Growing up in a devout Muslim Somali family in Kenya, Maryam Sheikh Abdi knew from an early age that she would undergo female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Maryam and five of her peers underwent “the tradition” as children without hesitation because it was expected of all girls. One had to undergo FGM/C to become a respected member of the community and, it was believed, to find a good husband and have a happy family.
Maryam was just 6 years old when two women led her into the bush near her home and held her down, ordering her not to scream. One of the last images she recalls before the razor sliced into her was one of the women giving her a conspiratorial wink. “I think she was trying to tell me to get ready for the pain,” said Maryam, who believed the ensuing years of frequent infections and psychological distress were simply part of being a Muslim woman.
It wasn’t until 1995 when Maryam learned from another Muslim woman at the university she was attending that FGM/C was not part of her religion. “I knew that I was a Muslim and she was a Muslim,” she said. “I just remember thinking, ‘Why was I brought up this way?'”
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting is a longstanding traditional practice rooted in culture and religion that involves cutting off all or part of the external genitalia. FGM/C is practiced in 28 sub-Saharan African countries, a few countries in the Middle East and Asia, and among immigrant populations in Europe, North America, and Australia. As many as 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone the practice. An estimated 3 million girls are at risk of FGM/C each year (more than 8,000 girls a day) on the entire African continent. Justifications for FGM/C in communities where it is widely practiced include religious obligation, family honor, preserving virginity as a prerequisite for marriage, and prevention of extramarital as well as premarital sex. The possible repercussions of FGM/C are numerous, including psychological trauma, difficulties during childbirth, gynecological problems, and even death.
The Somali ethnic community, including those living in Kenya, primarily practices infibulation, the most severe type of female genital mutilation/cutting/mutilation, which is associated with increased incidence and seriousness of obstetric and gynecological problems relative to those women who have not been subjected to FGM/C or those who have undergone less severe forms of the procedure.
For the past several years, Maryam has built upon her personal experiences to help end the practice of FGM/C. She works with the USAID-funded FRONTIERS program in Kenya to educate others. Maryam has focused her efforts on the Somali community in Kenya, where the prevalence rate is nearly universal. In addition to attempting to eliminate the link between FGM/C and Islam, Maryam and FRONTIERS are also engaged in strengthening existing antenatal and delivery services in health facilities used by Somali women to improve health care workers’ ability to manage pregnancy and delivery of infibulated women and complications associated with FGM/C.
Under FRONTIERS, Maryam and her colleagues work with religious leaders to raise community awareness about the harm FGM/C causes and engage them in dialogue in an attempt to move them toward abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting/mutilation by showing there are no religious obligations requiring Muslims to practice FGM/C. The process began with lively meetings with senior Islamic scholars within Kenya to debate the correct position on this practice within Islam. External religious scholars – from Sudan and Egypt – also have been involved in the meetings. Maryam also travels to various communities in Kenya to educate the people about the myths and misconceptions about FGM/C in Islam.
“A consensus is emerging in which the scholars have agreed that the practice has no strong basis in Islam and therefore cannot be regarded as a religious act,” Maryam says. “We are hoping this verdict can make it easier for community abandonment of the practice.” Her 2007 report, “A Religious Oriented Approach to Addressing FGM/C among the Somali Community of Wajir, Kenya,” is available at www.popcouncil.org/pdfs/frontiers/reports/Kenya_Somali_fgc.pdf [PDF, 760KB].
Not least of Maryam’s contributions to the eradication of FGM/C is the brutally honest and moving poem she has written to share her experience.
Excerpted from “The Cut”
By Maryam Sheikh Abdi
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 …
The cutting began with the eldest girl
and on went the list.
Known to be timid, I was the last among the six …
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! …
Obediently, I sat between the legs of the woman…
and each of the other four women grasped my legs and hands.
I was stretched apart and each limb firmly held.
The cutter begun her work …
—Maryam Sheikh Abdi
To read the rest of “The Cut,” go to www.popcouncil.org/rh/thecut.html
“The Cut” ® 2006 Maryam Sheikh Abdi.
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