I’m a Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation Survivor Who’s Finally Having Her #MeeToo Moment
By Farzana Doctor (*)
This question was posed during the Q&A part of an author talk I gave while touring my novel Seven this fall. Seven is about a forty year-old woman who returns to India on a marriage-saving trip to research a revered ancestor. While she’s there, khatna, a form of female genital cutting/mutilation (FGM/C) practiced by her Dawoodi Bohra community, is in the news. Her favourite cousins are on opposite ends of the debate, and she isn’t sure how or what to feel.
While most of my book interviews and conversations begin with plot, setting and characters, they nearly always turn to questions about FGM/C. It’s no wonder. Most audience members have little information; while activists from African countries have been sounding the alarm for decades, khatna only became part of mainstream media discourse in India and other countries around 2015.
FGM/C involves cutting, injuring or altering female genitalia for no medical purpose. It causes physical, emotional and sexual harm and most commonly is done for reasons such as maintaining sexual purity. Sometimes other reasons are given including cleanliness, and community belonging.
Globally, we now understand that it happens in 92 countries across the world, from places that might surprise, including Russia, Indonesia, Colombia. In the last few years, white American Christian women, such as Renée Bergstrom, have spoken out about the FGM/C they faced. Survivors of FGM/C are having our #MeToo moment as more and more of us publicly decry the practice.
And yet, it remains a difficult issue to talk about. I know this from personal experience. When I tried to gather a group of liberal-minded Bohra friends and family to organize an awareness-raising event in 2016, no one replied to my emails.
Relatives who support my activism will often change the subject if I raise it. I understand; khatna is a trauma, and most traumas come encased in a layer of shame and secrecy that is hard to crack. I’ve learned that talking about it, with the right people and when I was emotionally ready, was incredibly liberating.
But getting back to that audience member’s question: should you ask your friend about it? And how?
Yes, begin a conversation, but don’t start with a pointed enquiry which might feel like an intrusion if the experience has been repressed (a common coping strategy) or otherwise kept silent.
As a psychotherapist, I’ve learned that open-ended and exploratory questions help people to feel more comfortable and safe to talk about difficult issues. I raise issues, am patient, watch people’s body language, and circle back if needed. As a friend, I go with an even lighter touch when talking about taboo or distressing subjects.
Here are seven steps for opening a conversation with your Bohra (or other friend who might be a Female Gential Cutting/Mutilation survivor):
1. Start with learning as much as you can about the issue.
Bust the myths you might not even know you hold.
2. Gently raise the topic with your friend, perhaps by referencing an article or book.
In the case of the audience member, I suggested that she mention being at my author talk.
3. Ask your friend if they’ve been hearing about the issue too, and listen to her answer.
4. Note any verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate a boundary.
If you’re unsure, ask directly
“Is it okay to talk about this? I don’t know how you feel about the issue, or what your experiences are and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I do want to let you know that I’m your friend and open to listening.
5. Hold space—this means listening well and not making this about you or your strong feelings about the issue.
6. This might result in an open dialogue or clamming up.
Note that if it’s the latter, that’s okay. You’ve made it clear that you’re open to talking and perhaps she’ll process things and circle back. Remember this might be a difficult conversation for her.
7. Your friend might be opposed to the practice.
But maybe not. She might be confused, in denial, or in favour of the practice. Pro-khatna leaders have been telling the community lies such as: it’s harmless, it’s just a tiny nick, it’s not really FGM/C, it’s required by religion, it keeps our women pious. I’ve even read the lie that it improves women’s sexuality! You’ll need to make space for this. You can tell her that you’ve been reading other information and ask her if she’s interested to learn more. If she says yes, share an article like this one with her.
As I mentioned, it can be liberating to break the silence. I did this with validating friends and therapists who wanted to know my messy feelings and thoughts. They held space for me while I processed my confusions, self-doubt and fears.
So yes, you should talk to your friends about FGC/M. Just make sure you do it with care.
*This blog was first published in YourTango
Farzana Doctor is a Tkaronto-based author, activist and Registered Social Worker who has been working with individuals and couples since 1993. She is also a founding member of WeSpeakOut.org and the End FGM/C Canada Network.
She has written four critically acclaimed novels. Her latest, Seven, which Ms. Magazine described as “fully feminist and ambitiously bold”, has been chosen for multiple 2020 Best Book lists and shortlisted for the Trillium and Evergreen Awards and addresses FGM/C in her Dawoodi Bohra community. Farzana is also the Maasi behind Dear Maasi, a new sex and relationships column for FGM/C survivors. www.Linktr.ee/farzanadoctor