Leisure time! Nothing better for a University student than a couple of hours of freedom to read her favourite magazines. I’m no a fan of Vogue, so I was wondering what the face of a pretty African model, Waris Dirie, was doing on the cover of my favourite Reader’s Digest. ‘Desert Flower’, the title said. Her innocence betrayed no sign of the brutality she had suffered in her childhood. Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
‘Circumcision’ – wasn’t it something only men had to undergo? How was it physically possible for women? And why? Having read the Bible and the Torah, I found no reference to women needing circumcision. Besides, in the New Testament, Peter (Acts 11: 1-18) had already enough to say that it was faith that mattered not the body. So what was this all about?
‘….a sharp stone…I felt the sting…my flesh was being torn away…no anaesthetic….‘ I couldn’t imagine the pain!
Had it not been the Reader’s Digest, I would not have believed it! How would you like somebody cutting your tender skin with a sharp stone (much an equivalent to a rough, blunt knife), pieces of your tender flesh thrown away while the skin forcefully stitched together to close the wound using rough reeds as thread and a twig as a needle. No….we belong to an age that complains about a paper-cut! But there was worse that Waris had to go through. Left alone to recover from her injuries, she discovered in pain that urinating normally hurt enough to make her cry with the burning, but urination also took a great deal longer! What takes us a few seconds now took her over a minute, because there was only an opening the width of a matchstick to release the urine.
But the worse was yet to come! Proud at reaching puberty she discovered that menstruation was utterly painful! She could not have a steady flow which resulted in horrible cramps all while still having to do the house work and never get a break. She dreaded ‘that time of the month’. Very soon she was to get married to a man a few decades her senior. That was also around the time when she realised what would happen to her. The women’s sewn up vagina was a prize and it was a man’s greatest ‘joy’ to tear open the skin over his wife’s vagina to be able to penetrate her during sex. Joy indeed for the man for it was not he who suffered the pain. Childbirth would be worse.
I was stunned reading this. When my group in college was asked to do a project I was quick to use this topic. My classmates were equally stupefied on reading her story, and some could not bring themselves to read further or complete the article. We began our research. Our discussions and debates within the group, despite all efforts, became one sided simply because nothing ever could justify the genital mutilation that she suffered. We could not find any medical or rational reason that supported the idea. But the perpetrators of this crime continued to say it was for the ‘benefit’ of the women. Women had a sexuality that needed to be tamed. Women were the seductresses. The men ‘simply fell for it’, and men cannot control themselves, so women have to be controlled. This argument has ultimately taken different forms in different cultures, emerging into practices that control the women and make her believe she is nothing more than her sexual organs, nothing more than a womb that bears children.
We presented the most sensitive of all topics in class that day, and were proud of ourselves. Also, we were less affected believing that this could not happen in India. We were wrong. After our presentation we found we had many classmates who were victims of ‘khatna‘ – a practice by which the clitoris is slit and the hood removed. The reason their leaders gave was that if women found pleasure in her sexual organs she would go on a rampant sexual orgy with anybody. Strangely, this was not the reason that men undergo circumcision. Besides, khatna added to their belief that because men cannot control their sexual urges, women must remain covered and ‘decently’ dressed. The classmate who spoke of her own and her cousin’s ‘khatna‘ revealed that if they ever have sex, they would not be able to sense the clitoral orgasm at all. Or sex would seem slightly sensitive, but that’s all. We just realised that she was robbed of the pleasures that the men in her community could still freely enjoy. And the worst part? She was made to believe that it was not bad for her, as long as the process was done using the right instruments and anaesthetics. Worse, many of them are still traumatised but unable to speak about it, because they do not know they have a right to.
When Nigeria banned FGM earlier this year, we heralded it as a great move. Immediately, the Bori leaders in India announced that ‘khatna‘ was a necessary part of their religion. They claim it was cleanliness, but it is clear that the clitoris is in no need of surgical manipulation for cleanliness. What is more interesting is that these ‘rules’ and ‘announcements’ are made by men who themselves do not possess a vagina and know little about the care of one. Men who find the pure blood of menstruation as ‘filthy’, men who find childbirth so horrifying that they usually are found OUTSIDE the birthing rooms, while other women rally around the new mother supporting her while the man who put her in the condition chickens out.
Millions of women have survived without khatna. My friends and I are among them. Then why are my Bori sisters forced to believe otherwise? Who made these rules? Does the rule-maker have a vagina?
(This article was written for Sahiyo, a movement against khatna and FGM in India. You can follow their blog here: http://us12.campaign-archive1.com/?u=7e6d2f75e9afe1beaef7044d6&id=3a50c9d64d&e=741cd5a267)