My experience of learning about female genital cutting: An outsider’s perspective

By Madrisha Debnath

Not belonging to a community where female genital cutting (FGC) is practiced, I have often faced questions on how I can understand how the practice could occur if I am an outsider and the religion or culture I grew up in never condoned it. Interestingly, those who have questioned me have been peers at my university, who also did not come from FGC-practicing communities. But, each of us have grown up in a certain cultural community that has performed certain traditions or norms for generations. In other words, the societies we live in have constructed certain social norms and practices that are followed by its members to keep it going. Therefore, understanding this perspective, one can relate to the practice of FGC according to their own social position and be reflexive in terms of their subjectivity. 

When I first learned about female genital cutting, I was shocked by the physical pain a child undergoes to fit into the heterosexual matrix regulated by the institution of marriage. Not knowing anything about the practice or having experienced it, but being a female with a clitoris, I could not bear the distress of understanding how painful it must be to be cut at the site of more than 8,000 sensory nerve endings. 

I kept on watching and re-watching documentaries, the narratives on FGC, and listening to survivors’ stories. The more I listened to their stories in an attempt to understand the social process, the more I felt the survivors’ trauma. I tried to understand the agency of the women, particularly the role of a mother or grandmother taking part in the very system that regulated their own body. Why is it that the mother, the one who could possibly be the most sympathetic toward the child, could subject her daughter’s body to FGC? 

According to the stories of the survivors, even in cases when the memory of the cut may be repressed, the “body memory” can remember the pain. The effect of the trauma may be repeated every month as the girl hits puberty, during intimacy, and again potentially through her future daughter’s experience with FGC. The first thing I could relate to culturally from my own social construct was how the institution of marriage itself works. In my opinion, marriage is actually a relation from a man (the father) to another man (the husband), whereby the woman is transferred as the symbol of lineage. When the occasion of marriage takes place, generally a change in location takes place for the woman, as her guardianship is being transferred. 

I recently attended my brother’s wedding in India whereby the next morning my sister-in-law had to leave her house and come to our place of residence. Although belonging from the groom’s side, I was supposed to be rejoicing and welcoming my new sister-in-law. But I couldn’t hold my tears as the bride left her family. Being a girl, I could not withstand the final moments of my sister-in-law departing from her mother. The bride and her mother burst into tears. The ritual of Kanyadaan, or giving away the female child with the virtue of generosity and charity, performed by the father of the bride to her husband, ensures her transfer from her father’s family to her husband’s family as a symbol of lineage. 

Before leaving her father’s family the daughter performs kanakanjali, which involves paying off her mother’s debt. But is it possible to pay off a mother’s debt? The mother, who had once undergone the same rituals and practices, may have once felt the pain of leaving her family aside, but now it is her daughter who has to undergo the same practices. How can the mother hold her tears? She had to once leave her family and now her daughter is undergoing the same practice.

There have also been counter spaces of resistances within the communities against these norms. For example, in my community now, female priestesses are challenging the perception that a priest could only be someone who is male since the female body was not considered to be “pious” for performing rituals because of the taboo of menstruation associated with them. Challenging this perception, the female priestesses are performing marriage rituals without the norm of kanyadan. The women are advocating marriage to be a union between two equals and that one cannot be given away as a gift to another. The rituals that are being performed by the female priestess simply denote the union of two families, where the bride is not considered as a “gift” since she is not a commodity which can be simply given away. 

Drawing a parallel between the norm of marriage and the transference of guardianship of the woman from the cultural institution I belong to, to that of how FGC can continue is how I can understand how rituals or practices can continue generation after generation. We perform them because they have been performed by others before us in our communities. 

The questions that I’m left with are whether there is actually any choice by the girl or woman herself to undergo the practices whether in the example of marriage I gave or by the girl who undergoes FGC?  And in the case of FGC, is it the mother or the grandmother who chooses to facilitate the practice to be performed on their daughter, or is it the performative nature of tradition that keeps the practice going, being repeated and recited again and again?

