In late July, Sahiyo held its webinar, Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher moderated the panel discussion that included four expert speakers: Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Sunera Sadicali, and Aissata M.B. Camara. The event included thoughtful commentary on the overlap between racism, oppression, culture, and FGM/C, as well as the struggles the panelists have faced while working to spread awareness and bring an end to FGM/C.
Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM/C with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Hussein works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM/C around the world. Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Johari 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. Sunera Sadicali 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. Sadicali is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism. Camarais 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. Camara is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nations.
The four panelists, who are survivors of FGM/C, answered questions about how FGM/C intersects with other forms of oppression, including racism, violence, and “othering.” They also discussed the lack of legislation and law enforcement surrounding the practice, and challenges to passing laws to protect girls at risk. One notable part of the discussion occurred when Hussein made the point that survivors can become gatekeepers and have the opportunity to change the way that they are perceived. She relayed that when people hear about FGM/C, they may dismiss it and attribute it to cultural practice, but by naming FGM/C as child abuse rooted in patriarchy and oppression, survivors can draw attention to the issue for what it is in order to truly show people the harm being done.
Toward the end of the webinar, Camara discussed other movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter and how allyships must be formed in order to generate more traction in the media to spread FGM/C awareness. By teaming up with other survivors, resources, officials and organizations, more conversations about FGM/C can lead to change.
In conclusion, the Critical Intersections webinar allowed panelists from diverse backgrounds to share their views on racism and FGMC. Several ideas were brought up about how to spark change and dialogue in both local communities and globally. But the common thread among all the speakers was that change is not always easy, but always worth fighting for. For the sake of women and girls everywhere, the future holds hope for justice, healing, and change.
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.
In the midst of a global pandemic set to the backdrop of Brexit, ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) appears to have slipped down the United Kingdom (U.K.) Government’s priority list. Yet, as campaigners and charities are acutely aware, abuse thrives in silence behind closed doors – and women and girls disproportionately pay the price.
One form of abuse that charities fear is on the rise is female genital cutting (FGC), a practice which has affected more than 200 million women and girls worldwide, with a further 68 million more estimated to be at risk in the next ten years. It is said that every seven seconds, a girl somewhere around the world faces the potentially agonizing pain and trauma of being cut.
What is FGC?
The World Health Organisation defines FGC as a procedure which involves the “partial or total removal or the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” There are four types of FGC that vary in severity, but all types are recognised as child abuse and a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. In some cases, anaesthetics and antiseptics aren’t used, meaning not only is the initial cutting procedure traumatic, potentially life-threatening and painful, but survivors are at increased risk of blood infections, hemorrhaging and infection throughout their lives, and can face issues with urination, menstruation, pregnancy and penetration.
Communities who practice FGC claim it is linked to tradition, faith and ideas around gender roles, insisting girls must preserve their virginity. Many families believe FGC to be a rite of passage for their daughters, and in some communities, it can go hand-in-hand with other practices, such as breast ironing and forced marriage.
FGC is a global issue involving at least 92 counties, including the U.K. Despite landmark legislation making those facilitating the practice to be punishable for up to 14 years in prison, girls born to families of these regions in the U.K. are at a heightened risk of being taken abroad under the false pretense of a special ceremony.
How prevalent is FGC in the U.K.?
In the mere five years that the U.K. has been recording data, 24,420 women and girls have been identified by the National Health Service (NHS) as having undergone FGC, with 6,590 being treated in the year up until March of 2020 alone. 205 victims or survivors were U.K.-born.
In total, it is estimated 137,000 women and girls are living with its effects in England and Wales. But many believe the official figure to be the tip of the iceberg considering most survivors (80%) go undetected until they come into contact with midwives or obstetric services. But some women may never come into contact with the NHS at all, including women who don’t have Indefinite Leave to Remain or any form of secure immigration status, in part, either because they are unaware of the support available, or they fear immigration enforcement.
What is the COVID-19 impact?
However, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have ramped the practice around the globe. A policy briefing by the Orchid Project in September illuminates the extent, noting, “COVID-19 related lockdowns are being seen as an opportunity to carry out FGC undetected,” across East and West Africa; and “economic hardship is driving increased rates of FGC because of parents seeking ‘bride prices.’”
Other research conducted by UNFPA anticipates that as a result of coronavirus disruptions to FGC prevention programmes, as many as two million more cases could take place in the next ten years that would otherwise have been avoided. As such, it estimates a one-third reduction in the progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating the practice by 2030.
Campaigners attribute the rise to mass school closures, a decrease in access to support and health information, and the economic situation forcing girls into marriage for families to secure a dowry. Indeed, as joint research points to prove, whenever girls are stifled from education, they become increasingly more vulnerable to abusive practices.
