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.

31 US States Now Have Laws Against Female Genital Cutting, But Government Will Not Appeal in the Federal Michigan Case

On April 10, the U.S. Department of Justice decided not to appeal the November 2018 judgement by a US District Court which ruled that the federal law banning Female Genital Cutting is unconstitutional. The District Court had stated that FGC is a “local criminal activity” to be handled at the state level and that Congress did not have the authority to enact the federal law under the commerce clause. While the Department of Justice cites such technicalities as the reason behind its decision not to appeal the District Court’s ruling, it has also urged Congress to address the flaws and problems with the federal law against FGC so that it can be strengthened.

The District Court’s ruling in November came in the case of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and others, who were charged with performing/aiding female genital cutting in Detroit, Michigan, on nine minor girls.
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In positive news, however, 31 out of 50 states in the USA now have laws banning Female Genital Cutting after IdahoArkansas, and Utah passed laws to that effect in the past few months.

The Idaho legislature passed a bill outlawing FGC on March 20, and the law will be effective from July. Utah state legislators unanimously passed a bill against FGC a week earlier, on March 14. Meanwhile, the law in Arkansas, passed in February, not only criminalises FGC but also provides for introducing awareness programmes about FGC.
18 states in the US have yet to pass their own laws banning genital cutting for girls and women, which is now vital since the District Court has ruled that FGC is a state-level crime.

Meanwhile, in India, a group of grassroots Muslim women’s organisations in India released a manifesto on March 28 for political parties to take up ahead of the 2019 national Parliamentary election in April and May. The manifesto includes the demand for a special law to ban female genital cutting in India. The Indian Supreme Court is currently hearing a set of petitions demanding a law against FGC, as well as a counter-petition defending FGC on the grounds of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to religious freedom. The liberal Muslim women’s groups that released their “women’s manifesto” hope that India’s leading political parties will commit to ending FGC in their own official election manifestos.

For survivors and their doctors: An online tool about female genital cutting

By Brionna Wiggins

One day, fifteen years ago, while Karen McDonnell was teaching reproductive health at George Washington University (GWU), a student of hers was absent from the class. While that may not seem out of the ordinary, it was quite strange for this particular student. He was a diligent medical doctor from Guinea who attended the university for a Master’s in Public Health. He never missed a class before. Upon his return, Karen asked him if everything was okay.

He told her that he had almost lost his wife.

His wife had given birth to their first child, but when she was young, she underwent female genital cutting (FGC), and it caused complications during the delivery. No one knew how to properly care for her at the hospital while she delivered, and she nearly bled out. In short, those caring for her were unprepared for her case.

“This isn’t something I was interested in yesterday,” Karen said, alluding to the years she’s spent on this project and reflecting on how far she’s come in understanding FGC. She remembers hearing about it in undergraduate school. Back then, FGC was simply an issue mentioned in passing during class. For the students in her graduate school at that time, it may not have seemed like there was anything to be done about it. “It’s a cultural practice, you can’t change culture. So let’s make it safer,” Karen said the instructors told students. The best solution at the time was medicalization, perhaps even providing clean blades. Karen knew that it still didn’t seem right and didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. The blade may be cleaner, but the potential health issues would remain.

woman in pink headscarf stands in front of silver imac
Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

Karen pressed on working at George Washington University, spending decades focusing on domestic violence in her work. But the incident with her student sparked the motivation for advocacy. “That student changed my life in opening my world to [FGC].”

Since then, Karen has worked with the former students and current students to educate others about how to care for those who have undergone FGC. She simply started by talking more in-depth about the practice with her students so they were made aware of the topic. Then two years ago, when the Office on Women’s Health came out with a funding mechanism for a medical project, Karen thought, Finally, we’re getting some attention here! They began working with survivors and RAHMA: a DC-based organization that addresses the stigma around HIV/AIDS in the American-Muslim community, as well as advocates against FGC. The team at GWU was awarded the health-focused funding to do work on a project that would teach other health practitioners how to give provisional care for those who have undergone FGC. Thus started the development of an online toolkit to educate women and healthcare providers on a topic that was once shrouded in secrecy. This toolkit is intended to be easily accessible and resource-filled with proper terminology and answers to questions that aren’t usually asked.

The members of the team include a variety of survivors, advocates, health professionals, and others on-board with the multi-year program. In-depth interviews were conducted for both survivors of multiple countries and health-care providers that worked with survivors. The interviewers asked a myriad of questions: Tell us your experience? How did you get involved? If you had a toolkit, what would you want in there? What would you want providers to know? What do you want women to know?

