"Don't Mention It" Episode 2: Breaking The Silence: A Conversation with Mariya Taher

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"Don't Mention It" is a series from Underestimated: A Podcast about the things we're apparently not supposed to mention, things that society doesn't seem to value as much, but things that are important to talk about. This series shares stories that too often go unmentioned in relation to health throughout the spectrum of femininity.

Episode 2 is a discussion with writer, activist, and FGM survivor Mariya Taher about breaking the silence on FGM/C, using storytelling as activism, and her groundbreaking work to collect data on FGM/C survivors living in the United States. 

Change.org Petition - Ban Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Massachusetts

https://www.change.org/p/ban-female-genital-mutilation-cutting-in-massachusetts

Show Notes

Sahiyo

https://www.sahiyo.com  

The Orchid Project

https://orchidproject.org/

U.S. End FGM/C Network

https://endfgmnetwork.org/

 

Mariya’s Articles

How My MSW Thesis Broke the Silence on Female Genital Cutting

https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/how-my-msw-thesis-broke-the-silence-on-female-genital-cutting/

I Spoke Out About My Private Trauma. My Community Didn’t Want To Listen

https://brightthemag.com/i-spoke-out-about-my-private-trauma-community-didnt-listen-bohra-fgm-sahiyo-c8576757d5c1

Female Genital Cutting - A Continuing Tradition

http://imaginingequality.globalfundforwomen.org/content/female-genital-cutting

Seeing Sahiyo Stories On Female Genital Cutting Come To Life

https://www.storycenter.org/storycenter-blog//seeing-sahiyo-stories-on-female-genital-cutting-come-to-life

Transcript

Mariya Taher - 00:00              

I always knew it happened to me. I just didn't connect with dots that it was something that was a form of gender violence until I was in high school.

Elizabeth - 00:14              

Welcome to episode two of "Don't Mention It," an inclusive series on health throughout the spectrum of femininity from the Underestimated podcast. I'm your host, Elizabeth Palmer. Throughout producing this series, many of the people I've spoken with are survivors of trauma, people who are courageous in a way that inspires me to do better, to be louder and to be more engaged in standing with them. This episode is the second in a three episode series focused on female genital mutilation, and the women I have spoken with about this issue, some of whom are survivors of the practice themselves are forces of nature. My guest today is Mariya Taher, co-founder of Sahiyo, an organization united against female genital cutting. Here is a bit of her bio: Mariya has a “Master of Social Work from San Francisco State University. ...she has worked in the field of gender violence for nearly ten years, working on issues 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. She was a 2014 Women’s Policy Institute for The Women’s Foundation of California and her team successfully passed legislation to provide low-income survivors of domestic violence with basic needs grants. Currently, she works with the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association on passing state legislation to criminalize FGC and build public awareness campaigns on FGC within the state. She serves on the steering committee for the U.S. Network to End FGM/C.” Mariya is an activist, writer, and leader in the fight to end FGM/C, and her work has been featured on NPR, Ms. Magazine, Huffington Post, and several other media outlets. Mariya’s work at Sahiyo is revolutionary, as is their approach to using storytelling as activism in the fight to end FGM/C. Mariya is many things, but one of those things is that she is a trained social worker, and she was driven to that work in part by a desire to understand why things are the way they are in societal structures; to understand what the underlying causes are that perpetuate violence against women and girls, and to understand those causes and structures so that we can dismantle them. Part of what you’ll hear in our conversation is how Mariya’s investigative mind informed how she approached dealing with the deeply personal trauma of being an FGM/C survivor. Her work in data collection alone on those affected by FGM/C in the United States is groundbreaking. And now, my interview with Mariya Taher.

Elizabeth - 02:33              

Mariya Taher, Welcome to Underestimated. Thank you for being here.

Mariya Taher - 02:57              

Yeah. Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm so glad that I can speak with you today.

Elizabeth - 03:01              

I'm really, I'm really glad as well. Thank you. So, I wanted to start by talking to you about your story, your master's thesis, which was titled, "Understanding Female Genital Cutting In The United States," and your work to end the silence around female genital cutting in the U.S., and you've worked in the field of gender based violence for a decade. So I wanted to start by asking you if you could share a bit about your own story and the path that led you to your current work.

