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

By Mariam Sabir

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

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

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

Voices_Poster_V3.001 

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

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

 

Survivor: Female genital mutilation as a form of ritual abuse

by Nevaeh Novak

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

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

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

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

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

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

N.N.
Nevaeh Novak

What is ritual abuse? 

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

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

 For more information about this issue:

https://endritualabuse.org/  

https://survivorship.org/  

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

http://ra-info.org/ 

Sahiyo address FGM/C education in webinar

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

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

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

Find the full recording of the webinar on YouTube here

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

Find the full powerpoint and transcript of the webinar here.

Massachusetts Senate passes FGM/C bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

Massachusetts House passes FGM/C bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf

 

 

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

By Anonymous

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

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

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

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

By Hunter Kessous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Hunter Kessous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.