Until that hot, rainy day in April when I was six, I had led a happy, carefree life. The beloved youngest child of my parents, I was my father’s clear favorite. In Somalia, as in many other places, the man is the head of the household. My mother raised the children, managed the finances, and had her own job as well. Although my father was busy working to support his family, he always took the time when he came home to talk to each of his three wives and to me. In total, there were fifteen children, so my father did his best to greet each of us every day, but I was the only one with whom he would consistently make time to have a lengthy conversation.
Unfortunately, in our culture, being a father’s favorite does not save you from the trials of being a woman. Oh, his preference and protection saved me from too harsh of punishments for the mild slights I committed as a child, but he still believed that it was important not to spoil children. When I teased my sisters and brothers, I knew I could count on his protection from my mother’s chidings. However, I quickly learned what was unacceptable. For instance, I was never to disobey my mother. I was expected to help her when she asked me to do so, I was always to give her my respect, and I was never to be impudent with her. If I ever did anything of those things, my father would be furious, and I certainly earned any punishment my parents saw fit to give me.
My daily life as the youngest child consisted of school, helping my mother with chores, and a small amount of free time. While most other girls only received an average of four years of primary school, my parents believed that girls should receive just as good an education as boys. Thus, at the age of five, I started school with no definite end date in my future. I enjoyed school. As a naturally inquisitive child, I asked lots of questions and was fascinated with everything I learned. Because I lived in a village not far from Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, I was able to get a decent education. I was educated on arithmetic, writing, reading, Arabic, agriculture, and animal husbandry. I loved being outdoors, so I adored my lessons on agriculture and animal husbandry. However, I was naturally rambunctious and impatient, neither of which qualities lent themselves well to such tasks.
After school ended for the day, I would return home to help my mother with the chores. I was also expected to help my father’s other wives if they needed assistance as well. I was kept busy learning how to run a home and what was expected of a woman and wife. Each of my father’s wives had a different mothering style. My mother was his last wife, the one he loved the most. My father’s first wife was the oldest of the three. While nice to all the children, she was the toughest and demanded the most respect from us. She taught us discipline, but she was never harsh. She and my father had an arranged marriage when he was 25 and she 15. The second wife my father married for love three years after that. She had eyes that were always laughing, and she gave excellent hugs. She was my favorite of my father’s other wives. Four years later, when my father was 32, he married my mother. She was 14 and the most beautiful girl in the village. He always said he fell in love with her on sight, and whenever he said that, she blushed. One could tell she was equally in love with him from her glances, her gestures, and her devotion to his wants and needs.
My father was a relatively wealthy man compared to the other men in our village. He could afford to support several wives comfortably, although, since we lived in a rural village, all the wives and children lived together in the same house. Each wife and her children had a separate wing. We all worked together to ensure the overall care of the house, but each wing was separate to each wife, though, of course, after helping my own mother with chores, I was obliged to help the other women if they needed any help.
Life was happy for me. I loved my mother, siblings, father, and his other wives. I enjoyed going to school and helping around the house. Before that day in April when I was six, I had vague ideas of what being a woman, wife, and mother meant. I had heard snippets of the adults’ conversations about rites of passage involving my young friends. Being young and not altogether interested in what I thought was something that would never apply to me, I paid no heed to the whispered conversations between the women. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention. These rites of passage happened for both boys and girls. Almost everyone went through them. In fact, it was strange if one did not.
That day in mid-April started off as usual. I arose early, had breakfast, and did some chores. Too early, however, my mother stopped me. She told me to go change into a nice dress that I had never seen before. Entranced by its prettiness, it never crossed my mind to question what it was for. After dressing, I was seated in the main living area while my mother bustled off. I was joined shortly by some of my half-sisters who were around my age. All of us were in new traditional Somali dresses. As more of us gathered, we began chattering and grew uneasy. After a few more minutes, our mothers and some of our older sisters came in, looking somber. As we fell silent, my father’s first wife began to explain what was about to happen. Today was the day, she said, that we would be purified and become fit to be adults. We would become clean, and by doing so, we could one day get married. We would bring honor to our family. The other little girls and I exchanged looks; we didn’t like this talk of purification and honor. It was still a vague idea to us, and we didn’t quite know what it meant. The first wife told us we’d only feel a bit of pain, and that we would soon be over it and be proud of bearing it. With that, she and the other wives took one of the girls into the next room. The rest of us were left to chatter and question what was happening. We didn’t have long to wait until the cries of our sister reached our ears. Panicked, we appealed to our older sisters. While some of my little sisters tried to flee the room, I sat still, stupefied. All around me was chaos as the older girls tried to calm us down. One by one, my sisters disappeared into the next room as the mothers came back from them. I was called for in the middle.