Mariya Taher - 03:31              

Yeah, definitely. I think when I reflect on my story really it starts in my, my own childhood. It was my own experiences as well. It's something that I grew up in a community where, well my parents are immigrants from India. And so, I think when I grew up, I grew up in a very global context where I, I was able to be, understand many cultures and communities and sort of see differences between various cultures, and just roles, gender roles that were played as well. And slowly over time I started to have an interest in gender dynamics, and eventually went to graduate school for my master's in social work, and realized that I really wanted to learn more about gender violence issues. And I started looking into domestic violence, sexual assault, but I always also always had an interest in female genital cutting because, also the community I grew up in practiced female genital cutting, and it was something that happened to me as well when I was a child. But I grew up in this context where it was very normalized. And so I didn't even think to question it until I was maybe in high school or so. And so as I was sort of witnessing these things and gender roles and dynamics and realized I have this passion and interest, I decided for my thesis as you mentioned, that I wanted to do a study to further understand why female genital cutting happened in the community I grew up in, the Bohra, which is the Dawoodi Bohra community. And specifically because I was realizing it happened to me. I always knew it happened to me. I just didn't connect the dots that it was something that was a form of gender violence until I was in high school. I, when I started connecting those dots and realize there was just no research out there about it happening to other girls who are U.S. born, but also to anybody who is outside of the African continent because at the time really, there was really much more information about it happening in Africa then there was that it happened globally, which is something we now know, and so l I decided I would do research myself, because in one way I wanted to get the answers for why it happened. But also as a social worker just wanting to build knowledge so that other frontline professionals as they came across women and girls who needed support would have that information and understand, how to work with them in a more culturally sensitive manner too. And as I was doing this, I realized - I've always been a writer too, and that was my way of understanding the world, was either to read things or to write things. And I wrote about this and eventually connected with other women who were also working on this from communities where it was practiced. And in time we started to do a lot of storytelling work and the idea was breaking the silence on this issue and kind of what's led me to where I am today and why do the work that I do as well.

Elizabeth - 06:51              

Thank you. Yeah. And where'd you mentioned before, one of the things that was so striking to me in reading about your story and researching your work is that when you began to, to do your research about they'll cutting happening in the U.S., as you mentioned, something you'd been aware of happening in your own life and in your community, that there was no information, clearly it was happening, but the silence seemed pretty absolute. So, as you mentioned too, with your work, you're beginning to fill that silence with your voice, and, and meet other survivors who are coming forward. So this is obviously a difficult issue to navigate for a lot of reasons in a, it's an intimate trauma, it's multigenerational in many cases and something that needs to be, combated, you know, to end it on the community level within families and then also within courts. And then there's another layer that bigoted people outside of the communities that practice female genital cutting rather than standing with survivors in the community and giving support, often use the practice as fodder for ramping up hate rhetoric and Islamophobia. So I was wondering if you could speak to some of the difficulties that surround fighting, fighting to end female genital cutting.

Mariya Taher - 08:18              

Yeah. I think that you definitely hit the nail on many of the challenges that that occur. One of the things for me that was unexpected at the time, was when I was doing when I started doing research on this and the way that I started inquiring about it, I guess my activism started was the research avenue. And it felt safe to do it from that angle in some way to where, where I could kind of take this academic perspective and really understand the nuances of why it continued. And I never really, I never wanted to, there's a narrative out there I think that the people, as you mentioned, people who practice it, outside of the community, well instead of supporting those who are working then to, use it to target or to, to fuel Islamophobic fire, and I think there's this other narrative that the people who continued this practice are barbaric, you hear that term a lot, or that they're completely evil and being someone who grew up in a community, I don't think that at all. And you know, I don't think that about my parents. I don't think that about my many family members, but I do think that this is a form of gender violence that has been justified in complicated. And it's almost a disservice if you paint people in this very simplistic way in terms of trying to end this form of gender violence. And that was one thing I wanted to counter with my work, and really kind of show the complexities and have people understand that this is something that's a learned form of gender violence. Like other forms of gender violence. We know research shows us that domestic violence and sexual assault, unfortunately, children who witness it will grow up, to be survivors themselves or abusers, and it's something that understanding female genital cutting, this is something that happens to girls too. And you're brought up in this culture where you're told, to keep silent about it or other, you know, there's other power struggles in there that, that entrench it. And so you just perpetuate generation after generation. And so we have to understand like if it's a learned form of behavior, how do we unlearn this? And, I think working with the community is incredibly important to do in that aspect. What's harmed, what is really challenging about this too is that there's so many, different forms of oppression that are connected with this kind of form of gender violence or that other people will want to connect with this, as we mentioned Islamophobia and xenophobic kind of attitudes are perpetuated along with this from outsiders. And I think people - there's misconceptions that this is only something that Muslim people do, or this is something only that happens in poor countries, and in other parts of the world. And those things are not true. And I think that they add to challenges of us trying to bring awareness of this issue to the broader community and to the world. And I think that, I'm just thinking about, I do work here in Massachusetts too and trying to pass state legislation and, unfortunately we have a very, we do have a very liberal legislature, but one of the challenges that we've been facing is that people are worried that if we target this issue that will unintentionally target minority communities and vulnerable communities. But then there's by doing - and I understand that fear, and we've seen that happen, but at the same time, it feels like then we're saying we're sanctioning cultural violence because of this idea that it only happens to certain communities and it's very hard to explain. But there's this cultural pride that's just connected with this form of gender violence that makes it even more challenging to work on. But then I think about, I think when, when I, when I'm in conversations where that's coming up, a lot of times I tried to bring in the domestic violence movement that happened in this country and you know, in the 1970’s that's really when it started. And it was because women were starting to share their stories and starting to really show that this is something that's not, should not be considered private. This is something that is, should be in the public sphere. And that's when we started having laws passed around domestic violence too. And, but you know, for a very long time and in some, you know, areas of the country too, it's still viewed as acceptable to hit a woman or to hit your wife. And with that, for the most part, that mentality, it's not, it's, it's changed and we don't see that as acceptable. And I think that's what we have to look at here is that there, we can't in any way say that FGC is acceptable, even though there is this understanding that many people who are doing it think it's for the good of the girl, but we have to, we have to change that, and it just becomes a very complicated issue.

