SEVEN, the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community, releases this month

SEVEN is being released in North America this September (Sept 5 Canada/Sept 29 U.S.). The novel sensitively addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity, intergenerational violence, religion and healing sexual trauma within the context of the Dawoodi Bohra (sub-sect of Shia Islam) community. This is the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community. Farzana is an engaging speaker on all of the above themes and issues.

About SEVEN: When Sharifa accompanies her husband on a marriage-saving trip to India, she thinks that she’s going to research her great-great-grandfather, a wealthy business leader and philanthropist. What captures her imagination is not his rags-to-riches story, but the mystery of his four wives, missing from the family lore. She ends up excavating much more than she imagined. 2016 is a time of unrest within her insular and conservative religious community, and there is no escaping its politics. A group of feminists is speaking out against khatna, an age-old ritual they insist is female genital cutting. Sharifa’s two favourite cousins are on opposite sides of the debate and she seeks a middle ground. As the issue heats up, Sharifa discovers an unexpected truth and is forced take a position. In an era of #MeToo, Doctor brings us a soulfully written book about inheritance and resistance. 

Sahiyo is giving away a copy of SEVEN to a lucky recipient! Sign up for our newsletter to find out how!

About the author: Farzana Doctor is an award-winning writer, activist, and psychotherapist. She is the author of four novels: Stealing Nasreen, Six Metres of Pavement, All Inclusive, and the forthcoming Seven. Farzana was recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now.” She is a founding member of WeSpeakOut.

SEVEN has already received excellent advance praise: “A brave and beautiful novel.”—Judy Rebick, author of Heroes in My Head

“Seven is an intimate, gutsy feminist novel that exposes the lasting, individual impacts of making women’s bodies fodder for displays of religious obeisance.”—Michelle Anne SchinglerFOREWORD Reviews

“Penetrating and subtle, SEVEN deftly explores loyalty in changing times, what it means and what you give up to be a part of a community, a marriage, and friendships. Sharifa is a sympathetic everywoman; her relationships fully realized and deeply felt in this immersive, absorbing portrait.”—Eden Robinson, author of Son of a Trickster and Trickster Drift.

“A defiant and engrossing novel.”—Sarah Schulman, author of Conflict is Not Abuse.

“In her grand tradition, Farzana Doctor once again pushes us forward with nuanced, layered, inter-generational prose, to bring visibility to an important social issue. An urgent and passionate read.”—Vivek Shraya, author of I’m Afraid of Men and The Subtweet

Sign up for Sahiyo’s newsletter to win a copy of SEVEN!

Upcoming webinar: Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After FGC

By Cate Cox

Female genital cutting (FGC) often comes with a multitude of physical and psychological issues that can impact sexual functioning for many survivors. Yet, oftentimes too little attention is given to these problems.

On October 22nd, from 12 p.m.-1 p.m., Sahiyo will be hosting an inspiring webinar about FGC, sexuality, and its connection to mental health. During this webinar, we will hear from three expert panelists: Farzana Doctor, Joanna Vergoth, and Sarian Karim-Kamara, who will help to shed light on these subjects using their professional and personal experiences. 

Farzana Doctor is an award-winning Canadian novelist and social worker. Her work includes ​Stealing Nasreen​,​ Six Metres of Pavement​, All Inclusive​, and​ her latest novel, SEVEN​. SEVEN explores the often complicated relationship between modern and traditional customs, and the struggle to end the practice of khatna, or female genital cutting, in the Bohra community. Recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now,” Farzana’s novels explore complex topics, including loss, relationships, sexuality, gender, and racism. She is also the co-founder of WeSpeakOut and The End FGM/C Canada Network, two organizations dedicated to ending FGC.

Sarian Karim-Kamara is a community development worker and the founder of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife (KDLK). She is one of the leading campaigners and activists working to end the practice of FGC, and all other forms of violence against women in the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone. Sarian underwent FGC as a child in Sierra Leone and she has spoken bravely and openly about her own traumatic experiences to help raise awareness. She runs educational workshops for professionals and communities; as well as weekly support groups for survivors of FGC in Peckham, London. She also travels to Sierra Leone to run empowerment and educational workshops aimed at young people and communities. In 2019, Sarian won the Prime Minister’s Point of Light Award. In 2014, she received an award from her Sierra Leone community in London for her service to them as a Community Champion.

