On my wedding night, it felt like
having a flame on
an open wound,"
says the enraged
woman with eyes the colour of
honey. "He enjoyed it but I experienced
the same pain I felt when I was
a little girl and they cut open my genitalia
with a razor and then sewed it
closed with thorns. I couldn’t move
for 10 days because my legs were tied
together and I couldn’t even go to the
bathroom. My memory of it is still
bitter and intact."
Nuura Mahamud Muse (35) sits in
a hut on the outskirts of Daami. The
mother of six girls talks of the ritual
her country practises to sanction
"I won’t let my daughters to be
touched, though," she asserts over
the noontime call to worship from
the muezzins. "I don’t want them to
suffer like I do every menstrual cycle,
during sexual intercourse, when giving
birth. I don’t care if the neighbours
Instruments traditionally used for female genital mutilation in Somaliland: blades and the thorns of the Qodax tree.
New land, same old traditionsDaami is situated beyond the
Waaheen River shoal in Hargeisa, the
windy capital of Somaliland. Located
on the Gulf of Aden, Somaliland
declared independence in 1991 after
the overthrow of Somali military dictator
But it paid for its freedom: the
international community does not
recognise this state with its four million
inhabitants who are divided into
three family clans that, aside from
the war, have everything else in common
with Somalia: language, poverty, and a patriarchal culture that
blends Islam with ancient traditions.
These include gudniinka fircooniga,
the "pharaonic" female genital mutilation
or infibulation, a seal of chastity
inflicted on girls from the age
of five. All the external genitalia are
removed, then the vagina is sewn
together using needle and thread or
thorns of the wild-growing qodax
plant, until the tissues from the
wound bond, leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual blood to pass
through, to be cut open on the wedding
Read: Female genital mutilation: A costly organised crime against women and young girls
According to a 2016 Unicef report,
about 200-million women around
the world have developed infections,
chronic cysts, excruciating menstrual
pain, distressing sexual intercourse
and complications during childbirth
– all in the name of ideals of morality
Of the 27 African countries where various types of vaginal amputation
are done, the practice is most common
in Somalia and Somaliland, and
these countries also have the most
extreme type: "Ninety-eight percent
of our women are infibulated
and sewn up again after the birth
of each child, resulting in six to 13
stitchings throughout their lives,"
says Sadia Abdi, ActionAid’s director
in Somaliland, who studied in
the United Kingdom and came back to her native Hargeisa to resume the
battle she began when she was only
14 years old.
"I saved my younger sister from
infibulation," she says. "My mother
kept telling me: 'You can’t fight
against it, it’s part of your identity
and womanhood, an Islamic
"When an imam assured me that
there is no trace of this practice in
the Koran, I told my mother and she
gave in, but placed the honour of the
family upon my shoulders. I felt so
relieved when my sister found a husband
who wanted to marry her for
love even though she was different
from the others".
Sadia doesn’t talk about herself.
She says infibulation is "an extreme
act of violence against women, a
concept of male domination that
saturates our society and perpetuates
gender inequality". But listening
to her, you notice that her tenacity
flows from deep within.
"My daughter is five years old
and she will remain intact," she
states. "She won’t miss a day of
school because her menstrual blood
burns with pain; she’ll be able to
play and run free from the fear that
the stitches could rip open; she will
never damn the fact she was born
One of Nuura Mahamud Muse's daughters. Muse decided not to practice female genital mutilation on any of her six daughters. Daami area, Hargeisa, Somaliand.
Social pressureTo underscore how overwhelming
social pressure is, Sadia recalls the
story of her cousin, who committed
suicide because she didn’t undergo
infibulation and at school they called
her kintirleeyi: an insult for trampy
women with a clitoris.
Thanks to Sadia Abdi’s placid stubbornness
and ActionAid’s commitment,
there are 53 women’s coalitions
in Somaliland challenging the
Hawa Muhumed Madar (65),
leader of the women in Agamsaha
village, admits to the guilt she feels
for having had her daughter infibulated.
"Back then, tradition was not
put under discussion, but now we are
strong, united, and we won’t take it
The same revolutionary stance is
taken by Maryan and Nymco who were professional circumcisers until
recently, earning $10 to $15 a girl.
