I still don’t get why my mom took me there: A Bohra survivor of female genital cutting speaks out

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: India

Age: 31

Many communities across the world continue to practice female genital mutilation (FGM). In India, it’s mainly the Bohras, a sub-sect of Shias who practice FGM, also known as khatna. The clitoris and/or labia of little girls is cut or mutilated with the belief that it would curb their sexual desires and stop premarital sex. Many of the women performing khatna have no medical qualifications and are typically women who have learned to perform the cutting from their ancestors. Many midwives perform this in the name of salwaat (or blessings). But they hardly know why they are doing this.

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When you are a child, your parents and grandparents are people you trust the most. They tell you about not interacting with strangers or not allowing any stranger to touch you in your private areas. Still it’s your close family who takes you for khatna, allowing a complete stranger to touch you inappropriately and cut your clitoris. It’s like being betrayed by the people you believe in and trust the most.

I am writing this to share my experience. At the age of six, I was taken out by my mom like any normal day, although most of my childhood memories haven’t made as strong of an impact as this one. We reached a stranger’s place. I went inside the house with my mom. My trousers were removed and then I was told to lie down. I felt extreme pain in my private area. I could feel, although I was instructed to look at the ceiling. I was doing that, and within a few minutes, my mom said, let’s leave. I was still experiencing the pain. The pain was terrible when I urinated.

I never really understood why my mom took me there. I still don’t get it. Why do something terrible to a girl which can leave a psychological scar in their mind which never heals?  In fact, when I became a teenager, I asked my mom why she allowed this khatna to happen to me. The answer I got was tradition, and that it prevents cancer. Then the other question which immediately popped up for me was, “Why only us?” Later I found out it’s mostly done to curb the sexual desire of girls. This practice ultimately leads the girls to mistrust the people they are supposed to trust the most.

It’s not in that instant you realize what happened, but gradually the memory becomes too vivid. Just because something is practiced for generations doesn’t mean it should go on without questioning its existence. People have to change their thinking about existing rules and guidelines to follow in the name of customs. The problem is that if you come out of the shadows and rebel, you may be thought of as an outcast. It’s not us we are afraid of but people we know. Family and friends will be treated differently as well. I believe in taking small steps of at least opening up about what you feel will help you to let go of that which you are suppressing. That will ultimately will give you the confidence of coming out of the shadows and facing the light.

When I found out my friend had undergone female genital mutilation

By Amy Vaya

Country of Residence: Bahrain

The first time I ever heard about female genital mutilation (FGM), I was 20 years old. A friend told me about a book she had read called ‘Desert Flower,’ by former model Waris Dirie, who had undergone the procedure as a girl.

Even as she described it, I found myself utterly unable to comprehend such cruelty. Why on earth, I thought, would someone need to do that to another human being, much less a three-year-old child? I hunted down the book and raced through it in a matter of days, learning about her story with a growing sense of horror.

Dirie thought it was normal to feel pain every time she urinated, because she had never known anything else. She never even realised she was missing body parts until, as a young woman, she saw her female roommate’s naked body. Both women wept. I wept.

download (1)All these years later I still remember that book because it was so shocking to me that such a thing is practiced anywhere in the world. And then I put it out of my mind.

It wasn’t until quite recently that the subject resurfaced in my life. A dear friend, who was just a passing acquaintance at the time, had posted online about how she had suffered FGM as a child. My mind raced back to this book and I was thunderstruck. It was one thing for it to happen to Waris Dirie in the 1960s in Somalia. It is quite another for it to happen in the 1990s, in the country where I live!

I became extremely upset. Even though I did not know her that well, this became personal. She had been raised exactly as I had been, gone to similar schools, had mutual friends, and had similar interests. Our lives overlapped so much except for this one glaring fact—her bodily integrity had not been respected. She had been violated in the worst possible way.

I watched videos about the Bohra community in which they discuss khatna with pride and I was disgusted. I thought of the other Bohra friends I’d had through my life and suddenly couldn’t see them the same way anymore. I felt like the women had been mutilated, whether they saw themselves that way or not. I was surprised at the men’s position. Perhaps they were ignorant of the fact this was even happening. The alternative–that they were deliberately inflicting this cruelty on their women–was just too much for me to stomach.

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I was so upset I spoke to my mother about it. And would you believe it, at her age, that was the first time she was ever hearing about FGM? That should tell you how little this subject is spoken about among communities.

If we don’t talk about it, we can’t know it’s happening. And if we don’t know it’s happening, we can’t possibly stop it.

FGM should never have begun, and it certainly has no place in the 21st century. Let’s be clear–the aim of FGM in my opinion was never ‘cleanliness’ or any medical benefit–it is purely to reduce or remove a woman’s sexual pleasure, and I fail to see how that benefits anyone.

To the parents: If you think it will help you control your teenage daughter’s raging hormones better, think again. She is going to be a sexually mature adult for a lot longer than she is going to be an unmarried teenager under your roof. Do you really have the right to alter the rest of her life? Is ‘tradition’ even meaningful or important if it adversely affects the quality of life so much?

To the men: I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that perhaps you don’t know this is going on among your womenfolk. If that is the case, then learn about it, and protest it. And protest it you must, because this does not benefit you. Do you really want to marry a woman who may never enjoy sex with you? Do you really want to be in a marriage where your wife never initiates sex because it doesn’t feel good or is downright painful for her?

To the women: Keep going and be strong. You deserve to not have body parts removed without your consent. It is such a basic human right; it should go without saying. Your body is inviolable and you deserve for it to be respected as such.

Wrestling with trust and fear in regard to female genital mutilation

By Farzana Esmaeel

Country of Residence: United Arab Emirates

Trust and fear are two emotions that have an interesting correlation to input and output of human behavior. One emotion, trust, establishes safety and comfort for individuals whilst the other, fear, displaces the very premise of safety and comfort. At the age of 7, you don’t articulate emotions; you feel them. And your mother is your beacon of trust. She loves you, comforts you, cares for you and sacrifices for you. Then, when trust is removed, it’s only natural to feel extreme pain and deceit at her hands the most.

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My sister and I were taken to a dilapidated, dimly lit building at the far end of the city on the pretext that we were going to meet an aunt for a check-up. At the tender age of 7 when mum tells you we are going for a check up you don’t appreciate entirely its meaning, and at the time it meant to me that we were going to see a doctor.

What followed was unprecedented, and a memory that will be etched in our minds forever. Sadly.

The pain was too much to bear as 30 years ago, female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Dawoodi Bohra community was generally more practiced under callous and less “sterile” ways. (Yet, even today, when it is practiced by licensed white coat doctors under more hygienic conditions, it doesn’t make the practice correct.) The overarching feeling I took after my experience 30 years ago was deceit.

My mother is a simple, non-confrontational, less informed person, who at the time of my sister and my cutting, played into the hands of a community (mindset) that propagates fear: fear of being ‘ostracized’ for not having FGM done, fear of her daughters being ‘impure’, fear of standing up against cultural norms and practices. Though today, this same woman hasn’t once told either of her daughters to carry out this inhumane practice on her granddaughters. She now understands the pain and futility of it all.

FGM is a practice entrenched with ‘fear,’ stripping human ‘trust,’ and inculcating in young girls early on to be apologetic about their sexuality and their desires. It is on us to be the change. We must question this violation of human rights and ensure that we raise our voices against this harmful practice, not just for our daughters, but the many more daughters all around us.     

 

How doctors responded to my genital mutilation: An American woman’s 70-year journey

By A. Renee Bergstrom, EdD

Country of Residence: United States

Renee chronicles her experiences with American physicians from the time she was cut at three years of age until seventy years later when she became an advocate against female genital mutilation. She also shared her story during the Sahiyo Stories Workshop to encourage other women to speak out.

  • 1947—age 3—My mother took me to a doctor because she was concerned that my little face turned red when I touched my clitoris. This fundamentalist Christian physician believed masturbation to be a sin and practiced his religion with a scalpel in a Wahpeton, North Dakota, clinic. He removed my visible clitoris. Some of my sensitive tissue fused to my inner labia.

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  • 1959—age 15—I drove myself to the same clinic not realizing this was where my mutilation took place. I complained to the doctor about the uncomfortable tugging sensation from my scar. He did not examine me or offer a solution. (Separating the scar may have solved the problem.) Instead, he gave me a brochure on the sin of self-pleasuring.
  • 1965—age 21—During my premarital examination (why were these required?), I told the doctor I was not sure I would be able to have “normal” orgasms like other women. He faced the wall and did not comment.
  • 1967—age 23—During my first childbirth, my scar did not stretch, so second stage labor came to a halt. I was given anesthesia against my will and did not wake up until four hours after our daughter was born. My obstetrician had performed an extensive episiotomy to enable her to be delivered vaginally. He did not mention the details of my birthing experience while I was in the hospital or at my six-week postpartum checkup. Later, when intercourse was uncomfortable and my vagina seemed lumpy, I returned to discuss the problem. He showed me pictures of normal female genitalia in an anatomy book and said, “Renee, you don’t look like other women.” He thought I could have had a bike accident as a child. He was shocked when I told him my story. I believe he prescribed lubricating gel to use until I healed completely, which took a couple of months.
  • 1968—age 24—When I was pregnant with our second child, I made an appointment with the same obstetrician. I waited and waited in the examination room and finally another obstetric physician came in. He said the other doctor was leaving to put IUDs in African women and would not be available to provide my care. In retrospect, I think his experience with me touched him deeply and he couldn’t face me to say goodbye. I came home crying and my husband thought there was something wrong with the baby. I had hoped to continue my obstetrical care with this compassionate physician so I felt a great loss. The next doctor assigned to me urged me to allow him to connect me with William Masters and Virginia Johnson of the research team. He thought they would be interested in my sexual response and would pay me well to participate in experiments. He suggested this at every visit and I repeatedly declined. He anesthetized me for the delivery. I awakened in a cold delivery room with my feet still in the stirrups, my episiotomy unstitched and my struggling son in a bassinet out of my reach. The OB team had left me to attend to another woman’s emergency.
  • 1970—age 25—I gave birth to our second son eleven months after his brother was born. I was semi-awake as he moved through the birth canal. The baby urinated immediately and the doctor held him so he peed in my face. I missed the first two birthing experiences and this rude, unfeeling man tainted the one when I was alert. Being cut took away my dream of the deeply spiritual joy of birthing.
  • 1981—age 37—I began my End FGM advocacy when I received funding from the Women’s Desk of the Lutheran World Federation to spend two weeks in Geneva, Switzerland, discussing the issue with international organizations there. My empathetic primary care physician was required to write a letter confirming that I was indeed cut.
  • 1981—In preparation for my 1981 Geneva trip, I attended the University of Minnesota Week of Enrichment designed to help doctors, pastors and therapists respond compassionately to those who bring a variety of sexual issues to them. This allowed me to practice telling my story in a small group supportive environment. When word got out that I was in attendance, a surgeon came and offered to create a faux clitoris for me with one of my nipples. I thought about it for awhile, then declined the offer in the parking lot while she stood next to her car. She was visibly angry, so I responded, “Why should I allow another part of my body to be mutilated when sexual intercourse is sufficiently satisfying?”
  • Later 1980s—age 40s—Two physician interactions stand out in my memory. I saw a dermatologist for a boil on my labia. When I shared my genital history, she was furious. Such a refreshing response! Previous physicians hid their emotions as if to protect the medical profession. The second experience was disturbing. I fell on metal bleachers at our children’s track meet with a resulting large hematoma on my labia. The beautiful young emergency room physician appeared to suggest that my husband had caused the injury, probably because she saw my strangely mutilated body. I didn’t provide details because there were thin curtains separating me from other patients. A couple of weeks later, we read that she walked into a lake and ended her life. I wonder if she just couldn’t tolerate witnessing the abuse cases she faced in the E.R.
  • 1997—age 53—My genital scar began to separate. My very caring female primary Unknowncare physician helped me deal with the pain and taught me to massage the area to speed the process, finally ending fifty years of the annoying tugging sensation.
  • 2017—age 73—After several years of sharing my story with compassionate physicians in the Academy of Communication in Healthcare, a male senior faculty member apologized to me from the medical profession for what I suffered. Accepting his apology helped free me to move forward with END FGM advocacy.

 

My decision as a mother to not cut my daughters

By Masuma Kothari

Country of Residence: United Kingdom

A vivid memory of my cut has lived through so many years that I can recall the entire act. This experience always intrigued me and it did lead me to the insights of child psychology as to how tender a 7-year-old is. Even though my personal experience was not very excruciating, I clearly remember the sense of betrayal, and it never went away.

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I was never convinced with the benefits theory that was proclaimed, and honestly, nobody really knew at a deeper level the real reason to follow this practice when I sought guidance. Because of the social influence, it was apparent that herd mentality, unexposed details, unquestioned thoughts promoted this practice.

When my elder daughter was near the age, I had to figure out for myself if my daughter should also be cut. It felt as if I had Godlike power to alter something natural belonging to my daughter’s body forever, and that did not feel right. For me, the decision was a chaotic fight between the cultural beliefs and the scientific quest. I reached out to a few of my doctor family members to understand if there was any scientific aspect. All of them discouraged the practice. That is when the light in my heart beamed strong.

I chose courage and discussed this openly within my group of Bohra friends. Surprisingly, I found most of the women were also against it and this strengthened my defiance! In fact, my mother secretly regretted having the practice done to me, too.

I was sure I did not want to take away what God had bestowed on my daughters. With this clarity, I announced it to my family that we won’t be conducting this on our daughters. One additional powerful advantage was that we resided in the United Kingdom. Since it is a criminal offence here, it was an easy argument to assure a few of our noisy family members back in India.  Because we as parents were strong, nobody really questioned or bothered to enforce this. It was simply about standing up for what we thought to be correct.

My husband was firm from day one that he was not willing to get this done for our daughters, yet he had given me the ownership of making this decision in case I was convinced that it had to be done. My decision scale had a chunky weight on anti-FGM, which was also a major influence in my decision to not cut my daughters.

There is absolutely no need to do this. If you are a parent struggling with the obligation to have this done, just say no to this age-old trauma-enabling practice and move on guilt- free with loud pride that you have made the right choice.

Reflections on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting & Intergenerational Trauma

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

I am not a survivor of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). In fact, my father is vehemently opposed to the practice. Even though I was shielded from FGM/C, I know loved ones who have undergone the procedure. One of those survivors is my mom.

 

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My parents are from Somaliland, which lies on the northwestern part of Somalia, but we now live in the United States. FGM/C has evolved into a cultural practice in Somaliland that has strong social roots. There is a lot of stigma if you aren’t cut (guilt, shame, neglect). My experience within the Somali community is that FGM/C has been discussed within the realm of religious theology as an acceptable form of practice. The only problem is that there is no religious text in the Quran that advocates or allows this practice. Granted, FGM/C is practiced around the world for a variety of reasons. But it is vital to highlight our personal experiences which will enable us to find collective solutions to end the practice.

I didn’t know much about FGM/C until I immigrated to the United States. The irony is that it’s a common practice passed down through generations, but it’s a closely guarded secret. No one talks about it unless it’s your time to undergo the procedure. After I looked into the different forms of FGM/C and the harmful effects, I was immediately repulsed by the actions of my community. I was enraged that the perpetrators of FGM/C were not held accountable for committing a human rights violation. I just can’t fathom how my community would eagerly rally against islamophobia, but turn a blind eye to FGM/C.

I faced a dilemma. I was harboring these feelings against my community because I just couldn’t understand the rationale of the people who are advocates of FGM/C. I was concerned that my emotions were clouding my judgment. One day I built up the courage to ask someone who could provide me some context: my mom. I am not sure why I waited until the end of this year to ask my mom why FGM/C is so prevalent in our community, but perhaps I was petrified of how she would react. I was fortunate to have the guidance of Mariya Taher (co-founder of Sahiyo) to prepare me for this day.

The type of FGM/C procedure that my mom endured is common amongst Somali women. Known as infibulation, it is typically the most severe form. My mom was very candid in her experience as she vividly disclosed the trauma and pain she went through. During our intense conversation, I interrupted her because at some point, it was too painful to digest. In the end, she confided in me. “We weren’t educated at that time, and we just did what we thought was right,” she said.

We can’t trace when the practice of FGM/C had its initial roots in my family, but something clicked inside my head in relation to intergenerational trauma. My grandmother was exposed to the same FGM/C procedure as my mom. Despite the agony, my grandmother is convinced it was the right thing to do. After all, that’s all she knows. Even though my grandmother made the decision for my mom to go through FGM/C, it doesn’t mean that she is a terrible individual. If I had to describe my grandmother, the first thing that would come to mind is her independence. She is fierce, loving, generous and vocal. She would never hesitate to express her opinion. It’s a shocking that my grandmother advocated for the practice of FGM/C because it just didn’t fit in with her persona. This is where intergenerational trauma comes into effect.You endure a traumatic experience and one of the ways to cope with that specific experience is to normalize it. If you are not provided the proper mechanisms to manage trauma, it will manifest itself often at the expense of your loved ones.

For a long time, I believed that FGM/C was only practiced in my community. Then I was exposed to data that demonstrated the wide reach of FGM/C. I believe that education and dialogue are crucial to creating solutions for the practice to end. We must not shame communities, but bring awareness of the life threatening risks associated with the procedures that so many girls endure. I believe in humanity and even though the practice of FGM/C is harmful, there is still room for hope.