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. 

Farzana Esmail hosts fireside chat on FGC with co-founder of Sahiyo

By Hunter Kessous

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.

 

Let’s Talk FGC: A fireside chat with Mariya Taher and Farzana Esmail

Mariya Taher, U.S. Executive Director and co-founder of Sahiyo, and Farzana Esmail, FGC survivor, mother and advocate, sat down together for a virtual fireside chat on female genital cutting (FGC): part interview, part sincere exchange of stories, and part education. Farzana and Mariya intertwine pieces of their personal experience with the facts and information they provide on female genital cutting. This webinar explores FGC as a global practice, the many ways in which it is performed, how it impacts survivors, and related legislation. Mariya and Farzana share the progress toward abandoning FGC that has been made to date, the impact of COVID-19 on this progress, and Sahiyo’s theory for social change. 

Farzana: Mariya, thank you so much for doing this. Before I go on to introduce your illustrious background, if I could take just a few minutes to set the context of our conversation. This is a subject that is extremely personal because I have lived through this. I have long fostered the idea of bringing my story and sharing it in the hope that it triggers conversations, and, in time, banishes the fear and discomfort that surrounds it. We are discussing female genital cutting. 

Mariya, you have been named one of the six experts on female genital cutting by News Deeply. You have worked for over a decade in the anti-gender violence field, from research to policy, program development, and direct service. You have attained your masters in social work from San Francisco State University and went on to pursue a qualitative study titled, “Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the United States.” You have been diligently working on the issue of domestic violence within a number of organizations. In 2015, you founded Sahiyo, an internationally recognized, award-winning organization, to empower Asian communities to end female genital cutting. You sit on the inaugural Steering Committee to end female genital cutting with the U.S. End FGM/C Network. In Massachusetts, you work with The Women’s Bar Association to pass state legislation that would ban FGC and create education and outreach programs for survivors. The Manhattan Young Democrats named you 2017 Engendering Progress Honoree and ABC News did a special feature on you. You have been a prolific writer in fiction and nonfiction essays and short stories that have appeared on NPR, The Huffington Post, the Fair Observer, and a number of credible publications. 

Mariya, the first time that I spoke about FGC with a group of friends I experienced a sense of relief. It was almost cathartic, but I also sensed disbelief, despair, and huge discomfort. There are those who have perhaps never heard of this practice, then there are those who have heard but choose not to speak about it, and then there are those, like us, who have lived through this. So if we can begin today by you just defining for us what in fact is female genital cutting?

 

Mariya: Sure, well, thank you, Farzana, so much for inviting me to speak and for that wonderful introduction. And, this is an incredibly important topic for me as well, as you have spoken a bit about my background. It is also one because I grew up in it, and I underwent it myself when I was seven years old. I wanted to just give that context first before I explain what female genital cutting is because I think it is important to recognize that many girls who have undergone it actually don’t know what they have undergone or even realize that what they have undergone is female genital cutting, or another term that it’s referred to as is female genital mutilation, but for the purposes of our conversation I will tend to refer to it as female genital cutting or FGC. 

So, according to the World Health Organization, female genital cutting involves all procedures involving cutting or removal of part [or all] of the external female genitalia for nonmedical reasons. There are various forms of it. The World Health Organization has actually categorized it into 4 types, but each of these types are very broad in itself. So, type 1 is something that usually involves cutting or excision of the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, but it is very broad and could also include removal of all of the clitoral hood and also part of the clitoris. Type 2, which is considered more severe, involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora – so it’s the inner and outer lips of the female genitalia. Type 3 is narrowing of the vaginal orifice by creation of a covering seal, so it is generally the most severe form. It is also known as infibulation, and it can involve removing all of the labia minora and labia majora as well. Then there is type four which is considered the “other” category, and this is really something that involves anything that doesn’t fit in types 1 through 3 which can be pricking, piercing, cauterizing. Those are the 4 broad categories defined by the World Health Organization. Just to give you a little more information of the statistics that we have on female genital cutting, about 90% of women and girls who undergo it undergo types 1 and 2. So, type 3 which is the most severe form only really accounts for about 10% globally, and I think that is really important to recognize, too. 

