First Online Study on Khatna Conducted by Sahiyo

First Online Study on Khatna Conducted by Sahiyo

In 2015, Sahiyo embarked on a mission to better understand the extent, purpose, and impact of the practice of khatna of FGC within the Dawoodi Bohras. Acknowledging that this practice is a very personal and sensitive topic within the community, and that almost no one speaks about it, Sahiyo went about gathering data in a culturally sensitive manner, and allowed for survey respondents to answer questions about khatna anonymously.

The data was  gathered in 3-month installments. It began on July 25, 2015, and concluded on January 25, 2016. Over 400 individuals, all who have grown up in the Dawoodi Bohra community, participated in the survey. The data is now being analyzed and a final report will be shared with the public in the coming months.

The sole intention of this research was to shed light on the extent of the practice within the community, and to address the misconceptions and lack of information surrounding the continuation of this age-old practice, which is not often talked about in social circles. It was not the intention of the researchers to discredit or malign any particular community, especially the Dawoodi Bohras.

Researchers hope that by gaining this information, supportive measures based on community responses can be created to help those who may have suffered as a result of khatna/FGC.

If you would like to learn more about the study please e-mail info@sahiyo.com.

Wadi and Aware organize first ever conference on Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting in Singapore

(Originally published on Stop FGM Middle East on January 9, 2016. Republished here with permission).

By Hannah Wettig

Women from Malaysia, Thailand, India and Singapore joined on Thursday in Singapore to present their perspectives on FGM/C in their countries and discuss ways to eliminate the practice. It is the first time that such a meeting took place in Singapore and even in South East Asia as a whole, assumes Vivienne Wee, a founding member of the Singaporean women’s organization Aware. The Singaporean feminist organization organized the conference together with WADI as part of WADI’s Stop FGM in the Middle East & Asia campaign.

 

group awareFemale Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) has not been a topic for us, says Vivienne Wee, a founding member of the Singaporean women’s organization Aware. It is known that it is prevalent among the Malay community and other Muslim communities in Singapore. But to what extend and how severely girls are cut is not known. There are no studies, yet. Similarly, no studies exist for Thailand, India or other countries in the region like Sri Lanka where FGM is known to be practiced. John Chua, professor for film and associate of WADI also mentioned in his presentation communities in Cambodia and Dagestan who practice FGM. “There is so much, we don’t know yet about FGM in Asia”, Chua said.

Professor Maznah Dahluih shows participants what exactly is removed in which case

To overcome this lack of information the meeting included a training on how to conduct surveys on FGM. Stop FGM Middle East campaigner Hannah Wettig presented the newSurvey Tool Kit developed by Wadi with the support of the Wallace Global Fund.

A first survey has been started in Singapore. Activists suspect that little is cut if at all. Common in the region are practiced like nicking, pricking and scratching of the skin above the clitoris as Professor Maznah Dahlui reports in her presentation. She is one of the most renown experts on FGM/C in Malaysia. In a survey she conducted only 22,2% of mothers who had their daughter “circumcised” reported that the tip of the clitoris had been cut, 33,3% reported the skin had been scratched, others called it a pricking or nicking.

While in Malaysia still most girls are brought to a traditional midwife (69%), in Singapore it can be assumed that all “circumcisions” are undertaken by professional medical personelle because traditional midwifery is illegal.

Speakers from Thailand say FGM/C is not their concern.

The Singaporean feminists from Aware are particularly concerned with the compromising of medical professions. Singapore is a secular state, yet an operation is carried out for religious and non-medical reasons. In all of South-East Asia the practice is viewed as a religious need. In Indonesia and Malaysia the Muslim bodies have called it compulsory. Such a statement was also released by the Muslim Council in Singapore but is taken down from their website now, Filzah Sumartono from Aware explains. The issue is still strongly tabooed. Such a practice does not seem to fit to Singapore’s modern image. However, the government does not interfere in the business of the religious communities, explains Filzah. Also feminists are afraid that discussing it might alert the fundamentalists.