By that point, I was terrified. I had already heard the screams of my sisters who had gone before me, and I knew that I was going to be in a lot of pain very shortly. When the mothers and older girls shoved me into the next room, I was greeted with blood on the ground and on the dress of my father’s first wife. In her hands was a fresh razor. Behind her, I could see the discarded, bloody razors wielded on the girls who came before me. Petrified, my mother and the second wife had to make me lay down on the ground. Taking a quick look at my scared face, my father’s first wife attempted to reassure me as she lifted up that pretty new dress. My mother and the other wife gripped my arms, holding me forcefully down to the ground as the first wife pulled down my underwear and began to slice away. She gave me no anesthetic, nothing to dull the pain. She started with the clitoris, something of which six-year-old me knew nothing. I had never considered it before, had never thought about what it might be or do. Still, as the first mother grasped it and began pulling it as far as it could go from my body in preparation to slice it off, I was filled with a strong desire to keep this unknown body part. In a horrible instant, I watched as my clitoris was cut from my body. The agony began then. I shrieked as it came away. That first cut was horrendous, and she was unable to slice it off in one clean take, so she was obliged to saw away at my sensitive flesh until she succeeded in removing it from my body. She then moved on to the next offending pieces of flesh: my labia majora. She roughly sawed away at the skin until it came off in pieces. Next came the labia minora. Those too were removed. For what felt like an eternity, she cut and sawed and checked to make sure she cut off every last bit of the flesh of which I had no understanding. In reality, the whole procedure only lasted no more than fifteen minutes. Lastly, she began sewing my remaining skin together until it just left a small hole so that I could urinate and eventually menstruate. Throughout the entire process, the pain was unbearable. It felt like someone had reach inside me and set fire to my organs and skin. With nothing to numb the pain, it was horrendous. I had no name for the ache, the void, the pulsing pain. It hurt like nothing else in this world. My young body could barely tolerate it. I screamed, howled, begged, and pleaded throughout the whole thing. I begged for it to end, I pleaded for the wives to stop and for my mother to let go, I screamed for my father to come save me and to stop the pain. It was all to no avail, of course. The mothers simply told me to be quiet and to bear it like a true woman: silently and bravely. They bandaged me up, stuck a stick in the small hole, and tied my legs together.
When they had finally finished with my mutilated young body, they tried to get me to stand and walk, but I couldn’t. Limply, I had to be carried to my bed. Exhausted and dazed by the pain, I fainted.
When I awoke, hours later, the pain was still so intense, I couldn’t do anything other than cry. Throughout the house, the sound was all you could hear: it echoed from room to room, magnified by every cut little girl.
For three weeks we went on like that, lying there, lost in our pain. Our mothers and sisters checked on us daily, telling us to be strong, to be quiet, to make our ancestors proud. In the beginning, it was impossible to move and impossible to stay still. There was no comfortable position. It simply hurt to exist. And then, good God, we came to realize that peeing was nightmare because it hurt so much. One couldn’t do it, because it just made the blinding pain worse.
The worst part of it all for me was the fact that this is regarded as a rite of passage and a celebration in my culture. While I and my sisters lay there in unending agony for weeks, our family celebrated that we were now considered women. We had undergone atrocious bodily harm so that our society could consider us clean and fit for marriage. Six-year-old me focused on this fact, through all this pain, and the hatred I had for the ceremony and for the woman who cut me and for the women who held me down and let this happen to me stayed with me during my recovery and for the rest of my life. I couldn’t accept the fact that harming and mutilating little girls like this was considered healthy and normal – a fact to be celebrated. Even though all of my other little sisters screamed and detested the pain they didn’t understand why they were put in, none of them despised the practice like I did. Even to this day, I remain the only one who is opposed to the mutilation of young girls. Everyone else in my family cuts their daughters and celebrates the evil fact as a cultural heritage, but not I. As I grew older and began to understand more, my opposition to the practice grew stronger and led me down the path I am on today.
