Editor’s Note: In a digital storytelling workshop held in May 2018, StoryCenter and Sahiyo United Against Female Genital Cutting guided a group of women through a story sharing and creation process. Below, these courageous storytellers reflect on the workshop experience. On Friday, October 19, at 6:30 p.m., their stories will be screened at the Rockridge Branch of the Oakland Public Library. Join StoryCenter, Sahiyo, and our partners at Asian Women’s Shelter and the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence for this event which will feature a panel discussion about FGM, with experts on gender-based violence.
Leena Khandwala - Shame
Supporters of female genital cutting (FGC) often try to distinguish the type of cutting that is practiced in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community from other types of cutting practiced by different cultures. They claim that the practice in the Bohra community is simply to make a small and benign scrape or nick in the clitoris that causes no harm, and, in fact, may enhance sexual pleasure among women. Through my digital story, I hope to portray the violence and trauma I experienced when I was cut and how it has followed me for the rest of my life.
Participating in this workshop was an important step in my life-long process of coming to terms with my cutting. After finishing law school, I chose to work with women fleeing gender-based harms. One of my first cases involved a woman seeking asylum because she was vehemently opposed to genital cutting and feared that she would be unable to protect her minor daughter from being cut if she had to return to her home country.
It was inspiring at the workshop to see how so many women have channeled their pain and outrage into advocacy for change and are working to ensure that future generations of girls are protected from being cut.
Aisha Yusuf - Awakening
I only recently became more active about advocating against FGC. I chose to tell this specific story for my digital story because this was a moment in which I came to terms with why female genital mutilation was bad in our community.
Sharing the story with the group during the Sahiyo Stories workshop was as much a relief to me as it was informative. Even though I was impacted by FGC, I knew little about it. I did know that the practice of FGC is unnecessary, even though it’s culturally perpetuated. Though many people try to justify it through religion, I learned it’s actually not part of the practice of Islam. The storytelling process allowed me to be comfortable with sharing my story instead of feeling shameful about it. Most people in my culture think that by talking openly about it, I’m talking negatively about this secret of the community, but I believe what I’m doing is bringing awareness to a topic that is harmful and so evil. Since 98% of women in Somalia are cut, I want that statistic to be a thing of the past, no longer true in the 21st century.
Additionally, I am currently offering support to a change.org petition to advocate to ban FGC in Massachusetts, and hopefully all other U.S. states where there isn’t already such a law.
Maria Akhter - Ripples
I have not undergone khatna (the term used to describe cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community), and I was the only one in the storytelling group who had not. My digital story touches on how I sometimes feel like an outcast around other 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.
More importantly, in my story, I touched on my mother’s empowering decision not to have me undergo khatna. The decision wasn’t formed alone. My mother, grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all instrumental players in choosing to spare our family’s daughters from a harmful tradition. My video explores the newfound gratitude I began to feel for something I did not know I needed to be grateful for.
By the end of the workshop I realized that khatna, advocacy, traditions, women’s rights, 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.
Maryah Haidery - A Daughter’s Questions
Since I don’t have a clear memory of my own khatna, I decided to focus my story on the aspect of it which did have a profound effect on me: my relationship with my mother and my struggle to understand her decision. Although I am and always have been opposed to the practice of FGC, I was nevertheless upset by the ways in which the women who practiced it were portrayed as “heartless monsters,” or “unforgiveable child abusers,” by the media and by anti-Muslim bigots who use the issue as an excuse to justify their stance against immigration. In an effort to change this perception, I agreed to sit down with my mother to discuss FGC with a local radio news reporter. I hoped this would encourage people to see her as a person and try to understand her motivations for doing what she did, even if they didn’t agree with it.
At first, I was really nervous about sharing my story with everyone, but all the women in the workshop were incredibly supportive and encouraging. I also felt honored to be able to experience each of their incredible and unique stories. In three short days, we bonded over shared experiences (and incredible food), so even though I only had two sisters when I first arrived at the workshop, by the time I left, I had eleven.
Renee Bergstrom - Finding My Voice
I chose to tell my story of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the workshop 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.
In 2016, the time was right to share my story publicly, 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.
Salma Qamruddin - Unfiltered
Despite entering the workshop with some insecurity, the process of putting my story onto paper, editing the script, and illustrating the words was cathartic. In order to translate my thoughts into a digital story, I had to boil my experience down to its core and dissect why this story matters to me. It was a process that involved deep reflection. As my story started to come alive, my confidence grew with it. One of the most beautiful moments for me was when speaking with Orchid, a Sahiyo Stories facilitator who stated, “Everyone has the best voice for their own story.” Both Orchid and Amy, the two StoryCenter facilitators, had an incredible talent for pulling out the real meaning from a story and empowering us through the process. Even though the subject was heavy, talking through my story with them made my heart feel light.
Though the process of creating digital stories was helpful, the highlight of the Sahiyo Stories workshop was the screening of the completed products. We sat together, laughed together, and cried together as we watched the digital stories for the first time. The room was a stirring pot of emotions. As we watched each person speak their truth, we felt their emotions and their pain. Their words resonated with us, not only because we could all relate to FGC, but because the struggles were tied to themes that all humans experience—isolation, grief, family, tradition, and healing. The power of what we had created was instantly recognizable.
Severina Lemachokoti - Tradition
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 in northern Kenya 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 risk.
My story is not very different from those of other survivors, but at the same time, I 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 until the end of my days, and advocate for supporting the mental health of survivors across the world.
Zehra Patwa - Loyalty
Shame. Deceit. Confusion. On the first day, sitting around a large table in a light-filled room in the StoryCenter space in Berkeley, California, these words were repeated over and over again by each woman sharing her story of being cut as a young girl. And in most cases, the story was disturbingly similar. A young girl is taken to a strange place by a female family member, she is not told what is going to happen to her except some euphemism that means nothing to her, the girl is cut by a stranger, she experiences pain like she’s never experienced before, and she is told never to talk about it again. But the experience stays with her.
Hope. Love. Protection. And then there were stories by women who, as girls, had been spared the cut, and by those who had worked through their trauma, so there were also inspiring words that came out of these stories, which made the whole digital storytelling process a positive and uplifting experience that will stay with me for years to come.
While describing my outline to my fellow workshop participants, I felt unsure that anyone would care about my story, and whether it was a story that was even worth telling. But when I finished, there was a pause. Then someone said, “That was powerful.” Over the next two days, I refined my story and built my video with much input from Amy, Orchid, and the other participants who I, very quickly, would call friends. Their opinions about word choice, sentence structure, and which images and videos to use made my story come to life in a way that I had not imagined! At the end of the third day, I had a new creation. Yes, it was still a little rough around the edges and needed some minor editing, but it was a revelation to be able to produce a video of my story that resonated with other people, in just three days. I’m proud of what I did, but prouder of the fact that it was a true team effort. After all, it takes a village!