In Southern Thailand, the question is not a concern of women’s organizations, says Huda Longdaewa. There are more pressing issues like the repression of Muslims and the violent conflict in the district of Patani whose people are demanding independence and stricter Sharia rules. The two participants of Thailand believe the type of FGM/C practiced in their country is not causing any problems. However, the filmmaker John Chua who has just visited Patani, reports how he spoke with a midwife who admitted to still practice female circumcision even though her license has been revoked because she is nearly blind.

Insia, Areefa and Priya from the Indian Group Sahiyo

The Indian group Sahiyo (meaning “friends”) find much stronger words against FGM. “It is like a sexual assault”, says Areefa Johari who has spoken out publicly as a victim of FGM/C. There is also the fear of being expelled from the community. The Dawoodi Bohra, a small well-to-do community, are not traditional or fundamentalist Muslims. On the contrary, they are in many aspects modern and cosmopolitan. Female circumcision seems to be a marker: “If you are not cut, you are not Bohra”, explains Insia Dariwala, who was saved from being cut because of a catholic mother but feels that she is not accepted in the community.

It was a part of me…part of my womanhood…

(Trigger Warning: The story below is a powerfully, vivid account of one woman’s memory of FGC. We are grateful to her for sharing with us the details of her experience)

By Mariya Ali

Country: United Kingdom

I have very few memories of my childhood, but one memory in particular stands out and haunts me to this day. Unfortunately, it’s a vivid, painful memory and fills me with anger when I recall it.

I was five years old when my mother and aunt took my cousin and I on an “excursion”. I remember sitting in a car and approaching an unfamiliar block of apartments. I was confused; I didn’t know where I was and what I was doing there. Despite my seemingly endless young imagination, I could never have anticipated what happened to me next.

I walked into a small apartment with a cramped living room at the end of a very short corridor. There was a dampness in the air and a slight smell from the poor ventilation. I approached the living room and sat on the floor. It was a warm day and I watched the net curtains of the large window slowly move with the breeze. I had been greeted by an old lady, whose face I can’t remember. I didn’t recognise her and was confused as to why I was currently in her apartment. I watched as she walked out of the room. I peered inquisitively into the kitchen and caught a glimpse of her heating a knife on the stove. I was always told to stay away from sharp knives at that age. Knives were dangerous. I could hurt myself. I remember the open flame on the stove and seeing the silver of the metal and the black handle of the knife while I watched her quickly hold it over the naked flame. She approached the living room with the knife in her hand, trying to conceal it behind her. She approached me.

My mother asked me to remove my underwear. I remember saying no; I didn’t want a strange woman to see me without my underwear on. My mother assured me it would be okay; I trusted her and did as she asked. The old lady told me that she wanted to check something in my private area and asked me to open my legs. I was so young that I wasn’t scared at that time. I was confused, but not scared. I was innocently oblivious to how invasive and inappropriate this situation was and so I obediently did as I was told.

I remember a sharp pain. An agonising pain. A pain that I can still vividly remember today. So intense that I still have a lump in my throat when I recall that moment. I instantly started sobbing, from pain, shock, confusion and fear. My next memory is that of blood. More blood than I had ever seen, suddenly gushing out from my most intimate area. I still didn’t comprehend what had just happened to me. I had believed that aunty when she had told me that she was checking something. I was young and naive enough to believe that people don’t lie and this was my first encounter when I realised that, unfortunately, the world doesn’t work like that. In so many ways I was stripped of many things on that day. My rosy outlook on life, my childhood innocence, my right to dictate what happens to my body and my faith in my mother not harming me. I continued to cry, the pain was excruciating and the sight of the blood traumatised me. I was given a sweet and comforted by my mother.  The events after that are still hazy and my next clear memory is that of being back in the car and staring through teary eyes at the apartment building disappear as we drove away.

Over the years I repressed this memory. There was no need to recall it. It was never spoken about and I still remained unaware of what transpired that day. A decade later, I was amongst some of my female friends. The topic of Female Genital Mutilation came up, or as I was to discover that day, “khatna”, a bohra ritual performed on young girls. Hearing their recollections of what had happened to them, I finally realised that this is what had happened to me that day.

