Shifting Terrains: Lessons Learnt from the First U.S. Activist Retreat for Bohras against Female Genital Cutting

By: Mariya Taher

February 6, 2018

Harnessing Media for Social Change around Female Genital Cutting

In this day and age when social media has penetrated our lives, 24-hour new cycles shape our world views, and we lack enough time to process an immense influx of information, it’s often difficult to remember that social change is slow, hard work, much like pushing a heavy rock up a steep hill. With the #MeToo movement heavy on people's minds, it is easy to feel that change is imminent, that no longer will women cower in fear from the sexual harassment and violence generation after generation has experienced due to their genders. Yet, as someone who has dedicated the past 10 years of her life towards ending gender violence of all kinds, unfortunately, the real hard truth is that social change does take time. The seeds of that social change must be planted in the generations proceeding ours before they can even become fruit for future generations of girls and women.

That message was one I hoped to convey to the 10 women who accepted my invitation to gather in New York on January 19 through 21 for what my organization Sahiyo called an “U.S. Dawoodi Bohra Anti-Female Genital Cutting Activist Retreat.” 

The women who attended, like me, had all been born into the Dawoodi Bohra religion and culture. Also, like me, these women felt encouraged to take an active role in preventing female genital cutting (FGC), or khatna as it is known in the Dawoodi Bohra community, from being performed on the next generation of girls.

My fellow Sahiyo cofounders and I had been planning this retreat for the past year. (Sahiyo will also host an activist retreat in India in mid-February 2018.) We planned both these retreats because we had recognized from our own experience activism is emotionally and physically challenging, and often we did this work in isolation from one another.

As activists, the challenges we face are often linked to the fact that FGC in our community developed due to consistent repetition of the practice for generations. To confront this norm meant to challenge the wisdom of those who came before us, and in a sense admit that our religious traditions are fallible. Activists who do challenge FGC often encounter the wrath of those who would simply permit a practice that has always been done.

At the U.S. activist retreat, many of us spoke about the negatives that come with challenging your family and friends on the issue of FGC, as well as challenging other social norms. Some women at the retreat spoke about the economic boycott their husbands’ businesses encountered. Others spoke about friends who no longer spoke to them or about how they feared losing friendship or support systems if they openly discussed FGC. Another woman told us that she had to call the police after her own brother harassed her for her activism against FGC and for voicing an opinion that contradicted the edict given by Dawoodi Bohra religious leaders.

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was destined to consistently push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down. Like Sisyphus, anti-FGC activists can consistently be in a position where the rock rolls back down despite our valiant efforts to end FGC, particularly because we struggle against deeply rooted norms about gender and religion. The terrain is consistently tilted against us.

When you believe you are the only one pushing that rock back up that hill, it can also be lonely. Often the emotional and physical needs of activists are overlooked, as are the struggles they or their families experience so that social change can happen.

Prior to creating Sahiyo, I spoke about FGC individually and independently. I wrote my own story of undergoing FGC for the Global Fund for Women. It was through writing my story that I connected to the additional women who would be my allies. Years later, I have recognized just how much I needed those women to not only validate the fact that my own feelings around khatna were justified, but to also share in the emotional hardships that come with being one of a few voices who publicly speak against FGC. Connecting with the women who would become the other Sahiyo co-founders had essentially broken my sense of isolation—one I didn’t even realize I was experiencing.

We imagined it might be the same for other activists speaking out against FGC. The U.S. and India retreats, we believed, could be a space for activists to come together to share their pain, speak their fears, and feel less alone in the advocacy work they pursue. The retreats could also be a safe space where as a team we could formulate steps on how we could move forward to address FGC in our communities. Discussing these next steps at the U.S. retreat felt crucial because of the attention shone onto the topic of FGC since the arrest of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, a Dawoodi Bohra woman accused of performing FGC on girls in Michigan.

The activist retreat was the first of its kind in the United States for women who came from the Dawoodi Bohra community. It was a step in the right direction for activists to recognize that we must engage in the long game. The United States has had a federal law in place banning FGC since 1996, but as the arrest of eight people in Michigan has shown, the law is not a quick fix in getting communities to abandon the practice. As activists, we recognized that we could not continually push the rock up the hill one by one, alone. We needed to reshape the terrain so that gravity is on our side. In other words, we need to band together, share our challenges, support one another, and work collaboratively. We need to play the long game. Ultimately, our work is to shift the underlying values and beliefs associated with FGC, and that is not a task one person can do all alone.

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