Joanna Vergoth is a licensed clinical social worker and certified psychoanalyst with 20 years of experience in the field. Throughout her career, she has focused much of her work on healing trauma and advocacy work. Over the past decade, she has become a committed activist to the cause of ending FGC. She first began as coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, and recently worked to establish forma, a nonprofit dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women and families affected by FGC, as well as offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy, and awareness training.

To hear from these amazing women please register for the event through the link below. Feel free to grab a beverage or a snack beforehand, and join us for what is sure to be an eye-opening and powerful conversation. This webinar is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Register here: https://bit.ly/HealingAfterFGC 

This event is co-sponsored by Sahiyo, WeSpeakOut, End FGM/C Canada Network, forma, and Keep the Drums Lose the Knife.

Why I shared my experience at Voices to End FGM/C with the medical community

By Mariam Sabir

I had the opportunity to participate in the Voices to End FGM/C project with Sahiyo, StoryCenter and The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in November 2019 where a diverse group of survivors and health professionals shared their experiences with FGM/C. 

I am currently a fourth-year medical student at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine. I will be applying for residency this year to Family Medicine in the hope to provide a form of care that encompasses all factions of patients’ lives.

Meeting and listening to the stories of these wonderful women empowered me to discover my role in ending FGM/C. My role, I determined, was to increase awareness among health professionals. It is vital that physicians learn to identify survivors during a woman’s physical exam and learn how to approach this sensitive subject with discretion.

Voices_Poster_V3.001 

While having no past experience in presenting FGM/C to the public, I decided that perhaps a poster presentation would be the best initial step. The American Academy of Family Physicians National Conference which is attended by thousands of medical students and residents every year seemed like the perfect opportunity to spark discussion amongst the family physicians who see their patients regularly for annual physicals. My colleague, Zahra Qaiyumi, and I wanted the poster to be engaging while also conveying the statistical data related to FGM/C and a description of the project itself. However, just like the project, it needed to have a personal touch which is why I decided to use pictures of real participants from the project itself, as well as their dialogue.  

Due to COVID-19, the conference shifted to a virtual platform where our poster was displayed in the “Poster Hall” for any member of the conference to view at any time. Although I was unable to engage in lively discussions about FGM/C the way I had imagined, this is just the start to what I hope will be several more medical conferences and presentations.

 

Survivor: Female genital mutilation as a form of ritual abuse

by Nevaeh Novak

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.N.
Nevaeh Novak

What is ritual abuse? 

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

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

 For more information about this issue:

https://endritualabuse.org/  

https://survivorship.org/  

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

http://ra-info.org/ 

Sahiyo address FGM/C education in webinar

On July 30th, Sahiyo teamed up with the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation and The Council of the Great City Schools to host a webinar, Learning about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in the Classroom: The importance of nationwide education as a tool for prevention. 

FGM/C affects over 200 million girls and women globally, with many more at risk of undergoing the harmful practice each year. FGM/C can cause lifelong physical, emotional, and psychological harm, yet the public is still lacking in understanding the global scope and severity of the issue. In fact, a multitude of misconceptions surround FGM/C. In this educational webinar, we debunked common misconceptions, and explored the use of nationwide classroom education as a tool for FGM/C prevention. We heard from advocates and organizations on why and how FGM/C should be taught in schools and the power of public policy to make this a reality.

Speakers included Mariya Taher, co-founder and U.S. executive director of Sahiyo; Hunter Kessous, programs intern of Sahiyo; Angela Peabody, president and founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E Foundation; Gabriela Uro, Council of the Great City Schools; and Richard Black, former Virginia senator.

Find the full recording of the webinar on YouTube here

Kessous also wrote a blog on addressing FGM/C in the college classroom

Find the full powerpoint and transcript of the webinar here.