Farzana: Sure, Mariya, you know when I started to follow Sahiyo, I also got acquainted with a lot of survivor stories, and some of these stories resonated, and I could identify completely. For most of us, the impression that I gathered was that it happens between the ages of 7 and 9. It’s almost something that is led on by either your grandmother, or an aunt, or your mother. The backdrop is a dilapidated dimly lit building where an elderly aunt answers the door and performs the practice. Immediately after that, there is a celebration. While the survivor has gone through an incredible amount of pain, confusion, and almost a sense of betrayal. However, as I went on to read and follow Sahiyo over the years I learned that this practice isn’t skewed to a community or culture, but in fact is being practiced around the world, in many geographies, by indigenous communities. How right is that assessment?

Mariya: That’s correct. What’s interesting is that when people have heard of female genital mutilation/cutting, they have often heard of it in relation to it happening within the African context or amongst African diaspora communities. It’s a myth actually that it only happens within African communities or contexts. I think what you’re bringing up is the opposite because of where you grew up knowing this is something that happens within South Asian communities and the Dawoodi Bohra community, which is the community we both grew up in, but it wasn’t publicly acknowledged that it happened within this community. 

I think that the stories you are describing are very typical of the stories that we hear from survivors who have experienced it within the Bohra community, but there are elements that also ring true for survivors from various different communities. One of the reasons Sahiyo engages in storytelling, and a lot of work is around collecting stories and making this subject that was for so long known as taboo come out into the public, so that we are recognizing that it is okay to talk about that. It’s important to talk about that, to share your stories, and to recognize that there [are] a multitude of stories out there. So, we have heard the stories of girls who are taken by their mothers or aunts under false pretenses, and the dilapidated building you spoke about is an element of a story we hear girls who have gone to Mumbai and had it done often talk about. But, we have also had stories of girls who have been taken to health care professionals and had it [done]. We have other stories of girls who are older and have had it [done]. In the Bohra community it’s typically done around 7 to 9, but globally it’s done in many different communities. There is evidence now that it’s being performed in over 92 countries globally, and it can be done anywhere from birth to adolescence. Even adult women undergo it. So it’s very much a global issue. It is found in every continent of the world, except for Antarctica. It’s something that just in the last few years that we are really recognizing how global it is. 

Farzana: It’s interesting you say that, Mariya, because in one of the surveys I was reading on one of your webinars there was mention that there was research done with 400 women where about 80% of them said that they had undergone FGC and 81% of them, in fact, said that they would not want it to continue, and they wouldn’t do this practice on their own daughters. Then why is it that we still see the prevalence of this practice?

Mariya: That’s a good question. Sahiyo, one of the first things we did when we came together, was we realized that we needed to do a larger scale study to understand how prevalent it was in the Dawoodi-Bohra community. Previous to that there were a couple of small-scale studies, but we wanted to do something to get a larger number. We did this small study where we had women who grew up in the Bohra community globally take part, and we had over 400 women take part in it. About the statistics you referred to, we analyzed, I think, about 384 women’s data after we collected it all. We found that, out of that number, 80% of the women had undergone FGC, which confirmed for us that it was prevalent. That’s something that we anecdotally knew but didn’t have evidence. We also found that 81% said they did not want it to continue onto the next generation. That was surprising to us, and, at the same time though, what it made us realize is that female genital cutting, or khatna as it is called in the Dawoodi Bohra community, is a social norm – meaning it has been justified in all these ways, and that one way in which it is continuing is that, because it has been justified, there’s a sense of belief that even if you don’t want it to continue, you think others in your community are continuing it, so it is being continued. There’s a term in psychology called pluralistic ignorance, and that is basically what we found happening, and part of it was because nobody was talking about this. And if nobody is talking about this then, of course, nobody knows that people are suffering the physical, sexual, emotional consequences of undergoing this. People don’t know that other people don’t want it to continue. So, the first step in terms of combating that pluralistic ignorance is storytelling. It’s coming out in the open. It’s speaking about that, and that’s really the basis of our work and why we do storytelling was because of that research, because we found that there was this huge population that didn’t want it to continue, so we were like how do we break the silence. So that’s really our theory of change; that’s what we recognize and need to work towards. 

