In July of this year, the Tostan Training Center hosted a 10-day training with participants from around the globe, on Tostan’s human rights-based approach to community-led development. One of the July participants, Mariya Taher–co-founder of the organization Sahiyo–spoke with us about her experience: what surprised her, what she learned, and what she brings back to her work.  

Hi Mariya!  Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, and share a bit about your recent experience at the Tostan Training Center.  First off: can you tell us about you, your work and what brought you to the TTC?

Sure. I’ve been working in the gender violence field for almost nine years now, doing everything from research, program development, teaching, and policy work, to direct services on issues of domestic violence, trafficking, and female genital cutting (FGC). In the last couple of years, I’ve been doing a lot more work around the issue of FGC both in the United States and at the international level.

In 2015, I helped cofound Sahiyo, an organization with the mission to empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities to end FGC and create positive social change through dialogue, education and collaboration based on community involvement. At the local level in Massachusetts where I currently live, I am part of the Massachusetts FGM Task force, working to help pass state legislation against the practice, as well as working towards bringing more awareness and community education of the issue within the state.

I really got into this line of work in 2008 after I got into graduate school for my Masters of Social Work degree. I underwent FGC myself when I was seven years old, and so was aware of the practice my entire life. As a child though, I knew it as a celebratory practice, and it wasn’t until high-school or college that I started questioning it. At that time, there really wasn’t much available about FGC as it was practiced by Indian communities on the internet or in the academic research. So in grad school, I decided to research it. I remember that I typed in the words “FGM” and “Dawoodi Bohra” — the religious/ethnic community I was born into. My search results only turned up two items: one of them was an article in an Indian newspaper in which Molly Melching had published an anonymous letter from a Dawoodi Bohra woman who had written to her about FGC happening in her community. Somehow I was also able to find Molly’s email address and so I wrote to her. I think as soon as I contacted her, that was the moment I was  introduced into FGC work as an activist. I decided that I would conduct my MSW thesis on the practice within the Dawoodi Bohra Indian community and I called it “Understanding the continuation of FGC in the United States”. After that, along with working in the domestic violence field, I kept slowly writing about FGC and giving presentations on the topic for a few years. It was through that activism that I also connected with other women who had undergone FGC, and eventually connected with the four women who cofounded Sahiyo with me.

As a fledgling organization, we definitely understand the importance of connecting with other organizations that have been working on this issue for a long time and learning from them. I was already in contact with Molly and she had helped me connect with the Orchid Project years ago. It was with the help of Orchid Project, that I along with my colleague, Shaheeda Kirtane, were able to attend the TTC.

Were the topics covered during the 10-day training relevant to your work?   If so, in what ways?

Definitely! We at Sahiyo were already using storytelling techniques to break the silence around FGC within the Dawoodi Bohra community, but after the training, Shaheeda and I both realized how intentional we need to be with the work we are doing, meaning we needed to understand why we were using storytelling techniques and what we were hoping to achieve by uplifting survivor voices.  

At the TTC training, we learned more about how Tostan uses a human rights and responsibilities approach to address various challenges in communities. Specific to Sahiyo’s work, we learned that Tostan engaged in FGC awareness work in a manner that involved the entire community. We also learned more about how FGC is a tradition that is considered a social norm and that only with the entire community’s buy-in can a social norm be recognized as harmful and be abandoned. Due to these learnings, Sahiyo reexamined our storytelling platform, and we began to understand that we needed to include stories from everyone in the community who had a connection with “khatna,” as FGC is called in the Dawoodi Bohra community. This means we need to share the stories of men, women, children, friends, religious leaders, professionals, etc affected by khatna themselves or connected to khatna because someone they knew had undergone it. We need to share stories of women who had been spared from FGC as well–and we were hearing many stories from women who had been spared–but who also did not publicly acknowledge that they had not undergone the practice.

We also recognized that by engaging in storytelling we were incorporating the idea of organized diffusion via the sharing of digital content to reach Dawoodi Bohra communities globally. We wanted to find other opportunities for Dawoodi Bohra communities, or jammats (congregations), in all countries to discuss FGC in person or through other effective communication methods (i.e. Whatsapp).  It’s important to have members from the community discuss these issues amongst themselves and to understand that by discussing these issues, you are also looking into how to better the community’s overall well-being.

