Sahiyo U.S. Advisory Board Spotlight: Maryum Saifee

As Sahiyo’s U.S. operations and programs have grown, in 2018, we invited various individuals from a host of backgrounds and professions to join our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board. The advisory board provides strategic advice to the management of Sahiyo and ensures that we continue fulfilling our mission to empower communities to end Female Genital Cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education, and collaboration based on community involvement.

This month, we are pleased to highlight Maryum Saifee, who has graciously agreed to serve as the Chair for our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board. photo3_maryumsaifee

1) Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born and raised in Texas and the product of Indian immigrant parents. Like many South Asian-Americans, my parents were baffled when I strayed from the script (pursuing a medical degree to eventually take over my mom’s practice) and opted for an unpredictable career in public service.  My first act of rebellion was joining the Peace Corps at nineteen. I worked in a small village just north of the Dead Sea in Jordan. In my two years there, I became interested in the impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. When I came home from Jordan, I served as an AmeriCorps volunteer working with South Asian survivors of domestic violence and educating school administrators in Seattle on the impact of post 9-11 anti-immigrant backlash. Just over ten years ago, I joined the U.S. foreign service where I spent more time in the Middle East serving in Cairo (during the 2011 Arab uprising), Baghdad, and most recently Lahore. I was also proud to serve as a policy advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues leading the U.S. government’s efforts to address and respond to gender-based violence (including bringing about an end to Female Genital Mutilation) globally.

2) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo and what opportunities have you been involved in?

I first became involved with Sahiyo when I worked in the Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs in 2015.  I organized panel discussions at the United Nations during key moments (the Commission on the Status of Women and International Day of Zero Tolerance) as well as at large-scale civil society convenings like the Islamic Society of North America’s annual convening. Sahiyo was (and continues to be) a powerful force for social change. Prior to Sahiyo’s existence, FGM was framed as a faraway problem restricted to sub-Saharan Africa. However, over the last few years there is a greater understanding that FGM is global in scope and not only occurring in South and Southeast Asia but communities all over the world.  I have been honored to serve as Sahiyo’s first advisory board chair and hope to help the organization continue making a strong impact.

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

Sahiyo is a powerful platform pushing for long-term social change.  Despite backlash and pushback, the organization continues its work and has given survivors like me the opportunity to forge bonds of solidarity with others fighting against FGM.  

4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?

I would say to try and stay upbeat even when there are challenges.  Changing mindsets won’t happen overnight, but it will happen in time.  My advice is to be patient and stay focused on the end goal. And in the meantime, make sure to practice self-care to avoid burnout.

 

Sahiyo Stories screened in Massachusetts

In May 2018, the Sahiyo Stories project brought together nine women from across the United States to create personalized digital stories that narrate the experience of undergoing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and/or the experience of their advocacy work to end this form of gender violence.

The video stories created at the workshop have since then been released on YouTube (you can watch them here). In November a public screening of Sahiyo Stories was held in Massachusetts.

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Lesley University, Massachusetts

On November 9th, Sahiyo took part in Violence Against Women Conference hosted by Lesley University. This day-long, interdisciplinary event aimed to “provide a platform for scholars, artists and community activists to explore the interplay between global representations of violence against women and historical and contemporary discourses.” Sahiyo held a screening of the Sahiyo Stories digital stories, with an introduction on ‘What is Female Genital Cutting’ by Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher, and a post-viewing Questions & Answers session with Renee Bergstrom, one of the Sahiyo story participants.

At the Lesley University screening, the audience included a mixture of folks, with a majority of the participants being Lesley students interested in gender equity, human rights, international women’s issues or a unique cross of these fields.

Here’s what Lara Kingstone, Sahiyo’s Communication Assistant had to say about the event:

The Q&A session allowed for followed was a frank and informative discussion of FGC, social change, and the nature of community traditions. Having both Mariya and Renee present added a layer of personal connection to the screening, and I believe that guests and facilitators alike (and myself, the Communications Assistant!) came away feeling energized, informed and connected by the session. ~ Lara

 

Mariya Receives Human Rights Storytellers Award

The Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA), a civic and community organization committed to promoting individual freedom and diversity, and to celebrating Muslim American heritage, honored Sahiyo Co-founder, Mariya Taher with the first annual MALA Human Rights Storytellers Award. This award recognizes Mariya and Sahiyo’s outstanding contribution to defending human rights through storytelling, in particular, working to protect women’s bodies from cutting – and bringing together women who have been cut on a journey of healing and empowerment. The award was given in recognition of the U.S. Sahiyo Stories project and the Human Rights Storytellers Award was presented to Mariya at MALA’s Third Annual Gala at the Chicago History Museum on November 6, 2018.

