When Fatoumata gave birth to her first child, a girl, she devoured the newborn with a hungry mother’s eyes and found her perfect — until her gaze rested on the child’s lower body, on something untoward between her legs. Suddenly grasped by anxiety, she thought of hermaphrodites and asked the midwife, “Is my daughter ok?” “What do you mean?” her helper replied. Pointing at a prominent outcrop, the new mother said, “Look. What’s that? She’s not like me…” “Oh,” the clinician replied. “That’s because you’ve been excised.” “Excised?” “Yes. You’ve had a clitoridectomy. What you are seeing is a clitoris, and yours has been cut off.”
I heard this story yesterday at the Institute for Genital and Sexual Health in St. Germain en Laye. To celebrate 25 November, the International Day of Violence against Women, the Institute near Paris held a press conference on domestic violence, FGM, and other abuses targeting mainly females.
Although the majority of speakers were victims of wife-beating, four women talked about FGM. Most striking in their testimony was that three of the four, like Fatoumata, acceded to their traumas only in adulthood. Their narratives expressed the shock incurred when they learned, almost accidentally, that their vague sense of bodies being not quite right could be explained. The knife met them in their very early years, well before memory formed. “I can’t remember being cut,” Bintou exclaimed. “And therefore never thought about what I did or didn’t have. Still, I always felt uneasy, as though something was wrong that I couldn’t quite place. It was my first boyfriend who asked…”
Since the 80s, the age at which FGM is carried out has been sinking, a sure sign, in the words of Institut génésique board member Linda Weil-Curiel, that people are aware the procedure is forbidden. Whereas clitoridectomy had routinely been faced by teens and considered a rite of passage to adulthood, recent decades have witnessed excisions in toddlerhood or even infancy. Why? Because the smaller the victim, the less likely she is to squeal, leading to arrest and conviction.
Bintou was not the first to tell me that, despite having been too young to remember, identifiable damage had been done.
Sinidou, for instance, back in Frankfurt, came to sit in my living room day after day for weeks to watch my videos on FGM – this was in the early nineties before widespread access to the internet. She was searching for something, the source of a general malaise about her body. One day she said, “I’ve found the answer.” And only then could we talk about it
The November 25 event in St. Germain en Laye showcased the benefits of articulating what had happened and how it felt. “Des mots pour des maux” – a pun in French meaning, as the Chinese might state it, talking bitterness – expressed the idea behind the “cercle de parole” or speak-outs during which Dr. Foldes’ patients share tales of surgery and healing. “You had to have patience,” Awa said, “because, if you were older when they mutilated you, the operation sends you back, and even anticipating it can be upsetting. Then, when you’re still sore, and the discomfort can last for weeks, you doubt whether this miracle is really plausible. Only after several months does your heart begin to sing …”
Maimouna agreed. “I felt enormous relief — I’d even call it liberation –, on finally finding I wasn’t alone but among many others full of questions. And whereas before I was shy, now I even have the confidence to address a group and to tell my friends they’d better not do it to their daughters …”
In other words, the feeling of wholeness, after restoration, isn’t merely sexual. Over and over the audience heard, not only was it now conceivable to speak out about FGM but also possible and even appealing to speak up about other things as well. Witnesses agreed, self-confidence replaced timidity.
“May I take your picture?” I asked as our quarter hour conversation during the lunch break wound down. “I’d like to put you in my blog.” “I’m sorry,” my witness replied, shaking her head. “At home, they’re not supposed to know I’m here.”
A good many hurdles remain …
To respect anonymity, all names have been changed.
You can contribute to the Clitoris Restoration Fund whose first beneficiary is well on her way to recovery with a significant waiting list keen to follow. In the United States, send CHECKS in dollars drawn on US Banks with the notation “Clitoral Restoration Fund” to Susan McLucas, Healthy Tomorrow/Sini Sanuman, 14 William St. Somerville, MA 02144. See https://www.facebook.com/pages/Healthy-TomorrowSini-Sanuman/
You can also contribute directly to the Institut en santé génésique in France. http://www.institutensantegenesique.org/