Farzana: That’s very, very interesting, again, Mariya, because I personally believe that these kinds of practices go back institutionally in terms of legitimizing fear. There is a shame around it, as well, that makes it difficult for people to have conversations on this. In fact, we are discouraged– systematically discouraged– to have any kind of discourse. What I also found interesting is the reference you made in terms of it being more than just a physical violation, because primarily this practice, that does come across as a violation of physical well being, but, in fact, is almost like an onion peel where there are so many layers that you can keep peeling and those are so deeply entrenched with fear, with purity culture, patriarchy, gender roles, promiscuity, shame. It’s, therefore, so important to be able to see this with a much wider prism, more holistically. This is not just a physical violation, but an emotional violation. It’s a mental violation. In your experience of working with survivors, what do you believe is one of the biggest challenges to overcome?

Mariya: That’s such an important question, but a very hard question. I think it’s important to also recognize that the repercussions of FGC vary from survivor to survivor. Of the stories that I have heard, personally, through our blog and in support groups, I think what I always come away with is the emotional impact that it has regardless of a person’s background, the severity they have undergone, how they underwent it – that emotional impact is something that lasts a lifetime. It comes across in many different ways: we have stories from women who don’t remember being cut, which is actually very common, because with trauma, the way your brain protects you, it switches it off. We have had stories of women who do not remember they were cut, and, sometimes, until somebody else told them they were cut, didn’t even realize it. But in determining that information it’s almost like going through PTSD again, too, and for some women it is almost like piecing together pieces of a puzzle. They are recognizing or wondering if certain impacts on their sexual lives are a part of it. It is something that, unfortunately, there’s not enough research around the sexual impact, particularly amongst Type I, we don’t really know. But, again, sexuality is very much connected to your emotional state and to your mind. So that’s one thing across communities and individuals that I come away with is that emotional impact. But, again, this is something that affects people physically, sexually, in many different ways. It’s important to recognize every survivor is going through their own journey in terms of what they are dealing with. 

Farzana: You know, in my case, if I could just use my reference, just for a few minutes here. Perhaps this analogy will sound a bit absurd, but I will go with this analogy. It’s like childbirth: you forget the physical pain, because the emotional sense is so heightened with joy. Similarly here, the physical pain is forgotten. I don’t remember the pain, but the sense of deceit at the hands of my mother has been huge. But again, I completely recognize that my mother came from a generation that was less educated, less informed, less encouraged, perhaps not encouraged at all to speak their mind. But again, it is the same woman who today hasn’t enforced on me or has expressed those views for me to practice it on my daughter. So I do believe there is a huge hope of change, and because Sahiyo is so dedicated to ending FGC. In your opinion, how far are we from the day that this is something that we won’t see happen? I know you don’t have a crystal ball but…[laughs]

Mariya: Social change takes time, it takes a lot of work. There is a lot of work to still be done, but…

Farzana: How far perhaps– sorry to interrupt– if perhaps you could tell us how far have you come from the time that you started?

Mariya: I want to recognize also that there have been women and researchers even within the Bohra community that have been bringing this to the world’s attention prior to Sahiyo, as well. I want to also just acknowledge the women from past generations and men from other communities that have been working on this topic in various cultures and communities, too. Just to recognize that is something that’s been ongoing and there has been a lot of amazing important work being done for decades. Having said that, I do think that we have seen a lot of progress in the last five years, as well, in terms of acknowledging that this happens within many Asian countries and communities. And that is something we are seeing from the largest levels from looking at systematically, even looking at the UN in terms of measuring FGM/C. There is something called the Sustainable Development Goals which have come out from the UN. The Sustainable Development Goals are a framework which every country who signs onto the SDGs they are responsible for making progress towards those goals. Then there’s SDG number 5 which is specific to FGC and decreasing FGC globally. I am bringing that up because prior to the Sustainable Development Goals, there was a platform called the Millennium Development Goals that was a similar framework towards measuring achievement towards various social ills globally. Within the MDGs they did have a target to decrease FGC globally, but it was only amongst what they considered relevant countries, so countries that had prevalence rates, which was mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. So at that time, it was only amongst, I think 29 or 30 countries. The SDGs, this new framework, actually accounts for the fact that it is global. It is no longer just counting the estimates within those 29-30 countries, it’s actually globally. It’s a huge, huge deal because it’s recognition that this is a global issue. That is progress within itself. I just want to mention that in terms of the highest levels. 

In terms of the lower level, the communities and individuals, we are hearing more stories. More survivors are sharing their stories. More people are coming out to publicly say we shouldn’t do this. That’s huge, and I do think that we are getting to that tipping point that we need. There’s research that shows once you get 25% of a community to reach a certain tipping point, that’s when you see change within social norms. I feel like we are getting to that tipping point. I want to recognize that I don’t think that– I want to be hopeful that it ends in my lifetime. But, I also want to recognize that change is happening, and I think we need to celebrate that change and those small wins along the way. 

