• The Gender Security Project

The Power of Sharing Your Personal Stories: Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

Mariya Taher, co-founder of Sahiyo, speaks aout the power of sharing one’s stories, drawing particularly from her work with ending female genital mutilation.


As a young girl, I was extremely shy. Sometimes if I was sitting in class or if I was in a large group of adults, I would feel this desire to speak rise in me — my skin would gain a cool heat like I had rubbed icy hot on myself, and this tingle would flow through my body, up my neck and face, until an unseen quote bubble was created above my head. But every time, my lips found themselves stuck. I couldn’t speak. So, I turned to writing to let out these thoughts and learned that through storytelling I could express myself freely in a way that felt non-threatening and natural.  This was the idea behind Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).  A joint digital storytelling project, Voices to End FGM/C was created by Amy Hill, Director of Silence Speaks at StoryCenter, and myself, a cofounder of Sahiyo, an organization working to end FGM/C in Asian communities. Recognizing that it can be challenging, and in some cases alienating, to publicly speak about gender-based violence such as FGM/C, we wanted to create a safe space to give women and men who come from communities and families where FGM/C is carried out a platform to write and share their own stories in a non-threatening and natural way.  In 2018, our two organizations launched an inaugural digital storytelling workshop that brought survivors of FGM/C living in the United States together to surface their personal experiences of the practice. These nine women’s stories elevated the conversation on FGM/C in the U.S., and their stories have been shared widely through online distribution, screening events, and via media articles. Sahiyo Stories, as the project was initially called, has gone on to be used as an educational tool to discuss FGM/C amongst survivors and within practicing communities. In 2019, we expanded Sahiyo Stories into Voices to End FGM/C and carried out three additional digital storytelling workshops, including a pilot online workshop, to increase participation of storytellers living globally, and to further our reach and capacity to highlight the stories of women affected by female genital cutting living globally. On February 6, 2020, the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), we begin releasing the 27 new short videos created by storytellers in 2019.  The stories come from people living in a range of countries, including India, the United Kingdom, Tanzania, Singapore, Bahrain, Sweden, and the United States. And these storytellers come from a variety of cultural backgrounds. Some women had their FGM/C carried out in the United States, but we also have stories of women living in the United States or United Kingdom who had FGM/C carried out on them in India, Sri Lanka or Malaysia. One story involves a brother of a survivor who shared a story of how, by learning that it happened to his sister, he recognized that the secret had impacted his relationship with her and how discussing it with her helped bridge that divide.  Another story highlights a form of FGM/C not explicitly acknowledged by the World Health Organization: labia elongation, a very painful process for many young girls. A brave survivor from Zimbabwe shares the importance of the world acknowledging what happened to her as a child. The collection also includes stories from health professionals who recount their experiences in caring for survivors in clinical settings — both the support they gave and the lack of knowledge they had in knowing how to care for them. Like a painting with many strokes making up a portrait, the stories in this collection together creates the picture that FGM/C occurs on every continent in the world except for Antarctica.  Ultimately, the goal of Voices to End FGM/C is to build a cadre of voices speaking out and sharing experiences so that we can normalize talking about something that was considered taboo. As a child, I was too shy to speak, but I wrote, and in time that writing gave me the courage to speak openly about social injustices such FGM/C. I recognized that to create change, we have to be brave enough to speak up and ask for it. I am. These storytellers are. Together, we are mobilizing the critical mass of storytellers and activists needed from across the globe to share and heal from experiences of FGM/C, connect and grow as leaders in their own communities, and create short videos calling for an end to this harmful practice. About the Author: Named one of the six experts on female genital cutting (FGC) to watch by NewsDeeply.com, Mariya has worked in the anti-gender violence field for over a decade in research, policy, program development, and direct service. She received her Master of Social Work from San Francisco State University in 2010 where she pursued a qualitative study titled, “Understanding Female Genital Cutting in the United States.” Since then, she has worked on the issue of domestic violence at W.O.M.A.N., Inc., Asian Women’s Shelter, and Saheli, Support and Friendship for South Asian Women and Families, and was part of the Women’s Foundation of California Women’s Policy Institute. In 2015, she cofounded Sahiyo, an internationally recognized, award-winning organization to empower Asian communities to end female genital cutting. Mariya also sits on the inaugural steering committee for the US End FGM/C Network. In 2019, the  Muslim American Leadership Alliance awarded her their 2019  storytelling award for her pioneering work in utilizing storytelling methods to bring about abandonment of FGC, and ABC News has done a special feature on her, entitled: Underground: American Woman Underwent Female Genital Mutilation Comes Forward. Mariya is also a prolific writer in fiction and nonfiction with essays and short stories appearing on NPR, Ms. Magazine, HuffPost, The Fair Observer, Brown Girl Magazine, Solstice Literary Magazine, The San Francisco Examiner, The Flexible Persona, Cecile’s Writer’s Magazine, and more. Follow her on Twitter @mariyataher83.

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