New York City – A young girl stood weeping while women danced happily around her. A grand celebration was already underway for the girl’s rite of passage. It would end with her circumcision and the women rejoicing.
Against her will, the young girl who they called Ekankama, was knocked to the ground and held down by her grandmother and other women, while she was cut. After she was cut and stitched up, they deemed her ready for marriage.
Ekankama and the women dancing that afternoon were actors playing out a scene all too familiar to women around the world. The performance was part of “Their Voice,” a conference on female genital cutting held in New York City on June 16.
The conference, which was convened by the US-based Campaign to End Female Genital Mutilation, brought together activists and survivors of female genital cutting (FGC) from around the world.
“I did not know what awaited me until I was held down by four women who pinned my hands down and open my legs and cut me with a knife. The pain was so heavy because there was no form of anesthesia. They just boiled some herbs and washed the wound.”
Miriam, 39, a survivor of female genital cutting from The Gambia, spoke those words publicly for the first time during the conference. It was the first of many emotional moments that day.
Miriam said she was just 9-years-old when she was cut.
“I was young when my parents died and I had to live with my grandmother. When you live with a person who you look up to as a parent, you do whatever they tell you to do. I can remember that my grandmother told me that we were going to a party, so I was very happy because I knew party at the time was meant to wear fine clothes, dance, and eat plenty.”
Sitting at a table with other survivors, Miriam cried shamelessly. She said she assumed that all women around the world were cut and it was part of being a woman.
Her circumcised vagina caused health complications, including during childbirth, but she didn’t once think that what she had undergone was out of the norm. She came to know that the practice was not universal during a doctor’s visit after she moved to New York.
For most of her life, Miriam did not talk about the taboo subject. But over time, Miriam has gained confidence to speak out.
“For you to change the world, you have to look at yourself first, change whatever mark you have before you start changing others. I have two girls, they are eight and four and if anybody wants to hurt those girls, hurt me first because I don’t want them to go through the pains I experienced.”
She went on to say that the repression of African women and their muzzled voices is contributing to the problem of FGC.
“When you get your first period, your mother is supposed to explain it to you, but you don’t have that chance in Africa. I never knew that men and women were equal in Africa. I always thought men were better than women because it was what I was made to believe. But now, I can see it. I cannot change what happened to me but I want to make sure that the next generation does not suffer what we went through as kids.”
An FGM survivor weeps as she recalls ordeal at conference in New York.
Sabigi Kona Willie-Pieh, a Liberian TV Show host “Radio Lib” living in the US, said she nearly went through the procedure. Her grandmother whom she was living with at the time, before the outbreak of the Liberian civil war, took her to the woods to have her cut. But she managed to escape.
“My grandmother took me to the bush and sat on a rock and pinned me between her legs and started to gash my arms with a razor blade. When she started rubbing some herbs to my sore, I bit her hand and ran for my life.”
Another young girl, Aicha, was too young to defend her self against the practice. Now in her twenties, she was just three-months when she was cut. She does not remember what happened to her but she does remember her sister’s trauma after she was cut.
“It is because of my sister I am here, because she went through so much and still suffers the pains of stitching her entire vagina more than once. After she was circumcised, she had to be opened again when our mother was compelled to take her to the doctor because she could not pee or do anything.”
Aicha also didn’t know she was cut until she came to the US and a doctor told her she was different from other women. The sad testimonies of the survivors brought tears to nearly all who were in the room that afternoon. Some, who had come not intending to speak, were moved to stand up and tell of their own experiences.
Soraya Mire, a Somali, who was cut at the age of 13, has been fighting against FGC for over fifteen years. She is one of the leading campaigners against FGC. She has worked along with other survivors to push governments around the world to stop the deadly practice. At the conference, she received an award for her courage in the fight against FGC.
Many women who attended the conference said they would support their girls in the fight against FGC, including an elderly lady who had lost her daughter to the practice. Imam Souleimane Konate, a Muslim religious leader in New York, also spoke out against the practice.
He said not all men are in support of FGC but many Muslims are mixing up culture with religion to justify FGC. He said there is nothing in the Quran that talks about female circumcision.
“They would tell the people that it is the will of the prophet that female circumcision is done in order to stop the women from running around.”
But Imam Konate said: “Men are the ones running around because they are not sexually fulfilled with their circumcised wives. Our people marry three to five or even more wives because they are missing something that is not there, something they had removed.”
The Imam said women were made beautiful and perfect; therefore they should be allowed to enjoy their sexuality and not be subjected to circumcision because men say they should be cut.
Many of the women at the conference had met for the first time that day; they were from different parts of the world. But as they exchanged business cards, they also embraced each other like longtime friends.
They vowed to each other over and over again that they would do what they could to stop another girl from being cut. They said they believed that one day Ekankama’s story would a story from the past.