Maryum Saifee: To End FGM, More Survivors Need to Speak Out

This piece, which originally appeared in the Guardian, was written in the author’s personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. government.

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. Maryum’s story originally appeared in The Guardian. Reposted with permission.

I was sitting in an anthropology seminar at the University of Texas cramming for a final, only half-listening to a fellow classmate describe her research project. “Female genital mutilation is the partial or total cutting of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons,” she mechanically described. “The procedure typically take places when the girl is seven years old. The process is usually carried out by an older female relative. And once the ritual takes place, it is almost never discussed.” As she spoke, goosebumps began to form and I sat paralysed in my seat. Memories I had suppressed since childhood came flooding to the foreground.
I was seven years old. My parents had sent my brother and me to visit family in India for two months. On a humid mid-summer afternoon, my dad’s sister decided to throw a party for my brother, celebrating his completion of the Qur’an. At the party, she pulled me aside, wielding a jumbo-sized Toblerone. She said that if I stayed on my best behaviour, I wouldn’t have to share it with anyone, including my brother. I was overjoyed.

My aunt was a doctor. So when she led me downstairs to her clinic and instructed me to lie flat on my back on her operating table, I didn’t think to question her authority. With no anaesthetic and very little warning, she performed the ritualised cut. After it was over, we headed back to the party in silence. I remember sitting in a corner by myself, unable to open the chocolate bar bribe and feeling sick to my stomach. I blocked out the memory, until the day when I discovered that what happened to me had an acronym that could be found in the glossary of a medical anthropology textbook.

When I confronted my parents, they were stunned. My aunt had carried out the ritual without their consent. My father felt a unique betrayal. This was the same little sister he encouraged to pursue medicine in the first place. He had no idea that female genital mutilation (FGM) was even practised within the Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shia subsect from India’s coastal state of Gujarat.

As I learned more about the practice, I discovered that more often than not, men are oblivious and may not even know it is happening – or has happened – to their daughters, sisters and mothers. I learned that FGM dates back thousands of years, predating Islam and Christianity. It is a cultural practice that is neither rooted in religion nor bound by geography nor restricted to a socioeconomic class. Like other forms of gender-based violence, FGM is a manifestation of power and means of controlling the sexuality of women and girls.

In recent years, many countries have passed laws to criminalise the practice of FGM. Yet, it is an extraordinarily difficult crime to prosecute. Laws alone are not enough. For there to be a sustainable end to this practice, there has to be a radical culture change from the ground up, that promotes zero tolerance to any and all forms of excision.

As I have engaged with friends and family members who support the ritual, some will argue that it is not technically mutilation. They even go as far as asserting that “mutilation is what is done in Africa”, as though our community practises a more civilised, humane version. According to the World Health Organisation, all versions of FGM cause harm, both physical and psychological, which renders the “good FGC v bad FGM” debate meaningless.

One of the greatest challenges in raising awareness on FGM is that many survivors are shamed into silence. If they voice dissent, their communities might socially ostracize them.

Within the last few years I have noticed a shift. More and more FGM survivors are courageously speaking out. Male relatives who may have never even been aware of the practice are also taking a stand. From a recent Change.org campaign launched by over a dozen Dawoodi Bohra survivors in India, to Safe Hands for Girls launch of a youth-powered movement in the Gambia, communities are movement-building and speaking out against FGM in greater numbers.

To bring about an end to FGM, we need to break the culture of silence around the issue. More survivors need to speak out and more communities need to support them.