Farzana: Sure, of course. Legislatively, what does it look like? Are more and more countries warming up to the idea of putting a ban to this practice? Is that something that is a huge hurdle to cross?

Mariya: That is. I think legislation is important because it is a framework in which countries can, and it is a tool you can use for prevention. We are seeing more and more countries passing legislation. Within the U.S., it’s a very long story, but our federal statute was actually challenged, and so our Congress is working on a stronger piece of legislation. Individual states have been working on state laws. So, that has been amazing to see the past few years. Within Africa, most countries have it banned. It’s challenging within Asia. That is because Asia has only recently come on the map in terms of FGC being performed, and it is a very different circumstance where it is actually protected in various countries. We are seeing people challenging those social norms and that legislation. In India, we are seeing groups working towards passing a state law and are really urging the Supreme Court in India to have a ban on FGC. In that context it’s being challenged as, ‘Are we protecting girls from harm versus a religious minority right?’ You’re seeing different challenges, but you’re seeing overall that the conversation at a global level is increasing. Again, that is a first step in the right direction. 

Farzana: Apart from [countries in] Africa, are there any other countries that have gone ahead and banned the practice?

Mariya: Yeah, there are many countries that have laws against it. I don’t know off the top of my head the number. But, for instance, in Europe there are many countries that have legislation against FGC, recognizing that it happens in various countries there. Australia does as well. There was a court case that really brought it to light a few years ago. There’s attempts to strengthen the legislation within Australia, too. It is something that you are seeing in many different countries.

Farzana: In one of the stories that led me to further read was khatna [as FGC is called in the Bohra community] packages, travel packages. It was almost as if you could do a khatna tour. So if it was a practice that was forbidden in the country of residence, you could actually take a trip down to India for four to five days, have this practice done, and then come back again. So that was extremely disturbing to know that they were actually selling it is a package for tourists. 

Mariya: I had not heard of the khatna packages, but it is very common to hear. There’s a term I don’t really like using, but it’s vacation cutting: the idea that girls are taken to various countries and countries of origin to have their FGC done. It sounds like this is the khatna package that you have heard of.

Farzana: Yes, yes, that’s right. 

Mariya: I wasn’t aware of that term, but it can be more complicated than that, too. In my circumstance, it wasn’t that my parents took me to India to have it done, specifically. It was that we went to India to visit relatives and it was the summer that I was 7 that it happened. But it is a growing concern that, as countries are creating laws and policies, that might be a repercussion or unintended consequence that they might be taken to other countries. There also are laws. For instance, in the U.S., there is a vacation cutting provision, where if a girl is taken out with the intention to have that done in another country, a person can still be prosecuted. So that’s one thing to be aware of. As we are talking about legislation in general, I think law is an important framework, but I dont think law alone will end this practice. I do think it is really important to recognize that we need community education. We need to work in a very multi-sectoral approach. We are really looking at changing against social norms, and you really need to have community dialogue and education. It is much more important than legislation, but legislation does help to reinforce that something is not acceptable within a community. But, it is really that changing of a mindset that is what we are trying to do. 

Farzana: I completely agree. I think it becomes even more incumbent upon us to be able to come out and share these stories. Change can only come out if there are conversations happening around it. We have got to somehow muster up enough courage to share our stories and hopefully that should bring change. Mariya, you also touched upon something that I have questioned several times, and that is the role of men. How important is the role of men in this practice of FGC? 

Mariya: Involving men is very important, and something Sahiyo really tries to do, as well. We really look at FGC as a community issue, and we are really trying to show that FGC affects obviously the survivor, the women who undergo FGC, but it also affects the entire community. Particularly, we have stories from men who talk about hearing how it impacted their mothers. We have stories from men who have talked about how it impacted their wife and their own marital relationship. We have stories from brothers who have talked about learning that it happened to their sister and wondering if that is part of what divided them in terms of their relationship. It is something that we need to recognize as a community. We have to come together to work to make sure nobody is harmed – future daughters, future sisters, future mothers are protected from this form of gender-based violence, which can impact their lives in many different ways throughout their lives. It’s something that we work very hard to make sure that men’s voices are heard, that they are allies, and that they also are sharing their stories. Particularly, for a very long time within the Bohra community (and this isn’t true for every community, but is in an element that you find often). But for a long time within the Bohra community, men were not aware of this issue or it was something that was considered a women’s issue. That is changing. I think it is changing because of social media, because of technology, because people are just talking about it more, and, so now, in the younger generation, everybody knows about this issue now, it seems like. That’s a huge cultural shift, too, where you see, just a decade ago, men not being very aware of this to now recognizing that men are aware and can be allies and help protect future generations. 

