Voices Series: How I learned to tell my FGM/C story

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 Saza Faradilla

Creating this digital narrative alongside other women from all around the world was a great journey! I learned how to tell my story in pictorial ways. Never having seen a visual version of my story, it was almost a serene experience watching it unfold. Working with Sahiyo, and especially my designer, Esther Elia, was an amazing experience, as she took my vision and put it into a video form that represented my experience with female genital cutting. Processing and reliving the scenario of finding out about the cutting performed on me helped me process it further.

Voices Series: Why I believe in the power of storytelling

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 Shabana Feroze

I participated in the Voices To End FGM/C project by Sahiyo, where I also volunteer. What I really took away from participating in this project is the power of storytelling. In this project, videos are made from our past experiences with female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Each participant has a unique video. We would have weekly online workshops in which we were guided on how to tell our story and the next steps.

When each of the participants would read out her unique take on their experience, I would get chills. It had so much of an impact, listening to what each survivor went through and how it had affected them. 

It was very educational as well, because we were taught the nuances of storytelling. I found that to be the most interesting part: all the details that make a story more impactful and holds interest. I loved how we had very strict guidelines about story and video length. 

I relate to all this because I’m a marketer by profession. I believe in the power of storytelling for brands and marketing campaigns, so this was a strong reassurance that I was on the right path. All the little things I learned about what makes a story powerful and what makes a story stay with you definitely helped me in my profession as well. I could apply that knowledge to my professional work.

I also learned about teamwork and how step-by-step a big project comes to fruition. I’ve never worked on a project on an international level where the participants are all based in different countries and different time zones. Yet all of us came together and we did what was required of us, thanks to the effort and patience of Mariya and Amy, our facilitators. 

I’ve gained so much from participating in this project, more than I expected. I hope that our voices reach the highest levels and help to create change to stop this tradition.

Voices Series: Why I keep sharing my personal khatna story, again and again

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 Aarefa Johari

I have shared my story of undergoing khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), dozens of times in the past seven years. I have written about it in blogs, described it to journalists during interviews, shared it on camera and also narrated it on stage, before live audiences. 

For each medium of storytelling, the first time has always been difficult. But with each retelling, I have grown more confident and articulate, not because I am now used to talking about the day I was cut, but because I have seen the tremendous positive impact of sharing my deeply personal story. 

Talking about one’s khatna publicly involves describing an invasion of one’s own person, in the most intimate part of one’s body. It requires opening oneself up to vulnerability before one can become strong. It involves bracing oneself for criticism, dismissal and vicious trolling from those who seek to defend the cutting of little girls’ genitals. It is difficult, and contrary to what our detractors often claim, it is never a means of getting “publicity”. 

When I chose to share my khatna story, it was triggered by sheer rage. I was angry about being violated and I wanted to voice it, in the hope that it would somehow prevent other seven-year-old Bohra girls from being cut. I did not know, at the time, how powerful storytelling can be. I did not know that each story told is like a pebble tossed into unknown waters, creating ripples that continue to radiate long after the pebble has settled down. 

Speaking out helped me realise that I was not alone in my rage and indignation about being cut. It helped me connect with others who shared my feelings—fellow sisters who also wanted to end the practice of khatna—and soon, a group of us founded Sahiyo. 

At Sahiyo, we created safe spaces to enable others to share their own khatna stories. For many, the experience of story-sharing has been cathartic, liberating and empowering. Women have told us they feel less isolated when they read or hear the stories of other survivors. Because storytelling focuses on emotion, self-reflection and the nuanced complexities of personal experience, it has been far more effective at inspiring parents to abandon khatna than didactic advocacy. 

This is why Sahiyo constantly seeks to create new platforms for storytelling, and teaming up with StoryCenter for the Voices to End FGM/C workshop has been one of them. Despite having shared my story several times over the years, I chose to participate in Voices to End FGM/C’s global webinar-based workshop because this time, I wanted to share the story of my journey so far, and the role that my decision to speak out has played in it. 

Through my video story, created with the help of designer Esther Elia, I hope that I can inspire viewers to keep sharing their own stories, because their voices are needed more than ever today. Every voice counts, and the more our stories rain down on the world, the more we are likely to prevail in our efforts to end khatna.

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.

Survivor: Why labia elongation is female genital mutilation

February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting.

By Jenny Cordle

When Comfort Dudzai was 9 years old, her father’s two sisters and her nanny took her and her cousins to her family’s rural home in Chipinge, in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe outside of Harare. In six long weeks the three women taught the girls a combination of lessons on hygiene, virginity and marriage. 

Each morning the group would gather in the forest near hot springs off the Save River for a lesson. One morning the 9-year-olds were taught how to elongate their labia minora, the inner lips of the vulva, arguably one of the most sensitive parts of female anatomy. 

