Voices Series: Why I still speak up about FGM/C

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 Zenab Banu

I am involved in the movement to end female genital cutting (FGC) since I came to understand its impact on my married life. We had discussed the problem in 1987 in an All World Bohra Women’s Conference which was organized by the Bohra Youth Girls’ Wing in Udaipur. Sadly, the resolution that passed was not followed up. But I continued speaking up. I feel FGC should end because the rights of personal choice of a girl child and her bodily integrity have been violated without much concern by the society.

I have also attended the second Activist Retreat organized by Sahiyo, which took place in Mumbai where participants from various parts of India attended the retreat. It was a very good experience in meeting like-minded people and having long discussions, as well as learning different perspectives and ways to end the practice.

Later, when I got the opportunity to be part of Global Voices to End FGM/C, a storytelling project by Sahiyo together with StoryCenter, I was very much excited to be part of it. I really enjoyed the process of writing, recording and creating visuals of my story, though a lot of memories were triggered during the process, and I became emotional. 

My overall experience of the workshop was good. But think it would be more exciting if we could meet in person with other participants, rather than doing it virtually.

I feel that the We Speak Out group and Sahiyo are doing great work in raising awareness on the issue. I hope the movement ignites awareness, consciousness and creates public opinion among society in general and women in particular.

With this hope I have joined Sahiyo’s campaign against FGC. I have shared my own story of cutting, and I hope that more women will come out and share their stories and support to end FGC.

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.”

Sahiyo Hosts ‘Thaal Pe Charcha’ Iftar Party in Mumbai

On May 11, Sahiyo India hosted a special Thaal Pe Charcha “Iftar” dinner in Mumbai during the holy month of Ramzan. The event was attended by 24 women and men from the Bohra community, who came together to break their Ramzan fasts and also mark two years since Sahiyo launched its flagship programme of Thaal Pe Charcha. 
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Loosely translated as “discussions over food”, Thaal Pe Charcha provides community members with a safe and intimate platform to share their stories, experiences, and feelings about the practice of Female Genital Cutting, while bonding over traditional Bohra food. At least 50 community members have participated in Thaal Pe Charcha events over the past two years, and the Iftar dinner on May 11 saw five new participants join in, with several questions about the nature of the practice of FGC in the community, the arguments for and against it, and the work done by the movement against the practice. 

Two of the participants also brought their children for the event, including the seven-year-old daughter of Zohra, an FGC survivor. Girls in the Bohra community are typically cut at age seven, and Zohra expressed pride in the fact that she would not be continuing the practice on her daughter. 

The first Thaal Pe Charcha in Pune city

Earlier, in April, a Bohra FGC survivor and activist from Pune city hosted a small Thaal Pe Charcha lunch at her own home. The survivor, who identifies herself with the pseudonym Xenobia, had participated in Sahiyo India’s 2019 Activists’ Retreat in January. One of the workshops at the retreat was about hosting one’s own Thaal Pe Charcha in order to expand the conversations about FGC to more people. Xenobia was one of the first participants to volunteer to host her own Thaal Pe Charcha after the workshop, and the lunch she hosted at her house had 7 participants. 

Read about Xenobia’s experience of hosting the lunch in her own words, by clicking here.

Sahiyo Staff Spotlight: Lara Kingstone

Lara Kingstone started her career in community organizing in a UK-based program designed to integrate London communities and empower youth to become active and engaged citizens. Lara earned a BA in Political Communications at IDC Herzliya, an Israeli University, while working as a journalist at The Culture Trip and producing and hosting a human rights radio program. She then worked at an educational center which aimed to help Palestinian and Israeli young people learn English together, and get to know each other as peers and partners in peace. After graduating, she moved to the Thai-Lao border where she volunteered at Child Rights and Protection Center, a small non-profit which aims to prevent human trafficking and gender-based violence, while providing a safe and confidence-building living environment for at-risk young women. Lara then moved to Boston, and interned with Big Sister before starting her part-time role at Silver Lining Mentoring as an Outreach Coordinator, where she aims to find volunteers to become long-term mentors for youth in foster care.

She joined Sahiyo in August 2018.

When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

In August 2018, I applied for the role of Communications Assistant, thrilled to see that an organization that so closely aligned with my interests was hiring. I have a background in non-profit work, and working to ensure dignity and human rights for women globally. I’d been interested in Female Genital Cutting, and the work to end the practice for years, doing a thesis paper on it in college, and had actually heard of Sahiyo a few years prior, whilst learning about global efforts to end FGC.

What is the nature of your work at Sahiyo?

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I’m now the Communications Coordinator. The work is constantly different, which I enjoy. It varies from working on grant applications and event reports, to supervising our lovely social media interns, to providing administrative assistance to the team. And anything else that pops up!

