sometimes the type of FGC done in Singapore does not leave visible scars or markings. Those against FGC have said that they know of young parents who choose to say their daughter has been cut even if she hasn’t, and no one is any wiser.

It is also important to take note of the vernacular languages that are used when discussing FGC, and determining the appropriate ways to debate FGC in the Malay community. Currently, the debates on FGC happen amongst specific circles of young Malays who are highly educated. It is important to engage with the older generation and those who may not have access to tertiary education about this practice. It is only in sincere conversations, which aim to listen, engage in dialogue, and not necessarily debate that perspectives will shift. 

When I first found out about the FGC performed on me when I was a baby, and questioned my parents about it, they insisted that it was mandatory and that they did it for my own good. They said FGC was necessary for “religious and health reasons, and so I won’t be adulterous.” These are similar to the reasons my interlocutors shared as well. As I went about my research, and interviewed religious leaders, medical practitioners, and feminist activists, I slowly clarified my parents’ beliefs, and today they no longer see it as mandatory (“though still good to do”), but I do think chipping away at their long-held beliefs has been successful. Similar to my interlocutor’s sharing that the language of female sexuality, children’s rights and consent is foreign or even “Western,” I think it is important that we find the right language and vocabulary to discuss these issues in Malay so that it is more readily accessible.

I hope to see more people and stakeholders engaging in these conversations. In particular, I hope this blog post would encourage medical practitioners, religious leaders, religious bodies and health ministries to enter the conversation about FGC in Singapore. From my ethnography, there are various undercurrents and rumors of the perspectives and policy positions engaged by these stakeholders. For instance, a medical practitioner said that there is a register of doctors who perform it and who have informally agreed to abide by a set of guidelines in order to standardize the procedure. However, neither this guideline nor register is publicly available. Having them come out with actual statements would clear various misconceptions about FGC’s necessity and its health and religious implications. 

I would urge the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to replace the fatwa it removed with a new one, so that religiously, the Muslim community can be assured of the ruling for FGC. The Ministry of Health (MOH) and Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association (MHPA) also have a responsibility to the larger Singapore community to ensure our safety and health. Because all doctors are registered and regulated under MOH, it is up to MOH to determine if FGC is aligned with the medical oath to do no harm. At the same time, it would be interesting to find out the positionality of medical practitioners performing FGC. Do they believe it to be necessary? Do they abide by the guidelines stated, especially given the spectrum of FGC that my interlocutors underwent? What are their specific reasons for performing FGC? Silence only breeds confusion. It is definitely time for the religious and health authorities to step up and clearly state their positions on FGC in Singapore. There is the very real fear that if FGC were banned in Singapore and practitioners disallowed from practicing it, this would lead to FGC being performed underground, where conditions are much less hygienic and can be more harmful. But, if the relevant authorities can counter the health, religious and female promiscuity reasons given for FGC, this practice will be regarded as unnecessary and might no longer be practiced here.

According to Hodzic, “Hahn and Inhorn testify to the persistence of one of the founding principles of applied medical anthropology, which is the notion that anthropology can and should provide cultural knowledge necessary for improving public health and health care.” I hope this research has provided a holistic, balanced, and informative understanding of the reasons for FGC in Singapore, and will be useful for religious leaders, medical practitioners, activists, and especially Malay women as we continue to critically analyze and discuss this practice.

Saza is a Senior Executive of service learning at Republic Polytechnic in Singapore. She recently graduated from Yale-NUS College where she spent much of her college life developing her thesis on female genital cutting in Singapore. A highly under-researched, misunderstood and personal issue, Saza sought to understand the reasons behind this practice. She ends her thesis by advocating for medical and religious leaders to step up and clarify the fatwas and medical criteria surrounding this procedure in Singapore. Saza is passionate about women’s rights and empowerment and seeks to assist marginalized populations. 

My mother thought she was saving me with khafz

By Rashida

I can recall with crystal clear memory my mother taking me at around age 7 to a dilapidated old Chawl style building in a Bohra Mohalla in Bhendi Bazaar. My mom wore a dark orange saree with a green, white and light orange geometrical design. We climbed up broken wooden steps to go to the first floor on which there were several rooms with closed doors. We knocked on one of those doors and a lady quietly let us in.

grayscale photo of man woman and child
Photo by Kristin De Soto on Pexels.com

We sat down on the bare carpet and my mom greeted her with a salaam. The lady disappeared behind a curtained door. I know she came back with washed hands because my mom made me do the traditional salaam that we do to the elders, and her hands were wet and smelled of soap as I kissed them.

