Women in Somaliland are working together with an NGO to eliminate one of the most ancient and extreme practices of female genital mutilation.
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 female virginity.
“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 badmouth me.”
New land, same old traditions
Daami 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 Siad Barre.
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 night.
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 and respectability.
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 precept’.
“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 female.”
To 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 greatest taboo.
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 anymore.”
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 possible.
“Why do you think I’ve been fighting against infibulation for over 40 years? Because it kills.”
[WATCH] Uncut: Female genital mutilation in Somiland
“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 grow disproportionately 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.”
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 of infibulation.”
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.
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/.
Emanuela Zuccalà is a freelance journalist, writer and filmmaker experienced in women’s rights. Her work has been published, among others, by El País, Worldcrunch, Mail&Guardian, D-Repubblica. In 2012 she won the Press Freedom Award by Reporters Sans Frontières. Her documentary movie Just To Let You Know That I’m Alive has been awarded prizes by several international film festivals, such as the Margaret Mead in New York City and the Aan Korb of the Bbc in 2014. In 2016 she launched Uncut, a multimedia project on female genital mutilations, which has been published in 7 countries in Africa and Europe, and won 15 journalism and documentary awards. Her latest multimedia project is Crossing the River, about maternal mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Her books include Sopravvissuta ad Auschwitz. Liliana Segre, una delle ultime testimoni della Shoah (Paoline Editoriale Libri, 2013), Donne che vorresti conoscere (Infinito, 2014), and Giardino Atomico, an investigative reportage about the social effects of the Chernobyl disaster (Infinito, 2017).