International Women's Day is coming up this March 8, and after being invited to do so by a representative of the Population Council, I am reprinting a poem which may seem a tragic way to begin any celebration.
The poem "The Cut" comes from Population Council staff member and women's health activist Maryam Sheikh Abdi. She unflinchingly describes her own subjection to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C, putting it starkly, is the slicing off and (only sometimes) sewing up of external female genitalia for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. Putting it even more bluntly, FGM/C removes any or all of the clitoris, outer labia, and / or inner labia. Justifications for cutting include religious obligation, as many community members articulated the belief that Islam requires FGM/C (a "fact" contested by many if not most Islamic scholars). Christianity is also occasionally (and falsely) connected with these practices.
But here is Ms. Abdi's poem.
I was only six years old
when they led me to the bush.
Too young to know what it all entailed,
I walked lazily towards the waiting women.
Deep within me was the desire to be cut,
as pain was my destiny:
it is the burden of femininity,
so I was told.
Still, I was scared to death . . .
but I was not to raise an alarm.
The women talked in low tones,
each trying to do her tasks the best.
There was the torso holder
she had to be strong to hold you down.
Legs and hands each had their woman,
who needed to know her task
lest you free yourself and flee for life.
The cutting began with the eldest girl
and on went the list.
Known to be timid, I was the last among the six.
I shivered and shook all over;
butterflies beat madly in my stomach.
I wanted to vomit, the waiting was long,
the expectation of pain too sharp,
but I had to wait my turn.
My heart pounded, my ears blocked;
the only sound I understood
was the wails from the girls,
for that was my destiny as well.
Finally it was my turn, and one of the women
winked at me:
Come here, girl, she said, smiling unkindly.
You won’t be the first nor the last,
but you have only this once to prove you are brave!
She stripped me naked. I got goose pimples.
A cold wind blew, and it sent warning signs
all over me. I choked, and my head
went round in circles as I was led.
Obediently, I sat between the legs of the woman
who would hold my upper abdomen,
and each of the other four women grasped my legs and hands.
I was stretched apart and each limb firmly held.
And under the shade of a tree . . .
The cutter begun her work . . .
the pain . . . is so vivid to this day,
decades after it was done.
God, it was awful!
I cried and wailed until I could cry no more.
My voice grew hoarse, the cries could not come out,
I wriggled as the excruciating pain ate into my tender flesh.
Hold her down! cried the cursed cutter,
and the biggest female jumbo sat on my chest.
I could not breathe, but there was nobody
to listen to me.
Then my cries died down, and everything was dark.
As I drifted, I could hear the women laughing,
joking at my cowardice.
It must have been hours later when I woke up
to the most horrendous reality.
The agonizing pain was unbearable!
It was eating into me, every inch of my girlish body was aching.
The women kept exchanging glances
and talked loudly of how I would go down in history,
to be such a coward, until I fainted in the process.
Allahu Akbar! they exclaimed as they criticized me.
I looked down at my self and got a slap across my face.
Don’t look, you coward, came the cutter’s words;
then she ordered the women to pour hot sand on my cut genitals.
My precious blood gushed out and foamed.
Open up, snarled the jumbo woman, as she poured the sand on me.
Nothing they did eased the pain.
Ha! How will you give birth? taunted the one with the smile.
I was shaking and biting my lower lip.
I kept moving front, back and sideways as I writhed in pain.
This one will just shame me! cried the cutter.
Look how far she has moved, how will she heal?
My sister was embarrassed, but I could see pain in her eyes . . .
maybe she was recalling her own ordeal.
She pulled me quickly back to the shed.
The blood oozed and flowed. Scavenger birds
were moving in circles and perching on nearby trees.
Ish ish, the women shooed the birds.
All this time the pain kept coming in waves,
each wave more pronounced than the one before it.
The women stood us up but warned us not to move our legs apart.
They scrubbed the bloody sand off our thighs and small buttocks,
then sat us back down.
A hole was dug,
malmal, the stick herb, was pounded;
The ropes for tying our legs were ready.
Charcoal was brought and put in the hole,
where there was dried donkey waste and many herbs—these were the cutter’s paraphernalia.
The herbs were placed on the charcoal and
we were ordered to sit on the hole.
As I sat with smoke rising around me,
I could hear the blood dropping on the charcoal,
and more smoke rose.
The pain was somehow dwindling but I felt weak
Maybe she is losing blood? my sister asked worriedly.
No, no. It will stop once I place the herbs, cried the cutter impatiently.
The malmal was pasted where my severed vaginal lips had been,
and then I was tied from my thighs to my toes
with very strong ropes from camel hide.
A long stick was brought and the women took turns
showing us how to walk, sit and stand up.
They told us not to bend or move apart our legs—
This will make you heal faster, they said,
but it was meant to seal up that place.
The drop of the first urine,
more burning than the aftermath of the razor,
passed slowly, bit by bit,
one drop after another drop,
while I lay on my side.
There was no washing, no drying,
and the burning kept on for hours later.
But there was no stool . . .
at least, I don’t remember.
For the next month this was my routine.
There was no feeding on anything with oil,
or anything with vegetables or meat.
Only milk and ugali formed my daily ration.
I was given only sips of water:
This avoids "wetting" the wound and delaying healing, they said.
We would stay in the bush the whole day.
The journey from the bush back home began around four and ended sometimes at seven.
All this time we had to face the heat
and bare-footedly slide towards home . . .
with no water, of course.
We were not to bend if a thorn stuck us,
never to call for help loudly
as this would "open" us up and the cutter
would be called again.
Everything was about scary do’s and don’ts.
I stayed on with the other five
for the next four weeks. None of us bathed;
lice developed between the ropes and our skin,
biting and itching the whole day and night.
There was no way to remove them,
at least not until we healed.
The river was only a kilometer away.
Every morning the breeze carried the sweet scent of its waters to us,
making our thirst more real.
The day the cutter was called back
each of us shivered and prayed silently,
each hoping we had healed and there would be no cutting again.
Thank God we were all done
except one unlucky girl
who had to undergo it all again,
and took months to heal.
Our heads were shaved clean.
The ropes untied, lice dropped at last.
We were showered and oiled,
but most important was the drinking of water.
I drank until my stomach was full,
but the mouth and throat yearned for more.
It was over.
All over my thighs were marks from the ropes,
dotted with patches from the lice wounds.
Now I was to look after myself,
to ensure that everything remained intact
until the day I married
—Maryam Sheikh Abdi