When my mom told me that we were going out, I was thrilled, which was unlike me, given that I was a shy six-year-old who dreaded meeting new people. My mother, grandmother, aunt, cousin, Sahar, and I piled in the car and drove to the village clinic where my father would meet us. When we arrived at the brightly lit, cold “operation room” with its two hospital beds that sat only four feet apart, our parents ordered my cousin and I to lie down and remain still.
The woman who performed the procedure approached my cousin first. I could hear the noise of people’s quick, deliberate movements in the small room, but could not make out what was happening on the cot next to mine, so I stared at the harsh florescent light on the ceiling and tried to stay calm. When it was my turn, my grandmother gently held down one leg, while my mom pressed the other to the bed. I became increasingly nervous and closed my eyes in an effort to steady my ragged breaths—I realize now that I was trying to stifle an oncoming panic attack. All was quiet and then a sharp, stinging pain burned between my legs, followed by a guttural cry that escaped my throat.
I don’t remember how I felt afterwards. All I could think of at the time, and in the years that came after, was the sound that had slipped out involuntarily from between my lips, but not my cousin’s. Why had it pained me so much that I could not help but scream, yet my cousin had remained perfectly composed and quiet, not letting on any hint of discomfort? I felt a conflicting mixture of embarrassment, confusion and suspicion. I was convinced that something very wrong was done to me, but that made no sense because, according to society, that afternoon I became “pure.”
For years, I was afraid of finding exactly what had happened to me as a child. I intentionally shoved the memory into the far corners of my mind until it became a dusty relic, one that I left it behind in Sudan when my family immigrated to the U.S. Years went by, my father passed away, and I immersed myself in my studies and never thought of that afternoon again. It wasn’t until I was a college student that I started having flashbacks, especially of the piercing, stinging pain that I had felt—a pain so sharp that every muscle in my body had tightened in an effort to diffuse its intensity.
I desperately wanted to talk about it, but I dared not ask my mother what had taken place in that small, cold room so many years ago and why. Perhaps I was angry. Perhaps my upbringing told me it was inappropriate to question it until I was upon marriage. So I gathered the courage to confide in a friend. After hearing my story, she gently told me that the mysterious procedure performed on me was called “Female Genital Mutilation” and could be reversed surgically. For a brief moment, I was happy that the “it” that had remained shrouded in mystery all these years had a proper name, one that I could type into a search engine and research.
My relief was short lived. I was traumatized by the Internet images and articles that came up on the computer screen; some vociferously condemned the practice as barbaric while others mentioned its many painful consequences, including infections, hemorrhaging and even death. I immediately closed the search results and avoided looking into it again out of fear of what other frightening information I might find. After all, I wasn’t planning on being sexually active anytime soon, so why the rush?
In Sudanese Arabic, it is called tahour, which means “Purification.” Often considered a rite of passage for young girls to ready them for marriage, Female Genital Cutting/ Mutilation (FGC/FGM) has been practiced for thousands of years and continues to be performed today by Muslims, Christian and Jews in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Europe, as well as among some immigrant communities in the United States.
Cultures and communities that practice FGM do so out of a belief that it preserves a woman’s and her family’s honor by ensuring her virginity, thus her eligibility on the marriage market. About 140 million females worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM, which is classified in four types:
1. clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris;
2. excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora;
3. infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal; and
4. other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes (e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area).
While FGM carries no health benefits, there are many risky implications that include chronic pain, depression, anxiety, pain during intercourse, reoccurring urinary tract infections, which can sometimes be fatal, and a higher neonatal mortality rate. This, of course, does not include the diseases, such as hepatitis or HIV, that can come about as a result of unsterile instruments being used to perform the procedure.
Community elders in our hometown in Sudan considered FGM a sunnah, or something that while not expressly commanded in the Qur’an, was practiced and actively encouraged by the Prophet Muhammad. I wasn’t so sure. I set aside my fears and, once again, allowed my curiosity and my anger to fuel my search for the what and the why behind this practice. I wanted to know was there truly an Islamic underpinning behind FGM or was that a misguided, perhaps even manipulative, rational. My research quickly confirmed my suspicions—Islam neither commands nor encourages FGM. In fact, the Qur’an does not even contain a mention of the practice. It is purely cultural, and can be found in non-Muslim communities around the globe, motivated by ignorance at best, and misogyny at worst.
I located a gynecologist who was familiar with FGM, and once again I found myself flat on my back, staring anxiously at the celling lights. After a few tense moments, I heard the doctor’s reassuring voice, ““There’s been a small part that’s been cut off — the tip of the clitoris — but that’s it. You don’t need a restorative surgery. In fact, if anyone looked at you, they would not even notice it. You’re pretty much normal.”
After seven years of panic-inducing flashbacks and uncertainty, I felt strangely blessed. After all, I could have discovered that my entire clitoris had been removed, depriving me from my God-given rights to enjoy intimacy with my husband or that my inner labia had been cut and resewn to narrow the size the vaginal opening. I do not blame my family. In fact, unlike our neighbors, my parents did not celebrate the occasion with food, music and sweets for the children. I believe they acted within their best knowledge and within the conformity of society. This is precisely why the work of organizations who tackle the ignorance and misinformation at the family level is invaluable, because had my family, one of millions, known better, they would have done better.
Reem Jamiel lives in Washington D.C.