It seems that in Sudan anything is possible. For a girl to be circumcised one day and have the same operation repeated the next day because a grandmother or aunt is not satisfied with the cut, is sadly not uncommon. I remember being forced to lie down on three old mattresses - two of them stretched on an “angareb”, which is a popular wooden bed, and the other one was plied under my torso. My midwife, Hajja Zeinab, sat on a low wooden stool.
As she faced my naked body, our eyes met. I tried to escape her firm look, but she immediately addressed me with caution, “Now you are a woman. A real woman never cries. Now I will remove this dirt and you will become very clean and a real Muslim,” she said.
Later I learned that this belief reveals the depth and core of the atrocity. Several women participated in the ritual. Two of them took hold of my thighs, while two others firmly held my arms. One sat behind me and put my head on her lap. With her right hand she covered my eyes and as she put her left arm on my chest, she must have felt my heart beating fast because she said, “Honour your father’s name. Don’t be afraid. This is not painful. You have seen your sister and your cousins. None of them cried.” I didn’t utter a sound as tears ran down my face.
“In the name of Allah Most Gracious, Most Merciful,” Hajja said. She raised her fat hand, ornamented with some golden bracelets, and addressed the women around her. “Open her widely,” the midwife murmured, ordering the two women holding my thighs.
I felt the fingers of her left hand moving my nudity apart and then a sharp needle pierced my flesh up and down and in the middle. I cried at the top of my voice and tried to raise my torso and kick the two women who firmly held my thighs.“Oh Women, hold her firmly!” Hajja Zeihab cried.
Suddenly, she started cutting. The pain was excruciating. I cried like a mad person. In spite of having her head bent between my thighs I felt as if she was cutting in the middle of my skull. More women were called to help hold me down. Some of them nicknamed me coward. Others scolded me for being the only one among the four who had acted cowardly.
I was anesthetic resistant
Hajja called one of the old ladies over and asked, “Does everything look okay?” No, no,” said the old woman, “cut this piece. Yes this one. And remove her clitoris. What is the use of it? And, remove the dirt. Do as I tell you.” I think that was grandmother Amna, doing her best to claim herself among the old women as the expert in the anatomy of young girls.
Again she went between my thighs and cut me with the razor. Have I said razor? I am not sure whether it was a razor or a kitchen knife. But I was sure of one thing, she wasn’t wearing gloves or covering her head. She wore only her white short dress. She was fat and stout and mowed my flesh with no mercy. The stitches were the worst part. 9 stitches in all caused me pain and panic whenever I tried to move or urinated.
I was only 6 years old—too tiny to struggle
Pain and superstition
My sister, two cousins and I (all cut at the same time) were taken outside the excision room and showed the sea. A vision of the sea is believed to serve as a barrier against evil spirits. This evil could be caused by a sudden visit from a relative who might have attended a grievous incident such as contributing to the burial of a dead person and then surprise us with his presence without informing our mothers to take the necessary precautions. This was believed to cast an evil eye, causing damage to the wound and hindering fast healing. For the next seven days I cried out of pain, and suffered urine retention. I couldn’t urinate for the first three days following circumcision. Every time I wanted to pass water, I had to bite my lower lip and scream from between my teeth.
With a slight degree of difference, this same scenario repeats many times in a woman’s life, every time she gives birth. And this legacy of pain is transmitted from generation to generation even today. “Female genital mutilation and cutting violates girls’ and women’s human rights, denying them their physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination and, in the most extreme cases, their lives,” stated the UNICEF report on the State of the World’s Children, 2009.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) mentioned that In Africa, about three million girls are at risk for FGM annually.
Between two atrocities
According to a UNICEF report, eighty nine percent of Sudanese women are circumcised. Sudan ranks 5 among countries practicing this barbaric custom worldwide. WHO memtioned four types of FGM, but in sudan There are three types including Sunna ”removal of the prepuce”, medium ”Clitoridectomy” and Pharaonic “infibulation”, “see attached illustrations”.
The Fifth Population Census (2008) results have revealed that Sudan's overall population figure is more than thirty nine million people. The number of excided women is estimated at 14 million. In spite of this horrible percentage, the Sudanese government last February legalized Sunna type. Sadly, this decision came, last February, on the day when the world was commemorating International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation Day.
Does this practice need legalization? That was the first question that came into my mind whereas my eyes went quickly over the news published in Sudan Tribune newspaper website. “The Council of Ministers on February 5 dropped the article (13) of the draft Children’s Act of 2009, which provides for the ban of female genital mutilation as part of other customs and traditions harmful to the health of the child, and after approval of the draft Children’s Act 2009,” said the newspaper.
The newspaper went on saying “the cabinet decided to drop the article (13), which deals with female circumcision, taking into account the advisory opinion of the Islamic Fiqh Academy, which distinguish between harmful circumcision or infibulation (Pharaonic circumcision) and the circumcision of Sunna, a less extensive procedure.”