Over the next three weeks, the pain slowly began to diminish. We gradually began to adapt to the pain and to the ways our new bodies were. While it was difficult to find a less painful way to sleep, we began to adjust. Our mothers and older sisters tried to suggest various things to make the pain lessen: walk it off, sleep like this, position yourself like that, and the longer you wait, the more it will hurt to pee. We knew they were right, of course, but it was impossible to do. The first time I tried, I screamed all over again like the blade was there. The fire and burning I felt in my mutilated body flared up again. If not peeing was agony, peeing was worse.
Since I had so much time to think and reflect during this time of waiting, I began not only to despise this practice and the women who committed it against me, but I began to despise my father and the other men as well. One day, early into the recovery period, I remember waking up in a haze and seeing my father bent over me. He didn’t realize I was awake, so I drowsily watched him pray over me and leave. He didn’t once try to protect me from all of this, didn’t try to make me feel better. He knew it was a fact of life for me and for all my sisters. He didn’t try to stop it, but he wasn’t directly involved with the act itself either. His inaction and his acceptance of the pain that my sisters and I endured hardened my heart against him. I began to feel that there was no way to be safe in this culture, not when women violate and mutilate little girls because their pure, untouched bodies are viewed to be “unclean” and “dangerous” to men. While women are the ones who perform the excision and ceremonies on the girls, men are the ones who benefit from the whole ordeal.
When your whole body is wracked with as much pain as ours were, you become willing to believe anything anyone will tell you. Our mothers and older sisters told us that soon the pain would be over, that we would forget it, and that it would be just like it never happened. When you feel like your body has been split in two like that, and when you are so young and innocent that you don’t understand why this pain has been done to you, you are willing to believe anything you’re told that it will all soon be fine and normal. In fact, you’ll never be normal again, as I later discovered. A part of myself and my future was taken away from me that hot, rainy day in mid-April, I later felt. At the time, I couldn’t understand why I had to be cut like that, why I had to experience and endure all the suffering, and I have never been able to figure out why. When I was that scared little six-year-old, I didn’t understand the significance and the totality for what they had done to me. I didn’t know what it was they had taken from me, or what those organs had the power to do. It wasn’t until much later, when I was a young adult, that I began to research this topic that I found out what was taken from me and what that meant for the rest of my life.
Still, as much as I hate to admit it, the older women were right to an extent. As the pain gradually begins to fade away, you’re so relieved that you do begin to forget how bad it was. And while I was eventually able to run and play like any other uncut, whole girl, somewhere deep in my subconscious I always remembered that I wasn’t the same anymore. My choice and my future had been taken away from me by someone else. I had had no choice in the matter. My life had been determined for me.
What this common cultural practice taught me was to be ashamed of my body. What this tells little girls is that their bodies are impure and not good enough the way they were made. We learned that the way we were born was not normal; normal was slicing off parts of it and stitching yourself back together like a kind of patchwork. In fact, we were told that “normality was simply that, to make ourselves submissive for the sole pleasure of men who had nothing else to do but pluck the young bud sheered for them alone and watch it prematurely die” (Khady, 19). How can any girl or woman who goes through this ceremony come out of it with good self-esteem or self-respect when she is taught that the value of her body and of herself lies completely in the loss of her natural body? A young girl is taken and molded by others to be what they want her to be. She loses control over her body, her future, and her self-esteem as they are all handed over to men. She is taught that her value lies in denying who she really is in favor of accepting who some man wants her to be.
As the weeks passed and I grew better, I observed and noticed that I couldn’t share these thoughts with anyone. Everyone else thought and felt the same way about the matter: that was normal, acceptable, and an act to be celebrated. Over time, I found myself growing more and more distant from my family. My father continued to prefer me best over all of my siblings, but I think he knew that I had changed forever, more than anyone had imagined. I had changed inside. I had lost my childhood joy and happiness that day in April, and I grew up into a serious, reserved young woman. My father watched me with different eyes than those with which he watched my siblings. He could tell that something was different, but I never told him my thoughts, because I knew it would be pointless. He would simply tell me that was how it was done in our culture, and that there was nothing I could do to change that.
I was fortunate in the fact that my father was a relatively wealthy man. I had always been a good student, but after my rite of passage, I became an even better student. I was driven to learn everything I could in an effort to understand why things happened. Of course, I knew, young as I was, that I could never tell anyone what drove me. With my continuous studying and the good grades that I brought home, my parents were impressed with me. They let me finish out the usual first four years of primary school that girls received, and when my teacher recommended that I was bright and driven enough to continue, they agreed. There wasn’t a secondary school nearby, so when that time came, my parents allowed me to attend a boarding school in Mogadishu.