Farzana: And that’s reassuring. Again, here if I can use an anecdote of my personal story where my father was an extremely protective father. He was extremely careful about the way that we were brought up. But, this was one of those issues where he was almost sidelined by my aunt, by the women in the family, because this was something that men did not get into. Like I said, systematically this is devised to be so patriarchal in nature, and that’s why it’s thriving. It’s also sprinkled with fear. It’s almost, you can’t be questioning the establishment and, therefore, you can’t be questioning the practice. That, I think, is intrinsically one of the reasons men don’t know enough about it, don’t know about it at all, and those who know about it perhaps couldn’t say very much. But, it is reassuring to know that’s changing because that is important. They are also stakeholders in this process of change. 

Mariya: I agree. 

Farzana: Mariya, we possibly cannot reflect on the times we are living in, which is the pandemic. It is really, really disheartening when one reads that across the world we are seeing a huge surge in domestic violence during this period of lockdown. There are some estimates that the UN has put out saying they are expecting about 31 million new cases to emerge if the lockdown continues another six months. That’s a hugely staggering number. How does FGC fit within the spectrum of the pandemic?

Mariya: That’s a great question. I was actually listening to a webinar the other day and right now it seems like there might be a difference in terms of the impact of COVID within African communities and amongst Asian communities. I think last week even there was a headline that came out with some initial findings from an organization in Somalia. FGC had increased significantly there because people were at home, so they were taking advantage of the fact that girls were not at school, so they would have the time to heal. Cutters were going door to door. Their economic well-being depended on this business, so they were looking to see if they could cut girls. So you are hearing that happen. Anecdotally within Asia, you’re not hearing that as much. The speakers on the webinar, one of them was my fellow co-founder Aarefa (I should mention I co-founded Sahiyo with four other women) – so, Aarefa was on that webinar and me and her have had some conversations on this issue about what we have been hearing. Anecdotally, we are not hearing an increase of FGC amongst the Bohra community at this time. I think there might be several reasons. One part might be that it tends to be more medicalized now, and so as hospitals and health care professionals are overwhelmed with COVID, that’s sort of becoming secondary. But also the fact that within the Bohra community it doesn’t have to happen at seven. Seven is sort of the minimum age, so people could potentially be waiting a few months, or however long, to have it done. A couple of the other guest speakers from countries within Asia were saying that they feel it might be being postponed, too. I think within Asia, too, we do see it happen as a more medicalized version, and we do see Type 1 and Type 2 much more often than we see Type 3. Again, there is no official high level data on this, but anecdotally it might be actually halted right now due to the pandemic. So it’s interesting to see the difference in how it is emerging amongst different continents. I think we will really see the impacts after the pandemic is over and once we are really able to collect more data on this. What I do want to say though, is even if the prevalence rate might be different, the fact that there’s survivors seeking out support – that is something that is having a huge impact right now. Sahiyo has had a few support groups and some of the things that we are hearing is the sheltering in place, the pandemic type atmosphere that we are having is actually triggering some trauma responses by being in lockdown, and feeling like having a lack of control. And the fact that it’s harder to seek out support right now in terms of mental health professionals or being able to chat with others. That is an impact that we are seeing, in terms of being able to receive services if you need it, as a survivor. 

Farzana: Yes, this pandemic has been unprecedented for many reasons and this is something perhaps that if we can reach out with more and more stories hopefully we will be able to give comfort. Mariya, we can go on, but I am also cognizant that we have a time limit. Thank you so much for doing this. Kudos to your team, to you, for having done such wonderful work. May you continue to make a difference, change lives, and hopefully come to that point in our lifetimes where we could probably see the end to this practice. If I can just end the conversation on a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.”

Mariya: That’s a wonderful quote to end with. Thank you so much for inviting me.

