Maryam Sheikh Abdikadir was six years old when she underwent the cut. Now in her forties, she describes the pain of the ordeal, which is embedded in her memory, as unimaginable.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was normal in her community but it turned out to be the single most painful memory of her childhood.
She had been waiting for this moment. The moment when she would become a woman.
Deep down, she was fearful of the impending pain but she had no choice and alongside five of her peers, she stood in line to wait for her turn to be cut. She was the last in line.
“My community practices infibulation which is excising the clitoris and labia of a girl or woman and stitching together the edges of the vulva to prevent sexual intercourse,” she says.
Maryam is a devout Muslim from the Somali community. To become a respected member of the community, one has to pass through the tradition. It is meant to prepare the girl child for marriage. That is, to preserve her virginity and discourage promiscuity. Girls are taught from an early age of its importance as a religious obligation and a family honour. There is a general consensus that marrying an uncut woman is unacceptable within the social group. It, however, does not take up the role as a rite of passage as in other communities.
She revisits an all-too-sharp memory of the day she underwent the cut:
“I shivered and shook all over; butterflies beat madly in my stomach. I wanted to vomit, the waiting was long, and the expectation of pain too sharp, but I had to wait my turn.”
With the blessings of her parents, she was held down by the cutter as two other women held her legs open. She cried herself hoarse until she passed out. When she came to, she was met by ridicule and cajoling as the women laughed at her cowardice.
And so it came to pass that six-year-old Maryam became a woman. Little did she know that she would revisit the issue much later when is campus and that her painful menses every month when she came of age would be a constant reminder of the same.
Maryam grew up in the border town of Liboi in Garissa county until the age of four when she moved in with her auntie in Mbalambala Sub-County.
Her quest for an education manifested itself early as she sat outside the classes of a nearby school admiring other students. Her guardians were not keen on enrolling her to school until she asked if she would attend and they gave her a go ahead.
She was elated. She stepped into a classroom for the first time when was seven years old. A gifted learner, she sailed academically in her primary and secondary school years.
“In 1989, I became the first woman to join campus from North Eastern Region,” says Maryam.
It was during her third year in campus that her attitude towards FGM changed.
Her wake-up call came in the form of a curious conversation she had with her roommate.
The fellow Muslim girl wanted to know why Maryam experienced very painful menses. And so Maryam explained, enquiring whether she also goes through the same, assuming she had also been cut.
“My friend was shocked, and I in turn was shocked that she hadn’t gone through the cut. All along I had been made to believe that it was an obligatory process that was required of all Muslim girls. From then on I started questioning my upbringing.”
After reading the Quran extensively Maryam now knows that Islam is totally against FGM.
Maryam became more involved in voluntary activism shortly after finishing campus where she became more exposed to material talking about FGM. After struggling to find answers for close to 11 years since her campus days, she was finally able to realise how much of a violation it is to a woman’s body. With the consent of her then husband, she had the process reversed, although she couldn’t quite go back to her original state.
Through NGOs, Maryam has become more involved in the fight of the vice from the community level all the way to the policy making level.
In 2011, the 9th parliament passed into law an anti FGM bill making it illegal to practice or procure it or take somebody abroad for cutting. The law also prohibits derogatory remarks about women who have not undergone FGM. Offenders risk being jailed or fined or both. Though a great stride in the fight, Maryam says they still have a long way to go.
“Some of the challenges I have experienced is that the programs we as NGOs run on awareness have short term aspects meaning when our allocated time per project is finished, we move on quickly to the next. Also the way we package our message; for instance, when we posed the dangers of using crude material among the Kuria, they sort of legalized the trade such that now the girls are taken to hospital and cut under anesthesia. We need to change the narrative,” Maryam quips.
Maryam almost gave up the fight when one day her sister called to tell her that one of her granddaughters had undergone the cut. Her efforts were initially not being recognised even by her own relatives.
“I sat down in my office after that phone call and just broke down. My boss found me there crying, and I told him I was willing to resign. If my own people back at home were still practicing FGM, then my efforts were all in vain. He however encouraged me by telling that even prophets are not welcomed in their own homes. He told me I need to keep fighting,” she says.
Her sisters and mother still joke about her efforts and sometimes ridicule her when she visits home but they have gradually come to accept that it is part of her job.
In the just concluded elections, Maryam unsuccessfully vied for the Garissa women representative. With the seat, she had hoped to implement policies at the county level that would see the fight against FGM broadened.
The mother of two, a boy, 14 and a girl, 7 hopes to see the day that the world would be free of FGM.
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