Struggle, belonging, and community: Sahiyo and StoryCenter hosted a Voices to End FGM/C screening

By Sandra Yu

On August 19th, 2021, Sahiyo and StoryCenter co-hosted a film screening and panel discussion to highlight voices from the Voices to End FGM/C Digital Storytelling workshop. The event showcased eleven new digital stories, created virtually by a global group of advocates and survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), during January and February. 

Mariya Taher of Sahiyo and Amy Hill of StoryCenter, two facilitators of the annual workshop, led an audience Q&A and presented storytelling methodology, while two guest speakers, Nafisa (pseudonym) and Lola Ibrahim (Yoruba, English), shared their experiences with the digital storytelling workshop itself. Of the eleven stories shown, three were premiered at the event and had not been released to the public yet. The full collection can be found here, with stories continuing to be released. 

“I feel liberated,” Nafisa said. “I feel lighter, and I feel scared all at once. I wanted to talk about this work and khatna and the challenges that are faced in the community for many years.”

The 2021 Voices digital collection succeeded tremendously in capturing the core concept of oppressive social norms. Almost reminiscent of short vignettes, each digital story actualized the abstract concept of social norms into concrete experiences. The stories stood individually as personal narratives of struggle, belonging, and community. Comparatively, this collection presented the larger struggles of individuals and collectives in battling gender-based violence. 

In response, audience members engaged deeply with each story, typing out messages with empathy and gratitude to each storyteller for taking up the challenge of telling their stories. It was uplifting to see how the digital stories could elicit such reactions of allyship and community-building, even within a Zoom chat. 

My personal highlight from the event was hearing Nafisa and Lola reflect on their experiences of storytelling and tackle the nuances of FGM/C in their respective communities. The digital storytelling workshop was evidently transformative, in similar and different ways for each participant. 

“Sharing my shame can make a difference,” Lola said. “You understand that. Because you own that story. And you’re able to tell the story. So you’re no longer ashamed.”

Lola’s transformation of shame to acceptance of her story is stunning to hear. Through the workshop, she found a close-knit community to listen and empathize with her story. By producing a digital story, she now engages a global community to respond to her story. 

“I felt powerless because in the world that we live in, when you’re anonymous, you feel like your voice is taken away,” said Nafisa. “You don’t have an identity, but I think sharing my story has allowed me to have a voice or has created a space for me. It has put the power back in my hands.”

Nafisa’s story is equally hopeful. Despite her anonymity, Nafisa proudly holds ownership of her story and continues to advocate against FGM/C. 

Sahiyo is excited to announce the upcoming 2022 Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling workshop, as part of their continued partnership with StoryCenter. This workshop is open to all individuals who have a story to share about how they, or someone they know, have been impacted by FGC, and will be held virtually.

For those interested in taking part, please fill out the application by Friday, December 11, 2021.

Read more about the 2022 workshop and/or donate to support the Voices project

A brief report on Sahiyo’s media workshop on khatna among Bohras

On August 8, 2016, Sahiyo conducted its first media training workshop at The Press Club in Mumbai. The workshop was held in partnership with the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT), and its objective was to train journalists on how to sensitively and effectively report on the practice of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community.

In the past year, print and television media in India and abroad has played crucial role in reporting and raising awareness about Female Genital Cutting among the Bohras. For decades, the practice has typically been associated with African tribes and was virtually unheard of in India. So far, the Bohras are the only community known to practice khatna in India and for many, it has come as a shock that this small, otherwise-progressive sect follows a tradition that is internationally recognised as a human and child rights violation.

Given this context, news publications in India have taken active interest in breaking the silence and secrecy around khatna through interviews, reports, features and news documentaries. FGC, however, is a very complex and controversial issue that requires well-informed and nuanced reporting that is sensitive to the survivors and communities involved. This, at times, has been amiss.

News coverage of khatna among Bohras has been well-intentioned but often, journalists unwittingly misunderstand and misrepresent facts about the practice, and/or portray the issue in a sensational manner that can end up harming FGC survivors, girls at risk and the movement at large.

Sahiyo realised that this could be addressed only by generating more awareness amongst journalists about FGC in the Bohra community and the pros and cons of various styles of reportage on the issue.

Nearly 30 journalists attended the workshop that Sahiyo conducted on August 8. The workshop included a brief screening of Priya Goswami’s segment from the IAWRT 2015 Long Documentary Reflecting Her, which gave participants a quick visual introduction to the way in which khatna is practiced by Bohras.

In sessions conducted by all five Sahiyo co-founders, the workshop emphasised the importance of the media in impacting social change and attempted to chalk out certain do’s and don’ts for journalists, writers, filmmakers and other artists interested in working on the practice of khatna.

Why the media needs to be sensitive

Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher, for instance, spoke about how the media sometimes ends up harming and jeopardising efforts to end gender-based violence, by compromising the safety and interests of survivors, by reinforcing myths and stereotypes, or by sensationalising stories. To ensure the safety of a gender-based violence survivor, the media must not only respect privacy and confidentiality but also consider the retribution survivors could face if their safety is compromised.

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Khatna, like many other traditional and cultural practices, is a social norm that people have followed over time because that is the acceptable thing to do in that society/community. It is important, therefore, that the media doesn’t end up vilifying the community for practicing this social norm – something that many media reports unintentionally tend to do by using words like “brutal”, “barbaric” and “gruesome” to describe khatna. These terms are judgemental, much like the terms “mutilation” and “FGM”, and Sahiyo has consciously chosen to refer to the practice as female genital cutting or FGC instead. (More on Sahiyo’s use of terminology here.)

The importance of visuals and factual accuracy

Priya Goswami’s session focused on the pros and cons of using various types of visuals to represent FGC among the Bohras.

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Most media reports on khatna are accompanied by visuals that typically depict bloodied blades, female figures cut by blades or even stitched up vulvas. These visuals often end up evoking feelings very different from what the journalist or designer may have intended. The intention may be to sensitise readers/viewers, to evoke empathy with survivors, to build dialogue and to bring about change. Instead, such blood-and-gore visuals often merely have shock value and end up alienating the community. They may also end up triggering additional trauma for survivors. Journalists could instead consider using milder, less blatant symbolism in visuals related to FGC.

It is also important that generic photographs used in media reports on khatna must not compromise the identity or invade the privacy of individual community members – journalists could use generic images that showcase the community without highlighting individual faces.

Aarefa Johari’s session highlighted various factual errors that reporters unwittingly tend to make while covering FGC. A major example is when journalists misrepresent the health consequences of Bohra-style khatna (Type 1), by mixing it up with the consequences of other, more severe types of FGC practiced by other communities. Or when media reports generalise the depiction of the way in which khatna is performed on Bohra girls, giving readers the false impression that all girls are held down and cut in dingy rooms by untrained midwives. In reality, khatna is experienced in myriad ways by different Bohras and these differences need to be acknowledged and represented.

Sahiyo looks forward to continuing dialogues with both the community and the media in this important journey to abandon the practice of FGC.

To see the full report on the Media Workshop, click here.