Maryum Saifee is a career diplomat. Prior to joining the U.S. Foreign Service, Saifee worked at the Ford Foundation and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jordan. She also worked with South Asian survivors of domestic violence as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Seattle. Saifee is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and is a Council on Foreign Relations term member. She published her story as an female genital cutting (FGC) survivor in the Guardian and has spoken on Al Jazeera, CBC, and other media outlets. Saifee is contributing to the center's Berkley Forum blog in her personal capacity as a survivor of FGC, and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the United States government.
A controversial video of a Virginia-based religious leader (Imam Shaker) publicly advocating for female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) to curb the hypersexuality in young girls, coupled with the recent indictments of members of the Dawoodi Bohra community in Michigan for performing FGM/C, have prompted a much-needed debate on this issue within and across faith-based communities in the United States.
As a survivor of FGM/C working to end the practice, I wanted to highlight the following points:
- FGM/C must be contextualized as a rights issue, and a form of gender-based violence. FGM/C (and this includes all forms of excision) is, at its core, a form of systematized sexual assault and child abuse. Because FGM/C is often framed as a cultural practice happening in faraway lands, some anthropologists and activists have referred to the practice as an “act of love,” which can be counterproductive in highlighting the harm that it causes to the survivor. We need to de-exoticfy the practice. Like any other form of gender-based violence, FGM/C is ultimately about power and controlling female sexuality.
- For there to be a sustainable end to FGM/C, change must come from within communities. One of the reasons FGM/C has been passed down over the generations is because it happens largely in secret. Through the power of social media and storytelling, more and more survivors are speaking out. In my own community, up until two years ago, there were only a handful of anonymous blog posts on the topic. Survivor-led, community-based groups like Sahiyo and We Speak Out have created digital platforms to crowdsource the stories of FGM/C survivors. When I shared my story in the Guardian last year, this prompted a debate even within my own family and created a ripple effect of discussion.
- Religious leaders, across communities, need to speak out. FGM/C is global in scope. It transcends religion, race, geography, and socioeconomic class. Despite the fact that FGM/C is not part of religious doctrine, some religious leaders have falsely propagated the link between FGM/C and religion. After Imam Shaker’s indefensible comments promoting FGM/C, dozens upon dozens of Muslim community leaders spoke out to condemn his statement. This was the first large-scale mobilization of religious leaders in the United States to state in a unified voice that FGM/C has no place in Islam. While the statement was a promising first step, we need a nationwide conversation in homes, in mosques, and across faith traditions where FGM/C is prevalent. We also need to hold religious leaders accountable when they promote gender-based violence. In the case of the Virginia mosque, the imam was reinstated after retracting an apology and reaffirming his views that FGM/C is in fact, part of Islamic tradition. Imam Johari, who had been at that same mosque for 15 years, resigned in protest, reflecting larger debates happening within the community.
- All forms of FGM/C, no matter what variation of excision, cause harm. According to updated guidance from the World Health Organization, FGM/C serves no medical purpose and causes lifelong physical and psychological harm. Some proponents of FGM/C have tried to advocate for less invasive forms of FGM/C to either preserve cultural tradition or mitigate harm. As someone who has experienced one of the least invasive forms of FGM/C, I can personally attest to the psychological harm. As a seven-year-old, I never consented to having my aunt pin me down and carve out a piece of my genitalia. Whether it’s a pinprick, a nick, or some other euphemism, FGM/C can be a traumatic, life-altering moment for the many women and girls who undergo it. It is in no way protected under religious freedom.
- Youth need to take ownership of this issue. One way to ensure that FGM/C is not passed down to the next generation is to engage and empower youth. Across the world, young people (including men and boys) are at the forefront of leading movements to end FGM/C. They are able to broker difficult intergenerational conversations with parents and community elders. We saw this happen in the Gambia when a youth-powered campaign brought groups together (religious leaders, civil society, policymakers, etc.) to call on the former president to ultimately ban FGM/C. And we are seeing this in Virginia, as young Muslims are leading the way for greater education and awareness campaigns not only on FGM/C in their communities, but dialogue around faith-based approaches to sex-positive education.
Through the power of social media, WhatsApp groups, and other connective tools, groups that were once isolated are now connected and drawing strength and solidarity from one another. We are reaching a tipping point. To take advantage of this unprecedented momentum, we need to sustain the spotlight on the issue and continue to speak out, holding our policymakers, community members, and religious leaders accountable.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Maryum Saifee is contributing to this blog in her personal capacity as a survivor of FGM/C and the views expressed do not necessarily represent the United States government.