Elizabeth - 13:12              

Yeah, sure, sure. And, and so, so to kind of, to kind of piggyback on that a bit, I had, I had wanted to ask what were the things you need to address in your approach to fighting to end the practice, at a communal level and legally, but then it's, I mean, it sounds like, it sounds like you, like the issue is obviously what needs to be addressed. I guess what I mean by that is how do you approach that with how sensitive it is, and then as a followup to that, because it's such a heavy issue in such a personal issue, if you could talk a bit about what it was like for you to decide to discuss this publicly. Because like you were saying, the silence is a huge part of the problem, but it takes a lot of courage to talk about it publicly, especially when people really, really weren't. It's only in the last couple of years that, that I've seen anything about it. Just as you know, not being in a community that practiced it. So, so it seems like the silence was pretty pervasive.

Mariya Taher - 14:19              

Yeah. It's interesting when you talk about the silence, um, there'd been a silence at many different levels. I think that has perpetuated, not just there is this silence in terms of within communities and it varies, but often you do hear this theme that women are told not to talk about this or just to sort of keep silent on this and that it's, it's something that women often continue on to women too - it's a unique form of gender violence in that way. But there's also been this larger silence, sort of at the international governmental level as well. And even or intergovernmental level, even looking at the UN for a very long time didn't, it's only in the last few years that there's been this recognition that FGC is global, and even in their policies that have happened - for instance, if you look at the UN sustainable development goals, which is a set of goals that countries around the world have agreed to in terms of reducing various forms of oppression. And there's one particular goal, goal number five, that relates to just discrimination against women and girls. And under that, there are there indicators, and before the sustainable development goals, there were the millennial development goals, which were 15 year kind of policies that countries are targeting towards, to, to address inequalities. But it was only with this the most recent, the sustainable development goals, has there been this indicator that has changed to say that now all countries have to track data on FGC. Prior to that, only 29 countries in the world, which were mostly an African in the Middle East, were required to track it. And that was under this false kind of misconceptions that it only happened in those countries. But there was, when there was this discussion going around about these new indicators and it was public comment and many people did provide feedback and comment that no, we have to address it. This is a global issue, because we need, we need that research. But research also helps to, you know, pass policies. And then it also helps to provide, a need for, for funding, for programs, for prevention programs, for support programs too. So I think that that silence has just been, it's been stunning in some way because this isn't a new issue, but it's just that to the global world, we've only heard about it in many countries in the last few years. But it doesn't mean that it's because it just suddenly started happening in those places. It's always been happening. It's just that the silence has been so pervasive. And I think along with that, one of the reasons why you have seen a lot of action and why there has been a shift to this idea of breaking the silence is also social media. Honestly, there's been a lot of digital activism and there's more information available now; more opportunities for survivors to share their stories and for people in very different parts of the world to, to read about the story. In Sahiyo's own work, we emphasize on storytelling because previously we just didn't see survivors from, from the Bohra community talking about this. And as we were doing that work, we started hearing from other Asian communities. And so we really work with, we work with all survivors, but we do a certain emphasis on Asian communities just because there's an under recognition that it happens in those communities. But as we were doing work, then we started hearing from people, in Sri Lanka, you know, and like Pakistan and many other countries in the world and saying like, it happens here too. And, um, sort of sharing those stories and it just, it doesn't surprise - every year it feels like we have a new new story that sudden, suddenly you're hearing that, oh, it's happening in Russia or it's happening in Columbia. And, and again, it's not because it's new, it's just for some reason there was this silence in the world, and social media has allowed - social media and media in general and just allowed us to, to facilitate the breaking of that silence in a way that never happened previously.