I was mutilated.

Thankfully for me, I had a lucky escape. The unskilled, uneducated woman who barbarically cut me did not cause me too much physical damage. Emotionally and mentally, there are many repercussions. I have a deep phobia of blood and a simmering resentment that my mother chose for this to happen to me. Although my mother believed that she was acting in my best interest, I struggle to come to terms with the fact that I was so barbarically violated.

It may have been just a pinch of skin, but it was a part of me, a part of my femininity and a part of my womanhood.

The Practice of Khatna or Female Genital Mutilation amongst the Dawoodi (Daudi) Bohra Shia Muslim Community – Part 1

(originally published on Ms. Dilshad Tavawala’s wordpress.com blog on  January 17, 2016. Reposted here with permission)

By Ms. Dilshad Tavawalla, B.A., LL.M., Barrister, Solicitor, Notary Public – Toronto, Canada

bohra woman with girl
Photo credit: Outlook Magazine, Dec 12, 2011

Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) has been an international cause célèbre, and generated remarkable global attention for the past several decades.  At international and intergovernmental levels, there is unequivocal consensus that FGM/C represents an extreme violation of the human rights of women and children, a danger to sexual and reproductive health, a harmful practice and a form of gender-based violence, and that it must be abolished.  Nations around the world have intensified and expanded their commitment levels to FGM/C; more and more data has been collected, analysed and used; and the UN, its agencies and NGOs around the world have refined and scaled up their efforts on the ground to ban, and eradicate it.  In fact, the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting:  Accelerating Change is the largest global initiative to promote abandonment of the practice of FGM/C.

However, despite all this worldwide effort to end FGM/C, India in particular, has escaped much of the focus and global attention due to the fact ‘khatna or FGM/C is pervasive and secretly practised amongst the members of the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community (emphasis mine).  The cultural practice of khatna is non-existent, and virtually unknown in various Muslim sects, sub-sects and communities, as well as, other religious denominations found in India, namely, the Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, etc. The Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community, found in large numbers in India and Pakistan, and to a smaller extent, in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are the only Muslim community in the Indian sub-continent that practises FGM/C.

In November 2015, this secretive and clandestine practice known as khatna amongst the uniquely close-knit Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community, attracted worldwide media attention. Three members of the Dawoodi Bohra(DB) community were convicted in Australia’s first ground-breaking prosecution of a FGM/C case where a retired nurse, a mother of the minor girls and a Dawoodi Bohra clergy member illegally participated in carrying out khatna on two minor girls. News of these convictions was reported worldwide in the media including newspapers such as UK’s The Guardian, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, and television news channels in India, Australian and UK.

This landmark Australian prosecution of members of the Dawoodi Bohras for illegally practising khatna has prompted several DB women in India to collectively speak out against this dangerous and harmful ritual.  Unfortunately, open discussion on FGM/C remains a taboo, even in developed countries due to cultural and religious relativism which has created a reluctance to openly confront and tackle ending FGM/C.

I do not wish this post to be seen as a criticism of the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community to which I belong, but rather a voice seeking to achieve the most fundamental values that underlie all religions, traditions and cultures – “do no harm to others”, which approach, I believe, will promote the wider issues of ending violence against girl children and women, and tackling gender equality in patriarchal societies.

The aim of this post is to also offer some cultural insight and understanding of the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community, to throw light, raise public awareness and capture the underground cultural practice of khatna through the words and lens of Dawoodi Bohra women living around the world.

I was born in, and belong to the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community.  I know khatna personally and intimately because it was performed on me at the age of 7 years.  The horror, trauma, grief and sadness remain with me till today.

To read Ms. Dilshad Tavawalla’s full article, please visit her personal page by clicking here

 

FEMALE GENITAL CUTTING A Continuing Tradition

(Original Post on Imagining Equality Project Page, published in July 2014 by Global Fund for Women & International Museum of Women)

In this deeply personal piece, author Mariya Taher wrestles with and speaks out against khatna, female genital cutting, a tradition practiced by her family community. Read her story and the stories of six other interviewees below.