I loved my school in Mogadishu. The classes were difficult and challenging, but they were so interesting and thought-provoking that I didn’t mind all the hard work and long hours that I put in. Immediately after classes ended every day, I would head straight to the library to begin on my work. I was quickly recognized as one of the best students in my class because of my enthusiasm and good marks. As a result, one of my teachers began to take a particular interest in me. Madame Ndiaye was an intelligent woman from Senegal. She took me under her wing and mentored me. I loved conversing with her because as a woman, she was an inspiration to me because I knew so few educated women. She challenged me to think about ideas from different perspectives, to debate eloquently and skillfully, and to write fluently.
As I continued to study with Madame Ndiaye, I connected with her on a more personal level as well. Soon, I began to feel that I might be able to talk with her about the most pressing issue on my mind: female genital mutilation, as I learned it was called from the books in the library. One day I timidly broached the topic with her. I asked her if she could tell me more about FGM. She was silent for a long moment, just looking at me. And then she spoke: “Basilah, what exactly do you want to know?” Trembling with nerves, my first question was of what it was exactly. As she answered, I began to relax. That first day she told me the facts of what FGM was and its effects. Although I’m sure she guessed, I didn’t tell her that I had undergone it myself. Instead, I tried to ask questions about whether there were any benefits to the procedure, what the consequences were, and how it was different in various cultures.
She told me how the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies FGM into four different types: Type I/Clitoridectomy, Type II/Excision, Type III/Infibulation, and Type IV/Other. Type I involves the whole or partial removal of the clitoris, or, very rarely, just the removal of the prepuce. Type II is the whole or partial removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, and the labia majora may be either excised as well. Type III is the excision the labia minora and majora with or without the whole or partial removal of the clitoris. Infibulation also involves the “narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal” (World Health Organization). Type IV is “all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g., pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterizing the genital area” (World Health Organization). Madame Ndiaye then told me that the WHO estimates that 140 million women in girls, mostly in Africa or in the Middle East, have undergone FGM, an estimated 101 million of them in Africa. When I asked whether there were any health benefits to FGM, she shook her head and told them there were only negative health effects. For one, it destroys the body’s natural state and involves the removal of healthy tissue. Consequences that can occur immediately after the procedures include shock, severe pain, hemorrhaging, urine retention, bacterial infection, open sores or other injuries. I was silent at this as I thought of my own experience. While I didn’t develop an infection or sores, I did go into shock, experienced severe pain, lost large amounts of blood, and had difficulties peeing. After a moment of reflection, I quietly asked if there were any long-term effects. She hesitated and then nodded and said that a woman could have recurrent urinary tract or bladder infections, develop cysts, become infertile, develop increased risks with childbirth, experience more deaths of newborns, and/or need later surgeries. As she listed them off, I became more and more troubled and my gaze dropped to the floor. I considered everything she said, not only for my own health, but for my family, friends, and the other 140 million women and girls. Why, I wondered, did women do this to themselves if the risks are that great? And how could men expect or let women cut themselves like this and face these health consequences? I decided that would be a discussion for another day.
For my last question for the day, I asked her what the differences in the procedures were for different cultures. For example, I told her that I knew what the typical procedure included in Somalia. Genital cutting is typically performed on both boys and girls between birth and the age of five. It is considered a rite of passage, and so most children undergo it. However, I asked, I was unfamiliar with the customs in other cultures and countries. What did the practice entail elsewhere? Madame Ndiaye told me that while the rate of FGM was exceptionally high in Somalia, it could be much lower in other countries. She said that, in Africa, FGM was mostly practiced in northern, eastern, and northeastern countries on the continent. Senegal, where she was from, only had a rate of 26% compared to the 98% in Somalia or 1% in Uganda, Zambia, or Cameroon. In other countries, she said, the ages of the girls operated on ranged anywhere from one month old to five years to seventeen years. Across the spectrum, though, different cultures practiced FGM for generally the same reasons: the female body is considered “unclean” and the outer female genitalia is a threat to male genitalia because it is considered “male,” it has been practiced for thousands of years, it is considered necessary for raising girls properly, it is preparation for adulthood and marriage, it keeps a girl a virgin until marriage (because the pain of having sex is so great and because a husband would be able to tell that the vaginal opening has been ripped), it supposedly lowers a woman’s libido, it ensures femininity and modesty, and it might have religious support.