Massachusetts Senate passes FGM/C bill

BOSTON, MA – July 30, 2020 – Sahiyo would like to thank the President of the Massachusetts Senate, Karen Spilka, and bill sponsor Senator Joe Boncore (D-First Suffolk and Middlesex) for the passage of bill H4606 “An Act Relative to the Penalties for the crime of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)” in Massachusetts. The FGM/C bill had a favorable vote in a formal session of the Senate, after it passed in the House on July 16th. Governor Charlie Baker will have 10 days to sign the bill. 

Survivors Mariya Taher, Aisha Yusuf, and activist Hanna Stern created a change.org petition to plead with the Massachusetts state legislature to protect young girls in Massachusetts from being cut by making FGM/C illegal. Taher, in particular, was praised by Senator Boncore for her work and advocacy on the issue. Taher has worked with the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts independently, and on behalf of Sahiyo – United Against Female Genital Cutting, of which she is the U.S. Executive Director and co-founder. Senator Boncore also recognized Sahiyo for their work on advocating for the abandonment of FGM/C. A member of the legislative working group, Joanne Golden, is also a member of the U.S. Advisory Board for Sahiyo. 

On June 16th, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted favorably to pass the bill. The FGM/C bill not only has bipartisan support, but also bicameral support, with over 100 Senate and House cosigners of the original bills (H3332, H1466). The bill has also been supported by almost 50 organizations, including The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, the AHA Foundation, UNICEF USA, the U.S. End FGM/C Network, Boston Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, Office of the Child Advocate, Caucus of Women Legislators, American Academy of Pediatrics – Massachusetts Chapter, and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) – Massachusetts section, and Sahiyo, to name only a few. 

FGM/C is defined by the World Health Organization as removal of all or part of a girl’s healthy genitals and surrounding tissue for non-medical reasons, often resulting in serious health consequences, including the risk of death in childbirth, and lifelong trauma. There are no health benefits to this practice. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half a million women and girls living in the U.S. have been cut or are at risk of FGM/C. Over fourteen thousand such women and girls reside in Massachusetts, which ranks as 12th in the nation for at-risk populations. Last session, the Joint Judiciary Committee heard unequivocal testimony from survivors that FGM/C happens in the U.S., and that girls born in Massachusetts are at risk.

Thirty-eight states have already passed laws banning FGM/C,  including during the shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, and we respectfully urge Governor Baker to sign bill H4606 into law so that Massachusetts can become number 39. In November 2019, a U.S. District court struck down the federal law making FGM/C illegal, finding that Congress exceeded its authority under the U.S. constitution, and that FGM/C is a violent crime that must be regulated by the states. Top Massachusetts law enforcement officials testified last September that existing state criminal laws would not cover FGM/C. The Department of Children and Families considers FGM/C a form of child abuse. Massachusetts must act to stop this practice.

Thank you to Senate President Spilka and House Speaker DeLeo, and our House and Senate bill sponsors for your leadership, support, and action on such an important issue of women and girl child rights.

Massachusetts House passes FGM/C bill

July 16, 2020 – The Massachusetts House of Representatives has just voted favorably in an informal session to pass a bill to protect girls from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). H.4606 – An Act Relative to the Penalties for the Crime of Female Genital Mutilation will now go to the Senate floor for a vote. 

Survivors Mariya Taher, Aisha Yusuf, and activist Hanna Stern created a change.org petition to plead with the Massachusetts state legislature to protect young girls in Massachusetts from being cut by making illegal FGM/C. Taher has worked with the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts independently and on behalf of Sahiyo – United Against Female Genital Cutting, of which she is the U.S. Executive Director and co-founder. 

Sahiyo, along with Taher, Yusuf and Stern, would like to thank the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Robert A. DeLeo, and bill sponsors State Representatives Jay Livingstone (D-8th Suffolk), Natalie Higgins (D-4th Worcester), and Brad Jones (R-20th Middlesex, House Minority Leader) for today’s passage of bill H4606 “An Act Relative to the Penalties for the crime of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)” in Massachusetts. 