Farzana: Thank you, I really appreciate this. Thank you so much.

Sahiyo Partner Organization Highlight: StoryCenter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Voices Series: Why silence is our enemy

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Jenny 

It was a five-hour drive for me to get to the Sahiyo storytelling retreat. Within those five hours I struggled with whether I was doing the right thing. I struggled with the idea of sharing my story with people I didn’t know. I wondered if I would be accepted. I wondered what part of my story I should share, if I could find the right words. There were so many thoughts and worries that played in my mind. So many times I almost turned the car around. But I knew I needed to say something, not just for me, but for a sister that would never get to. 

Some of my fears came from the knowledge that I am probably the last picture anyone imagines when discussing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C)–the feeling that even among survivors and family member affected by FGM/C, I did not belong. 

When I begin to discover websites and groups devoted to educating and ending FGM/C, there were no images of little girls that resembled the younger version of me, no pictures of Caucasian, American girls, raised in the Christian faith. How could I ever belong at this retreat? Would my story even be remotely like other survivors or those affected by FGM/C? 

The first day at the conference, we each took turns sharing a part of our story. We worked together at helping each other find that piece we should talk about. As I listened to each story, after we shed many tears, it hit me: tragedy is blind. The tragedy and impact of FGM/C does not see one ethnic group, one culture, one religion, one country, one social class or one generation. 

FGM/C has a lifelong impact on anyone touched by this act; anyone who survives, anyone left behind by the one’s that don’t, anyone that loves the survivor, anyone that treats or supports survivors, anyone that advocates for change, and anyone trying to protect those still at risk. Silence is one of our biggest enemies. Silence hides the truth, silence removes responsibility. Silence allows for limits and boundaries to be placed on the issue. Silence allows ignorance to prevail. Silence encourages those that believe in this practice to continue the abuse or threaten it. Silence puts chains on people who are suffering. Silence prevents change. Silence prevents healing. 

The greatest gift we all have is our story. No two stories are completely the same. Every story matters. Every story needs to be shared. With each story, we began to break the wall of silence. We shatter the limits and the boundaries in place. Stories allow for truth to be seen, allows for awareness that there are so many more affected by FGM/C than is recognized, an awareness that we may never really know all affected until that wall is completely gone. Each story prevents this tragedy from being ignored, demands for change to be discussed. With knowledge comes responsibility.

Most importantly, each story provides an open door for others to share their story, too. An open door for those suffering to loosen their chains and begin to heal. Not a day passes that I don’t wish my sister had been given that open door.

So I sat in a room of men and women that were different in so many ways, but the differences didn’t matter, we were each bound by our stories. As I sat there I could hear my chains hit the floor. That room was my open door. On the other side, I found acceptance, I found healing, and I found hope. 

Voices Series: The power of naming

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

by Comfort Dondo

As an African immigrant, I come from a place of oral historians and storytelling. Sharing of community experiences is an integral part of our culture, and yet, over the decades and centuries, there are some subjects where silence persists.

Attending the Sahiyo Voices to End FGM/C storytelling workshop was a powerful and spiritual experience. I connected with women from across the world. It enabled me to name a source of my pain, confront it and acknowledge it.

Having other women with a shared narrative helped me place a balm on my wound and finally begin to heal.

Voices Series: Finding my voice through storytelling on female genital mutilation/cutting

By Siti Kusujiarti

In September 2019, I participated in the Voices to End FGM/C Workshop in Asheville. In this workshop I met with a group of amazing participants and facilitators. From the participants I learned various experience and stories and felt that we had a sense of solidarity and strength from sharing the perspectives. It is empowering to learn that each of us has been engaged in creating public awareness and raising our voices to change the practice and policies, despite our experience with female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). 

The workshop gives me opportunities to share my story that I have never spoken about before. I buried the memories for so many years, even though I cannot forget it. I could not find an appropriate space to share my story until the workshop. At first, I was hesitant to tell the story, especially when I thought how my family members, friends, and communities may react to the story. From my childhood, I learned that family members have to support each other. If we hurt them, everybody in the family will get hurt, and we have to behave well to make our family proud of us. For many years, I internalize this principle without critically thinking of the positive and negative impacts of it. However, as I get older and learn from various experience and knowledge, I realize that despite some positive implications, the principle may also silence our voice and prevent us from taking more independent thinking and action. It’s hard to question existing customs and behaviors. I also realized that by keeping my silence, I can actually hurt others. There is a misleading perception that FGM/C does not happen in Indonesia and if it happens it’s not as severe as in other places. I break my silence to debunk this conception and to get involved in actions to address the issue.