“The men in our culture expect that you have your labia the (length) of your middle finger,” Comfort said. “For the first few sessions, the older ladies actually pull on the labia minora for you.”

Her aunts used their hands and secret herbs for the elongation. “It was a holistic teaching about womanhood, and the labia pulling is just one of the components.” 

There is a myth about the herbal mixture being made of bat wings. 

“It is painful,” Comfort said. “You cannot cry. You endure.” 

Comfort had an allergic reaction to the herbs. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong until I started facing complications,” she said. “I felt safe because these are women I trust and love, and women I know who love me and want the best for me.” 

Comfort’s pain didn’t end with the initial allergic reaction. She had complications with the delivery of her first son as a result of the labia elongation, and eventually had a surgical operation due to many infections. 

Although there are various forms of female genital mutilation/cutting and different classifications in terms of severity, the World Health Organization (WHO) stops short of explicitly listing labia elongation as Type 4, which “includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.”

Labia elongation is encouraged to enhance sexual pleasure not only for men, but for women as well. Whether the prior WHO classification, which actually included “stretching of the clitoris and/or labia,” was altered after two researchers published a study suggesting that Rwandan women experience labia elongation as positive is unclear. 

Types 1-3 classify what can be construed as reductive types of female genital mutilation/cutting. But labia elongation is not considered reductive since nothing is cut away. Instead the labia is pulled during a series of sessions, in what some deem as modification because the process appears to be devoid of violence. Consent is key.

For Comfort, the idea that girls are coerced into altering their genitals for the pleasure of men, and even for themselves, can be psychologically damaging. She is sharing her story to bring awareness to the process and to protect girls in the future. 

“Psychologically, it tells a girl that you’re not enough,” she said. “You need to alter something and there’s something deep about telling a young lady that age that you need to make yourself this way for a man. You’re not good enough. There’s even stories about women who get returned from their marriage — that they need to go and pull that labia longer. It’s very damaging to women. It places the value of the man over the woman.”

Labeling elongation, pulling or stretching as labia modification undermines the harmful effects on girls and connotes agency, whereas in many girls experiences, they aren’t given a choice.

Labia elongation is or has been practiced among groups in several African countries including Benin, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. According to the BBC, it is reportedly happening in the United Kingdom among diaspora communities. 

Comfort (Dondo) Dudzai participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop led by StoryCenter and Sahiyo, and funded by the George Washington School of Public Health in Washington, D.C.

Voices to End FGM/C Launch: 27 survivors and activists create videos to share their stories

Important links:
Watch the Voices to End FGM/C survivor and activist videos here, as they are released every week.
Read blogs by participants of Voices to End FGM/C by following the “Voices Series” here.

Today, the occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance towards Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), Sahiyo and StoryCenter are proud to announce the release of ‘Voices to End FGM/C’, a series of 27 short videos addressing FGM/C, created by survivors and advocates from countries and communities around the world. 

‘Voices to End FGM/C’ supports women and men impacted by this issue to tell their own stories, through their own perspectives, in their own words. Participants receive training on how to create videos at workshops held either in-person or via webinars.

Says Global Voices Storyteller and FGM/C survivor Su Sun,  “Participating in this storytelling process was for me to be audacious, heal, and denounce how women’s bodies are subjected to violence in many different ways. To share this process with other women was a beautiful process of collective empowerment that allowed us not to be invisible and do so while using our imagination, art, poetry, music, colours.”

The program was first launched in May 2018 as ‘Sahiyo Stories’, when Sahiyo and StoryCenter hosted a residential workshop on digital storytelling for nine FGM/C survivors in Berkeley, California, in the United States. The videos created at that workshop, which have been screened at various events transnationally, can be viewed here.

In 2019, Sahiyo Stories was expanded into the Voices to End FGM/C program, under which two residential workshops were conducted in the U.S. and one webinar-based workshop was conducted for 10 FGM/C survivors living around the world. Most participants in these workshops had not previously shared their personal experiences with FGM/C. They received primary training from StoryCenter, which helped them write their own scripts and curate their own photographs and videos clips to make the finished videos. Some participants also worked in partnership with illustrators/visual artists to aid in the storytelling.

The 27 new digital stories emerging from Sahiyo and StoryCenter workshops will be released every Monday on Sahiyo’s Youtube page at http://bit.ly/VoicesFGMCVideos .

Says Mariya Taher, Sahiyo Co-founder, US Network to End FGM/C Steering Committee Member, Voices to End FGM/C Program Director, and FGM/C Survivor, “I believe that to create change, we have to speak about the harms in our community — and storytelling allows us to do that in a safe and non-judgemental way. The online Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling workshop has allowed survivors from around the world to connect to each other in a way that truly shows that FGC is a global issue requiring a global response.”