Read more at MALA’s Third Annual Gala Honors Leaders, Storytellers.

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Global Women P.E.A.C.E Foundation 5 K Walk Against FGM

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Each year, the Global Women P.E.A.C.E. Foundation hosts a 5K Walk Against FGM in Washington, D.C., and activists working to end FGC around the world come to participate. This year, the event was extended to 2-days and commenced with a Global Woman Awards ceremony on Friday, Oct 26th at the Milken Institute of George Washington University.  Two of the award recipients, included Maria Akhter and Severina Sangurikuri, two women who took part in the U.S. Sahiyo Stories project. They each received a Global Woman Awards from the Global Woman Peace Foundation in the categories of Student Ambassador and Survivor Activist respectively.

Here’s what Maria has to say about receiving her award:

I am thrilled, honored and humbled to receive the Global Woman Award in the Student Ambassador category from the Global Woman Peace Foundation. With boundless support from friends, family, and the hardworking activists in Sahiyo and other organizations working to end FGM/C, I’ve been able to turn my quiet interest in activism into a bold passion and lifelong commitment to a cause I hold near and dear to my heart. Receiving this award reinforces and challenges me to continue working in new ways to break the silence around FGM/C and end the practice for future generations.

The 5K Walk, scheduled for October 27th was at the last minute cancelled due to severe winds and rains. Yet, prior to the walk, people still gathered to listen to the guest speakers such as FGC survivor, Lola Oje from Nigeria who shared that she refuses to allow her beautiful daughter to be subjected to FGC. To learn more about the event, visit ‘A Mini United Nations Convenes in Washington, D.C.

California Thaal pe Charcha allowed me to share my experiences through storytelling

By Anonymous

I grew up in India, and when I moved to California a few years ago, I didn’t know anybody from the Bohra Jamaat (congregation). The Sahiyo ‘Thaal pe Charcha’ event came at a time in my life when I had been thinking a lot about sharing through storytelling. What a powerful tool it is to get people together and find ways to let go, heal and learn from our shared experiences. Sitting in a room full of Bohra women, sharing a meal in a thaal (a large circular steel dish), and exchanging laughs and a few cries too, I felt a strong sense of belonging. I soon learned that we all had very different upbringings outside of our Bohra lives, yet very similar experiences as women within the community.

My mother had her storytelling circle her group of women friends who met once a IMG_2198month at each other’s homes, shared a meal together and talked about their lives. She always came back from those gatherings with a glow on her face, as if a heavy burden had been lifted off her shoulders. She felt safe within that group, and the group was built on trust, love, respect, and compassion for each other.

As one of the facilitators of the California Thaal pe Charcha event, I was hoping to create a similar space for all our participants. I knew it would be a challenge since this was the first time we were all meeting, and it takes time to build trust and friendship. But it was heartwarming to see everyone feel so comfortable right from the beginning. The rest of the afternoon was full of rich and insightful discussions about what it meant to grow up Bohra in California, the multiple lives and identities that a woman has to balance, what we value about the community, the pressures, daily challenges and barriers that women faced within the community.

Interactive activities throughout the afternoon allowed participants to share something unique about their lives, and think about what community and freedom meant to them. And just when we needed a break to take in a few deep breaths, and process everything that we had discussed, we were treated to a hot cup of ‘chai’ that warmed our hearts and minds!

We ended the afternoon with many questions, dreams, and hopes in our minds. And I think that is the magic of such gatherings. It pushes us outside our comfort zones but allows us a space to share, to feel important, to know that our voices, our thoughts, and perspectives are appreciated and heard, and most importantly, a reminder, that we are never alone.

I look forward to many more gatherings where we can learn and grow together.

Read more reflections on the Bay Area TPC here!

Examining Female Genital Cutting and Intersectionality

By a Bohra

The recent dropping of charges against Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, who is accused of performing female genital cutting on underage girls in the United States, on a constitutional technicality rather than perceived criminality, solidified my thinking about the relationship between power and oppression.   

This thought was first introduced to me by Irfan Engineer, the son of Asghar Ali Engineer, a prominent activist who engaged in a decades-long battle with the Bohra orthodoxy over community reform. Irfan, a successful activist in his own right, described to me the relationship between the Indian state and the Bohra clergy. As long as the clergy declared electoral allegiance to the government, the state would turn a blind eye to the clergy’s authoritarian rule over the Bohra community. This relationship was made visible by the government’s reversal of its support for a national law against FGC, shortly after Prime Minister Modi (dis)graced the stage at one of this year’s Bohra Ashura sermons.