Elizabeth - 18:38              

Yeah. And so to the, to that point, actually I, I really wanted to talk to you too about the use of storytelling as activism. So can you tell me a bit about, is it Sah-hi-yo?

Mariya Taher - 18:54              

Sahiyo (Pronounced Say-yo), yeah.

Elizabeth - 18:55              

I am so sorry. I, I knew I was going to not pronounce it properly, and I apologize. But can you tell me about the mission and its use of storytelling as activism, to help, in the fight to end female genital cutting?

Mariya Taher - 19:14              

Sure. So as I mentioned, Sahiyo is a storytelling organization, we really, we're very broad in our definition of storytelling. We started with doing research, which is something we do think of as storytelling. And we did a study which was built off of the study I did in my grad program, but expanded, and it was a global study to understand how prevalent FGC was in the Bohra community. We had over 400 women from around the world, who grew up in this community take part, and found out that 80% said they had undergone it. So that confirmed many of our beliefs that it was widespread. And we also found out that 81% said they didn't want it to continue in the next generation, and that was stunning for us because, it was also like, wow, there's so many people don't want it to continue, why is it then? And we realized that that silence was part of the reason. And there there's a term pluralistic ignorance, which in social psychology means basically every no one believes it, but everyone thinks everyone else does, and so that's why it continues. And I think that's something that's very common to human nature, but there was this social pressure and everyone, no one was talking to each other. And so that, that idea that maybe we don't need to continue it, or that some people don't want it to happen or it was harmful, just wasn't out there, and we needed to put that out there. And so research is one way to do that, but we also started a blog, very simple, and the idea was that we would have survivors, we would have women who weren't cut from the community, we would have men who knew about the - how it affects the women in their lives. Many people just sharing their perspectives and their stories and they could write anonymously or with their name, whatever their comfort level, and we could build this, this collective or this platform of voices to have this collective impact. And then we started expanding on different, other versions of storytelling, so we've done some photo campaigns, which we think are a way of telling stories. We've done - creating digital stories, where survivors and can come together to kind of create their own videos and talk about whatever aspects of their work, whether it's the actual experience or the difficulties and advocacy around it, in their own words, and the idea is to get agency over their stories again, because sometimes we've unfortunately also seen people's stories used, unintentionally by media sources in ways that make them, the survivor or the person uncomfortable. So this was an idea of allowing them to take control of their stories again. And then we've also done in-person events where we've had, created sort of safe spaces where people can come to talk to one another and discuss, and we think that's story sharing as well. So we have very wide definition of storytelling, but we think that that you need that dialogue, because it's that first step towards changing things, and you want to essentially take something that was silent that was considered shameful, or taboo to talk about and you want to take into the public sphere, so that it's no longer considered shameful or taboo to talk about - that everyone's talking about it. And we are seeing that happening. Because once that happens, then that can inspire other people to enact change or to, even if the change is just very simple and their own family, where they might tell one other person about this and are they, you know, maybe one person decides, 'Oh, I'm not going to do this,' to a larger level of having activists like me and others really taking a stance on this. We have a very broad definition of storytelling, but we do think that essentially we need to reach a critical mass of people so that this idea, this former idea that FGC has to happen for the good of the girl, is replaced with idea that it's harmful and we shouldn't be doing this.

Elizabeth - 23:25              

And they think part of the part of the work that you're doing and part of the, work other activists are doing as well as to also disabuse people of the, correct them, that it's not required in any religious text, which I think is another misconception that it is out there.

Mariya Taher - 23:50              

Well one thing of that, I hear that a lot and, I feel like that's tricky, because the thing is that it's true that it's not at any of the significant religious texts, but it is in some religious texts and like in for instance, the Bohra community, there are other books that they follow and it is stated in there. So, and the thing is that some religious leaders preach that it must happen as well. And so I think that it's important to recognize also that there can be practices that are harmful, and that many people believe are religious, but it's not an excuse for why it should continue.

