“I can still hear the blade slicing skin”: auditory trauma and FGM

In 1997, at the fourth general assembly of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC), the highly esteemed campaigner and midwife from Somaliland, Edna Adan Ismail narrated an experience when I remarked on her inspiring commitment that dates from the 1970s. The event which she describes in her autobiography hasn’t ceased in all these years to colonize her thoughts. An auditory trauma. “I can still hear the sound of that shearing,” she told me.

With Efua Dorkenoo OBE in 1997 at the 4th General Assembly of the IAC. I am introducing Terre des Femmes’ work to end FGM, linking Germany with efforts in Africa. It was there in Dakar that I met Edna for the first time.


In her book A Woman of Firsts. The Midwife Who Built a Hospital and Changed the World (with Wendy Holden and Lee Cassanelli. HarperCollins, 2019), Edna Adan Ismail writes: “No sooner had I sat down on the stool as instructed than mother’s friends grabbed my arms while others yanked up my nightie … One woman gripped my left leg and another my right, while a third held me in a stranglehold, pressing … my shoulders. [This was a] well-planned operation that relied on speed and surprise. … [I] screamed as the old woman squatted before me and started cutting between my legs. I … remember the pain more than seven decades later, and I live that moment over and over again …” (36)

Edna Adan Ismail, far right in the photo, with colleagues opposing FGM at the Human Rights Council session, May 2016, in Geneva. L to r: UnCUT/VOICES author Kameel Ahmady, UnCUT/VOICES cover designer Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, Global Alliance founder Holger Postulart, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, and Global Alliance co-founder Elisabeth Wilson. My hand is on Edna’s shoulder.

Writing in 2019, Edna, who had served as the Foreign Minister of Somaliland from 2003-2006 and as Minister of Family Welfare and Social Development, founded the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa and uses her influence to warn against infibulation and other forms of FGM. Have her efforts borne fruit? She notes: “In my country it is estimated that the most severe form, as practiced on me [born 8 September 1937], affects 76 per cent of the female population, a trend that is down from the 100 per cent of my youth and the 98 per cent prevalence we found two decades ago. Because of migration, the practice is also emerging among refugee communities of Europe and North America, and British hospitals currently treat around 9,000 cases every year” (45).

Clearly, one weapon in the arsenal to end excision and infibulation is the book, and especially those pages that convey the subjectivity and condemnation of survivors like Edna. “For now I want to send comforting thoughts,” she notes about her motivation, “to the terrified eight-year-old me who was so bewildered and confused by the heinous thing that was done to her that she still weeps at the cruelty of it” (45).

If Edna focuses on Somaliland, complementary narratives and poems from a neighboring nation amplify her mission. Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation, edited by Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe (UnCUT/VOICES 2015) appeared first as an imprint of FEMRITE, the Ugandan Women Writers Association, before new stories and poems were added to the edition brought out by UnCUT/VOICES Press. Representative of motives behind many of the contributions is the following statement by an interviewee. “I will share my story on condition that you will avail it to the rest of the world so that it can eventually help other women not to undergo the pain I went through and still go through” (32-33).

The secrecy on which the amputation of girls’ genitalia thrives is being broken. Repeatedly, as in Edna’s narrative and many stories in Taboo, naiveté precedes a hijacking. Girls who are wholly unprepared are seized and then cut. Astonished and resentful at what many denominate as betrayal and “slaughter,” they have begun not merely to speak out but to shout their opposition to a patriarchal power grab by blade.

What If I Refuse? Oil on Canvas by Manasseh Imonikebe in the collection “Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists on FGM.” See https://nofgm.org/2016/06/06/through-the-eyes-of-nigerian-artists-confronting-fgm-an-exhibition-oxford-june-2016/

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