How has your involvement in this work impacted your life?

Joining Sahiyo has been incredible. I’ve been hit with a rush of motivation and energy, because I feel intensely passionate about the work and organization. I find myself truly inspired by our global team, and all the partners we connect with. I’m confident in the leadership as they have experience and knowledge of the community and practice we’re focusing on. I trust this team of brave, resilient and hard-working women, and I’m so honored to be able to support the work in any way I can. From day one it’s been intense and challenging, and I find myself constantly learning and growing with it. It’s very exciting being with such a fast-growing organization like Sahiyo, and getting to see the rapid changes and progress the team makes. I’m a big fan, and hope to be onboard for a long time.

Is there any advice you would like to share with others interested in joining or supporting Sahiyo’s work?

Do it! Sahiyo has so many different opportunities for being involved, even offering anonymous ‘Private Activism’ for those who are more comfortable in that capacity. If you have skills to bring to the table and feel passionately about Sahiyo’s goal, joining is definitely a worthwhile move, that will leave you feeling connected, empowered and proud to be part of this whirlwind movement.

Sahiyo U.S. Advisory Board Spotlight: Maryum Saifee

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

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

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

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

 

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

By Anonymous

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more reflections on the Bay Area TPC here!

A Tradition That Branded Me

By Severina Lemachokoti

I chose to tell this particular story about my experience with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) because the story defines me, who I am, and shows what my culture/tradition branded me with. The story reflects the reality of what I went through and what I felt as a little girl. This is my other life that no one knows unless I share it with them. Sharing my story at the Sahiyo Stories workshop was a bit hard, but at the same time, it was a relief because I shared it with women who can relate to my hurt, women who have gone through painful and traumatic experiences as other FGM survivors. I felt comfortable and at ease with my sisters. I enjoyed the sisterhood, the courage, and passion that each of them embraced during the entire time. The storytelling process was smooth and very educative. I was able to revise my own story and put it in a way that I am confident will make a difference to our communities.

My advocacy on FGM is primarily focused on community education and the mental health of the survivors. As an activist, I believe that FGM will end when our communities are educated on the negative effects of FGM and find alternative ways of celebrating cultural practices without cutting girls’ genitalia. I am also aware that it is the right of each community to uphold their traditions and beliefs, but culture should not violate the rights of young girls in any way either. The mental health of survivors is a critical issue that needs to be looked into and addressed. Most of us are traumatized and still bear the pain of the cut even after so many years and it is necessary that survivors get healed in order for them to step up and talk about FGM in a way that can save other young girls who are at a risk.

My story is not very different from those of other survivors, but at the same time, I

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Severina with Lena Khandwala at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

believe I am unique and so my story is unique because of the painful experience and feelings that I had during the cutting. My hope is that my story and the stories of my other sisters will change our communities. I am looking forward to working with various organizations and individuals to see that our girls are free from FGM across the world. I will basically do my activism work till the end of my days, and advocate for supporting the mental health of FGC survivors across the world.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Severina:

17904081_1414046985328334_8283055367043356965_nSeverina Lemachokoti is an anti-FGM campaigner, a human rights defender and a gender activist from the Samburu community in Northern Kenya. Severina graduated from Wichita State University, Kansas State with a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies, with focus on Community Psychology, Sociology and Women Studies. She was the Cultural Ambassador- Kenya, at Wichita State University and participated in various activities that fostered diversity and inclusion. She worked as a graduate research assistant in the Criminal Justice department and also worked at the graduate office as a receptionist. Severina is a professionally trained teacher and holds a bachelor’s degree in counseling psychology and a higher diploma in psychological counseling. As one of the survivors of FGM, Severina uses her own experience to educate young girls from Kenya and her community to say “NO” to FGM and other harmful cultural practices. She has helped in changing the lives of young girls and women in her community through mentorship programs in schools and churches. Severina worked as a program officer for the ANTI-FGM Board, a government body under the ministry of gender to implement the ANTI-FGM act of 2011 and the 2010 constitution of Kenya to protect the rights of young girls in Kenya. Severina is a member of various organizations in Kenya and Africa that defend the rights of young girls and has spoken in various conferences including the UN on the rights of young indigenous girls and women.

Why I co-hosted a Sahiyo ‘Thaal pe Charcha’ lunch in New York

By Alifya Sulemanji

I had been hearing about Thaal pe Charcha (TPC), an event organized by Sahiyo, on a regular basis in Bombay India and it seemed like a very interesting concept to me. I felt inspired to host one at my home and bring together New York Bohra women for such an event. I reached out to few friends and acquaintances who I thought would be interested in being a part of this inaugural Thaal Pe Charcha event in the United States, and who would feel comfortable opening up about their daily lives.