Practitioner and advocate training: Best practices for working with survivors of gender-based violence

In June Sahiyo partnered with Hidden Scars to host a training for practitioners and advocates working with survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and female genital cutting (FGC). 

Gender-based violence (GBV) is a reality for many women and girls. The World Health Organization reports that one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. Yet, GBV often remains hidden and shrouded in silence and shame. At the core of providing better prevention, protection, health, and social support services for women and girls are stronger data, enhanced research, and community engagement. Our presentation explored how practitioners can provide trauma-informed care to survivors of GBV, using FGC as a case study. We also provided resources for clinicians and other front-line professionals who may come in contact with women impacted by both, and who are looking to better understand how to provide better care. 

While Sahiyo’s expertise is in addressing FGC, we acknowledge that FGC is a form of gender-based violence and child abuse. Our team felt that many of the lessons that can be learned about how to help survivors of FGC could also be applied to all forms of GBV. Like other forms of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence, FGC is a learned behavior of childhood, and is often surrounded by a culture of silence and shame, and is a form of generational violence. However, GBV can also include childhood marriage, rape, sexual assault, honor crimes, domestic violence, and other crimes against women. While we used FGC as a case study, our goal was to create a training that would allow practitioners to provide better care to all survivors of gender-based violence. 

During this event, we provided an overview of FGM/C and GBV, as well as shared videos from our Voices to End FGM/C project. These videos helped our audience better understand the complicated emotions and experiences survivors go through, and to begin to think about how they as providers can better support them in their journey toward healing. We also shared tools such as the George Washington University FGM/C Toolkit, Mumkin, and other resources that are available to help them and their organizations think about how to provide better care to surviors.

Finally, in order to facilitate conversations and help our guests practice communicating with survivors, we also hosted mock conversations. These conversations were held with the goal to help practitioners become more comfortable speaking with survivors and to practice having productive conversations with patients.

We strongly encourage anyone who works in healthcare or provides direct services to survivors of GBV or FGC to watch the recording of this event on our YouTube page, or check out these additional resources below: 

Voices reflection: Finding my voice

By Hunter Kessous

When I first joined Sahiyo’s team as an intern, I was told to take a look at the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) project on YouTube to get a glimpse of how Sahiyo uses storytelling in its approach to ending FGC. I was probably only expected to watch two or three videos, but I watched every single one in a single sitting. The bravery of every survivor who so beautifully shared their story was enthralling and inspiring. 

Several months later, my mentor at Sahiyo suggested I join the upcoming Voices workshop. Advocates and allies were being welcomed into the program for the very first time. I was hesitant. What place did my story about misguided professors have amongst the breathtaking, moving stories of survivors? I joined the workshop regardless, and I was open with the group about the sense of imposter syndrome I had. My fellow participants, activists and survivors alike, were very encouraging and some even shared my same concern. The most important thing was that we were all united by a common goal: to raise awareness about FGC and hopefully end the practice. Through this shared desire, we built a supportive network, and I soon felt less like a participant in a workshop and more like a member of a community. 

My biggest takeaway from joining this community was finding my voice in speaking out against FGC. I gained confidence in sharing my story about the issues of FGC education in college, because I was assured that it is a story worth sharing. It can be frightening to talk about an issue that is so taboo and to challenge higher authorities. I didn’t know it at the time, but I needed the Voices workshop to become a better advocate for women’s rights. I’m excited to share my Voices video and continue speaking out against FGC. 

Voices reflection: Revealing my hidden narrative

By Absa Samba

When I signed up to participate in the Voices to End FGM/C online digital storytelling workshop, I starting thinking about what story I would tell. So many incoherent ideas ran to my mind. It wasn’t until I attended the first session that I knew what story I wanted to tell. During the session, we watched sample stories that really centered my idea.