For this reason, campaigners fear the true scale of gender-based violence is yet to be realised as the U.K. creeps in and out of lockdown and restrictive measures are tweaked every few weeks. Kate Agha, the Chief Executive of Oxford Against Cutting, said, “With the rise in harmful traditions overseas, practicing-communities in the U.K. will come under increased pressure from family abroad to ensure they are part of the group and upholding cultural traditions based on honour.”
What is the UK doing about it?
The U.K. has remained determined to end FGC, setting a deadline to prevent it from occurring for good by 2030, in line with many other countries.
Progress has been commendable. FGC has been outlawed in several Western countries including the U.K., Canada, Spain and New Zealand, among others, including 19 African countries. To date, the U.K. remains the largest donor to support the end of FGC globally, helping 10,000 African communities and assisting six African nations with a budget and new laws to criminalize it.
However, amid these trying times, progress seems to be stalling and commitment stuttering behind if the U.K. is to realistically facilitate the end of FGC in the next ten years. For instance, despite being against the law for thirty-five years and a whole host of civil protections and laws being introduced in 2003, there has only been one successful prosecution, which took place in February of 2019. Meanwhile, charities claim social workers and even healthcare practitioners aren’t always trained and equipped to safeguard and handle victims or survivors with there being greater emphasis on support post-procedure than preventing it from happening in the first place. Due to a shocking knowledge gap in Lancashire hospices that emerged in August, medics are now receiving extra training. But how many more remain ill-equipped?
Many believe the U.K. is silently withdrawing from its commitment altogether as it emerges that the Home Office has slashed funding from The National FGM Centre which, since its inception in 2015, has safeguarded 742 girls and supported 341 survivors. The centre reserves the power to issue protection orders for girls at risk, instruct the police on when to intervene and has trained at least 18,000 professionals, including teachers, social workers, police officers, lawyers and doctors. Yet this year, the centre will receive a mere £432,000 in funding – a drop in the ocean compared to the £2.7 million it was awarded five years ago. The Home Secretary is in the midst of attempting to deport an 11-year-old girl to her native country, Sudan, where she is sure to undergo FGC, in a move which lawyers claim mocks domestic FGC laws and protection orders. Fortunately, the girl was spared deportation in the eleventh hour by an FGC protection order, but her future remains uncertain.
As the futures of girls around the world hang on a thread and women become the collateral damage to COVID-19, the government must ensure it does not bulldoze over years of ground-breaking progress toward ending FGC. Without serious, unwavering commitment to ending the practice, women and girls will continue to be violated and stripped of their basic human rights.(Olivia Bridge writes for Immigration News and the Immigration Advice Service.)
October was an incredibly busy month for Sahiyo, and we were honored to take part in many events to highlight the issue of female genital cutting (FGC) to various audiences in a multitude of virtual events including a medicalization webinar with #EndFGM Media Campaigns, Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar with StoryCenter, A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C, Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference, North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child, and Taboo Conversations with RAHMA.
#EndFGM Media Campaigns: Medicalization Webinar
On October 13th, the Global Media Campaign to End FGM and UNFPA hosted a webinar exploring effective media campaign strategies and approaches to work toward countering a growing trend of medicalization within practicing communities. Speakers included Dr. Amr Hassan, Diana Kendi, Ayotomiwa Ayodele, Hoda Ali, Dr. Mariam Dahir, and Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. To watch a replay of this webinar, visit https://fb.watch/1yN240JQra/.
Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting
In honor of the International Day of the Girl, the U.S. End FGM/C Network hosted an event on October 13 titled, “Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Eliminating FGM/C,” as a means to raise awareness and foster important dialogue around ending the harmful practice of FGM/C. The webinar focused on recent developments around the adoption of federal and state-level legislation to end FGM/C in the U.S. and where future policy efforts should focus; common barriers to developing and implementing effective FGM/C abandonment programs (i.e., lack of funding, data, awareness, etc.) and how the community can overcome them; and solutions for prioritizing FGM/C abandonment on the global stage. To watch a recap, view here.
The U.S. End FGM/C Network is a collaborative group of survivors, civil society organizations, foundations, activists, policymakers, researchers, healthcare providers, and others committed to promoting the abandonment of FGM/C in the U.S. and around the world.
Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar
Since 1993, StoryCenter has collaborated with individuals, grassroots groups, and organizations to centralize first-person stories in social justice efforts. The current political reality demands ever-more creative approaches to advocacy. On Oct 14th, in this one-hour free webinar, StoryCenter defined their approach to advocacy with an eye toward clarifying what kinds of stories are effective at community, institutional, and policy levels. They then highlighted research on the role that sharing and listening to personal stories can play in advocacy, and presented a case study of how they have worked with Sahiyo on the Voices to End FGM/C project to position digital storytelling as a key advocacy strategy.
What weaknesses have come to obstruct efforts to end female genital mutilation?
How have governments’ mis/management of the pandemic exacerbated existing fault-lines of gender precarity?
How has progress in challenging and abolishing FGM practices been vitiated by widely applied government policies and measures that embrace lockdowns of large parts of public government services, curfews, household quarantine and mandatory individual isolation?
How has opposition among members of minority communities in Western societies – when it comes to governments’ FGM policies, deeply felt subtexts of prejudice and popular scapegoating – been appropriated and instrumentalized to serve populist exclusionary aims that demonize entire marginalized cultures?
What does the failure of enforcement of anti-FGM legislation uncover about political will, identity politics, the hierarchy of suffering and about inter-/national feminist ambivalences?
Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference
Council of the Great City Schools held its 64th Annual Fall Conference virtually in October. Under the banner “Championing Urban Education,” the conference gave big-city school superintendents, board members, senior administrators and college deans of education a forum to discuss issues and share information and best practices to improve teaching and learning. On Oct 16th, Sahiyo participated in a panel event, Unmasking Danger: Identifying High-risk Situations for Urban Students, in which the issues of trafficking and female genital cutting were brought to light and the need to take into consideration that students may be at risk or affected by them. A resource guide created by Council of the Great City Schools on FGM prevention for U.S. schools was also discussed. The guide helps schools to put policies in place to support and identify at risk students.
North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child
Taboo ConversationsOn October 28th, RAHMA organized a Facebook Live Discussion in partnership with Sahiyo & Global Women Peace Foundation to discuss female genital cutting in the U.S. and the importance prevention work needing to be done, as well as ways to support and empower women and girls affected by FGC. View the recording here.
Sahiyo Communications Coordinator Lara Kingstone and co-founder Mariya Taher were honored to speak on behalf of Sahiyo in a symposia entitled, Patriarchal Inscriptions: Female Bodies Contested, Invaded, Defended & Owned, hosted by King’s College London Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
The session that Sahiyo participated in served to address feminism, survivors’ relationships with mothers, other forms of gender-based violence and abuse, as well as systemic injustice. The symposia in general served to address the following questions: “Feminism has made the exploration of relations between mothers and daughters central to its project. How are these considered fraught, damaged, broken, or, in the eyes of FGM-supporters, strengthened by clitoridectomy? How does FGM compare to other abuses women endure that fracture their inclination to identify and support one another, instead of becoming invested in, or complicit with, systemic injustice?”
Taher and Kingstone discussed and presented Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C: Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms & Enhance Prevention as part of the panel on Mothers and daughters: continuity, love, fear and belonging. Many storytellers and survivors explore fraught or strengthened relationships with their mothers in their digital videos as part of the Voices to End FGM/C program in collaboration with StoryCenter. By sharing these stories with participants, Sahiyo aimed to further understanding regarding the deeply complex mother-daughter relationship in the context of FGM/C.
Mariya Taher, U.S. Executive Director and co-founder of Sahiyo, and Farzana Esmail, survivor, mother and advocate, sat down together to have a virtual fireside chat on female genital cutting: part interview, part sincere exchange of stories, and part education. Upon introducing Mariya’s background, Farzana asks her to call on her expertise to explain female genital cutting (FGC) to the audience, using World Health Organization classifications and statistics regarding global practice. Throughout the chat, Mariya provides essential background on FGC, making this a great video to watch for people of varying knowledge levels on FGC.
Farzana described her experience of discovering through Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C that FGC is practiced not only in the Bohra community, but in Africa as well. Mariya explained that this misconception exists only because Africa is where the bulk of the research on FGC was occurring until recently. FGC has been recorded as being practiced in at least 92 countries. Sahiyo conducted research on the Bohra community and discovered 80% of women from their sample had been cut.
Another finding of that same study was that 81% of women did not want FGC to continue for the next generation. Farzana asked the important question of why FGC continues to be practiced if so many women feel this way. Mariya used the concept of pluralistic ignorance to explain: the tradition lives on because nobody in the community talks about FGC and therefore, nobody knows that other women are also suffering and do not want to cut their daughters. Sahiyo’s social change platform was born to amplify the stories and voices of survivors. Mariya references a study finding that in order to achieve social change, 25% of a community is needed to reach a certain tipping point, which is slowly happening within the Bohra community.