Elizabeth - 24:35              

And that change is possible. Because there are, obviously too, religious leaders who argue against it. And they kind of have to navigate that conversation within the community as well. And I think it's exactly what you said. Yeah, for sure.

Mariya Taher - 24:49              

Yeah. Yeah. So I think it's tricky, but I think, I think the bigger point is that, it doesn't - something that's harmful, for a child - It doesn't matter if there's a religious text or, or religion. It should not happen if it's harm - you know, something that's harmful like that and a form of violence.

Elizabeth - 25:05              

Right. Just like it shouldn't be a political issue. It's, it's harm. It shouldn't be it, it just is a harmful thing and it shouldn't happen.

Mariya Taher - 25:14              

Yeah. Yeah. Like if you think about, I'm blanking on the a group, but there's a certain, a Christian denomination, that was, there was a lot of controversy over and not allowing children to take certain vaccines and medications.

Elizabeth - 25:33              

Yeah. I believe it's Jehovah's Witnesses. And I will apologize to that community if I'm incorrect, but I believe that that's the case. Yes. Transfusions, vaccinations, that type of thing. Surgeries sometimes. Yeah.

Mariya Taher - 25:49              

And it's been found that, that's that it is harmful. It's something that, again, even though it's a religious belief, I think we have to also think about the good at the wellbeing and the health is the bodily integrity of the child. I think that needs to take precedent.

Elizabeth - 26:06              

And one of the things I wanted to, to kind of talk about too, to that because, so when we think about violence against women and girls in general, the motivation always seems to come down to using violence to subjugate women and girls and rob them of their bodily autonomy and their sexual agency. But obviously as women we're not going anywhere, and we're not going to stop, you know, fighting to end violence against us. Do you think that there has been, well, not do you think has there been any, because I know there has been, but what types of progress do you see that's being made at the community level within families to change that perception? To, you know - that this is something, that's, you know, was said to be good for the girl but that it's actually harmful. So, like can you, I guess, give a little insight into how is, is it, is it, how is it permeating the community, this conversation? Like, like you said, maybe one personal come to an event and they'll go home and they'll tell one person, it'll be like, you know what? That's right. I'm not going to do that anymore. And I, that's so important because every, every person, but I've just, I just wonder what that, what that looks like, what your experience has been like. Within the community.

Mariya Taher - 27:34              

I mean, change is happening. And we do hear those stories, and we hear about people who have decided not to have their, their daughters cut. Then we hear about, stories of mothers and daughters, you know, having conversations about this, we've heard lots of difficult stories. People disagree with each other, but they're having these conversations and I mentioned that's like the first step is to take it out of the private sphere....

Elizabeth - 28:05              

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, I, yeah, yeah. It's not easy to ever talk to your family about things that are, I mean, I, I don't, I don't share your specific experience, but I can empathize because there are certain things unfortunately, violence within communities that are supposed to support you and care about you is, is not uncommon. And it's really, really hard to confront people when they're your family. Um, yeah. So, it's a big deal. Yeah.

Mariya Taher - 28:43              

Yeah, yeah, completely. I was, I was actually thinking about, there was this one blog that we published and it was from a son who had never talked to his mom, but finally decided to - when there was a lot of media attention going on about the Michigan case - and cause they'd ask his mom and his mom had undergone this, and his mom basically she's a pretty religious woman and had very much defended the religion but said, this was something I underwent and I would, and if you ever have daughters, I would absolutely, I would absolutely tell you like essentially like saying like, you should not do this to your daughter. Like this was something that like, that conversation really impacted him too, and really recognizing that this woman that was pretty religious and again, like had done a lot to, to try to get her sons to, to understand, the community and to come along with it, but she was just adamant about this. And I think you hear a lot of those story too. You hear other stories too where women are coming out and saying like, no, it's not harmful. We should continue it. But you're starting to hear public conversations in a way that never happened before. It seems like everybody knows about this now. And you are seeing one, one interesting thing, is you're seeing the dialogues shift, this is specific to the Bohra community, but since the Michigan case happens to be in the Bohra community, there's been a lot of media attention put onto this particular community. And then, so it seems like everybody globally knows about this happening and has been talking about it and some way or another with family or friends or whatnot. And, that's, that's - as we've been seeing that for a very long time, so when you previously would talk about this, that you would hear our religious leaders wouldn't say anything publicly about it, and that shifted in the last couple of years of increased conversations and activists and survivors were in court cases were happening where the religious leaders, now - this goes back to your question about, you know, sort of subjecting women to, to bodily violence and whatnot - and there there've been many reasons for why FGC should continue. One of the prominent ones is sexual control, and this idea that women aren't supposed to be sexual or promiscuous, not the only idea, but it was a very prominent one that we would, you know, research to find. But there's been the shift and the religious leaders have not publicly come out and spoken about it, but they basically also said that that reasoning is wrong, and that all the women who've thought that were wrong and basically were like, that's not the reason why we do this. The reason we do this is because it's in our religious texts and it's connected to helping hygiene. And so it is, it's you can almost figure out why that shift is happening, because that's a very unpopular notion, this idea of connecting or like controlling women's sexuality in that way. And it's been, I guess in a way, that shift is to try to find something that's more palatable in terms of, um, the reason for why it should continue and the reason for why what we're doing is fine. And I think that even though it's like this additional barrier, at the same time, it's showing that change is happening, because we're having this public discussion on it, and it's becoming broader, and yeah, I think just in general. So when you, when you were asking that question, that's just been an interesting thing that I've noticed and I've read that that's happened in other communities too, where reasons can change over time too. And that's my, I don't know if I said this already, but I really think of FGC as something that's a social norm that's been justified in a lot of ways and that's why it continues. Um, and I think that it's important to when you're working on this, to be working on it from all those different angles too.