I have shared my experience as a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting many times, but it wasn’t until this workshop that I realized that there was a part of my story that I had never shared. It was the opportunity to be surrounded by people with both an interest in ending the practice of FGM/C and lived experience that gave me the confidence to share this part of my story. When I speak about my experience as a survivor of FGM/C, people ask, “Why would anyone subject a person to an inhumane practice?” As an activist, I ask myself why I cannot convince some of my family members, the people I love, about the harmful effects of this practice.

The opportunity to participate in the workshop created a space for me to be vulnerable and feel supported while sharing the space with people who are doing just the same. Together, we learned, shared, supported and healed.

Addressing Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Cutting

Although female genital cutting (FGC) is not limited to any one community, misconceptions rooted in racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia have still negatively impacted the movement to end FGC – as well as survivors themselves. In our work to end FGC, we must use an intersectional approach to support the needs of all women impacted by FGC and bring about substantial change. First coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the term intersectionality was created to help us understand “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” An intersectional approach to all social movements is crucial to address the intersecting oppressions that impact different communities. 

On July 29th at 1 pm EST Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, “Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Cutting.” This webinar will explore the intersection of anti-racism work and the work to end FGC. Four expert speakers, including Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Aissata Camara, and Sunera Sadicali, will explore intersectionality and FGC in a panel moderated by Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. These renowned activists have worked in the field of FGC prevention and survivor support, exploring the critical intersections where this form of gender-based violence meets systemic racism. Our guest speakers’ experiences will expand the conversation on how FGC survivors and advocates for change often have to push back against racist narratives in their work and in their journey toward healing, as well as how systemic racism can delay substantial change on this issue.  

During this webinar, you’ll be able to be a part of the discussion about how we can all become better educated and better advocates in the journey to end systemic racism and FGC. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend. Register Today: https://bit.ly/CriticalIntersectionsWebinar 

Leyla Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Leyla works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM around the world. As Leyla reminds us, FGM is a practice of oppressing women and controlling women’s sexuality. It’s not an African issue, it’s not an Asian issue; it’s a global issue that requires a global investment in women.

Aarefa Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Aarefa is a senior reporter with Scroll.in, where she covers gender and labour. She has been speaking out against female genital cutting since 2012 and is one of the five original co-founders of Sahiyo. Sahiyo is an organization founded on the belief that storytelling in all forms can create positive social change and help empower communities to abandon the practice of FGC.  

Sunera Sadicali was born in 1982 in Mozambique and moved to Lisbon when she was 2 years old. She grew up in a family that was a part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only Bohras in the Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. Sunera underwent khatna (FGM Type I) by age of 8 in Pakistan while visiting her grandparents on vacation. She moved to Spain to study medicine by the age of 19 and finished her Family Medicine residency in Madrid. She has been politically active since the birth of her second child in 2012 in women’s issues, decolonial feminism, anti-racism and healthcare activism. Sunera is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism.

Aissata M.B. Camara is a professional with over a decade of program development and management, strategic planning, and relationship-building experience in non-profit, local government, and international affairs. A social entrepreneur and advocate, she was featured in The Guardian, PBS, RFI, Deutshe Welle and Brut for her advocacy to end female genital mutilation/cutting. She has received numerous awards, including the New York State Assembly Certificate of Merit, Knights of Pythias Medal of Achievement, the Hackett Medal for Oratory Excellence, and the Jo Ivey Boufford Award. Aissata is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nations.

Female genital cutting: A poem

By Zainab Khambata

Country of Residence: India

As the blade pierced through my skin,

All I could feel was pain.

I looked into my mom’s eyes,

And she shrugged helplessly in vain.

I was yet another girl,

Subjected to female genital cutting.

As a mere child of seven,

I did not contest,

I wasn’t even aware,

That all my dignity as well as my rights,

Were stripped from me bare.

“It is done in the name of religion,” they said.

And it is this ideology I dread.

It is done to curb a woman’s desires,

To subdue her voice and her fire.

My grandmother said “It’s all right, all girls must go through this in their life.”

