“Sometimes they just call you lazy.”
On the last day of my Easter holidays, Dr. Phoebe Abe (or, as I know her, my mother) sat down in her living room with me and several women from Somalia, Egypt and Sudan. My mother, a GP, had for some time been looking at the issue of female genital mutilation, or FGM, with Dr Comfort Momoh MBE. However, this was the first time that I had ever met people with whom she worked. Each of these women had undergone FGM early in their lives, and now, encouraged by her, they were talking frankly about how they felt. One of them spoke of the agony that the procedure still caused her three decades later. Frequently, when bent over with pain, she would receive little understanding from those in her community who did not know what she had experienced. “Sometimes they just call you lazy”, she explained. “Most Somali women are very big,” she said, swiftly outlining the curves of her hips with her outstretched arms. “‘You need to exercise, you need to lose weight’, they tell you.”
When going to see doctors, she had met with an attitude that was no less frustrating. “Sometimes you feel like maybe they don’t care”, she said. On several occasions when she went for an appointment, complaining of severe backache, she was prescribed painkillers without further examination, which merely led to complications elsewhere: most notably, the ibuprofen that she was given led to stomach pains, only compounding her discomfort. The true problem lay deeper, and was only diagnosed after she fainted on one of her weekly visits to her GP. As a result of the removal of her clitoris as a child, she now had incessant trouble with her back, and found it very difficult to hold her urine, which she found “very embarrassing”, as a result of which “we have isolated ourselves”, she said, looking round at each of her friends in the room. They nodded in agreement.
Part of the problem, she continued, was that Somalis were a people whose daily lives went mostly unnoticed in the UK. “The British call us the ‘invisible community’; we are there, but we are nowhere to be seen’”, she said. Not only were there lingusitic and cultural problems to contend with – the thought of her talking this openly with English people was unthinkable – it was also “very, very rare” for women like her to speak out about these issues, and so I said that I would maintain their anonymity in any article that I wrote.
This, she said, is how it typically happens. When you’re six years old, girls in the year above at the local school, or madrassa, go and have the procedure done; after that, they return to school and they tell you that you’re dirty for not having gone through it. “We look up to them like they’re big girls”, she said. At that point, the young girls will go to their mothers and ask when they can have it done too. Then they go and have and it done; and, she says with a wry laugh, “then you get disabled”.
Having gone through this, their male agemates will look at them with renewed respect, telling each of them that “you’re a good girl, you’re clean now eh?” By the age of 14, most if not all of the girls will each have been paired off with a man, “and you’re expected to have your first baby at 16”. One of the women got married at 16 to a 36-year old man, and one of the others recalled that, when she got married, “I was 18, he was 43”.
“Back home, men can have wives in another country”, one of them noted, revealing that “when my father died, we [found that] we had Indian sisters, [and] sisters in Norway”. Having said that, due to the extreme discomfort that is the legacy of FGM, they took a very pragmatic approach to these affairs. They would rather that they fulfilled their needs elsewhere. “Why don’t you just have another wife? “Go and get yourself a minyire [a second wife, pronounced min-year-ray]”, one of them told her husband. “Sex for me is like a chore…We were not meant to enjoy sex. We were supposed to be machines to have babies.”
Another woman described how she felt when her husband returned from work in the mood for sex. “You are scared when your husband is coming to you,” she said. “I hate sex…When I come home, I find myself a lot of things to do. I make a lot of jobs for myself.” The terrible pain caused by vaginal intercourse was little surprise, my mother pointed out to me, given that the clitoris was exceptionally sensitive, with eight thousand nerve endings. Following the removal of the clitoris, the vagina would then be sewn back up so tight that it would be difficult to urinate, let alone have penetrative sex.
Often the women would just pretend to enjoy it, so as to get it over with. “You don’t want to disappoint him, so you lie”, one of them said. “You say, yes, yes, yes,” she panted, rolling her eyes theatrically as the others laughed. It was after sex that the complications always arrived. “I have been married for 10 years and have only had sex seven times,” said another woman. “[After sex], I cry for two hours and then have paracetamol. You can use hot water, to soothe yourself [between the legs] with a shower. The first time is the worst, because the skin [which has been sewn back up] gets ripped.”
Every now and then, there would be women for whom these sensations came as a particularly unpleasant shock. “Sometimes women don’t know if they’ve had FGM because they’ve been cut so long ago – [as long ago as] four years old – and they have to ask their parents”, my mother explained. “‘Have you been circumcised?’ I ask them, and they say, ‘Oh, what’s that? I don’t know…let me call me call my mum. And they’re told, ‘oh yes, you were done when you were four years old.’…‘One woman’, my mother continued, ‘saw her daughter’s clitoris, and she was shocked. She’d never seen one before.’”
The dearth of resources in this area had dangerous consequences, said my mother, who saw one or two cases of FGM in her local surgery each week. GPs throughout the UK needed training so that they were aware of this problem. “These women might die from renal failure without anyone knowing that they are suffering”, she said. Moreover the numbers were sobering. In the UK, there are 20,000 girls at risk of this procedure every year; in Africa alone, that figure is 3million. An estimated 66,000 young girls and women in the UK have gone through it; in Africa, the number is thought to be more than 90million.
My mother recommended that several centres, or “pain clinics”, should be set up across the UK, whose staff should include a gynaecologist and urologist who each specialised in FGM. That way, she said, “we can make their lives a little bit better, and see if there is any way they can have a more enjoyable and comfortable sex life.” She said that local MPs and Mayors should be made aware of this problem; and, noting the Government’s recent announcement of £35million to address FGM in ten countries, she also proposed arranging FGM conferences in Africa, where women who had undergone this procedure could talk openly about their experiences.
What was it, I wondered, that had emboldened these women to speak out about this now, of all times? “Mostly people are [now] on our side,” said one of them. “And there are a lot of women who are now coming from Africa, who are talking about it because they don’t want it to happen to their children.” How public, I asked, did she want to go with her story? “I’m not going on Somali TV!” she laughed. “‘Why, they will ask, ‘is she on there talking about her vagina?’”
The women noted the social stigma that was now emerging around FGM. “Men in this generation don’t want to marry women who are cut,” said one of them. “The men are angry, they don’t want their daughters to be done.” As the conversation drew to a close, one of their husbands arrived to pick them up, and I took that opportunity to ask him what influence Somali men could have in this area. With regards to FGM on a day-to-day basis, he said, “men are on the sideline. This is not their thing. They wouldn’t interfere – they wouldn’t even talk about it.” Instead, he said, it was something presided over by the female elders in the village. However, he said that “male politicians – Parliament, and the Minister of Health – can change the law,” and that this was vital. “[FGM] affects the whole family”, he said. “If the mother is not happy, then the whole family is not happy.”
For their part, each of these women saw no basis in Islam for FGM, which originated in Egypt from the times of the Pharaohs. “It’s haram – it is prohibited – in our religion to do anything to your daughter”, one of them said. “It’s completely unnecessary. There’s no medical evidence that it helps. [After FGM] you’re physically disabled, in a way, but you’re also mentally traumatised, hating yourself. Every time you go to the toilet and you look down there, you know that there is another woman out there who is normal.”
However, though they had endured this, the women were clear that this was not an exercise in recrimination. “I would not blame my parents for this”, said one of them. “They didn’t do this because they wanted to torture us. It’s time to educate our people. [And] what we want is not sympathy. What we want is to be heard. As we are sitting here talking, this minute there is a child who is being taken to the mountains to be done…It is a crime against humanity. We have daughters: are we going to do exactly the same to our daughters?”