What’s even better is that women are coming forward with the willingness to share their stories, thanks to increased awareness and support from organizations such as Sahiyo that encourage them to do so. A turning point for these women had to do with their health: they started questioning why they had urinary infections and trauma they’ve carried since childhood. Beginning this conversation was the first step.

The online toolkit is useful for survivors, their doctors, and others in the community. It will have an optimized search and curated content, which ensures that the information is scholarly, reliable, accurate, and useful for the website visitors. While doctors would ideally ask their patients about certain conditions that affect them, this resource can potentially fill in their gaps of knowledge when interacting with their patients. Additionally, the kit would cover essential concepts for survivors to ask health professionals. The team plans to have a community tool section that can be used by men and religious community leaders.

Karen and many others are making a difference by working on this resource for survivors and their doctors. By understanding the complications that accompany their condition, it will ensure they receive proper support.

More on Brionna:

Brionnabiopic

 

Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.

Sahiyo USA’s Second Annual Activist Retreat: A recap

To learn more about the activists retreat, read the summary report. 

In March 2019, Sahiyo U.S. hosted our second annual activist retreat for women connected to the Bohra community who are concerned about the issue of FGC within the community. Sahiyo understands it takes many to bring about social change, and as a result, we work with individuals, organizations, and coalitions in a collaborative fashion. As advocates and activists, we are better together and can find the best solutions if we collaborate and work as one.

The Sahiyo Activist retreat helps to build a network of U.S. based Bohra activists by 1) strengthening relationships with one another, 2) sharing best practices and providing tools for activists to utilize in their anti-FGC advocacy work moving forward. The retreat was also an opportunity for advocates/activists to discuss both the challenges and opportunities they face in advocating against FGC. This year, Sahiyo also initiated our peer support program, Saathi, a program attended to build a support system for activists. As per Sahiyo’s 2017 Activists Needs Assessment, findings suggest that having a support system in place was crucial towards building a critical mass of voices seeking to create change. Both the Activist Retreat and Saathi program seek to do so.

To read reflections from participants who attended the retreat, click here.

Speaking the truth about my experience with female genital mutilation

By Aisha Yusuf

(Aisha is one of our Sahiyo Story participants who continues to use her voice to advocate for change on female genital cutting.)

At the Pro-Voice storytelling event at the Frogmore in Boston on March 31, there were three storytellers, including myself. The event was organized by Rev. Susan Chorley to contradict the narrative of shame, judgement, and stigma directed at women’s bodies and women’s lives. It was intimate in the sense that we created a small circle and we also paired in groups to engage in discussion with the attendees after each storyteller presented their piece. I was the second storyteller.

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I told the crowd I experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) when I was five, but I didn’t really process it until I was thirteen. It took me many years to understand it and its impact on my life. I speak about it because I don’t want to be silent anymore.

For me, I’m still getting the hang of storytelling and so I was nervous when I first got up, but the feedback I got after the event was over made me glad I shared my story. A lot of the attendees were shocked to learn about the prevalence of FGM around the world and how many women it affects. One woman in particular stated that she was unaware that such a practice was happening here in the United States, and they were shocked to find out that it impacted so many girls around the world.

During our small group conversation after my speech, we discussed a cultural or family practice we would undo for our people or community and how it would change our lives. I gave a brief example of a 10-year-old girl who died as a result of FGM in Somalia last July. I stated that I wanted to undo this practice so that innocent lives do not have to suffer like the girls who’ve died because of FGM, and many other girls who will potentially experience it.

When each storyteller told their story, the attendees would write something positive on three cards for the storyteller, which they would get to take with them at the end of the event. After the last discussion, Rev. Chorley, who is also the Executive Director of Exhale, thanked the storytellers, attendees, volunteers and gave storytellers a book along with cards.

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Overall, I was happy to share my story with the general public, I didn’t expect to receive so much positive feedback. One woman in particular I remembered stated that she was moved by my story. After the event was over people were networking. This older American woman came up to me and stated that she was not ready for the story I told. She was in disbelief that this had happened to me and thanked me for sharing my story and bringing awareness to such a private and intimate practice. This moment in particular made me realize why it was important to tell my story of surviving FGM. She added that hopefully what I am doing can bring change for girls.