Why has society rendered women unaware?

To the point where they do not know and do not even care.

They torment innocent children,

With everlasting scars,

But yet this practice they refuse to stop,

Fearing from society’s eyes they will drop.

When will this age-old tradition come to an end?

So that without emotional trauma,

The rest of their lives little girls can spend.

It is time to speak up about this,

And make people aware,

It’s time to show that we care.

Female genital cutting: Underacknowledged and underrecognized in the United States 

By Cate Cox

On June 3rd, 2021 Sahiyo partnered with the Connecticut Trauma and Gender Learning Collaborative and The George Washington University associate professor Dr. Karen McDonnell to hold a training for healthcare professionals who may interact with survivors of female genital cutting (FGC). The Connecticut Trauma and Gender Learning Collaborative focuses on trauma-informed and gender-responsive treatment. Many of the participants are actively providing clinical services. 

This presentation explored FGC in the United States and resources available for clinicians and other front-line professionals who may come in contact with women impacted by FGC, as well as how they can provide trauma-informed care. In particular, our training highlighted The George Washington University’s Women and FGM/C Toolkit as a tool to help further their education and to become better prepared to support survivors in their journey toward healing. 

Alongside the GW Women and FGM/C Toolkit, we highlighted Sahiyo resources such as the Trauma Blog Series by Joanna Vergoth, founder and executive director of forma, among others. During the training, we also used some of our Voices to End FGM/C videos to highlight the lack of education on how to support survivors of FGC in the medical field and the imperative practitioners have to fill in those gaps to better support all women.

At the end of the presentation many of the attendees said they didn’t realize how widespread the problem of FGC is in the U.S. They expressed that they are grateful to have had the opportunity to learn how to better support their patients. Overall, trainings such as this one are crucial to help providers learn how to best support survivors and to help expand the understanding that FGC is a problem in the U.S. that we all need to be involved in addressing.

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Social Media Intern Kamakshi Arora

Kamakshi Arora is a social media intern for Sahiyo. She is a multidisciplinary designer, artist, and researcher. She has a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from NC State and a Masters in Product Design from The University of The Arts. Originally from Mumbai, India, she moved to the United States to pursue higher studies. She is particularly interested in using a transdisciplinary, participatory approach to design strategies for addressing current gender inequities, and to co-create meaningful initiatives to tackle women’s rights and health issues. She supports Sahiyo’s mission of empowering women through innovative grassroots initiatives based on storytelling and community engagement and is grateful for the opportunity to learn more about working in a feminist organization. 

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

It was early in the year, and I really wanted to volunteer and support a feminist organization that was working for gender equity and reform. My thesis was on the concept of healing for survivors of sexual assault. I wanted to find an organization that was doing similar work and as soon as I found out about Sahiyo, I knew I had found that place.  Sahiyo’s approach of combining storytelling and advocacy really caught my eye. I’m also from Mumbai so it felt like a great fit to be a part of an organization that was based out of my home.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

Right now I’m mostly involved in social media. This includes programming and developing content, sharing articles and educational information on our channels, and maintaining our persona online. As a designer, I love that I can be creative as I have used my artwork and drawing as a way to advance Sahiyo’s program. I try to subtly use my training in human-centered design and trauma-informed principles in the work that I create for Sahiyo. 

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

Greatly. For one thing, I saw the power of storytelling in all its forms. Sahiyo taught me to be coherent and persevering with our messages and how we can write a story that supports the purpose of our mission. Second, my perspectives as an intersectional feminist have expanded. I was not aware of female genital cutting (FGC) before. I have learned much about the issue of FGC and its existence in the broader context of women’s subjugation in our society and cultures. I’m now a lifelong advocate and ally of Sahiyo’s mission and will continue to use my own skills to do my bit. 