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Alifya Sulemanji alongside Sahiyo cofounder Mariya Taher at the inaugural TPC event in New York

One aspect about TPC that I found very vital is that the event is about creating a safe space where people can speak openly without fear of reprisal for their beliefs. I assured the women who attended that the TPC at my house would be a safe environment where we could speak openly about issues like Khatna (Female Genital Cutting), Iddat, and other topics that can negatively impact women in our community.

We all also agreed that there were some very good things about the Bohra community that we all appreciated, such as the feeling of community, the food, and the mannerisms also known as ‘Adab’ in Gujarati and ‘Tehzeeb’ in Urdu that helps guide our lives, such as food and eating etiquette, how we dress, how to be respectful, how to keep your house, cleanliness, and how you treat others. Yet, even with Adab, there certainly is a wide range of thought amongst the Bohra community regarding how strict certain rules and cultural activities must be, which at times can be oppressive as well.

After hosting this first TPC, a personal hope of mine is that the women and I will form strong relationships and trust with one another so together we can take action to change the parts in our community we find harmful.

I hope we will continue to organize more events like these in the future and form a supportive group of friends who will stand by one another.

Are you interested in hosting a Sahiyo Thaal Pe Charcha event in your own city or town in the U.S.? If yes, get in touch with Sahiyo at info@sahiyo.com

Khatna Isn’t Black Or White, Just Like My Story

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation in the Bohra community is not black and white, just like how survivors and non-survivors’ stories are not black and white. This idea resonated the most with me during the Sahiyo Stories workshop held in Berkeley, California at the beginning of May. Sahiyo Stories allowed me to explore the complexities of FGM/C and see the strength of the women who advocate to end the practice worldwide.

The workshop included women from different backgrounds and communities. We had varying ages, ethnicities, and cultures, yet our common experiences and passions bound us together.

I remember fighting back tears as we shared a space around a table and told our stories. For those ten minutes, we were allowed to feel vulnerable, insecure, afraid and seek advice, support, and shared empathy from others.

I have not undergone khatna, and I was the only one in the group who had not. My digital story touches on how I sometimes feel like an outcast around Bohra women, regardless of whether or not I know they have undergone khatna. In the Bohra community, so many practices and customs are normalized on a large scale that you are left wondering if you are different for something that has or has not happened to you.

I was in awe of the bravery of the women around me who shared their stories of the khatna/FGM they underwent when they were young girls. It was impactful for the women to be from such varying backgrounds. It made the issue of FGM feel global and like it touched so many different lives.

By the end of the workshop, I realized that khatna, advocacy, traditions, women and human rights are not all black and white. Instead, they are layered and multi-dimensional, thus making these matters far more intricate than just taking a stand one way or another. My experience is not black or white either, and the Sahiyo Stories workshop was the most empowering avenue for me to explore that gray area.

 

Why I Chose to Tell My Story About Female Genital Mutilation at the Sahiyo Stories’ Workshop

By Renee Bergstrom, EdD

I chose to tell my story of FGM because I am aware that being silenced is a universal issue for those who have experienced it. When I read my story the first day at the StoryCenter, I was surprised that my voice cracked with emotion. Our sisterhood developed quickly from the strength of shared history in spite of differing cultures, and I felt so privileged to be included. The world needs to hear all our voices in order for this female injustice to end.

The storytelling process was beautifully orchestrated and we were guided to compose our messages for the greatest impact. All apprehension regarding telling my story dissipated. Before my story became public knowledge, my advocacy was focused on developing and distributing brochures in collaboration with my Somali friend Filsan Ali. Pregnant infibulated Somali women give this bilingual brochure to their physicians and midwives to plan safe labor and delivery and prevent unnecessary C-Sections.

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Renee Bergstrom at Sahiyo Stories Workshop

In 2016, the time was right to share my story because so many young women were standing up to their political, cultural and religious leaders, matriarchs, and patriarchs. Instead of being seen as a Western woman imposing my beliefs on another culture, I am supporting their efforts. Recently, other white Christian women from North America have contacted me with their FGM stories, thus my current advocacy plans involve listening, but also connecting these women with resources and opportunities to share their stories.

To learn more about Sahiyo Stories, read:

More about Renee:

Version 2Renee Bergstrom, EdD, is an educator who advocates for relationship-centered medical care. She and her husband, Gene, have been married 53 years. They have three children, ten grandchildren and one great-grandson. They live in a dynamic art town in Midwest America where they are very involved in the community. Renee loves to read, watercolor paint, weave, garden and bike. She has been an advocate for women’s justice throughout her life.