Amy Hill, Silence Speaks Director, StoryCenter,  explains Story Center’s motivation: “StoryCenter remains deeply committed to supporting women’s rights storytelling, through our Silence Speaks program. The partnership with Sahiyo on Voices to End FGM/C is rooted in the importance of creating safe environments where storytellers can forge new understandings of their own life experiences, repair fractured relationships with family members and other loved ones, and establish meaningful, new connections with their peers who are speaking out. Our hope is that collectively, these stories will influence conversations, community action, and policies in ways that ensure future generations of girls are spared.”

Voices Series: Survivors are more than their stories

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 Maryum Saifee

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of Appalachia, I began to unravel. In a story circle with female genital mutilation (FGM) survivors and allies, I began telling a story that by now, I had committed to memory: “I was seven years old…my aunt led me down to her basement clinic… she bribed me with a Toblerone chocolate bar.” I had told the story so often that I stopped crying during the sad parts. And it had become this mantra, much like when I was a kid memorizing parts of the Quran. Yet, unlike Quranic recitation which I found soothing, this mechanized mantra was leaving me numb. On the last day of the retreat, I found myself feeling sick to my stomach, as if everything inside of me was being purged, both physically and metaphorically.   

My physical reaction to the stress illustrated the costs and emotional labor of storytelling. On the one hand, it can be cathartic to liberate personal trauma into public spaces: the flood of support and encouragement from everyone from close family to acquaintances. But there is also the dark side – the backlash and ambivalence, sometimes from unexpected places. Over time, the iterative process can be taxing and reductive. As survivors leveraging our stories to push advocacy agendas, your story can evolve into a personal brand, even when you push back against the pigeonholing. At the retreat, I felt this pressure to produce a story that would compel more people from inaction to action. I asked a friend’s daughter – close to the same age I was cut – to hold a Toblerone bar in her small hands so that I could insert the image into my video. I thought the more graphic, the more visual, the more visceral – the more possibilities for mobilizing a mass audience.  

Blue Ridge Mountains

I was so focused on producing a neatly packaged story that I didn’t step back to think about the costs of production. In other words, the emotional toll the storytelling process was taking on me as the storyteller. How triggered I felt when my friend’s daughter asked me why she was holding a Toblerone bar, and I didn’t have the age-appropriate words to explain why, so I stayed silent and left her confused. Then there was navigating the intense aftermath of the story circle process – absorbing the pain, the trauma, and the heartbreak of the storytellers around me.  

Having had a few months to reflect, I gained perspective in three areas:

  1. Story circles are powerful ways to build community:

The pedagogy around story circles can build community in profound ways. I connected the most with a fellow FGM survivor who grew up in a conservative Christian community and is now settled in Kentucky. Despite coming from a different faith tradition, we shared much in common: growing up in the south, grappling with the emotional burden of sharing our stories, and navigating family structures that are not always supportive. There was also the similarity of being bribed with sweets. Her mother baked a cake for her and her sister after they were cut – and my aunt gave me the oversized chocolates you normally get at Duty Free airport lounges. I empathized with her struggle to engage with family members – particularly in breaking the culture of silence – on an act of family violence. I developed a powerful bond with this participant that has continued well beyond the retreat.

  1. Story circles require trauma-informed support structures:

No matter how many times a storyteller has told his or her story, trauma survivors need to have trauma-informed support structures (including psychosocial support) integrated into the story circle process. I was triggered throughout the retreat and might have navigated the experience better had a trained psychotherapist been integrated into the story circle from the outset. Story circles are sacred and have the ability to develop unbreakable bonds, but should be approached with extreme care. Even for seasoned storytellers like myself, I learned the importance of self-care and setting boundaries. To address this essential, but often overlooked element of survivor-led advocacy, the Dahlia Project, founded by FGM survivor and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein, recently released an essential tool Female Genital Trauma: Guidelines for Working Therapeutically with Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation

  1. Survivors are more than their stories

Over the last three years, as I’ve developed a personal voice on the issue of FGM, I have worried that other parts of my identity have started to recede to the background. Before telling my story, I had an identity that was more nuanced and multi-faceted. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan, which led me to become a United States diplomat with a regional interest in the Middle East. In graduate school, I used to write regularly for the Columbia Spectator and joined an art collective where I exhibited paintings in New York galleries, including one dedicated to South Asian art in Chelsea. I had this robust other life. But after telling my story, I felt I had been reduced to a singular event: an act of violence that happened on a summer afternoon when I was seven years old in the sweltering port city of Surat on the western coast of India. When the retreat ended, I realized I’m more than my story. In fact, all of the participants in the retreat have multiple identities – lives that are both independent from, but also informed by their trauma. And ultimately, survivors are more than their stories.

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.