Elizabeth - 32:54              

So that's, I didn't, I didn't realize that. So that the, the so unpalatable over the last couple of years that there's no they’re, that they're now being moved to say other justifications for why it should still continue. Um, yeah, I didn't, I didn't realize that. So that's, so I see. I see what you're saying though, that that's, it's that the the just, the reasoning can change, meaning that change is possible, but the fact that it's still, um, not just being outright categorized as harm is still a further road to go.

Mariya Taher - 33:38              

Yeah.

Elizabeth - 33:39              

So, so what, I was curious, so what has your experience been like in your own family since you became, you know, publicly an activist to, to fight to end FGC?

Mariya Taher - 33:54              

You know, it's been a really long and I think it's a continuing journey and constantly, I, I started with, well, I started by doing research, you know, it felt safe to do that research. Um, and at that time, nobody questioned me and there wasn't, you know, I think I published it in 2010, that's not even that long ago, but still feels like a lot has happened since then. And no one questioned me when I was doing that study. And then I started writing a little bit about it. And even when Sahiyo came together, um, and we decided to do this study, we started the study before we officially became Sahiyo. And, but at that point still too, no one questioned me. And it wasn't until my mom sent this, this the survey that we were doing to some of her cousins, that something happened like that. She was sort of admonished and, and basically shamed. And it was like, what is your daughter doing? Like, you know, she shouldn't be doing this, this is a sensitive woman's issue. And that was what stopped her in her tracks. And at one point was like, you know, maybe you shouldn't be doing this. And it's that social pressure, from others that that's, that's something that also keeps this continuing generation to generation. It might be that individuals or families don't want it to continue, but the social pressures from others is real, very real, very daunting, very intimidating. And that's what keeps people in line as well. And, I think that I, I took a long time between when I worked on my research, and I wrote something about it that was published, and when I decided to finally talk to a news camera, which wasn't until 2016, and, and part of it was because I just knew - I felt I had more control writing something - again I'm more comfortable with the writing, but video is a different thing altogether. And I, at first, you know, there was throughout that journey, I think that took me seven years. But, um, throughout the journey, I would slowly, maybe once in a while I'll talk to my family and my parents, my mind, you know, it's very different they're - they're very supportive, but at the same time, they, they get pressure from community members and, have to, they want to be part of the community, so they have to figure out how to navigate that. And I think that you hear that from a lot of people, and we've heard that from a lot of volunteers actually who will be active with Sahiyo, and then, publicly active - and then they have to be anonymous or private, because something has happened to a family member that has been, like sort of threats of intimidation of happened, not physical assault but just other forms of social control. And I think I've had these continuing conversations with them and now, it's interesting because it's much easier to actually talk to my parents about the work that I do then it was previously, and we've had a lot of arguments along the way, but it is easier now. And then there are some family members of mine who are just very onboard with what I do and talk to me about it all the time. And there are also, relatives that have talked to me that I'm surprised, like I'm not bringing anything up and they just suddenly decided to talk to me about it. That's always surprised me.

Elizabeth - 37:34              

Yeah. The invitation is open to talk. Let's talk.