 

***

Having experienced khatna at a young age, I know firsthand the tremendous toll that a community’s traditions can have on the women and men who live according to them. What follows is my story and the story of six women interviewed for my thesis, who live in the United States and underwent khatna. The women ranged in age from 22 to 59 years, were born or spent the majority of their lives in the United States, and have some amount of higher education. They all experienced khatna between the ages of 5 to 7 years.

By interweaving their voices with my own khatna experience, I hope to show the wide spectrum of emotions and experiences involved in such a complicated practice. Most importantly, I hope to break the isolated feeling, the unspoken taboo surrounding FGC. We are not alone. FGC is a shared experience by many women, bound by tradition, living today.


“When men are oppressed, it’s a tragedy. When women are oppressed, it’s tradition.”

~ Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Some refer to it as Female Circumcision; others call it Female Genital Mutilation. As a child, I knew it as khatna. No matter the name, it is the process of removing part or all of the female genitalia. Within the Dawoodi Bohra religious community, a ritual performed on girls. I never knew it violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, let alone was a practice criminalized in the United States by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

According to the United Nation’s Children Fund, more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in Africa and the Middle East. As many as 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade.[i] Within the United States, the Center for Disease Control, found that in 1990 an estimated 168,000 girls and women were living with or at risk for FGC. In 2000, it was found that an estimated 228,000 women had undergone the procedure or were at risk, resulting in a 35% increase from 1990.[ii]

The practice is categorized as violence against women, yet the community I was raised in, often praising themselves for emphasizing women’s education, practiced it. In graduate school, for my thesis, I sought to answer the question of why FGC continued in this day and age.

Upon initial research, I found, to my dismay, that reports on FGC within the United States, only included immigrant women from African countries where the practices was widely known to occur. Excluded from statistics were women like me, born in the United States, growing up in a community whose origins were from Asia and knew FGC to be an important tradition. Further, few qualitative studies, depicting the stories of women, American women, who had knowledge of the practice within this country existed. Here then is my story and the story of six women interviewed for my thesis, who live in the United States and underwent khatna. [iii]

I found, to my dismay, that few qualitative studies, depicting the stories of women, American women, who had knowledge of the practice within this country existed.

These women shared their experiences due to a promise of anonymity. They had to. They did not want loved ones – those who performed khatna or allowed their daughter to undergo it, getting in legal trouble.  Within the United States, consequences of contributing to FGC can result in removal of child custody, prison time and/or deportation.[iv]

The Khatna Stories

(Note: quotes from interviews are italicized)

The summer before I began second-grade, my family visited relatives in India. One morning, my mother and aunt took me to an apartment inside a run-down building located in Bhindi Bazaar, a Dawoodi Bohra populated neighborhood in south Mumbai. Inside the apartment, several elderly ladies dressed in saris greeted us. Initially there was laughter and much chatter. Then I was asked to lie on the bare floor. The frilly dress I wore was pulled up to reveal my midriff and my underwear pulled down, revealing parts I had been taught were to remain private. I couldn’t see what it was, but something sharp cut me and I began crying out in pain.

You’re given a pain injection, pain medication, to numb the area and the piece of skin that’s removed is not even a centimeter, not even a millimeter it’s so tiny.

Once the procedure was complete, my mother embraced me and the elderly ladies, trying to be friendly, handed me a soft drink called Thumbs-Up to chase away tears streaming down my face. We then left the dilapidated building and I hid the memory from my conscious for the next several years.

As a teenager I learned what happened was Type 1 FGC, where all or part of the clitoral hood is removed, sometimes along with the clitoris. But this image is not brought to people’s minds with FGC is mentioned. Instead, Type III or infibulation, the most severe form, involving removal of all or part of the external genitalia, is the form garnering the most attention. Leaving Type 1 to be understudied.