One of the challenges for me to tell this story was because those who got involved in my experience with FGM/C were the women I love dearly, including my own mother. As in most cases throughout the world, women tend to be involved in enforcing the practice. I don’t want to demonize them; I share my story to create awareness that these women are influenced by the culture and structure they live in. To address the issue of FGM/C, we need to create awareness among all facets of the society. Blaming the mothers or the families will not solve the problems. Storytelling is one of the strategies we can amplify our voices and agencies to end FGM/C.

The movement to end FGM/C: Looking back at the 2010s and looking forward in 2020

By Sahiyo

2020 is here, and we at Sahiyo are excited. 2020 brings with it not just a new year, but the dawn of a new decade of hope and hard work for our global movement to end female genital cutting (FGC). This is the decade in which we must give it our all, because we have pledged to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting by 2030

As we look forward to the 2020s, we cannot help but look back at the 2010s for inspiration. The last decade has been game-changing, not just for Sahiyo or the movement against FGC among the Dawoodi Bohras, but for the anti-FGC movement in Asia as a whole. 

At the start of 2010, FGC was still considered an “African” problem, and Asian countries were barely on the map of the places where FGC is prevalent. Today, we know that FGC is truly and disturbingly a global phenomenon putting 3.9 million girls at risk every year,  as you can see in this map created by Orchid Project:

Nearly half the countries on the map above are not yet included in the UN’s official list of 30 countries where 200 million women and girls have undergone FGC. In the 2020s, let us work to ensure that this information gap is bridged, so that Asian survivors of FGC are officially recognised. 

In fact, you can start now by signing Sahiyo’s petition asking the global community to invest in research on FGC prevalence and advocacy and support services to end FGC in Asian countries. 

But first, let’s take a look back at the biggest milestones of the 2010s from Sahiyo’s perspective.

The birth of Sahiyo:

In late 2011, ‘Tasleem’, an anonymous Dawoodi Bohra woman from India, started a Change.org petition asking the Syedna,  the religious leader of the Dawoodi Bohra sect, to call for an end to FGC in the community. Although there had been scattered attempts to call out the secretive practice of FGC among the Bohras in the 1980s and ‘90s, they drew limited attention and the practice continued to be shrouded in silence. 

Tasleem’s petition, however, received nearly 3,500 signatures, triggered a spate of media reports on FGC in India, and inspired a few Bohra women, like Aarefa Johari and Farida Dariwala, to speak out publicly about their experiences of FGC. 

The media reports on FGC at the time also inspired Sahiyo co-founder Priya Goswami to make A Pinch of Skin, the first documentary film on FGC among Dawoodi Bohras in India. As Goswami’s film won the 2013 National Award for the best documentary in India, the taboo topic of FGC remained alive in the media, sparking private conversations between like-minded Bohra women all over the world who were keen to see an end to FGC.

In late 2014, five of those women banded together to create a formal platform that would work to end FGC among Bohras and Asian communities at a transnational level. That platform — Sahiyo — was eventually founded in mid-2015. 

Breaking the silence, once and for all:  

In 2015, the private conversations on FGC among Bohras also burst into the public sphere with the launch of WeSpeakOut (known as Speak Out on FGM at the time). 

WeSpeakOut started as a private women’s WhatsApp group spearheaded by Masooma Ranalvi. In October 2015, the group launched a Change.org petition addressed to the Indian government, seeking a legal ban on FGC in India. Seventeen Bohra women publicly put their name to the petition, and the response was huge and immediate: media all over India began writing about FGC among Bohras, community leaders were forced to respond, and the silence about FGC among community members was broken for good. More than 200,000 people have signed the petition so far.  

From 2015 to 2019, we have watched the movement against FGC snowball into a global force that communities have not been able to ignore. There are now dozens of Bohra women fearlessly speaking out about their FGC experiences, signing up as Sahiyo volunteers, attending our events and pledging not to cut their daughters. Women and men have faced backlash from their families and communities for speaking out, but the movement has only grown stronger. 

