Female genital mutilation, also known as FGM or female genital cutting, is the practice of intentionally cutting or altering the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. In most societies where FGM happens, it is seen as a cultural tradition and is deeply rooted in inequality between the sexes.
FGM is practiced in many cultures that practice various religions, and as is often the case, in my homeland it’s practiced as a form of sexual control; uncircumcised women are believed to be promiscuous and impure.
In my east African culture, women are circumcised for a number of reasons. First of all, the clitoris is believed to be impure. Just last year, my grandmother explained to me that the women who cut these little girls sometimes find maggots in the area during the ordeal. The saddest part is that she actually believes this is true.
There are a lot of negative ideas attached to circumcision, however, I didn’t really believe them before I experienced FGM.
That would all change after I was cut.
My mother flew me “back home” to Somalia when I was fourteen years old for a holiday. One day, while on that holiday, she casually asked me if I wanted to be cut. She explained that it was my choice and I believed her.
My 14-year-old self felt that it was fine for me to be mutilated because it was part of my cultural tradition and it was my choice. In reality, I was possessed by the illusion of choice. I felt smart because I understood that there were “mild” and “extreme” forms of FGM. The fact that I was opting for the form of FGM that inflicted the least damage made feel like I had a handle on the situation.
In reality, I had no choice.
How could I have said “no” when just days before, after finding out that I hadn’t gone through the rite of passage, my cousin informed me that I “wasn’t a woman nor a child?”
How could I have refused when all my peers were “purified” and I wasn’t?
How could I refuse the opportunity after hearing the childhood horror stories of the reality of women who grew up uncircumcised?
I had been raised to believe this ritual was a part of growing up, part of being a woman. I have a vivid visual memory of the moment my older sister was cut. I believed seeing the blood in her matted hair was an important part of my cultural conditioning.
I was five years old, and she was about eight years old. We were in Somalia staying with my father. He decided that my sister was old enough to get circumcised at the same time as our cousins, but I was too young.
I remember feeling utterly heartbroken and neglected.
I longed to be grown up, cleansed, and honorable – just like my big sister – no matter what the cost. I remember wanting to plead with my father to change his mind. Thankfully, I was spared – that time.
Years later, when I made the decision to get cut, I was convinced I was making the right choice by choosing the milder form of FGM. Fortunately, the woman performing the circumcision was more educated and “professional,” so she numbed the area before the procedure.
I still screamed out of sheer terror during the ordeal.
My mother grabbed some clothes and stuffed them into my mouth. The pain after the procedure was moderate and I healed within a few days.
I didn’t really think about what happened on that day for years after, nor did I share my experience with anyone. I told myself that, although I wished I knew what it was like to fully be the way God created me physically, I was still complete and whole. Doing so helped me to “block it out” in order to get on with my life.
But I was never really at peace with what happened to me.
Once I was married and finally became intimate, I was forced to think about what happened to me. I do wonder if being circumcised contributed to my ability in adhering to the “no sex before marriage” rule that I believe in, but maybe it’s just because that’s what I was taught to believe.
Though women are commonly circumcised as a form of sexual control, ironically, men prefer women who haven’t gone through the procedure. My husband occasionally wonders how my circumcision impacts our intimacy and my libido. The knowledge that I was mutilated saddens him and it also makes him feel that our sex life is not what it could be.
Even though our sex life is perfectly “normal” to me, the fact that my husband has expressed concern makes me feel powerless, angry, and inferior to uncut women.
Paradoxically, this was done to me to elevate my status as a woman.
In the end, all I can say is that for me, it is what it is. But it doesn’t have to be the way for other girls and women.
Writing about my experience with FGM has helped me understand the importance of helping my people (and other people) unlearn and let go of this horrendous tradition.
Know this: FGM is not something you have to endure. Considering my story before you make a choice is all I can ask.