My head whirling with thoughts and new information, I thanked Madame Ndiaye for her time and for discussing this with me. She gave me a gentle, understanding smile and wished me a good day. I mulled over our conversation for the rest of the day and eventually fell asleep that night still pondering why people believe what they do and why the practice still continues.
Not long after that conversation, I developed more questions and discussion topics to ask Madame Ndiaye. By this point in time, I felt comfortable enough telling her that I myself had undergone FGM. When I said that I had been infibulated, I could tell from her face that she was not supportive of the practice. In response, she told me that she had been excised at the age of seven. I felt bold enough to ask her opinions on FGM. I said that ever since it had been done to me, I had despised the practice. I wanted to prevent this from happening to other girls. I wanted them to have the choice and the life I never had. Madame Ndiaye watched me carefully throughout the fiery, impassioned speech I gave. When I had finished recounting my story and opinions, she told me she was an activist a part of the movement to educate men and women about FGM. Since the practice has been so long engrained in culture, she said, most people don’t even question it. It’s simply something that people do because it is what has always been done. She said she is a part of a movement to raise awareness about how harmful it is to women medically. In addition, she said that there are psychological effects as well that people do not talk about. I nodded at this. I know I myself had an interpersonal crisis when I realized that my culture viewed the female body as “impure” and “unclean” and inferior. I questioned how something that occurred naturally could be considered evil and not desirable. I had lost a lot of sleep over these thoughts. I doubted myself for a while and my infibulation really damaged my self-esteem and self-respect. All of these negative thoughts had changed my formally cheerful and sunny personality. I became more introspective over the years, and my reservation and dark thoughts sometimes caused me to be depressed. When I told all of this to Madame Ndiaye, she agreed with me whole-heartedly that these psychological and emotional effects were not well-known, despite the fact that they play almost as important role as the health consequences did.
After our lengthy discussion ended when the lunch period came to a close, Madame Ndiaye hesitated for a second before telling me about the FGM education meetings she attended. She asked if I would like to accompany her to one sometime. I eagerly agreed.
A few weeks later, I went with Madame Ndiaye to my first meeting about raising awareness about the effects of FGM. After years of feeling that I was unable to express what I truly felt about FGM and its harms, I felt so free that I was meeting others who felt the same way I did. It was an exhilarating and liberating feeling. I began regularly attending those meetings. After I finished school, I was able to convince my parents to let me move to Mogadishu and become a teacher at the same boarding school I had attended. I lived with some close friends of whom my parents approved. While my family and friends didn’t quite understand why I hated our cultural practice of cutting young girls, I was able to convince one of my girl friends to attend a meeting with me. She agreed to go once just to see for herself. Because I had been busy with my new job as a teacher and with the move to the capital, I had missed a few meetings. One of the first things I noticed when I walked in with my girl friend was that there was a young man sitting all by himself. Because this was a primarily female-driven initiative, it was slightly unusual that there was a man there. Neither my friend nor I were bold enough to sit by a young man we didn’t know, but as the meeting began, and everyone started sharing their thoughts and efforts on educating others, I paid attention to him. When he spoke, there was a quiet passion that lit up his face and infused his movements. He moved gracefully and had a quiet self-assurance. I was struck by his beautiful ideas that spoke of more equality and freedom for women. His ideas were irresistible to me. I got up the nerve to approach him at the end of that meeting, much to the shock of my girl friend.
I had always smiled disbelievingly whenever my father had told the story of how he fell in love with my mother at first sight, but that day, I found out that I was the same way. For me, however, it wasn’t looks: it was a meeting of minds, an agreement upon essential ideas. As bold as I had been to approach a man whom I didn’t know, that decision was one of the best ones of my life because within a year, I was married to that man, and I love him as much today as I did that day.
I was never able to convince my sisters and brothers to not continue the practice of child genital mutilation, but when my husband and I had our three beautiful daughters, they remained the way they were: beautiful and perfect the way they came into this world. My daughters will grow up always having the knowledge at their fingertips to make informed decisions. If they choose that they want to undergo FGM themselves or want to have it done to their own daughters, at least I know that they will be making informed decisions, and most importantly, they will be making the decisions themselves. No one will take away my daughters’ rights for them. Unless they want it, for them, there will be no cut for honor.
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