The lady sat down across from us and I kneeled down to do the salaam. As I was finishing the salaam the lady pulled my pants down. My mom pulled me back, held my hands and covered my face with her sari and put her face in the sari folds so I could see her face, too. I felt a searing pain between my legs and I began to cry, and my mom made big scolding eyes (that’s how she always silenced me to show me her disapproval), and I reduced my crying to a slow whimper. I was very frightened and had no idea what was happening.

The lady squeezed the tip of my clitoris firmly with a ball of cotton soaked in red mercurochrome as a final move. She told me to keep that ball of cotton in place and not to touch it until it remained stuck to my clitoris. My pants were pulled up and I sat in my mom’s lap sobbing. The lady appeared again from behind the curtained door and was drying her hands now on a napkin. She pried open my clenched fist and forced two Parle G glucose biscuits into it, and I clutched them while clinging to my mom in a petrified state with the other hand. My Mom did salaam to the lady with an envelope filled with money and we began to leave.

I walked out very slowly holding my mother’s hand and we began to descend the staircase. My mom picked me up and carried me down. I remember that moment most vividly today because my mom had stopped carrying me since I was so tall and grown up. I was relieved and happy that she was carrying me because she had not done that in a very long time.

Mom then called for a passing taxi cab. We took taxicabs only for special occasions like a wedding or if we had too many people in a group. I looked up and asked her, “Mummy, we are going in a taxicab to uncle’s home? It is only half full?” And she just smiled and asked me to eat the biscuits.

The taxicab drove us to my uncle’s home (my mom’s brother) and as I was playing outside a few hours later, I overheard my mom talking quietly to my aunts (her sister and sister-in-law). “Oh, I thought Rashida would cry and scream,” she said. “She was so good, and look she is already running around. You cannot even tell it has happened. I was told she would shout and kick her feet. But she is all okay.” Mom said she was relieved that the deed was done.

Later that afternoon, I told my mom about the bloody ball of cotton that was still loose and lying around in my underwear and she threw it away for me. My brothers were playing around and my 11-year-old brother asked me, “What happened to you? Did somebody do something to you?” He must have overheard the adults talking. He does not remember this incident. I just ran away too scared to answer.

The community is getting regressive and male-dominated and under the influence of clergy clout. Despite FGM/C education, the social pressure to follow the diktats is palpable, real and fearful. Social boycott and fear of Laanat holds back the followers in shackles of complete submission.

The issue of equality is a blatant cover-up. The clitoral hood is clearly called “Haram ni Boti” in all sermons and all discussions that are held privately in the community. “This piece of flesh has to be taken out or the girl will be sexually promiscuous.” The Sabak or lessons given by the priests and their wives at the mosques, preach to the parents and especially to the mothers that “your daughters will have an extramarital affair or pre-marital sex if you do not do this. Save your family’s name by doing khafz.”

I do not hate my mother for doing FGM/C to me. She was an educated woman of her times with a BSc, B.Ed., and an M.S. in Chemistry. She was a teacher and retired as principal of her school. She was a victim of this procedure, too.

My mother thought she was saving me. I am sure there was a lot of social pressure from the family and community. My only conversation with her was a casual single comment she uttered as she overheard my friend complaining about health issues her young daughters were facing. My mom quietly said, “We do a procedure to our girls that prevents urinary tract infections in young girls.” I was embarrassed and knew she was referring to FGM/C. So I said, “No, mom, that is wrong and not true!” Mom just walked away. My friend had no idea what we were talking about.

We had no conversation about FGM/C or what happened to me at all thereafter. My mom passed away very young at 61 years of age and I will never have my questions answered. I love my mother dearly and she will be the strongest woman I will know in this lifetime.

I do know that my mom would support my anti-FGM/C stance today if she were alive, provided that my father would not stop her. My dad would be very angry with me today if he knew I was opposing the Syedna in any shape or form.