Mariya Taher - 37:39              

Yeah. but I also have had a couple of incidents, you know, where, more distant relatives that I'm not as close to anymore have defriended me on social media or things like that, or are, and I've heard things about, 'If you're associated with Mariya, you know, that's like you might get in trouble.' And so it's, it's a mixed bag. Um, for the most part they're like, my immediate family is very supportive and I feel lucky in that way too. But it's hard. It's not something that I can easily share with everybody.

Elizabeth - 38:15              

Sure. No, of course. And I'm part of, part of, one of the things that I think we, we talked about probably the first time we spoke, but that I wanted to ask you about, was that you shared that you don't have animosity towards your, your mom or your aunts, and they think that, I think that that is something that is difficult for people who aren't survivors - and I do want to say that every survivor's experiences and feelings are unique, obviously - but I think it's hard for people to understand not having animosity towards your family when they've exposed you to harm. But as I said before, it's an unfortunate reality that the experience of having family members who you love expose you to significant harm and violence is a more common experience than a lot of people think, regardless of religion, culture, or any other factor. Are you comfortable sharing a bit about how you navigate the path of dealing with being a survivor of violence, but also forgiving the people in your family who exposed you to that, and who it also needs to be said too are probably survivors themselves?

Mariya Taher - 39:24              

Um, yeah, I mean, I think for me, what you just said in that last part is huge for me, is recognizing that, many of my family members are survivors themselves. And you know, as I mentioned, I grew up thinking this was very normal and I didn't question it until high school and college, and I very much can understand why they didn't question it. And you know, when it happened to me, there was no law in the U.S. against FGC either. And there wasn't this mass media information and campaigns and whatnot happening, you know, about FGC. It was very different as well. And I know that my mom and you know, she was doing what she thought was right at the time, what everybody was doing, and I, I just never went that route I guess of blaming them and getting angry, my brain - this is my brain though - who I am, went more in this like systemic way. And I think that's why I was attracted to research. It felt safer, but at the same time I wanted to understand how an entire community could continue it, and what are the dynamics involved that perpetuate the violence, you know, recognizing that it's not just one individual - it's there, there systems in place and, and thinking about the larger, religious context, or the larger social idea of social pressure, you know, communal pressure; thinking about gender roles and dynamics. And that was, so I've always, I guess I've always thought about that, and so it was easier for me to, not be angry at my mom about this. And yeah, I'm not, everybody - and your right, every survivor is different. Every story is different, and people deal with things in different ways. It's just sort of the way that I thought about things too. And I think I was more understanding that this was in some way institutional violence because it was, you know, it was the community was enforcing it and practicing it and there was, almost it was embedded in you in a way that, that if you don't do this, then you're, you're not this, you know, identified in this culture and this community. And so that's, that's what I realized was the problem.

Elizabeth - 41:49              

Yeah. It's, it sounds like you're - I can understand research being a natural place for your brain to go. My, my brain kind of goes to, documenting things - I have anxiety was a lot of situations, but if I'm viewing the situation through a camera or if I'm writing about it, like you spoke to your comfort level with writing - a hundred percent I empathize with that too, because I get it - like similar. So it's a, it's these ways to approach and understand things at they're systemic level. So it's not, it sounds like your brain immediately was like, what's the root cause? What is the infrastructure that supports this? And, and, and that's incredible. It's so incredibly important though because like you said, the gathering the data, it is fundamental to making any sort of systemic change. And the fact that it wasn't being done outside of, I, I'm not sure how, how long it has, even how the, how long the data even been being gathered and like, African countries in places where the focus had had more heavily been until the last couple of years. And then one thing that I wanted to ask kind of concurrent to that, is so now, where we are now, the practice is banned in several countries, and in several states in the U.S., including Michigan. But, uh, the Michigan ban came after the federal ban, which was just ruled unconstitutional. And the Detroit case, which I know is, is being appealed. But so what kind of, because we're, because you're gathering data, and because there's more of a light being shined on this and because survivors are coming forward and sharing their stories, what sorts of progress kind of in the U.S. and globally on a more major scale are you seeing? Like, especially over the last couple of years since that silence is getting less and less, more and more people are coming forward and talking about it.

