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NewsFeb 6, 2018

Challenging a harmful heritage

Alumna Mariya Taher '16 to moderate panel on female genital cutting Feb. 12

Outdoor shot of Mariya Taher in front of 29 Everett (founder's house at Lesley).

By Georgia Sparling

The summer Mariya Taher was 7 years old, her family visited India. The biannual trips were normal for the family, but one particular event was life changing for Taher. Although her memories are fuzzy, she remembers being in a room full of Dawoodi Bohra women. She remembers laughing with the women, all members of her small Shiite sect, and then suddenly being on the ground and feeling an unexpected, sharp cut.

The ritual, something virtually all Dawoodi Bohra girls undergo, was never a topic of conversation, just an accepted fact. It wasn’t until she was in high school and a friend, also Dawoodi Bohra, expressed her anger at being subjected to female genital cutting (FGC) that Taher had a name for what happened to her years before in India and what happened to her sister a few years later in the United States.

“I never thought to question it,” says Taher, a Lesley alumna who earned her master's degree in 2016.

Now a social activist, nonprofit founder and writer, she tells the story of FGC survivors and gives them a platform to write about their own experiences. On Feb. 12, Taher will moderate a discussion on the Lesley campus about female genital cutting following the screening of “A Pinch of Skin,” a documentary on the practice in India. This panel is part of an ongoing Violence Against Women Initiative at Lesley. 

A Pinch of Skin Trailer from priya goswami on Vimeo.

A well-kept secret

Although Taher was born and raised in America, her Indian parents had remained close to the traditions of their religious community, one in which FGC, also called female genital mutilation or female circumcision, was a normal practice — normal but not discussed.

“We don’t talk about this. It’s one of the reasons it has persisted century after century,” says Taher.

After hearing her friend's outrage, however, Taher began to look into FGC, slowly at first and then more seriously for her master’s in social work thesis while at San Francisco State University. What she found was virtually no data on the practice of FGC in the Dawoodi Bohra community. Not only was cutting in the Bohra sect unknown, but in her research Taher found a dearth of information on the practice in Asia, though cultures in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand also cut women.

Among the Dawoodi Bohra communities Taher spoke with, there wasn’t a consensus on why the centuries-old custom of female genital cutting was still in play. Years later, the confusion persists. Some Bohras say FGC limits a woman’s sexual desires, others that it is for religious reasons and still others that it is a matter of hygiene.

Until recent news coverage, many Bohra men didn’t know the practice existed in their community, according to Taher. And what surprises people most, she says, is that Dawoodi Bohra women are the ones who perpetuate FGC and who perform the procedure.

“Unfortunately, the cycle continues generation to generation,” Taher says.

Out of Africa

There are many reasons FGC has remained little known for so many years. Beyond secrecy in practicing communities is the “misguided stereotype” that female genital mutilation only happens in African countries. Through her research, Taher has found that Eastern and Western cultures have practiced cutting. Clitordectomies, a form of cutting that removes the clitoris, was performed in the United States and England to cure perceived ailments  such as “hysteria” and lesbianism as well as mental illness. Though rare, the practice continued in the U.S. until at least the 1950s.

Taher said ignoring this history creates an “us versus them” xenophobic and Islamophobic mentality that is used to demonize the African and Asian cultures that practice FGC.

“This is happening across religions, across economic status, educational backgrounds,” Taher says.

Storytelling for change

While working at a variety of nonprofits focused on domestic abuse, Taher became increasingly vocal about the issue of female genital mutilation and began writing articles and speaking on the topic, including an appearance on ABC News.

These opportunities led to the founding of Sahiyo in 2015 with a group of Indian FGC survivors. The nonprofit’s name means “female friend” in Gujarati, a language many Dawoodi Bohras speak. Launched in the middle of her MFA in creative writing program at Lesley, Taher’s organization is a mix of her two passions — ending violence against women through FGC and storytelling. Through Sahiyo, women can share their stories publicly. Men are also given the opportunity to share their experiences.

“It’s really hard to come out in the open,” says Taher. Despite already being a speaker and writer on the subject, when she was asked to tell her story on ABC news, Taher didn’t immediately agree. “It’s really difficult because there is that fierce backlash that comes out and victim blaming.”

Additionally, Taher knew her own parents, still active members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, could face repercussions for her outspokenness. Yet, Taher knew she needed to be courageous and do her part to end the silence around FGC. Plus, speaking on a national platform gave her the opportunity to take ownership of her story while also expanding the conversation.

“To put an end to this practice we need to have communities talk about it openly and have repeated conversations and dialog around it,” she said.

With Sahiyo, she and her partners try to open dialog through storytelling in the form of public outreach campaigns, data and video (co-founder Priya Goswami created “A Pinch of Skin.”)

The women are also advocates for new legislation to protect women from FGC. There is no ban on the practice in India. It is illegal in the U.S., but only 26 states have the specific legislation, which is necessary for providing FGC survivors with more protection, according to Taher.

In light of a widely publicized case of a FGC procedure performed by a doctor in Michigan, there is more discussion on this complicated issue, from xenophobic reactions to issues of religious rights and gender violence.

“You have to work at so many different levels,” says Taher, who is advocating to ban FGC in Massachusetts with the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association.

As she continues to speak and write, both nonfiction and fiction, Taher holds to the belief that her words and those of other survivors will make a difference in the lives of other women who have been and will be victimized by the practice of FGC.

“Stories are powerful and they can effect change.”