I run in full marathons and ran my first marathon at age 46. In total, I have run seven full marathons, including those in New York, Chicago, and Washington, and plan to continue running until I die. Running brings me peace of mind and strength. I truly believe I am the oldest woman of Indian heritage still running in marathons and the only Bohra woman my age running, yet I do not feel that the community acknowledges this accomplishment. I am considered a rebel for this act of running as well as for my stance against FGM/C. I will turn 51 soon and will be running the Philadelphia marathon in November of this year, and it will be my eighth full marathon.

My mom used to say, “There should be hope in life. If there is no hope, there is no life.” I hope to see a law banning FGM/C in India. There is no mention of this practice in the Quran and it actually predates Islam. I hope to see the practice of female khatna/FGM/C stopped globally.

 

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Discovering female genital cutting in my community

By Mariam Sabir

Country of Residence: United States

With so many issues in the world that need to be addressed, we have to pick and choose our battles, whether it may be poverty, education, inequality, or gender violence. The majority of people choose something that they can most relate to via personal or cultural experiences. With this first blog I will write about my personal journey of discovering female genital cutting (FGC) in 2011 and why it took me eight years to finally do something about it.

Bohra women

My sister is my confidant, as I am hers. I was 17 years old when my sister pulled me aside urgently to talk to me about something she could not fathom. She had just discovered FGC. I was still in high school and did not grasp the gravity of the situation. A few years later, I was sitting in my healthcare ethics course in undergrad and my professor breezed over the topic of female genital cutting. My mind started to spin. This could not possibly be what my sister was talking about? I called her immediately after class and she confirmed it. I was enraged as though I was hearing it and truly understanding it for the first time. It felt like a conspiracy. No one in the community talked about it. How many of my cousins, friends, and aunts had gone through this and had never spoken of it?

I was desperate to talk to someone about this. Surely there must be somewhere I could go to get more information. I called the first person that came to mind, my mother. I could sense her discomfort in talking about this subject. She told me it is a Bohra custom, a social norm within our community that people feel compelled to perpetuate without questioning, even by my grandmother as well. My mother admitted that it was a traumatic experience, but did not want to indulge further.

I was not satisfied. I called my aunt. My aunt is more liberal and expressive; she writes poetry and is an activist in her own ways. Surely, she would have more to say about this. She told me it was done supposedly to moderate a woman’s sexual urges to prevent premarital or extramarital affairs. To my dismay, this was the end of our conversation.

My attempt to gather information seemed like an impossible task. I did not know where to go or who to talk to, so I pushed my thoughts aside until that summer when I went back home to Dubai. I was curious to see how much Bohra men knew about this. I met up with an old Bohra friend and told him what I had discovered. He immediately said, “Well, men get it done, too.” I was disappointed. I told him that male circumcision and FGC were not equivalent, that FGC was much more psychologically and sexually damaging for a female. He continued to defend the custom saying there must be a reason why Moula (the leader of our community) recommends it. There must be a long-term benefit from the procedure that we don’t know about. I was in disbelief. How could he not think it was wrong? I was left more confused and angry after that conversation. Was I making this a bigger deal than it needs to be? Why is no one else speaking up about this?

I attended medical school and the more I learned about female anatomy, the more upset I got thinking about FGC. I felt powerless until I heard a friend talking about Sahiyo. I was shocked and relieved. It was comforting to know that I share the same views as many other women. Up until then, I felt like my emotions of anger and distrust were out of proportion and unjustified. There was finally a safe space to discuss FGC, gather information and truly understand its origins.

Through Sahiyo, I learned more about how we can create awareness and discussion about such a sensitive and taboo subject. In retrospect, I wish I had handled the conversation with my Bohra male friend differently. It was presumptuous for me to think he would understand what women went through. Afterall, it is our body, not his. I wish I had the tact and knowledge to educate him about the long-lasting effects of FGC, to tell him that it is not a small-community problem but a human rights issue. That taking a child at the age of seven and altering her anatomy forever is not okay. That depriving a woman from experiencing pleasure during sexual activity is not okay. That potentially causing severe pain and complications for women’s reproductive health is not okay. That tampering with God’s creation of a perfect body is not okay. That perpetuating patriarchal standards by continuing this practice is not okay.

All the secretiveness around this topic should be a red flag for everyone who blindly follows this practice. So let’s question it. Let’s drop the secrecy. Let’s drop the shame. Let’s create awareness. Let’s educate each other.