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

Please do not be afraid to learn and inquire about female genital cutting. By asking questions and speaking actively, we are contributing to Sahiyo’s mission to end FGC. Share our stories, attend our workshops, make a donation, and/or volunteer. It’s all so informative, and you’ll leave with a wealth of resources to do your own advocacy.

What I learned from survivors and advocates on my podcast about female genital cutting

By Aubrey Bailey

I graduated this April 2021 from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design. For my senior capstone project I was instructed to choose a topic that I would stick with for a year and then conduct in-depth research, write a research paper, and display my findings visually through an exhibition. In April 2020, I went home to Gilbert, Arizona, to finish my winter semester under quarantine because of COVID-19, and while I was home my dad introduced the topic of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). I was dumbfounded that I had never heard of it before. I could not fathom that so many women were undergoing this practice in different parts of the world and I did not know about it. If I do not know about this, then who else does not know? Who does know? Who is taking action?

I realized FGM/C was a topic about which I needed to learn more. I could not simply move on after understanding this information. Over the past year of my research on the topic, I became passionate about raising awareness of FGM/C, and also in advocating for women’s rights and raising awareness on violence against women. 

For my capstone project, I created a podcast to explain why FGM/C happens, to share women’s stories, to educate listeners on how to help, and to bring outside professional knowledge to help us better understand the topic. Through my research, I found Sahiyo–United Against Female Genital Cutting, and was impressed with their content and purpose. I reached out and asked if they would be willing to help me make this podcast possible. They were so gracious and introduced me to their network of individuals to ask if they would be willing to participate in my podcast. I was able to talk with some of the most incredible individuals and listen to experiences from people with different backgrounds. It was truly eye-opening and life-changing. I learned so much from my time interviewing everyone, and I am so grateful to Sahiyo for making it all happen. 

In addition to the podcast, I designed an exhibition displaying my research on FGM/C at Brigham Young University. For the exhibition, I created a poster series displaying facts about FGM/C by integrating a custom font that I created which has sharp characteristics throughout the posters. I also designed and installed a floral installation that symbolizes women. Flowers are beautiful and represent proud and glorious femininity and within the installation, each flower represents a woman. The hanging flowers represent women who have not been cut and the flowers on the ground represent the women who have been cut. 

Just because these flowers are not suspended from the ceiling does not lessen their value or their beauty in any way. They are still flowers but are just a little different. These women, like the flowers, are unique because they have been cut and have a piece of their body missing. But they are still just as powerful and beautiful. 

My hope through the exhibition was that individuals would feel moved to action and inspired to listen to the podcast to do their part in educating themselves and others on the topic to normalize the conversation so we can finally see it end.

Using purity as a means to control women through Christianity and female genital cutting

By Nicole Mitchell

Many communities struggle to accept female sexuality even in today’s modern world. While it is common to see female sexuality in pop-culture, this doesn’t necessarily reflect a universal acceptance. Frequently, a woman’s value is tied to her “purity” or virginity. This prejudice manifests in obvious ways, such as female genital cutting (FGC), and in more subtle ways like  teaching women and girls that their worth is tied to their abstinence. These methods of oppression are also not mutually exclusive and occur in many communities around the world including the Western, Christian community.

Evangelical America

I grew up as a minister’s daughter and one of eight children with five sisters and two brothers. My dad was a minister at an evangelical church in Boston, Massachusetts. While the evangelical movement is considered to be one of the more progressive, modern branches of Christianity, we still subscribed to such beliefs that a woman ought to be submissive to her husband by honoring him as head of the household, church and state. If you were to ask my dad and other fellow religious leaders their opinions on this now, they would probably avoid the question. Over the years, evangelical Christians have softened their voices, particularly in regard to the role of women and the LGBTQ community. This may be attributed to the growing resistance from millennials and younger generations against exclusive ideologies. 