Modi extolled the virtues of the economically and educationally advanced Bohras, who were allegedly setting a great example for their impoverished and persecuted Muslim countrymen. Seeing Modi on stage, Bohra Muslims could almost forget the carnage inflicted in Gujarat in 2002, and Modi’s rampant Islamophobia since. The Bohra community has probably been shielded from Islamophobic violence because of the clergy’s close relationship with the ruling right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideological parent, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh).

Even I was willing to overlook the fact that the Indian government’s attempt at criminalising FGC was based more on criminalising Muslims rather than empowering women. Yet, I thought, maybe the ends will justify the means. I was wrong. Modi’s relationship with the Bohra clergy makes it clear that we cannot rely on the Indian government to end FGC in our community. Even if the Supreme Court rules in favour of criminalising FGC, we can be certain that the government will do nothing to enforce the ruling.

This violent relationship between the state and vulnerable women is not restricted to the Indian context. I am reminded of the first FGC case to be prosecuted in Australia, where three people were sent to jail after being proven guilty. An appeals court, however, acquitted them all after new evidence was released that showed that “the tip of the clitoris was still visible in each girl”. The reduction of the emotional, physical and ideological violence of FGC down to a visual assessment of a pinch of skin shows the weakness of even Western legal systems in protecting marginalised women. It is similar to the victim blaming that is still a routine in rape trials, and the inability of the state to protect women who report honour-based violence. Whether through negligence or structural misogyny, Western and non-Western governments have failed women.

If the government is not an ally, could I turn instead to ‘reformists’ within my own community?

I am in contact with certain Bohras who are not part of the mainstream community, and reject the leadership of the current clergy. They believe that the current leaders have deviated from the true message of the Imams,  and that we must educate ourselves by going back to the original sources of our tradition. I thought that this group of people (mostly men), espousing rationality and critical inquiry, would immediately be against FGC. I was wrong. The emphasis on going back to the original sources means that they accept, uncritically, the infamous book by Qadi Numan (Da’im Al Islam) that advocates for girls to be ‘circumcised’ once they are older than 7 years old. Any debate, often started by the few women in the WhatsApp group, about the necessity of this practice in our modern context, or even about the issue of consent, is shut down. I thought that a shared experience of living under a tyrannical religious clergy might force these men to be more critical of existing power structures and hear the voices of marginalised women. Once again, I was wrong. I learned that the patriarchy, embodied by these ‘reformist’ men, can never be leveraged to end violence against women.

I learned that it is not worth compromising my core values in order to ally with fickle powers that do not center marginalised voices and their struggles. Real change can only happen from the ground up. This is why the work done by organisations such as Sahiyo is vital. By reaching out to individuals, and creating a space to share our stories, Sahiyo creates sustainable change within the community, and rebalances the power structures that exist within.

 

Inaugural screening of Sahiyo Stories in California

On October 19 in Oakland, California, Sahiyo, in collaboration with StoryCenter, Asian Women’s Shelter, Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence hosted a screening of Sahiyo Stories that included a behind the scenes short film documenting the women’s experiences in creating their digital stories.

Sahiyo Stories involved bringing together nine women from across the United States to Photo 2.jpgcreate personalized digital stories that narrate experiences of female genital cutting (FGC). These nine women, who differ in race/ethnicity, age, and citizenship/residency status, each shared a story addressing a different challenge with FGM/C. Some women who had only recently discovered they had undergone FGM/C were grappling with its emotional and physical impacts, while others were invested in advocacy to prevent it from happening to more girls. The collection is woven together with a united sentiment and a joint hope that the videos will build a critical mass of voices from within FGM/C-practicing communities, calling for the harmful practice’s abandonment.

A panel discussion on female genital cutting followed the screening, and the greater connection FGC has to gender-based violence.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

Female Genital Cutting charges dismissed but our work continues: Global reactions to Michigan case news

By Sahiyo

On November 20, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman dismissed the female genital cutting charges in the historic Michigan case involving girls from the Dawoodi Bohra sect, emphasizing that FGC should be regulated by states as a “local criminal activity.” Congress enacted the 22-year-old federal law banning FGC in 1996 — the law Judge Friedman has declared unconstitutional.