Mariya Taher - 43:51              

Yeah, there's been a lot of activity in the U.S. on this issue, which is amazing to see, because when I was doing research, and again, it was not that long ago, it was so hard for me to find any U.S. based organization doing domestic work. There were organizations I found, but they were doing work abroad on this issue. In the last few years though, there has been, as, as you know, survivors to share their stories, and there has been this focus here, and you've seen more organizations develop and, individually working health professionals, you know, law enforcement, child protective services - like, I think you're seeing people from many different social sectors coming together to work on this issue in a way that hasn't happened before. And there's, even in December of 2016, there was a summit, and I think we had over 400 people come for it, both domestically and internationally, to talk about the issue of FGC. And it was amazing to have that, that type of an event here. And then we had a, since then, there's been this informal U.S. Network to end FGM/C, consisting of member organizations, individuals, and organizations throughout the country that are working on this. The U.S. Network is just really formalized though, recently, and we're having a website - Our website is launching, hopefully on February 6th, which is the International Zero Tolerance Day on FGM/C. So it's amazing to see the work that has happened just in the last 10 years, and we were seeing, again, this very holistic approach where you're, you're having very sectors working together on this. And I mean social workers, medical professionals, with child protective, with, with law enforcement. And that's so needed if we're trying to address this issue and there's a lot to be done still, but we're heading in that right direction, and we are getting systems in place where we can have a more coordinated and larger impact I think on this issue. So I'm very hopeful and I love seeing, seeing this develop here in the U.S. too.

Elizabeth - 46:12              

Absolutely. Can you speak a bit to the galvanizing connection between women, and the strength of that coalition that is fighting together to end gender based violence and FGC?

Mariya Taher - 46:28              

You know, it's, it's amazing to see, I think, I think about that - there seems to be a sisterhood among many of the survivors, but also there's just this strong partnership between advocates in general, regardless if they're survivors or not, within the community or not, that we know this work is so hard, and for so long have been underrepresented and understood, and I think that because we all recognize that we connect in a certain way - there, there's a passion, most people that come into this, there is, and it's in gender violence in general, but I've noticed it in this work as well, and when I was in domestic violence, too, many women who start or get involved are because they have experiences, or they've um, family members or friends, you know, and I think the same thing is true here too. Some something has driven them and they have that passion that they want to see change and being able meet with other likeminded people and find that, that support, particularly when you're having difficulties or challenges, it's just incredibly important and it's helped energize you to continue working and moving forward.

Elizabeth - 47:43              

Absolutely. Absolutely. Is there anything else that you would like to share that we didn't go over or cover or anything else you'd like to talk about?

Mariya Taher - 47:52              

I don't think at this time.

Elizabeth - 47:56              

Okay.

Mariya Taher - 47:56              

You know, but I think that, but the bigger thing if anyone's interested in learning more, you know, it's a really easy thing to do is to do a Google search, but if you're interested in learning more about Sahiyo, you can visit us on our website. It's just to S-A-H-I-Y-O.com or.org. We have both url's. And um, I think that yeah, there's a lot of work to be done, but there's a lot that's been done already and it's, we're gonna - we're seeing a change. It's, it's amazing to see that.

Elizabeth - 48:33              

Yeah, I agree, and thank you for the work that you're doing. It's, it's, it's incredibly important, and it takes a lot of courage.

Mariya Taher - 48:42              

Thank you.

Elizabeth - 48:45              

Mariya Taher, thank you for being on Underestimated. I really appreciate your time today.

Mariya Taher - 48:50              

Thank you so much for inviting me.

Elizabeth - 48:52              

You've been listening to "Don't Mention It," a series from Underestimated: A Podcast. Special thanks today to my guest Mariya Taher. You can follow Mariya's work at Sahiyo by visiting Sahiyo.com - S-A-H-I-Y-O.com, and supporting the work of the U.S End FGM/C Network. You can find their work at endfgmnetwork.org. You can support Mariya directly in her work to ban FGM/C in Massachusetts by signing her Change.org petition, which I will link to in the show notes and description so that you can access it wherever you are downloading your podcasts. Underestimated is written, produced and hosted by me, Elizabeth Palmer, with music inexpertly composed by me in Garageband. All opinions expressed by me in the podcast are my own, and do not represent the views of anyone else, any employer, any company or any other entity. If you like what you've heard, you can follow the pod on Twitter @underestipod, that's U-N-D-E-R-E-S-T-I-M-A-T-E-D and on Instagram @underestimatedpodcast, or you can email the show at underestimatedpodcast@gmail.com. Underestimated may also soon have a Facebook page. I'm really wrestling with whether or not I want to give into our overlords and make one, but rest assured, I'll definitely let you know if and when I buckle. And of course you can find all things Underestimated at underestimatedpodcast.com, and you can follow the hashtag #Don'tMentionIt on social media for updates on this series. Thank you for listening. Have a good week.

 

Elizabeth P.