I remember being forced to lie down on three old mattresses: two stretched on an angareb (a wooden bed popular in Sudan); the other plied under my torso. My midwife Hajja sat on a low wooden stool. Our eyes met as she faced my naked body.
“Now you are a woman,” she said. “A real woman never cries. I will remove this dirt, and you will become clean, a real Muslim.”
There were several women around me during the ritual. Two took hold of my thighs, while two others firmly held my arms. Another sat behind me and put my head on her lap. With her right hand she covered my eyes. As she put her left arm on my chest, she must have felt my heart beating fast because she said, “Honor your father’s name. Don’t be afraid; this is not painful. You have seen your sister and your cousins. They did not cry.” I didn’t dare 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 golden bracelets, and addressed the women around her. “Open her widely,” she murmured.
I felt the fingers of her left hand moving my nudity apart and then a sharp needle piercing my flesh up and down and in the middle. I cried at the top of my voice and tried to raise my torso to kick the two women who were firmly holding my thighs.
“Oh women, hold her firmly!” Hajja cried.
I was anesthetic resistant.
Suddenly, she started cutting. The pain was excruciating. I cried like a mad person. Her head was bent between my thighs, but I felt as if she was cutting in the middle of my skull. More women were called to hold me down. Some of them nicknamed me coward.
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.” It was Grandmother Amna, doing her best to establish herself as the expert in the anatomy of young girls.
Again Hajja bent between my thighs and cut me with the razor. Or perhaps it was a kitchen knife. I was sure of one thing only: 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.
And then came the stitches: nine in all, causing me pain and panic whenever I tried to move.
I was only 6 years old—too tiny to struggle.
Between Two Atrocities
The World Health Organization (WHO) notes that in Africa about three million girls are at risk for this barbaric practice annually.
My country of Sudan ranks fifth among countries practicing female genital mutilation (FGM) worldwide. According to a UNICEF report, 89% of Sudanese women are circumcised. That’s roughly 14 million women and girls.
In Sudan, there are three types of FGM practiced today: ‘Sunna’, removal of the hood and part of the clitoris; Clitoridectomy, removal of the clitoris and adjacent labia; and Infibulation, which consists of a complete Clitoridectomy as well as stitching of the labia, allowing only a small gap for urine and menstrual blood to pass through. In my point of view type one is the least practiced.
This past February the Sudanese government legalized the Sunna form of FGM. The Council of Ministers dropped the 13th article of the 2009 Children’s Act which banned FGM to take into account the Islamic fatwa that distinguishes “harmful” circumcision—Infibulation, Clitoridectomy, from less extensive procedures like Sunna.
Ironically, this decision came just one day before the world celebrated International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation.
With this decision, my dear homeland has taken decades of work against these practices back to square one. [paging]
History of Resistance
FGM was declared illegal in Sudan in 1941, but the practice has continued with little interruption.
Successive national surveys between 1979 and 1983 recorded that 96% of women have undergone FGM. In 1991, this percentage dropped to 89%. And now, in 2009, the UNICEF World Report on Children shows a drop of only 7.3%. This gradual shift in public attitudes toward FGM has been due in large part to efforts led by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Babikir Badri Scientific Studies Association on Women Studies (BBSAWS) 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 circumcision, including the absence of a long-term strategy against the practice, no implementation of strict measures to defend children, the concentration of NGOs in urban centers, associating circumcision with Islam, dominance of silly notions that FGM is a kind of purification and beautification, and the existence of beneficiaries who are resistant to change.
But our government’s legalization of the practice 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 an increase of propaganda used to promote the practice.
Stigma and Economics
In Sudan, it is the women who shoulder the biggest responsibility for excisions. They are the practitioners and the supporters, while the majority of Sudanese men consider it “women’s affairs.”
Mothers and grandmothers who were victims of circumcision almost always request infibulations or the “Pharaonic” type of excision. The midwives get around the laws by claiming that they only perform “Sunna,” when in reality they practice only type two and three.
Midwives, like Hajaa Zeinab, never fail to honor 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 pull women into a vicious cycle of circumcision, decircumcision (tasheem) and recircumcision (adlah). The latter is normally performed to tighten a woman after giving birth.
Moreover, midwives have their own means of propaganda and advertising to increase their business. 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. Of course, circumcised girls are always described by the famous phrase, “waa halati,” meaning, “what a nice girl!”
The gloomy picture reflected by my story does not deny the light at the end of the tunnel.
Change is in process. It will not happen overnight, but with persistence, proper education, and consistency, it is within reach.
I believe that in order to stop FGM in Sudan (and worldwide), civil society organizations, NGOs, artists, writers, dramatists, cartoonist, musicians, activists, media practitioners, physicians, the whole family, etc, must continue to pressure governments to not support this practice.
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 in shame.
I recently received an email from a man named Mohamed Ahmed. He wrote, “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. This helped me in convincing many relatives and friends throughout more than 27 years to not practice FGM." 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.