Charges were dropped against two Michigan doctors, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and Dr. Fakhuruddin Attar, and six others accused of subjecting at least nine minor girls to FGC. However, Dr. Nagarwala, Dr. Attar and his wife, Farida, and a mother remain charged with conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding. Dr. Nagarwala is also charged with conspiracy to travel with intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct.

In light of these developments, we would like to share the responses of many Bohras and other activists working to end FGC.

“What is so disappointing to me is that justice will be delayed in this case. There is a growing, global movement against khafz/FGC and we need positive judgments to send a strong message to our community that this practice is harmful and illegal. We must protect future generations of Bohra girls.”
~ Farzana Doctor, Canada  

“By declaring the federal ban on FGM/C unconstitutional, Judge Friedman opens the door for parents to do exactly what was done in this case — take their daughters from states that ban FGM/C to states that don’t so they can be cut.”
~ Umme Kulsoom Arif, USA

“The ruling on the jurisdiction of this case is giving some folks a perceived green light to proudly say that khatna/khafz/FGM/C is not illegal in the US after being afraid to say it out loud after Nagarwala was arrested. But people should understand that there are many state laws still in place (including in Michigan now) and the judge said that FGM/C is a ‘criminal activity’ so parents beware. This does not give you permission to cut your daughters. It will be a regrettable time in history if there is an uptick in the practice of FGM/C in the US because of this technicality in the jurisdiction of this case.”
~ Zehra Patwa, United States

“Shameful really! While 30 other countries have made FGM illegal, US, the supposed defender of human rights, has just shown the world what American justice is…women’s rights are not just not important for the federal court.”
~ Saleha, Canada

“Shocking judgment. But at the same time judgment gave us more spirit to work hard and achieve the desired goal to end FGC. To bring social change takes time but nothing is impossible. I’m sure through our collective efforts we will achieve our goal one day.”
~ Chandni Shiyal, India

“While on our climb towards the summit, we are going to face slips and stumbles but the climb must go on…..this judgement though disappointing is a mere stumble or slip….”
~ Fakhera, India

“This judgment is clearly based on a technicality of the federal versus the state jurisdiction. Irrespective, FGC still continues to be a violent act against 7-year old girls. Are we disappointed to hear this decision? Most certainly. However, it’s only a matter of time until people open their eyes and see the truth. Tradition without any logic can only hold its ground so long. Sati used to be tradition too, in this very land. Look where we are now.”
~ Alifya Thingna, India

“One of the most disheartening outcomes of this case is the lack of outrage among our elected officials. Two, recently elected, Muslim women representatives from Michigan and Minnesota (the two states involved) have failed to use their platforms to proactively address this issue. FGM is an issue that affects the safety of women and girls, and constituents in their communities. This decision (and the lack of public outrage) sends a signal to communities who practice FGM that there will be no accountability.”
~ Maryum Saifee, United States

“It’s a sad day for silent seven-year-old girls when there is no clear US law to protect what is truly theirs!”
~ Rashida Rangwala, United States

“I am so disheartened by this decision! It’s actually shocking. I thought at least USA law would give justice to innocent girls.”
~ Alifya Sulemanji, United States

“No little girl in this world should have to go through the trauma of female genital cutting. Cultures should not be empowered to take away the human rights of their members.”
~ Renee Bergstrom, United States

“I feel angry and deeply disappointed. This isn’t over but it’s incredibly discouraging to see our legal system disrespect and let down girls and women being violated in this country.”
~ Lara Kingstone, United States

“यह केस 23 US राज्यो में FGM कानून के अभाव में जीता गया है। यह एक ही टेक्निकल ग्राउंड है। अब यह केस अमेरिकन सुप्रीम कोर्ट में जाएगा। UN कानून के तहत अमेरिका बाध्य है। अब वहां सुप्रीम के आदेश पर फेडरल कानून बन सकता है। कोई भी संघर्स लंबा समय मांगता है कभी जीत कभी हार होती है। हरेक निष्फलता अगली सफलता का बेज़ (फाउंडेशन) बनता है। भारत के कोई राज्य में ऐसा FGM कानून नही है। मगर हम भी UN के सदश्य है। भारत मे भी ऐसा कानून आज नही तो कल बनेगा।”
~ Ibrahim Patel, India

“There are many practices which have been blindly followed from decades. Some of them have been changed, modified or amended in the course of time, with the advancement of research and scientific development. We are just trying to tell the world the actual fact that women undergo suffering with no fault of their own because of FGC.”
~ Insiya Ganjifrockwala, India

