So today as I was reading Nominated Member of Parliament (Sophia Abdi Noor) story in the newspaper of how she underwent Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), my mind went to sometime last year when I had gone for a project in Garrisa. The assignment was to host a “young women’s safe space” workshop for young women where we could talk about issues on sexual and reproductive health. This is a community that to this day still has over 80% of the female population undergoing the cut. For purposes of this blog I will call this Female genital Mutilation (FGM). It’s a community where young girls rarely have public spaces where they can claim as their own. It was such a delight (theirs and ours) therefore to have a whole afternoon where we could have just this.
Reading the article I thought it was such a brave thing for MP Sophia to break the silence and speak about her own experience of FGM. This was the first time someone of high standing spoke of FGM in the first person. Honorable Sophia was barely eight years old when her mother ‘blessed’ her to undergo the rite of passage that would cleanse her and make her acceptable for marriage according to tradition. The ordeal she underwent and the consequences made her launch a campaign against the female cut. She speaks of the difficulties she had in consummating her marriage and even more grave difficulties during childbirth.
Our Safe Spaces afternoon started off on a good note, we had expected around 100 girls but we got almost 200. When the young women started walking in I couldn’t help but wonder how they survived the heat, because as it was I was baking in the dry heat, despite being the most ‘scantly’ dressed in my very long skirt and short-sleeved top. Everyone else was in a Buibui at best, there were those who even had their ninja’s and you couldn’t tell them apart.
Our discussions were all about being female and the joys and pains that came along with it. Quickly enough our discussions went to FGM and what everyone in the room felt about this. The views were as diverse as the people in the room, but interestingly enough a huge percentage of the girls were in support of it. Of course being a sister outsider I was somewhat shocked by this, and I thought it would be because they did not know the harm in it, but No they did. They listed all the things they felt were wrong with the practice, they spoke of the pain women told of when they had their first sex and even in consecutive times. The tearing of stiches, the complications of childbirth, the complications during monthly periods and the urine incontinence suffered by women.
But they were quick to say that this was only the case if you performed the ‘pharaonic’ or type of III of Female Genital Cutting (where all parts of the labia majora and minora plus the clitoris are cut off and part of the vagina is sawn up leaving space just enough for monthly periods). They preferred the ‘Sunna’ or type I which in their description meant the cutting off of a small part of the clitoris. I wondered if we all shared the same understanding of what constitutes small when we were speaking about cutting off a small part of the clitoris. The clitoris to begin with is small in most women, and I worried that what they were describing as just as a small part meant cutting off the whole clitoris. With the lack of knowledge by most women about our own bodies sometimes mean that we do not understand our own biology. And in comparison to ‘Pharaonic’ just cutting off the whole clitoris for some might sound and feel as a small bargain.
And after all a woman was not proper if she was un-cut, grounds for which a husband would return her to her father on the wedding night.
Being so pro pleasure, I just had to ask if they understood that the clitoris was responsible for a woman’s sexual pleasure. And ALAS they all did. They said the reason that women are circumcised is so that they do not seek this pleasure before marriage, and hence become promiscuous. But I asked “The cut is permanent, what happens when you get married wont you want to experience this pleasure?” this of course was beside the point and I do not remember if I ever got a direct answer to this question. After all I was an outsider and dint quite comprehend the important things in life, and sexual pleasure was just not one of them. Never mind the men were not feared to be promiscuous before their marriages, they were trusted to be able to keep their sexual desire in check till such a time that they were married. No one trusted women to that extent.
The lines between culture and religion were very blurred often with no distinction between one and the other. For example the group could not come to a conclusion if female circumcision is a requirement of the Muslim religion or it if was that of the Somali culture or both (of which almost all the girls belonged to both Muslim religion and Somali tribe). Most felt that it was a requirement for both their religion and their culture, with some explaining the Quran stipulated that circumcision was optional, only that they understood optional to be type one FGM. My colleague and I were at pains to describe that optional meant that you could have it or not at all, a point that never quite dawned on any of the girls. For these girls circumcision was a must, its degree was the optional part.
Given that most of them felt that this was not their choice but that of their parents. I asked if when they got to be parents if they would still choose FGM for their daughters, they said they would, because this is what parents do, otherwise “who will marry your daughters?” circumcision therefore was seen as a pre-requisite for marriage dictated by culture and circumstances. Most of them said they would choose for their daughters the ‘optional’, which they understood to mean the ‘sunna’. Which depending on your understanding might mean the removal of the whole or part of the clitoris. This also depends on the understanding of the circumciser who is mostly an old woman.
I could see from their faces that not getting married or getting married to some one outside their culture was unthinkable. In the whole group only two girls said they would not choose circumcision for their daughters, but this is because they had had a chance to travel and live elsewhere, (Nairobi to be specific) hence they knew it was possible to get married even if you were not circumcised. They said that their own brothers would not marry a woman who was circumcised for these women did not enjoy sex. There was a discussion of men having extra marital affairs because their wives did not enjoy sex. Yet these very men would not marry a man who hadn’t undergone FGM.
One shocking story had it that rich men who travel a lot have their wives sawn back and when they get back they tear through the stiches in order to have sex. I was just imagining how excruciating this kind of pain would be…
I left this group feeling both educated and sad. I felt both lucky and guilty for having born at a place that allowed me such choices. These girls taught me just how far you can go for a community. How so inside a box you can think if you never get an opportunity to travel, how choices can be so wrong for us yet we would still choose them for ourselves and for our children. How can we end this vicious cycle?
 Religious dressing for Muslim women
 A head covering for Muslim women that covers the face leaving only the eyes
 The most extensive form of FGM that includes the cutting of part or all of the clitoris, labia minora and majora and then stitching part of the vagina leaving a tiny hole for the menstrual blood.