Research and investigations:

In February 2017, Sahiyo released the results of the first-ever research study on FGC among Bohras: an online, exploratory survey that found an 80% prevalence rate of FGC among Bohra women respondents. Among those who were cut, 98% women reported feeling pain when they underwent the ritual. Interestingly, 81% of respondents did not want FGC to continue in the community. 

In 2017, a Sahiyo investigation also revealed that FGC is being practiced by some communities in the South Indian state of Kerala, leading to furore in the region. Before this, it was believed that the Bohras are the only community in India practicing FGC. 

In 2018, WeSpeakOut published a seminal field study on FGC among Indian Bohras. The study found FGC prevalent among 75% of the daughters of the respondents. At least 33% of the respondents who were cut reported that FGC negatively impacted their sexual lives. 

More research on the FGC in Asian communities is the need of the hour, and we are aware of several studies that are currently underway in various parts of Asia. Continuous research can help us better understand not only the prevalence and impact of FGC on women and girls, but also the needs of survivors and trends towards abandonment of the practice. 

Developments on the legal front:

The 2010s were a landmark decade for FGC on the legal front, particularly for the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Australia: In 2015, three Bohras — a mother, a nurse and a community leader — were convicted for performing FGC on two minor girls in Australia. This was Australia’s first case under its 1997 law banning FGC. However, the legal ups and downs did not end with the conviction in 2015. 

In 2018, an appeals court overturned the convictions and acquitted the three accused Bohras, on the grounds that the girls’ genitals did not show any visible scarring after the ritual, and because the Australian law did not clearly define what kind of rituals qualify as FGC. In 2019, however, an Australian High Court once again flipped the verdict, overturning the acquittals, convicting the three Bohras again, and asserting that all forms of genital cutting are illegal. 

India: In 2017, an Indian lawyer filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court of India seeking a legal ban on the practice of FGC. Other FGC survivors also joined in the petition and to counter it, a pro-FGC group called the Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom filed a petition defending the practice of FGC on the grounds of religious freedom. 

The Indian government responded to the petition by stating that FGC would be considered a crime under Indian laws dealing with child sexual abuse. However, the Indian government has made several contradictory statements about FGC since then. 

The Supreme Court has now referred the FGC case to a larger bench that will look into matters of gender equality versus religious freedom. Will 2020 be the year in which India’s highest court picks women’s right to bodily integrity over religious freedom? We will have to cross our fingers, wait, and see. 

United States: In 2017, two Bohra doctors from Michigan were among eight Bohras prosecuted for carrying out FGC on several minor girls. This was the first prosecution under the U.S.’s 1996 federal law banning FGC. In 2018, however, a U.S. district court judge ruled that even though the practice of FGC is “despicable” the federal law itself is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that FGC is a “local criminal activity” to be regulated by individual states rather than by the federal or national law. 

Currently, 35 out of 50 U.S. states have laws against FGC. Among them, 17 states introduced anti-FGC laws in the 2010s, including Arkansas, Florida and Iowa.

In the 2020s, we must campaign for laws against FGC in every U.S. state, as well as in countries across the world. 

Community engagement in 2020: 

It is now globally acknowledged that laws alone cannot be effective in ending FGC. A deep-seated social norm can be changed only if law enforcement is preceded and constantly accompanied by rigorous community engagement, education and dialogue. 

At Sahiyo, we have launched various campaigns and platforms to nurture this dialogue: the Each One Reach One campaign, the I Am Bohra photo campaign, our storytelling blog, Thaal Pe Charcha, Sahiyo Stories, Faces for Change, the Male Ally campaign, and of course, our annual Activists’ Retreats in India and the U.S. to train community members on effective methods of engaging with the community. 

In 2020 and in the years to follow, we have many more advocacy campaigns planned. The first among them will be launching next month, in February 2020: Digital Stories from the Global Voices to End FGM/C program. 

Follow @sahiyovoices on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to stay updated about the movement to end FGC and to join in our efforts.

And so, here is wishing all of you a happy and hopeful 2020!  

Asia Network to End FGM/C calls for your participation

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.

Utilizing Participatory Storytelling to Educate – A session at APHA 2019

1On Nov 4, 2019, Sahiyo’s co-founder Mariya Taher took part in a round-table session at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss the Voices to End FGM/C project. Participants were able to view a sample of the digital stories created by survivors. They were also able to learn how by utilizing participatory storytelling methods, we can educate communities, health professionals, and policymakers on female genital cutting. For more information, visit APHA’s website.