People try to generalize the practice. They put it in a box, so when you think of FGM you think of tribal communities in Africa. African girls getting sewn up and glass bottles and shards of glass cutting them and you think of the worse, you think of the extreme.

After learning khatna violated human rights, I became angry with the Dawoodi Bohras and for a few years, I emotionally struggled with what had been done to me. I also wondered if khatna had negatively impaired my sexual abilities. Gynecologist today cannot distinguish any genitalia differences, perhaps there were no adverse effects. I do not know. But I alone did not have this fear:

I was scared because my mom always talks about how she hates sex and it’s the worst thing God ever created. It’s probably because she doesn’t fucking enjoy it. Geez, no wonder because who knows how much of her clitoris is gone.

Yet since learning what happened to me, I never once grew angry at my mother. She was doing what she believed was necessary for me to be a good Dawoodi Bohra girl. My mother was only following the traditions she had been raised with:

My mother told me she’d been approached by a woman in the community, an elder like the priest’s wife and she told my mother it was time for me to get it done. And my mom didn’t question it because she felt it was something that we all had to do. And she herself had done it and her mother before her had been cut.

And tradition is a hard beast to slay, if the practice becomes normalized, common, like getting your period:

It was something we all knew we had to get done at that age [7]…It’s like when you get your period…if other people have gotten it then it’s just a rite of passage and you’re ok.

Like any tradition, to those with family and friends who underwent the same procedure, and to see them come out okay, the fear and uncertainty of the unknown is taken away.  But for others, there is an emotionally scarring that cannot be erased.

I felt violated. I felt it was a situation completely out of my control. I went through everything you go through in a trauma- although it happened many years before. I went through that trauma at 19 and it lasted for years. I was depressed. I was acting out.

Some suffered. Some did not. There had to be a reason why this centuries old practice was continued generations after generation. I learned of many reasons:

I don’t know if it’s a definition of being Muslim or if it’s one of the criteria for having to become Muslim, but it is a pretty important factor when people convert to Islam they have to get this done…I mean not just for an external appearance or for society to know it has been done. I mean not for that reason alone, but it somehow affects your mind and body and that change is necessary for you to become Muslim. In that regard I would get it done, but to be honest I would just continue it because of the tradition.

I’ve asked around as to why it has been [performed] and I’ve gotten different answers like some of it’s just been for religious purposes, but our bhen sahab (religious clergy’s wife) told us it enhances your sexual experience but I’ve heard otherwise. I think it’s more done because they’ve been following it for many years and they don’t stray from tradition.

Tradition constitutes the transmission of customs or beliefs between generations. Tradition was the overarching theme for continuing khatna among Dawoodi Bohras. The practice was believed to connect women to their culture and for those who agreed with the practice, it was part of their identity. Even when communities crossed oceans to establish new lives elsewhere, this tradition continued, providing a sense of comfort often lacking in an alien world.

I found through observation that people within the United States overcompensate for the fact they’re not living in India and far from their homeland. So they really make sure they stay within the culture that they know, so for that reason I feel they probably practice it more than people in India who have probably left the practice because they’re  around that community all the time and people here it’s like we don’t want to lose that culture, we don’t want our kids to lose that culture, so they abide by every single rule more so.

The need to hold on to culture is a strong pull within this community, perhaps more so in the United States, where the ideals and values often feel contradictory to those in the homeland.

I think it’s still done by a lot of our immigrant parents to their children here because of the western temptation and sex and partying and all of these things that their children are exposed to…that might not normally happened in India or Africa

Not all agree with the practice. Yet, speaking against it comes with consequences.

I didn’t want to [speak up and] make it bad for my parents because all they have is this community and they want to be a part of it and they choose to be a part of it. I don’t identify with it but it’s all they have. They’re here. They’re immigrants from another country. They’re not going to find people like them anywhere else. They need that and now they’re old and they want it even more.

She continues to explain:

It’s the social ostracism that people are worried about. Not belonging and the gossiping and the reputation trashing.