“Regardless of the impending appeal, this decision may inevitably embolden many to continue cutting girls. We should take this opportunity to continue to pressure our leaders to stand against FGC as a human rights violation, to bring awareness to the issue, and to protect our girls.”
~ Jenny Cordle, United States

“I would call this verdict as a legislative failure as no justice has been given to the child, and this gives a loophole to people in that country to keep practicing FGC.”
~ Insiya Lokhandwala, India

“This is horrible! As a victim of FGC myself, I really wanted to see this doctor punished and her punishment to set a strong example for others in the community who practice FGC/ khatna thinking it’s the right thing to do. I feel like we women are never going to get justice for the wrongs done to us. What’s more, these wrongs will continue to go on and little girls will continue to be traumatized. It’s so frustrating and just makes me want to scream.”
~ Shabana Feroze, Bahrain

“I am shocked and deeply disappointed that a Federal judge in the USA has lifted the ban on FGM. It is so, so important that the USA as a world leader takes an unequivocal stand on this human rights issue afflicting women and the girl child.”
~ Zarina Patel, Kenya

“As I was reading, ‘Judge dismisses female genital mutilation charges in historic case.’ My blood was boiling. Where’s the justice for these women? What message is our federal government sending out to all doctors, mothers, and members who carry out this act? That it’s okay for them to violate girls without any real consequences. And what message are they sending out to our young girls? That their bodies are up for grabs? Or that what they’re going through doesn’t matter to us. Sad day to say the least!
~ Aisha Yusuf, United States

“I wasn’t sure what to expect from the  Michigan trial but I never dreamed it would get dismissed on a technicality about federal vs state jurisdiction! I don’t know enough about the law to know if the judge’s ruling was correct but I know I’m not going to let this setback keep me from fighting. Let’s all work together to get legislation passed in the 23 states that don’t yet have a law against FGM so this never has to happen again!”
~ Maryah Haidery, United States

Read more at U.S. Court’s dismissal of FGM/C charge in Michigan case is disappointing but does not condone genital cutting.

Read the Amicus Brief for Dr. Nargawala hearing on November 6, 2018, submitted by Equality Now, WeSpeakOut, Sahiyo, And Safe Hands For Girls in support of the United States.

Read the U.S. End FGM/C Network Statement on Judge’s Decision in Michigan Case.

 

Thaal Pe Charcha Launches in California

On Oct 21st in Berkeley, CA, a team of Sahiyo activists organized the first California Bay Area Thaal Pe Charcha (TPC). This Sahiyo flagship program allows Bohra women to come together in a private, informal setting so that they can bond over food and discuss issues that affect their lives, like Female Genital Cutting or Khatna. The program started in Mumbai, India in 2017 and is being piloted in the United States in 2018 in New York and California. For the organizers of the California Bay Area TPC, the weeks leading up to the event were full of excitement and anticipation for what they hoped would the start of new friendships in the Bay Area.

This is what one organizer, Sabiha Basrai, has to say about the program:IMG_2198

“Sharing space with an inter-generational group of Bohra women was healing and inspiring. I was able to embrace my Bohra identity in a new way and celebrate the special bonds that we build in our community, take pride in our cultural and religious history, and of course, enjoy a shared meal around a thaal. It is difficult to talk about the patriarchy that exists within our jamaats and I am grateful that TPC created a safe and confidential space to hear each other’s stories and to remind one another that we are not alone in these struggles.  We are all figuring out how to practice our faith with feminist values. This means challenging certain social norms that are oppressive to women, such as khatna or female genital cutting, while recognizing that empowering women is a very Muslim thing to do.

I am grateful for the patient and supportive work of Sahiyo and look forward to the continued work bringing about gender justice in our communities.” 

Read more reflections on the Bay Area TPC here!

Introducing Sahiyo’s inaugural U.S. Advisory Board

Sahiyo is pleased to introduce our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board. As our U.S. operations and programs have grown, the advisory board will provide strategic advice to the management of our organization, and ensure that we continue fulfilling our mission to empower communities to end Female Genital Cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education, and collaboration based on community involvement. Advisory board members will be supporting a human rights driven organization dedicated to creating a world without Female Genital Cutting through dialogue, education and direct community involvement.

Join us in welcoming the team: Maria Akhter, Renee Bergstrom, Alisha Bhagat, Insia Dariwala, Dr. Melody Eckardt, Joanne Golden, Priya Goswami, Aarefa Johari, Zehra Patwa, Maryum Saifee, and Joanna Vergoth.