The FGM bill has not only bipartisan support, but also bicameral support, with over 100 Senate and House cosigners of the original bills (H3332, H1466). The bill has also been supported by almost 50 organizations, including The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, U.S. End FGM/C Network, Sahiyo, UNICEF USA, Boston Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, Office of the Child Advocate, Caucus of Women Legislators, American Academy of Pediatrics – Massachusetts Chapter, and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) – Massachusetts section, to name only a few. 

FGM/C is defined by the World Health Organization as removal of all or part of a girls’ healthy sex organs and surrounding tissue for non-medical reasons, often resulting in serious health consequences, the risk of death in childbirth, and lifelong trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half a million women and girls living in the United States have been cut or are at risk of FGM/C. Over fourteen thousand such women and girls reside in Massachusetts, which ranks as 12th in the nation for at-risk populations. Last legislative session, the Joint Judiciary Committee heard unequivocal testimony from survivors that FGM/C happens in the U.S. and that girls born in Massachusetts are at risk.

Thirty-eight states have already passed laws banning FGM/C including during the shutdown for the COVID19 pandemic, and with your immediate action by the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor Baker, Massachusetts can become number 39. We do not want our state to be a destination for FGM/C. In November 2019, a U.S. District court struck down the federal law making FGM/C illegal, finding that Congress exceeded its authority under the U.S. constitution, and that FGM/C is a violent crime that must be regulated by the states. Top Massachusetts law enforcement officials testified last September that existing state criminal laws would not cover FGM/C. The Department of Children and Families considers FGM/C a form of child abuse. Massachusetts must act to stop this practice.

We respectfully urge all to support this legislation and take the necessary steps immediately to send it to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the session on July 31st. 

Sahiyo is dedicated to empowering Asian communities to end female genital cutting (FGC) and create positive social change. By working towards an FGC-free world, we aim to recognize and emphasize the values of consent and a child’s/woman’s right over her own body. We aim to enable a culture in which female sexuality is not feared or suppressed but embraced as normal.

The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts (WBA) has over 1500 members and was founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1978 with a goal to achieve the full and equal participation of women in the legal profession and in a just society. It is one of the oldest and largest women’s bar associations in the country.

photo by Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf

 

 

What I learned about FGC at Sahiyo’s Virtual Activist Retreat

By Anonymous

I first heard about female genital cutting (FGC) from a close friend who had undergone the practice. When I heard about it, I was around ten years old. I was shocked, but didn’t have enough information to understand the weight of the problem. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the issue, as it’s become more prominent in the media. I wanted to take a step further in joining the activism. The main reason I attended Sahiyo’s Virtual Activist Retreat was to learn more about the activism, and the stories about how it’s affected my community.

There were two sessions that stood out to me. The first being the Speaker Series where we learned about the neurological and psychological effects of FGC, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder. The Speaker Series, paired with the information I learned in the classroom, gave me a new perspective on how big of an issue this is in my community. The second session that stood out to me was the simulation exercise. It provided me with an example of how to talk about the issue at hand in a respectful, yet effective manner.

At the moment, I am attending sessions with members I have met during the retreat, but I hope to soon make a difference by using the skills that I have to create more awareness, not only in my community, but other communities, as well.

Why human rights education, including FGC, is crucial for American classrooms

By Hunter Kessous

Throughout high school, whenever I would tell people about my future goals to help survivors of female genital cutting (FGC), nine times out of ten the response would be, “What is FGC?” This is a question I never minded. As a human rights advocate, I’ve always taken the opportunity to educate my friends about this topic.

I never expected that one day my peers at university would claim my desire to end the practice of FGC was neocolonialist, imperialist and simply wrong. I was shocked. I had read all about the harm that FGC causes to girls and women globally. I know, of course, that communities that practice FGC are protective of their tradition. However, I was completely unprepared to be met with hostility by my classmates. 

Soon, I noticed a trend: all of the students who were opposed to ending FGC were in the anthropology department. This left me even more puzzled—my experience with anthropology had been positive. We learned that culture is meant to grow and change over time. We learned about cultural relativism: the importance of viewing cultural practices through the lens of the culture itself. All of these things aligned with my view of FGC and approach toward abandonment. FGC is a cultural practice, but that doesn’t mean it can and should not change. Understanding the way communities that practice FGC view and justify their tradition is key to effectively encouraging abandonment of FGC. Why, then, do some anthropology students believe there should be no interventions to end FGC?