The need to belong, to feel socially accepted, a universal feeling, can prevent those who would oppose FGC from speaking, feeling they would be in the minority and not wanting to be socially excluded.

I shared the khatna stories, not so that any of us can be viewed as victims of an intolerable act, but to illustrate FGC is a complicated custom. It cannot simply be considered an act continued by ignorant people, the reasons given for its’ continuation have been rationalized and been given cultural or religious significance. My wish is not to disgrace this community but to demonstrate the role tradition plays in continuing a practice oppressive to women. Khatna is considered a private matter, not one to be discussed openly. Yet, that is the first step towards bringing an end to this centuries old practice imposing violence on women. Let the conversation continue.

 


[i] Retrieved June 30, 2014, from UNICEF – http://www.unicef.org/media/files/FGCM_Lo_res.pdf

[ii] Female Genital Cutting Research. (2008, February 11). African Women’s Health Center. Retrieved October 4, 2012, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital: http://www.brighamandwomens.org/Departments_and_Services/obgyn/services/africanwomenscenter/research.aspx

[iii] World Health Organization. (2010, February). Female genital mutilation. Retrieved on

April 12, 2010 from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/

[iv] Legislation on Female Genital Mutilation in the United States. (2004, November).

Retrieved March 20, 2009, from Center For Reproductive Rights: www.reproductiverights.org

– See more at: http://imaginingequality.globalfundforwomen.org/content/female-genital-cutting#sthash.g8x2aTvi.dpuf

Documentary ‘A Pinch of Skin’ highlights FGC in India

A Pinch of Skin, a short documentary made in 2012, depicts the practice of Female Genital Cutting, also known as khatna or sunnat by the Dawoodi Bohras in India. Screened worldwide, the film received the prestigious National Award of India for being the first documentary to highlight the  taboo practice of khatna.

The film brings together personal narratives on the experience of undergoing the blade, juxtaposing both the people who support the practice as well as a small but significant voice of questioning dissent.

Watch the film’s trailer here and follow the Facebook page for updates on the film and stories on FGC from around the globe.

SIGN ANTI-FGC PETITION TODAY!

In 2011, an anonymous Bohra woman using the name ‘Tasleem’ made the first attempt to end the practice of female khatna through an online petition on Change.org. That petition was addressed to Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and received less than 4,000 signatures. The Bohra community has come a long way since then.Change.org petition

On December 1, 2015, Masooma Ranalvi and 16 other Bohra women from around the world launched another petition – this time addressed to various ministers in the Government of India – demanding a law against Female Genital Mutilation as practiced by Bohras in India. This was the first time that such a large number of women from the community decided to discard their anonymity and publicly speak out against a practice that has affected them.

The petition managed to get more than 2,000 signatures in the first two days itself, and has garnered more than 23,000 supporters so far. More notably, it has received plenty of attention and support from various media organisations, including Mumbai Mirror, DNA, Huffington Post, Scroll.in, and BBC. To sign the petition now, click here.

In Australia, three Bohras found guilty for circumcising daughters

This November, for the first time in the history of the Dawoodi Bohra community, three of its members in Australia were held guilty for carrying out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on two minor girls. FGM has been a criminal offence in Australia since 1997, with a maximum punishment of seven years in prison.Australia were held guilty for carrying out Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on two minor girls. FGM has been a criminal offence in Australia since 1997, with a maximum punishment of seven years in prison.

In this much-publicised case, the Supreme Court of New South Wales found Sheikh Shabbir Vaziri, a retired nurse, and the mother of the two girls guilty of performing “khatna” on the sisters in Sydney, somewhere between 2010 and 2012, when the girls were 6 and 7 years old. The police found out about the genital cutting through an anonymoustip-off, and finally arrested the mother, nurse and Sheikh in 2012. The three accused had been out on bail throughout the trial.

During the trial, the defence lawyers representing the accused argued that what Bohras practice as “khatna” involves a ritualisticcutting of a thin layer of skin from the clitoris, and does constitute “mutilation”. The Supreme Court’s guilty verdict, pronounced on November 12, 2015, came as an affirmation that even Bohra “khatna” is a form of Female Genital Mutilation, no matter how small the cut.