"We’ve been taught that it’s against
Islamic law," they state, "so now we
teach this to our communities."
High maternal-infant mortality The spokesperson for the battle
for women’s liberation and the abolition
of female genital mutilation
is a 78-year-old woman: Edna Adan
Ismail, midwife, former foreign minister
and United Nations delegate. In
the 1970s, she was the first woman in
the Horn of Africa who dared to cry
out publicly against the ferocity of
the pharaonic ritual.
"It means death for mother and
child," she bellows today in the hospital
she built in Hargeisa with her
own funds, adding that the maternal-infant
mortality rate in Somaliland is
more than four times higher than the
average of developing countries.
"Only seven hospitals in
Somaliland carry out caesarean sections;
in the other health facilities,
if the artificial barrier hasn’t already
suffocated the child, the stitching
is ripped open with scissors, which
can lead to the fistula [a hole in the
vagina that allows stool or urine to
pass through], the worst death sentence
"Why do you think I’ve been fighting
against infibulation for over 40
years? Because it kills."
Uncut: Female genital mutilation in Somiland
supports HTML5 video
Women in Somaliland speak out about their experiences of female genital mutilation. One NGO that is working to eliminate this horrific practice.
Fighting ignorance"We have created a national movement,
involving husbands and religious
leaders, but we haven’t become
a critical mass yet," says Aamina
Milgo, chairperson of the Network
against female genital mutilation in
Somaliland. In a country where government
statistics show that 85% of
the women are illiterate (compared
with 64% of the men), her primary
target is ignorance.
"There are people who
believe the clitoris will
if it’s not cut, and those
who accuse Westerners of inciting
us against our own culture. In the
past, they instilled us with the belief
that suffering through the torture
was something to be proud of. To
this day, for many women, not being
sewn is a stigma."
Even though the codes of the clans
come before the laws of the state and
even before the Islamic sharia, the
women’s coalitions fight for the abolition
and illegality of female mutilation,
as has taken place in 21 African
countries affected by this problem.
"A draft of a proposal of law has
been in the Parliament since 2011,"
Sadia Abdi states, "but the ministry
of religious affairs, which examines
and evaluates all decisions, has yet to
take a stand."
Somaliland has the highest incidence of female genital mutilation, which is still around 98%.
Zero tolerance An eminent imam, Yousuf Abdi
Hoore, explains the critical point:
although infibulation "is cruel, and
extraneous to Islam", a mild type of
female circumcision appears in a
prophetic tradition (hadith) and so,
according to the Islamic school followed
in Somaliland, it’s recognised
as an obligation.
It’s called sunnah: a very small
incision to the clitoris, thereby
bestowing beauty and purity."
But women reject any compromise:
"We demand zero tolerance for
all types of genital mutilation," says
Sadia Abdi who, law or no law, wants
to change the way people think.
"By creating awareness and knowledge
in the villages, and getting
mothers, fathers and religious leaders
involved, my hope is that the next
generation will be free from the horrors
While the usual afternoon wind
blows, she takes us to view Hargeisa
from high ground: a flat geometry
disturbed by the twin hills Naasa
Hablood (Girl’s Breasts) – as if femininity,
in this nonplace, was already
blooming on the horizon.
Subscribe to our newsletter here.
This article was produced by UNCUT project on female genital mutilation with the support of the Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program (journalismgrants.org) of the European Journalism Centre (EJC), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and carried out in partnership with ActionAid (actionaid.it) and the cultural association Zona zona.org/en/.
Female genital mutilation practice still common in Egypt
Female genital mutilation banned in Uganda
Science could be closer to unravelling the riddle of menstruation-related mood disorders
A little extra money in young women's homes can go a long way towards protecting them from HIV infection. So can a little bit of concern.
Ebola tore into the fabric of family life, and the relationships that bind them. These are two similar stories, with very different endings.
Bhekisisa means "to scrutinise" in Zulu
In South Africa, Zulu patients who would like to be thoroughly assessed by a doctor, would ask the physician to "bhekisisa" them.