We arrive at the gynaecological ward of Auckland City hospital by 7:10 am on a typical wet spring morning. Rahwa seems to be more concerned about the fact we are 10 minutes late then with what is about to happen. She checks herself into what might be one of the most important procedures towards claiming back her life.
But let us rewind and understand the true importance of this moment and how we got here: Rahwa’s family fled Ethiopia into Sudan where she was born. She lived at a refugee camp in Sudan until she was around 10 years old, when they were relocated to New Zealand. Rahwa’s childhood is far from what you and I know as normal, but nonetheless she insists she had some great times: “It was all fun, I was a child” she says.
Unfortunately it was not all fun and it seems like her memory had helped her block one of the most traumatic moments a young girls can go through: As 90% of young girls in that country, she was a victim to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). A practice performed in some 28 African countries as well as in certain parts of the Arabian peninsula, the Persian gulf and a few other countries around the world. In short it consist of performing a form of female circumcision, using crude blades, with no anaesthetics in poor septic conditions and needles to say: against the child’s will.
She checks herself into what might be one of the most important procedures of her young life.
“ I always knew something was different: there is this feeling, that you don’t know what it is. I never really liked cuts and scars. And there is something I could never get close to me, those blades, shaving one’s… it’s a subconscious thing that you don’t know what it is, but it stings you and you don’t know where it is coming from.”
A practice that for most westerners not only seems archaic but more to the point just plain barbaric, might actually be hiding a deeper story which needs to be understood and addressed if one’s desire is to extinguish it as a social practice.
“Every tradition has a story as to explain why they do the things they do. I believe that a culture has survived living in a certain way and for anyone to analyse that culture and pick at it piece by piece is… you can’t do that. You can learn about a culture and you can learn about why they do the things they do but you can’t say that is good or bad. At the end of the day your opinion doesn’t matter. It is not a good thing to do.”
Averting any form of judgement she continues to explain as to why she does not like to label what has happened to her.
“I feel like something was done in a place where it needed to be done, this was me back in Sudan, I wouldn’t look at it the way I am looking at it now, because it was something that was done to me in order for me to live in that society.”
If this is something deemed necessary for survival in a certain environment, it is at least intriguing to investigate what are the possible social scenario that could demand child mutilation as a solution.
“In Africa, they (parents) would send their daughter out to fetch water or whatever and they could go and hang out, and the parents, the neighbourhood and the society were sure that that girl would be protected because she is closed, so no man could hurt her. You have to be like that in order to be a woman in that society. Yeah you get closed, you live your whole life being closed, and you get married at a young age, and then a man will force himself into you or you will get cut open and that is a good thing, it gets celebrated. And you are just another girl like that, it has to be like that.”
Even if you can start finding a very twisted justification to it I am certain there are a number of alternatives you could use to prevent sexual assault to young girls other then having to sew their bits together or have them cut off. The logic here seems to punish the victim rather than the perpetrator of the crime.
“At first it was about protecting, and then it became and issue of parenting. It is true if a woman is open she grows into a sexualized being and I watched it happen to my sisters and my friends. When we reached puberty they came to life, they became women, they were attracted to guys, they did things, I am not saying I wasn’t attracted to guys, yeah I would like a guy but it was just a crush, nothing beyond that…So they went on to having hook ups, having babies and stuff, but that never happened with me. I used to think that maybe I was just developing slowly… really slowly.”
“I never had much contact with guys growing up but the little contact I did have they were all scared of me because of the way I reacted to them… there is this great wall, they would stop and think that I was assaulted or something. I can’t really say that because I don’t know what it is like to be assaulted… but I was really, I think.”
One of the biggest challenges here might also be that in order to break this cycle the victim would need to rebel against those people who are closest to their heart, the same people who raise them and give them food and shelter are the ones who are still forcing their girls into it.
“Things should be untouched, the parents should leave the kids untouched and let them come in their natural form…ok they don’t want us to run around and be promiscuous but can they have love and say to their girls not to do those things?”
“It’s funny because when you read about it, they say that the fathers are always opposed to it, the fathers don’t want their daughter to go through it, and it is the woman, in all these civilizations it has always been the women driving this forward…because the shame falls more on the woman. The man is always out working, so if the girl plays around and she is found to have lost her virginity the shame falls on the woman more heavily. So it is their job to prevent it, and they prevent it.”
“It adds up, what they say, when a woman is closed she would never go forward in those things and those things don’t happen to her. And you know what: they did a really good job if that was their aim: to make you have a closed life, one of fear or uncertainty or doubtness, or whatever it is… repression. It is like something is holding you down but you don’t know what it is. They do it really well, they do it so well. Does that mean I am not meant to be loved? Or are they protecting me?”