The quantum of punishment in the Australia case will be decided in February. You can read more about this case here.

A Little Piece of Skin

Nationality: USA

Ethnicity: Indian (Gujarati)

Author: Anonymous 30-year-old

I was not more than seven years old when I recall going into a medical complex on a quiet Sunday afternoon accompanied by my mother and our family friend. My mother told me it was time for my “khatna” or circumcision. She explained it as a rite of passage, something all the little girls in our Dawoodi Bohra community had to do. I remember feeling scared, but didn’t know exactly why. I just had a feeling something terrible was about to happen to me as our friend unlocked the building with her keys and we continued into her desolate practice. We went into one of the brightly colored rooms where alphabet wallpaper bordered me in. I started crying before it even happened while she crooned, “all I’m going to do is remove a liiiitle piece of skin.” Totally exposed, I was asked to relax and read the wallpapered alphabet backwards. My mother helped hold me still while I was flat on my back and in hysterics. The snip, which took maybe half a second was followed by a sharp-shooting pain that seemed to last in that moment, for eternity. I bled for three days and then it was over.

It wasn’t until I was nineteen, the end of my freshman year in college that I stumbled upon an article from one of my classes, describing the experience of a woman who had been a victim of FGM, or female genital mutilation. After reading the article once, I was immediately reminded of that Sunday afternoon twelve years prior. There was no way the same thing could have been done to me. My seven-year old perspective of a little piece of skin being removed was analogous to that of a piece of skin from the top layer of the palm of a hand. My cousin used to stick a needle through that top layer and tell me it was magic that the needle was sticking there. She eventually revealed her secret and showed me the protective top layer that separated her hand from the skin. I guess like that layer, I always figured it would grow back. Still the feeling of uncertainty drove me to call a couple of peers and academics in my community to ask whether our “khatna” was in fact a partial removal of my clitoris. Their answer confirmed the worst of my fears. My next concern of “how much?” tormented me, and after a frantic visit to the school nurse, I got my answer: “There’s only a remnant left,” said the nurse practitioner who examined me.

***

I don’t believe my discovery was adequately addressed the first time as the rest of my college experience was consumed by bouts of grief, rage, frustration, insecurity, and depression. My feelings only grew stronger as I got older and had more encounters with the opposite sex. My overcompensating, defensive attitude permeated all aspects of my life—friends, family, work, and academics. It wasn’t until my mid-20s, when I shared with my gynecologist during a routine visit what happened to me, that I was given three names of specialized therapists in the area with whom I could speak about my concerns. My insurance provider at the time would not cover therapy. Fortunately, one of three therapists agreed to see me for a discounted out-of-pocket fee because she was interested in my case.

To this day, I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to talk through what happened to me in a safe space as such resources and treatment were unavailable to me at home or in my community. I learned it was ok to talk about sex, explore my sexuality, and sexual feelings. I was even prescribed homework to assist me in doing so. At the time of the therapy, I had been sexually active and my partner, who was incredibly supportive, was also invited to participate in one of my sessions. When growing up, I never thought I would have sex before marriage. The idea behind the circumcision was to curb any sexual appetite I might have. Ironically, once I learned this had happened, I wanted nothing more than to have sex to see what my capabilities were. While I was incredibly nervous and insecure about having sex, I was more open to losing my virginity in the context of a serious relationship, which is how it happened for me.

One of my main insecurities about sex was that I felt like I was driving without the headlights on. Often times, I didn’t know where to go or how to guide my driver. I felt like a failure. To this day, I still have not experienced orgasm. While sex is enjoyable for me and I could describe what I can achieve as a “mini-climax”, I am bothered by the fact that I may never get to experience this wonderful part of life. While it’s no secret many women who have not been “circumcised” struggle with the same issues, a part of me will always wonder if that would have been true for me had this not happened. I will never know.