Mariya also discussed the shift from the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – an important global health policy. The MDGs were a UN framework created in 2000 that enlisted all countries who signed on to put an end to various issues globally and to measure their achievement towards these goals. The MDG goal to abandon FGC only applied to 29 or 30 relevant countries, which were mostly within Africa and the Middle East. The issue here is that FGC is a global issue. It is prevalent in South Asia and is practiced in at least 92 countries. The SDGs, which followed the MDGs, finally recognized that FGC is a global practice. The fifth SDG specifically calls on countries to decrease FGC globally and measure the prevalence rates within their communities.
In a similar vein to the importance of recognizing FGC as a global practice, Mariya shares the importance of involving men in the movement to end FGC. Sahiyo amplifies not only the voices of survivors, but also of fathers, brothers, and husbands of survivors. The goal is to show that FGC negatively impacts entire communities, not only the women who undergo FGC. This is an important action toward abandoning FGC. Revealing FGC to be more than just a women’s issue or a cultural issue means every single person has the right and responsibility to get involved in the movement to end FGC.
Many are talking about the very important issue of an increase in gender-based violence as a result of the pandemic and the lockdown. Mariya has not noticed an increase in FGC within Asian communities or within the U.S., but instead notes the distress that the lockdown causes many FGC survivors. The isolation makes it harder to seek help, and the sense of a loss of control can trigger a trauma response for survivors. It’s important to draw attention to this issue in order to provide survivors with the services they need. Read the full transcript here, and view this eye opening discussion here.
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.
Malaysian NGO Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and British charity Orchid Project are jointly developing a new Asia Network to End FGM/C, to strengthen movements to end the practice of FGC in Asian communities.
To shape this network and its priorities, all interested organisations, activists, and stakeholders working in the region on FGM/C or related issues in Asia are invited to fill out this consultation survey. The closing date for this survey will be 22nd December 2019.
On June 1, Sahiyo and StoryCenter launched a pilot online digital storytelling workshop – Global Voices to End FGM/C, which is supporting ten women impacted by female genital cutting in sharing and audio-recording their stories.
During June, storytellers attended a series of webinars that helped highlight the storyteller process and how to go about drafting their story scripts as well creating a storyboard for their digital story. During July and August, the storytellers will continue working on their digital stories by collecting illustrations for their stories. The stories will be illustrated with a combination of personal images (photos and video clips) provided by the storytellers, and images contributed by participating women artists.
The storytellers come from a variety of countries including: Tanzania, United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Singapore, and Bahrain. “As a survivor of FGC, it is empowering to be able to share my story in my own words, with my own choice of visuals, as opposed to my story being told by someone else,” said Aarefa Johari, one of the participants of the workshop.
All participants’ digital stories will be released in late September.
A vivid memory of my cut has lived through so many years that I can recall the entire act. This experience always intrigued me and it did lead me to the insights of child psychology as to how tender a 7-year-old is. Even though my personal experience was not very excruciating, I clearly remember the sense of betrayal, and it never went away.
I was never convinced with the benefits theory that was proclaimed, and honestly, nobody really knew at a deeper level the real reason to follow this practice when I sought guidance. Because of the social influence, it was apparent that herd mentality, unexposed details, unquestioned thoughts promoted this practice.
When my elder daughter was near the age, I had to figure out for myself if my daughter should also be cut. It felt as if I had Godlike power to alter something natural belonging to my daughter’s body forever, and that did not feel right. For me, the decision was a chaotic fight between the cultural beliefs and the scientific quest. I reached out to a few of my doctor family members to understand if there was any scientific aspect. All of them discouraged the practice. That is when the light in my heart beamed strong.
I chose courage and discussed this openly within my group of Bohra friends. Surprisingly, I found most of the women were also against it and this strengthened my defiance! In fact, my mother secretly regretted having the practice done to me, too.
I was sure I did not want to take away what God had bestowed on my daughters. With this clarity, I announced it to my family that we won’t be conducting this on our daughters. One additional powerful advantage was that we resided in the United Kingdom. Since it is a criminal offence here, it was an easy argument to assure a few of our noisy family members back in India. Because we as parents were strong, nobody really questioned or bothered to enforce this. It was simply about standing up for what we thought to be correct.
My husband was firm from day one that he was not willing to get this done for our daughters, yet he had given me the ownership of making this decision in case I was convinced that it had to be done. My decision scale had a chunky weight on anti-FGM, which was also a major influence in my decision to not cut my daughters.
There is absolutely no need to do this. If you are a parent struggling with the obligation to have this done, just say no to this age-old trauma-enabling practice and move on guilt- free with loud pride that you have made the right choice.