 

 

Why I care about khatna: Reflections from the 2019 Sahiyo Activist Retreat

By Alisha Bhagat

I first found out about female genital cutting, or khatna, in my community in my twenties; my mother told me it had been done to her. At the time I was shocked. I thought this was something that happened to other people in far off places, not to my mom or Nani or Masi. It was only after talking to other Bohra women that I realized that I was not unusual in knowing a survivor. Every woman in our community is a survivor or knows a survivor.

As I began talking to people about khatna, I started to receive some pushback. Even people who admitted the practice was outdated and unnecessary were uncomfortable speaking about it. In the grand scheme of things, I was told, this is so small. It’s such a small pinch of skin. It’s just a moment in a girl’s life. It’s not indicative of who we are and all the good things we have done and built.

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Alisha Bhagat

But I believe the opposite, it is precisely in small moments that we show what we value and who we are. Khatna is more than a cut, it is the manifestation of so many other underlying problems.

As activists we focus on khatna for a few reasons. First we believe this practice itself is traumatic, unnecessary, and has long lasting implications for women’s health and sexuality. It is a straightforward violation of bodily autonomy. Second, the culture surrounding it speaks to the way in which we are shamed, silenced, diminished, threatened, and put in our places.

Earlier this year I attended the Sahiyo Activist Retreat. This retreat help me see how khatna is part of a large system. Just as there are many factors that perpetuate this practice (culture of shame, silence, and devaluation of female sexual experience) there are also many ways in which we have leverage to act.

The retreat highlighted different areas in which we can act to both support survivors and end this practice through the legal system, the medical establishment, in our places of worship, our homes, and our families. At the foundation of all of this is storytelling. Without survivors and allies sharing their stories, the topic remains shrouded in silence.

My hope is that the retreat will help grow our community of activists. And that there will be other safe spaces for people to talk, share stories, and connect. Most importantly, for us to create new models of being in the world, creating new spaces and communities.

 

I still don’t get why my mom took me there: A Bohra survivor of female genital cutting speaks out

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: India

Age: 31

Many communities across the world continue to practice female genital mutilation (FGM). In India, it’s mainly the Bohras, a sub-sect of Shias who practice FGM, also known as khatna. The clitoris and/or labia of little girls is cut or mutilated with the belief that it would curb their sexual desires and stop premarital sex. Many of the women performing khatna have no medical qualifications and are typically women who have learned to perform the cutting from their ancestors. Many midwives perform this in the name of salwaat (or blessings). But they hardly know why they are doing this.

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Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

When you are a child, your parents and grandparents are people you trust the most. They tell you about not interacting with strangers or not allowing any stranger to touch you in your private areas. Still it’s your close family who takes you for khatna, allowing a complete stranger to touch you inappropriately and cut your clitoris. It’s like being betrayed by the people you believe in and trust the most.

I am writing this to share my experience. At the age of six, I was taken out by my mom like any normal day, although most of my childhood memories haven’t made as strong of an impact as this one. We reached a stranger’s place. I went inside the house with my mom. My trousers were removed and then I was told to lie down. I felt extreme pain in my private area. I could feel, although I was instructed to look at the ceiling. I was doing that, and within a few minutes, my mom said, let’s leave. I was still experiencing the pain. The pain was terrible when I urinated.

I never really understood why my mom took me there. I still don’t get it. Why do something terrible to a girl which can leave a psychological scar in their mind which never heals?  In fact, when I became a teenager, I asked my mom why she allowed this khatna to happen to me. The answer I got was tradition, and that it prevents cancer. Then the other question which immediately popped up for me was, “Why only us?” Later I found out it’s mostly done to curb the sexual desire of girls. This practice ultimately leads the girls to mistrust the people they are supposed to trust the most.

It’s not in that instant you realize what happened, but gradually the memory becomes too vivid. Just because something is practiced for generations doesn’t mean it should go on without questioning its existence. People have to change their thinking about existing rules and guidelines to follow in the name of customs. The problem is that if you come out of the shadows and rebel, you may be thought of as an outcast. It’s not us we are afraid of but people we know. Family and friends will be treated differently as well. I believe in taking small steps of at least opening up about what you feel will help you to let go of that which you are suppressing. That will ultimately will give you the confidence of coming out of the shadows and facing the light.