Breaking the Silence: Board meeting and men’s group commentary

From left to right: ...

Last week's BtS advisory board meeting. From left to right: Maryann Mohamoud, Wynema Phillips-Horve, Calara Sarr, Mary Averill, Leroy Crenshaw, Bessie Crenshaw, and Joanne Corbin

Calara Sarr and I held the final Breaking the Silence workshop on Mother’s Day. Here’s a report, which we wrote together, regarding the men’s group (a more general description of this workshop can be found here).

May 10, 2009, Breaking the Silence workshop was held on Mother’s Day.  Clara Sarr began by welcoming the eleven male participants, and explaining the significance of Mother’s Day to them.  “It is one American holiday I am proud to share with you.”  She continued by explaining that the day was a day to honor and celebrate women and mothers, that they bring us all to the world, and all of the work they do to make it a good place for us.  One Somali man pointed out that the United States was out of sync with the rest of the world, neglecting to celebrate International Women’s Day, March 11, and insisting on celebrating its own holiday on May 10.  “Why not flow with the rest of the world and celebrate on March 11?”   Clara explained the difference between the holidays, saying: “Why not celebrate both?”  She challenged the supporters of International Women’s Day to be in the streets with Breaking the Silence next March, to stand up for women in their communities. “March is a long time away,” Guhad Ahmed said.  So the group then dove into the question of how to support women in the meantime.  “I have heard a lot of African men also say that every day is Mother’s Day,” Clara said to the group.  The men laughed and seemed to murmur in agreement.  “So how can we make sure this is true?  I know you all care deeply about the women in your lives, because you came to this event.  So let us discuss ways to support women who live with FGM daily.”

First, there was a discussion of the film we had watched as a co-ed group before our meal, The Secret Pain, depicting the horrible experience of Kate Kendall being circumcised in Sierra Leone, and revisiting the “secret society” in which it had occurred.  Men had many feelings about the differences and similarities between Sierra Leone and Somalia.  First, an important point one pointed out, was that most Somalis here in the states do not have a recent history of actually residing in Somalia.  Many refugees come directly from camps in Kenya, Yemen, Egypt, etc., so they do not have a recent experience in their homeland, and may not keep in touch with on-goings in Somalia. The experience in a refugee camp is quite different from one in Somalia.  In many refugee camps, they said, they run workshops prohibiting FGM, saying it is bad, but they do not usually get into detail about why or how to help or cope with it.

One man pointed out that there is no real central government in Somalia, so the case is quite different from Sierra Leone, where the government actually plays a role in continuing the practice, and the issue comes up as a contentious item in elections.  It seemed that although the topic still carries a certain amount of taboo, and Somalis are not comfortable speaking of FGM, there is not the same level of restricted silence surrounding FGM as in Sierra Leone, where breaching the silence can result in violent cases of punishment.   Men in this group seemed as if they had spoken of the topic in other situations.  One mentioned speaking of it with his mother, for example, and several family members including both genders.  One topic that had become common was on the health effects of FGM.  This man had noticed many women with FGM complaining of problems with pain and infection of her organs, specifically her kidneys.  He said it had become common knowledge that FGM causes these types of health problems.  This knowledge seemed to pass rather freely among the men in the group.

A concern one man had with totally eliminating the tradition of FGM, although he was in favor of ending the practice, was that a man might no longer be sure of the virginity of his wife-to-be.  He felt that when eliminating one aspect of the culture, it was hard to preserve other ones.  He was concerned about the increase in premarital sex, and how to pass on the value of abstinence without maintaining the custom they had used so long to ensure it.  This man was one of the unmarried men in the room, who wasn’t comfortable with the totally relaxed attitude around sex and dating in the United States.  He prefers to remain only friends with females, and keep a customary distance until he is sure she is the woman for him.  He is not quick to adapt new values about this.  However, he did express some discomfort, along with a sense of humor, about the Somali emphasis on over-valuing the virgin girl, being worth more camels (a higher price), in his homeland.  We then talked a little about other ways of teaching youth to wait, to stay “pure”, through good examples, communication, and healthy environments, and other ways to value women.

As far as the conversation about supporting survivors of FGM, Clara spoke a little about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and how it comes up in many people who experience violence.  She emphasized that PTSD arises frequently in American women as well, and that it might be something they notice in Somali women.  She explained some of the signs that it may be occurring, such as sudden detachment during intimacy, crying, unexplainable fears, the feeling of reliving a shock or a negative experience day after day.  Clara encouraged the men not to take this personally, that it was not happening because of something they had done, and to be patient, sensitive, to listen, and give her time, as healing takes time.  She encouraged them to allow the women to seek help, and to find someone she can trust to talk about her pain and her memories with.  She reminded them that BTS has many resources to help women, and that being gentle and supportive can help.

One man brought up the question of sexuality and intimacy, and because the time was short, Clara felt there was inadequate time to speak of this in a most appropriate and respectful way.  The men seemed uncomfortable jumping into it, and Clara had hoped to provide an introduction to the topic with a Muslim viewpoint on the sacredness of marital intimacy to enhance the comfort level of discussion.  Without enough time to do so properly, what she did mention was that women who experience FGM do have altered genitalia and may find sex challenging, but do have the possibility of enjoying sex.  The film provided a helpful example to transition into this part of the discussion.  The men observed that the one women in the film with all of her genitalia enjoyed sex more.  Clara tried to get across that ALL women can experience a positive and healthy sex life, regardless of what her past or physiology may be.  This is definitely a topic worth much more exploration, with the most respectful framework possible to ensure cultural and religious boundaries are not broken.

A question one man ended with was about the presence of FGM in the states.  He was a newcomer at the third workshop, so hadn’t participated in the introductory ones, where this was covered.  He seemed reassured that Africans were not the only people to ever practice FGM, and by the fact that groups have practiced and abandoned the mutilation throughout time.  While now illegal in the United States, the American Medical Association not long ago endorsed a similar procedure with medical rationalizations.   It is amazing how what is once considered rational can later become a shameful history.  Breaking the Silence does not encourage shaming the practice or the people who do it, but open communication regarding the dangers of it and the possibilities beyond it.  We certainly endorse abandonment of the practice of FGM, with more healthy outlooks as our alternative.

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