Related to understanding that FGC is viewed as a social norm by many people, Sahiyo also looks at the language and terminology that we were using in our activism work, and so we do try to use non-combative language when we discuss FGC. For example, we try to stay away from phrases such as “fighting tradition” – and instead choose to use phrases such as “abandoning the tradition of FGC”.

I think the biggest take away from us was the understanding that social change takes time, and that for all us working on this issue, we are addressing it because we are concerned about our community’s well being–every single person in the community’s well-being–because not only do we each have certain human rights, we also have the responsibility to ensure that others’ rights are not being taken from them.

Do you anticipate integrating any particular aspects of what was covered into your work moving forward?

Yup! We have already started incorporating some of the learnings into our work as I’ve mentioned above. We also had an organizational retreat in August to plan out Sahiyo’s activities for the next year, and discussed other ways to integrate our learnings into those activities.

One item discussed is the fact that there are more and more activists from the Dawoodi Bohra community coming out to speak against the practice of khatna or FGC from around the globe. So we are looking into ways to connect all of these activists together because we think it is also important for us to share our learnings with others working on this issue.

What surprised you the most during your time at the Training Center?

Well, on the first day of the TTC training, I was nominated to be village chief for our group! Haha! That really surprised me, but also made me feel honored. I barely knew the other trainees at that point, but as village chief, I was supposed to represent the group when we went on trips to villages or when folks came to present at the TTC. I also was responsible for making sure everyone was on time for training each day. I rang a bell to let my ‘flock’ know they were being summoned, and then if someone was late, they had to dance for the entire group. To be honest, I think people might have been late on purpose just so they could dance!

Really, the positive energy and all the dancing I saw from everyone–the trainees, the presenters, the villagers, Tostan staff, everyone working at the TTC from the cooks to the housekeepers–also just really surprised me and made me enjoy my time there even more.

I have to also say it was amazing to see how impactful the training was for my colleague, Shaheeda. Since I had connected with Molly, Gannon, and few others from Tostan years ago, I was familiar with the concepts around the FGC work that Tostan does, but as the training progressed and as Shaheeda and I had more conversations around how to bring back these learnings to Sahiyo, I could see the impact the TTC training was having on her through the ideas she brought up for our work.

Relatedly, did you experience any of what some might describe as an “aha!” moment?

Yes! When we started talking about “pluralistic ignorance,” which is the idea that there are people who don’t agree with a social norm, but think that everyone else does, and so the social norm continues. A few months before the TTC training, I spoke at the U.N. in New York. I stayed with my relatives while I was in the city My aunt told me that she was speaking to my other aunt (her sister) on the phone just a few days prior to my visit, and that they both admitted to each other that they did not have khatna done to their daughters. It was the first time they had spoken about this with one another. .

During the TTC training, after the term, “pluralistic ignorance” came up, I realized that there is a silence even amongst those who don’t continue the tradition with their daughters. They do not carry out the practice on their daughters, but they choose to remain silent about not having done it, for fear of what others may say or do. That silence needs to be broken as we make it clear that those individuals are not alone, that there is a growing movement to abandon the practice of khatna or FGC.

Will you be bringing what you learned back to peers, colleagues – maybe even family members?  What is your vision for sharing out any potential lessons learned?

Definitely! We have already shared with our Sahiyo colleagues. Shaheeda and I are also planning on writing about our experiences through blog posts as well to reach as a wide an audience as possible.

As mentioned, we’re also looking into how to share the knowledge with other activists. We are hoping to start sharing the work by creating a webinar type of training to share amongst our volunteers. We would love to expand that work to beyond our volunteers in time as well.

Would you recommend others attend a training at the TTC, and if yes, any individuals or groups in particular you think might benefit?

Oh definitely! I’m hoping that the other three Sahiyo members can attend next year, particularly so that after they return from the training they can look at Sahiyo programs and see if we are implementing our learnings from the TTC to the best of our abilities.

I think this is a training this is definitely relevant and vital for anyone working on the issue of FGC, but I also believe that Tostan’s community empowerment model is one in which individuals, organizations, government officials, development workers, public health workers, religious leaders, etc. can learn from and apply to their own work.

Any final thoughts on your experience that we may not have touched upon?

I was also thinking about how it would be great to connect with folks who might attend the TTC in the future and that I would love to be part of any future trainings as well!

Thank you again so much Mariya for your time, and for the incredible work that you do!


For more on Sahiyo and Mariya’s work, here are a few suggested links to explore: