I was stripped of many things the day I was cut

(First published on January 23, 2016) 

by Mariya Ali

Age: 32

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.

I wonder if I would have been a different person if I hadn’t been cut

by Anonymous

Age: 26

Country: India / United States

I was about 6 years old when I was taken to a clinic. One doctor and one nurse conducted the “surgery”. It took less than a minute to do it. I was told that there was a worm which the doctor was going to remove. The pain was for a split second and when I went to pee afterwards the cotton that the nurse had stuffed in my underwear had blood on it. I was lucky to have no burning sensation or pain while peeing.

Later, I was asked to not discuss this experience with anyone: “It’s a secret,” they said. So I never knew what happened to me and why.

In my teenage years, I learned that my other Bohra friends and cousin sisters experienced it too. I learned that it was called circumcision when I was studying anthropology in college. I read about horrible stories that women in Africa went through.

I am thankful that unlike other friends who were taken to some lady’s dingy house, I was taken to a clinic.

But I was horrified when I learned the reason behind this act. I wonder if I’d be a different person if I hadn’t been circumcised.

They told me they would call a ‘bhoot’ if I didn’t stop screaming

(First published on February 26, 2016) 

by Fatema Kabira

Age: 19

Country: India

Seven years old. I was seven years old when they forced me to have a part of my femininity cut off. I don’t remember much from my childhood. My memories are very vague. Yet, despite my poor memory, I clearly remember the day I was circumcised. That day is a vivid memory.

My grandmother and mom told me I was going for a sitabi (a celebration for women and girls). I used to love sitabis when I was a kid. So, I got really excited and eagerly awaited going to the sitabi. I even insisted to my mom that I wear my new clothes and topi. After dressing up in my favourite clothes, I left with my grandmother and mom to go to the sitabi.

We didn’t end up attending any sitabi and instead we went to a place that was unfamiliar to me. It was an old looking building. The steps were covered with dust and were broken. I was confused why we were there. We went inside somebody’s house and were greeted by a middle-aged woman whom I failed to recognize. I asked my mom what was going on, but she ignored me. The house was small with only one room, kitchen, and a storage unit attached to the ceiling. The one room was dim and gloomy and gave out an eerie feeling. The Aunty chatted with us for a while and then went inside another room to bring something back.

When she came out she had a blade and 2 or 3 other items in her hands (I can’t recall what they were). She came and sat in front of me. My mind went blank. I thought, ‘Blade? For what?’ My grandmother then asked me to remove my pants. Innocently, I told them I did not want to use their washroom. My 7-year-old brain could not comprehend any other reason why my grandmother would ask me to remove my pants. And that too in front of an unknown woman, since my grandmother knows how shy I was even in front of my own mother. But I obliged to my grandmother’s request.

They made me lie down and held my hands firmly to the ground. Next thing I remember is the sight of the silver blade and a sharp agonizing pain in my most intimate area. I screamed in terror. What did they do? The Aunty told me to keep quiet or she will call the “bhoot” (ghost) that stayed in her storage unit. I didn’t oblige this time. I screamed and yelled and tried to free myself. It was all in vain. They did what they wanted to do. It was all over. I cried all the way home. It hurt everytime I urinated. The sight of the blood made me sick.

I was hurt and angry and confronted my mother about this. She told me she was under religious obligation and she did what thought was the right thing to do at that time. Fortunately, I didn’t face any medical repercussions due to the unhygienic and brutal way in which I was circumcised. But it has left a psychological impact on me. I feel disgusted, ashamed, and angry at what has been done to me. There is no reason that justifies this barbaric practice. There is no reason that justifies taking away women’s inherent physical rights and ability to experience pleasure. Young girls are scarred for life and this needs to be stopped.

I am grateful I was able to talk to a therapist about my khatna

(First published on January 6, 2016)

by Anonymous

Age: 30

Country: United States

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 I 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 boarded 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.