Saza Faradilla (she/her) is the founder of End Female Genital Cutting Singapore (EFS) and works on Community Engagement & Diversity and Inclusion at National University of Singapore. She graduated from Yale-NUS College in 2018 as an Anthropology major.
Photo by: Gan Kah Ying
Sylvia: Hi Saza, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed! Can you give us an introduction to the work that you've been doing in social impact since graduating from Yale-NUS?
Saza: I’m currently involved with End Female Genital Cutting Singapore (EFS). This started when I did my capstone project on female genital cutting (FGC) in Singapore.
As to why I’ve started, I’ve told this story many times: when I was about 20 years old, I was at my niece's birthday party, and my sister-in-law said, “Oh, you know, your niece was sunat (cut), like two weeks ago.” I was very shocked and angry: not only did I think that it was a violation of my niece’s rights, I thought only boys get circumcised. Then my sister told me that I was also cut when I was young. When I asked my parents about it, I felt like they couldn't give me a satisfactory answer.
I processed my feelings on this personal experience by writing papers about FGC in college, and eventually wrote my thesis on it. Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is a very real practice that harms a lot of baby girls in the region, and yet, there's not a lot of literature on FGC, especially in Singapore and Malaysia.
I always wanted to start a group after college to bring all the women working on FGC issues across Singapore together. I thought, if we can bring all of us together and collect all our strengths and resources, it’ll become a much stronger movement. I’ve done this since last year, and in October 2020, EFS was born.
Our vision is a Singapore where Female Genital Cutting is obsolete.
The group is made up of about 10 women who are generally Muslim or Muslim-raised. Our vision is a Singapore where FGC is obsolete. We recognise that this will likely happen only in the next generation. So, this movement needs to continue for at least another eighty years, because with most traditional and cultural practices, chances are that one generation forgets about it, and there'll be collective amnesia.
We are educating the Muslim community on different perspectives on FGC, lobbying political office holders - for example, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, Ministry of Health, the Muslim Healthcare Professionals Association, Singapore Medical Council - to get them to regulate and standardise FGC practices. We are also creating solidarity and allyship for the movement beyond the Singapore Muslim community.
Sylvia: Thanks for the clear introduction! I'm going to start off with something that is a little more personal, which is, how did you feel when you found out that FGC was done to you without your knowledge or consent?
Saza: I was very upset that this lack of bodily consent happened when I was young. I was also very concerned about how it affects my reproductive and sexual health. Yeah, and there was just no data or no one that I could talk to who had been through this.
Sylvia: How do you come to terms with the fact that it happened?
Saza: To some extent, I have channeled those feelings into action: sharing my story, and then finding solidarity with other women who have also experienced this lack of bodily autonomy and rights under the patriarchal context in the Muslim community was really helpful. And then we could talk about it.
To some extent, I have channeled those feelings into action: sharing my story, and then finding solidarity with other women who have also experienced this lack of bodily autonomy and rights under the patriarchal context in the Muslim community was really helpful.
Initially, there was some cognitive dissonance in my processing, because the information that was immediately available and that I was surrounded by was not helpful.
At first, I kind of accepted the commonly named arguments for FGC: that it is an Islamic practice, it is for cleanliness.
It was only later, when I met more experts on the topic, that I learned physical impact is one aspect, but there are also mental and emotional aspects of FGC that I never considered. I realised that there is absolutely no form of FGC which is not harmful. Yeah, I think it was just learning on a deeper level and realising that it was truly a violation that helped me to come to terms with what happened to me.
I also started thinking about FGC on a larger scale, and placed it within the context of the Muslim community and how this is but one kind of control of woman that this is symptomatic of broader patriarchal structures.
Having gone through this, I think my advice for people who are facing such traumas is to surround yourself with people who have gone through the same thing, and have similar ideas of empowerment. And then do your own research, because if you know more about something, it makes it much less scary. And speak to a counsellor about it.
Chu Hsien: I admire how your personal experience with FGC has been a driving force for your work. What keeps you going, and where do you see yourself and the movement over the next 10-50 years?
Saza: From young, I've always had a very strong sense of justice. My favourite words when I was young were “not fair”. So when I found out about FGC and realised how little literature there is , and how little people know about it, I decided to write my thesis on the topic.
I feel like ending FGC is really my life's work; it's my dream and I really feel like it's what I was born to do.
I feel like ending FGC is really my life's work; it's my dream and I really feel like it's what I was born to do. And I'm in a very unique position to do that, as a Muslim-raised woman who had the cutting, with both the educational privilege and the vernacular to be able to talk to specific stakeholders and write about it. With all this privilege, I need to do something about it. That's why I think I might be able to stop it. And I want to do it. That’s what keeps me going.
Sylvia: While we’re on the topic of identity, how do you think your identity as a woman from a minority race in Singapore has influenced your experience within activism?
Saza: I feel that my status as a minority race person in Singapore is helpful in my activism simply because I am able to relate better to the people that we are trying to partner with.
For example, SG Climate Rally (SGCR) asked me to join them in their community work talking to delivery riders after the announcement of the petrol hike. My brother-in-law is also a delivery rider, and because of that connection, I was able to connect the SGCR volunteers to some of the riders’ WhatsApp chat groups. So I feel like my positionality as a middle lower income person from a minority race is very helpful in activism, just because of these connections that I have.
But at the same time, I am not necessarily the most accepted within the Malay or Muslim communities, because of how I dress, talk, walk. There is also this internal conflict that I have in a lot of Malay spaces, because I feel like I can't really assimilate.
Sylvia: You mentioned the importance of allyship earlier, and how you’re trying to build that with End FGC SG. Could you say more about why you think allyship is important in activism spaces?
Saza: I think that solidarity between groups is essential. Within the Muslim women groups, we do have that solidarity, and I'm also trying to strengthen that. Among all these groups that work on Muslim women issues, like Beyond the Hijab and Crit Talk, we support one another and share each other's posts and activities on social media very openly.
Something that is interesting about the work that we're doing is also the regional solidarity. For example, the MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) regions have a very strong network of groups that are trying to end FGM in those countries. But we don’t have a similar network in Asia.
For the first time, in 2020, they started the Asian Network to End FGM/C. And it's been really amazing, because we get to learn not only their strategies but also to draw on their resources. Some of these groups have been established for way longer, and are very strong organisations which have been formalised, and have more funding and staff. It’s been very helpful to tap on the good work of these organisations.
For example, Sahiyo, an organisation in the US working to end FGM/C, has funded some of our translation work. They translated our pamphlets on the “10 Myths to End FGM” into Urdu and Tamil for free.
Sylvia: Before we end, I wanted to ask if there are any challenges that you face working in End FGC SG that people might not know or think about?
Saza: When the detractors criticise us, they forget that we are people too. I think that's the biggest thing. One of the challenges is the hate that we get, especially from conservative Muslims, just because they don't agree with what we are doing and the agenda we are trying to push. So, yeah, there's a lot of hate there.
Sylvia: Lastly, who is one person that you would like to connect with?
Saza: A person that I would like to connect with is Saba Mahmood. We read about her work in Comparative Social Inquiry (a Common Curriculum class in Yale-NUS). Her writing on the Egyptian mosque movement really changed my worldview, and made me see the double oppression that a lot of people put on brown women. Also, she's an anthropologist, so I'd love to connect with her.