It is regrettable to say that the government decision was taken while a woman is on the head of the Ministry of health. No doctor was consulted. Also the memory of a tragic death of, Inaam Abdul Wahhab, a 4-year-old child as result of circumcision complication was still fresh. Three others had the same fate as Inaam's.
Instead people were encouraged to have their daughters cut according to Sunna, in specific centers already established for this purpose in different parts of the country. Sunna is used to refer to traditions. With this decision, my dear homeland is taking three decades of voluntary work back to square one.
Ups and downs
Resistance against this practice started in the early 1940s. The practice was declared illegal in Sudan in 1941 but continued without interruption. Not a single incident of punishment was recorded even though about 90% of northern Sudanese women have had it done. Successive national surveys between 1979 and 1983 recorded that ninety six percent of women have undergone FGM. In 1991, this percentage dropped to eighty nine percent, which matched with the UNICEF world report on children for 2009, showing only a drop of 7.3%. This gradual shift in public attitudes toward FGM was due in large part to efforts led by non governmental organizations(NGOs), Babikir Badri Scientific Studies Association on Women Studies(BBSAWS)and NCEHTP, in coordination with many other autonomous organizations and individuals. It is worth noting that BBSAWS was the first local NGO to shoulder the struggle against FGM in Sudan. Several factors contribute to the prevalence of excision. On the top of the list are: the absence of a long-term strategy, no implementation of strict measures defending children against this practice, displacement and internal migration, the concentration of NGOs in urban centers, associating circumcision with Islam and the existence of beneficiaries who resist eradicating this custom by any means.
However, the government’s current stance is the major obstacle. Whenever FGM is legal, it destroys efforts undertaken by NGOs, turns ethnic groups into advocators and codifies the presence of groups who are officially supported to derive their livelihood from the profession, not to mention the propaganda they use to promote the profession.
Stigma and economic component
To be honest, in Sudan, it is women who shoulder the biggest responsibility for the excisions whether they are practitioners or supporters, whereas the majority of males consider it “women’s affairs.”
The severity of the cut depends upon personal request. Mothers and grandmothers who were victims of circumcision, almost always request infibulations or the “Pharaonic” type of excision. The midwives, contrary to reality, claim that they only perform “Sunna”. Sunna, which is considered a lighter version of FGM, but is still barbaric, especially with successive deliveries.
Midwives, like Hajaa Zeinab, never fail to honour a client’s request. They work in accordance with the law of supply and demand, not the law of the land. By doing so, they involve women in a vicious cycle of circumcision, decircumcision (tasheem) and recircumcision (adlah). The latter is performed to tighten a woman after giving birth.
Moreover, midwives have their own means of propaganda and advertising this commodity. Whenever such a midwife is among a large number of women, she tells stories about uncircumcised girls being always dirty even if they spend the whole day showering themselves. Whereas circumcised girls are always described by her famous phrase, “waa halati,” which means, “what a nice girl!”
Azza, a woman’s rights activist and psychiatrist told me a devastating story about a young woman she met while studying for her Masters degree at the Psychiatric Hospital in Khartoum. Upon discovering that his bride was excised, a husband took her to a midwife to re-open the labia majora to allow penetration of the vagina. The husband was then instructed to sleep with her within the same hour. Azza recalled that the bride was traumatized. She told her doctors that although she believes sexual intercourse is a vital part of marriage, she cannot forget the pain and sight of her pooled blood from her husband forcing her to have sex with him just after the procedure.
A way out
The gloomy picture reflected by events of this story, don’t deny the light at the end of the tunnel. Change is in process. Of course this will not happen overnight, but with persistence, proper education and consistency, change is attainable.
I believe that in order to stop FGM in Sudan (and worldwide), the civil society organizations, NGOs, artists, writers, dramatists, cartoonist, musicians, activists, media practitioners, physicians, the whole family, etc must continue to pressure governments to clear politics and back down on their decisions in favour of FGM, and have and support the views calling for the implementation of the Child Rights Conventions. Additionally, these efforts have a greater chance of success if they line up with a long-term media campaign, enrolling all concerned and directed through private broadcasting.
Continuation of personal efforts is a must. I, for one, prevented my young nieces from having to endure excision and convinced two illiterate mothers to abandon the practice.
I believe that an effective cure for this disease will have to involve personal and collective trials discussions. Men and women who don't practice female circumcision need to come in the open, and not hide it.
“As a man I didn't find it difficult to say I am married to an uncircumcised woman, and my 22 year old daughter is not circumcised and this helped me in convincing many relatives and friends throughout more than 27 years." Mohamed Ahmed wrote in an email to me. I received his message with hope and great appreciation.
For the sake of my daughter from whose eyes beam a promising tomorrow and who brings seeds of change, I will continue to work at home and through the media to put an end to FGM.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.Voices of Our Future Assignment: Op-eds