Finally, I got answers. My global health professor led a discussion about FGC in class, which quickly turned into a ferocious debate between myself and three other students. Nearly all of what they said was untrue: FGC is a religious practice; medicalization makes FGC safe; and FGC is an African practice so we should not condemn it. 

FGC is often justified with religion, but it is not technically a religious practice. It pre-dates Islam and Christianity. Medicalization does not remove many of the physical and psychological dangers of FGC. It is a global practice-–happening even within the U.S.–that we should strive toward ending by allowing those from the communities that practice FGC to lead the initiative. These simple corrections were not well-received during the debate, potentially because the anthropology professors may have refused to take a stance on FGC as a human rights violation .. Herein lies the danger: misconceptions about FGC become all the more harmful when they are propagated by trusted sources. 

My experience showed me that the accuracy of information about FGC being taught in college classrooms desperately needs to be improved. Moreover, there is a general need for increased education about FGC in American classrooms. 

Public policy in England, as well as the state of Virginia (thanks to Angela Peabody of Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation), mandate that the harms, laws, and resources surrounding FGC be taught in sexual education courses for middle and high school students. These laws are important because we are raising the next generation of advocates. By teaching about FGC in schools accurately, we are empowering young people to be knowledgeable of and speak out against a human rights violation. This can and should be done through mandating FGC education in sex education classes and improving the accuracy of it being taught in university courses. 

To learn more about FGC, common misconceptions, and the importance of nationwide classroom education as a tool for FGC prevention, join Sahiyo for an educational webinar on July 30th at 1pm EST! Follow this link to learn more and register. 

U.S. may deny asylum for females fleeing gender-based violence

By Hunter Kessous

(Follow this link to take action immediately and stand with survivors before July 15th.)

At the age of 17, Fauziya Kassindja narrowly escaped undergoing female genital cutting (FGC) and a forced marriage in her home country of Togo. She used a fake passport to make her way to the United States, and upon arriving at the border, explained to the officials that her document was fake and she was there to seek asylum. She was placed in a maximum security prison for nearly two years. Her case for refuge was initially denied, and was appealed to the highest immigration court in the U.S. where she was finally granted asylum. In 1996, Fauziya became the first to gain refuge in the U.S. on the grounds of escaping FGC. Her victory set the precedent for future immigrants to receive asylum from gender-based persecution. 

In addition to the precedent set by Kassindja’s case, there are multiple legal reasons why FGC qualifies as persecution. It violates multiple human rights documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child among others. To qualify for refugee status, an individual must prove the persecution they fear is for reason of her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. FGC is often thought to be a religious requirement. It can also be argued that opposition to FGC is a political opinion. 

It seems obvious that FGC should be grounds for asylum in the U.S. Yet, women are still refused for reasons that are often untrue or impossible, such as “woman can refuse to be cut or “the woman can relocate.

Now, refuge for women escaping FGC may be significantly limited. A proposed rule by the Homeland Security Department and Executive Office for Immigration Review set to be finalized on July 15th, would radically restrict eligibility for asylum, especially for those fleeing gender-based violence (GBV) and for LBGTQIA+ individuals. The regulation bars evidence that supports an asylum claim if it could be seen as promoting cultural stereotypes. On this basis, a judge could refuse refugee status to a woman fleeing FGC because the judge may think it promotes a cultural stereotype. A woman escaping GBV could be denied asylum on the grounds that feminism is not a political opinion. It even allows officials to dismiss some asylum applications without a hearing. These are only a few examples of the many ways this rule would dismantle the U.S. asylum system.

We must act now to protect women and girls. The rule will go into effect July 15th, but before it is finalized the government must read and respond to comments sent by organizations and individuals. To submit a comment, follow this link. A sample comment is provided, but it is imperative to make your comment unique in order to ensure that it is read and responded to accordingly. 

For more resources to fight the finalization of this harmful rule, read this document containing websites for action-taking, informative webinars and articles, and sign-on letters.