As a young girl, I was taught that men and women had different, God-given strengths. Examples of female strength focused on traits such as empathy, caring and kindness, whereas male strengths included leadership, power and physical prowess. While men and women could embody both traits, such as being an empathetic leader — I was taught that a woman could never lead over a man. Essentially, the message was that women aren’t really leaders; they can just help organize other women. When I questioned this, I would often have scripture cited to me: “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). Even more blatantly, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22-24). This belief was demonstrated in both my dad’s church I attended and in the larger, global ministry we were a part of, as there were no female head pastors. Women could be guest speakers during services, but never the head of the church. This idea that certain personality traits are reserved for specific genders, specifically leadership and power belonging to men, highlights a deeper division in how communities view a woman’s overall personhood and more specifically, her sexuality.

The concept of a person being both spiritual and sexual was never discussed in my upbringing. As a woman, I felt that acknowledging sexuality or sexual desires was in direct conflict with being spiritual; one simply could not be both at the same time. Consummating a marriage was fine, but admitting to having sexual urges was considered not godly (i.e., Christian). Leaders and parents exhibited different attitudes in the way a boy versus a girl would be treated when admitting to participating in sexual acts or behavior. 

“Boys will be boys,” was the typical attitude when a young man admitted to sexual behavior before marriage. However, if a girl was promiscuous, within the church and my community, there was a substantial attitude of judgement toward her as if she was now deemed unclean, even sometimes suggesting that she was at fault for the boys “mistake” because of the clothes she wore or the way she carried herself. This wasn’t a direct principle preached in sermons; but it demonstrated the way purity and modesty were so heavily emphasized in my childhood. I know my brothers did not experience this emphasis, certainly not to the level I did. For example, every year my mom would take a few of my sisters and I to a women-only conference in New York called PureLife. Women from our global ministry would speak on a variety of topics with a focus on maintaining purity and a “clean spirit” with God. I remember the shame surrounding impurity was a heavy and distinct feeling. It is possible to surmise that when an idea is subtle or silent, it becomes more powerful because it is more difficult to challenge. This purity prejudice was further backed by scripture.

One of the most fundamental stories in the Bible about Adam and Eve, instructs that mankind was doomed due to a woman pursuing knowledge. Eve’s interest in the tree of knowledge is portrayed as her ultimate downfall. Much like I would have been disgraced for exploring my sexuality at a young age, Eve was banished from heaven for pursuing knowledge according to the story. One could even surmise that the Bible is alluding to sexuality, not knowledge, given the level of shame Eve received. 

This idea that a woman should suppress her knowledge or sexuality is seen clearly in another important story in the Bible. The birth of Jesus Christ comes quite literally from a virgin mother. In theory, this teaches that the “ideal woman” would never explore her sexuality. After all, the “savior of the world” came from a “sexless” and “pure” woman. A woman pursuing her own sexuality or knowledge is not encouraged, but rather a sin. The Bible as it was written by men over time has a unique ability to reward submissive behavior, while inciting fear in women who might explore their own body. As a young Christian girl, it was clear my role model was to be Mary and not curious Eve. Again, while these principles were not overtly stated in the church, they were powerful, nonetheless.

Female genital cutting

The continuation of female genital cutting (FGC)  in the modern world is further evidence of the oppressive undercurrent that defines a woman’s value based on her perceived purity. FGC is often practiced as a way to curb female sexual desires by preventing a girl or woman from becoming ‘unclean’ through procreation. While sometimes FGC is viewed as simply a way to preserve tradition, the root of that tradition comes from an attempt to control and suppress a woman’s humanity, which includes her sexual freedom. 

To be human, is to acknowledge and cultivate all parts of yourself: the mental, the emotional, the spiritual and the physical. When a woman is taught to suppress her physicality or passion, she becomes divided within herself. A woman divided, is a woman denied her humanity. Passion, physicality and sexuality should not be shamed, but embraced. Women from all types of communities should be treated as equals and not as a shrine of virginity and purity. This pedestal is misleading and leads to harmful practices such as FGC. It is crucial that we end the shame linked to female sexuality in all communities and promote women’s rights to experience the fullness of what it truly means to be human.