She goes on to tell me how she had no recollection of what had happened to her and had only been conscious of it for about one year, when period pains started to become unbearable. It seems though, finding out about it at a later point in life might be as traumatic as remembering it:
“Once I found out the doctor was just like ‘Oh we will just save what we can. You are damaged, you are mutilated but we will do what we can.’ You live with that fact for so long and then they convince you that surgery is the answer and then you are like ‘yeah I want to be opened because that is how I am supposed to be’ but you still feel the hands that destroyed you…when humans can destroy you, they can’t fix you, they can try to fix you, but they can’t fix you, that was the hardest thing for me, that is why it took me a year to be ok.”
“For me it was always at night. I would live this normal life, I would work two jobs and forget about it but then you are laying in bed at night and it is just you and your thoughts it hits you. And you feel empty and closed. You have been mutilated of your most pure (form), like you don’t have what you are supposed to have, and your womanhood gets thrown out, everything that you learned: to value yourself and love yourself, that girl that you built, goes with it, slowly. Seriously, it does, you go numb for a while, at one point you don’t really react or feel anything towards anything or anyone.”
Rahwa finally goes into surgery and I am left thinking how it would feel to have something so essential to your existence taken away from you without your consent for reasons that are less than plausible. There are no easy parallels to be traced here. It is on the same level of having one of your basic senses taken away from you. Imagine growing up without a sense of sight with the justification it would be better for you not to see the ugly things in life, or getting your ears removed so you won’t hear any suffering. It is a case of suppressing reality instead of facing it but on a wide social scale; treating symptoms instead of diseases.
At this stage my energy is directed to the operating room, hoping everything goes OK.
Approximately half an hour later she comes back still under the effects of anaesthetics but with a slight grim on her face. The nurse tells me everything went well and she should be back to normal soon.
It is only a matter of minutes until she is back to her full self and gets transferred to the recovery ward. We proceed to chat but now I understood the nature of the process I wanted to move on to the healing.
Knowing life will never be the same again for her I am curious to understand her expectations:
“I did it. It is an emotional process and I just want to say I made it out and start healing.”
How about your parents, are you ever planning on talking to them?
“I am over talking to my parents and stuff, but I just wonder, how did they expect me to live with it. Was there a time they were going to tell me? I wonder if my mum ever thinks that ‘ Maybe she is getting these period pains because she is closed’. She knows I have problems with my period and stuff. I wonder what she is thinking when the doctor is touching me and seeing things.”
Are you mad or bitter at your mum?
“I can‘t be mad or bitter at my mum. She‘s my mum and she‘s the last face I saw before I was put to sleep.”
Strangely enough after the surgery Rahwa already sounds a lot more empowered then previously.
“I have never been a feminist or fought for women’s right but your body is the only thing you have, it is something nature designed to be like that, I don’t see why we should destroy it in that way, I don’t see the rationale behind it. It is just…It is actually really stupid. It is just culture, a tradition, there is nothing in any religion that says you should sow a woman, there is just the way that society came into being. You study culture and you have to respect them but there needs to be a line. Someone that is a westerner they would have a problem with it, a westerner would point fingers and say ‘You know what, this is not right because this does not stand with the ideals in our society and blablabla’ but if you have had it done to you and you know how it makes you feel then those feelings are valid. I know how it makes you feel.”
So would you condemn them now?
“YES I would condemn them in the highest way possible. No one has the right to do that. Even on a religious way: if you know God why do you mess up his creation? You don’t need to touch that.”
And how about the other girls out there on the same situation you were:
“I think that girls who come with that to the western world, I can relate to that because I was once that number – you know I am just a number – I think we need a lot of support, it is different, the fight has gone to fighting it where it happens, where it is really hard, that everyone is forgetting about these numbers that are coming through to the western world the United states, Europe, Australasia, etc. They are there but they are not there, they are slowly coming out now, because they need to come out when they reach around my age they need to go to the gynaecologist because the pain is so bad and you don’t know what it is. And then the gynaecologist, the only thing they are equipped with in dealing with it is ‘oh yes it happens and you need to get this done’, but there is no support, there is no real research about it. I researched about it, but just those agency reports you know: scientific, just numbers.”
“Now there is a growing number of girls like me who just found out that they have it and need to get open but they just let it go by and live their lives, so they are not there.”
“I just want girls to know that the option is there, and it is happening now, so many girls are getting that done. And when you stand up and do it, it starts a movement and I just want more and more girls to stand up and do it, but I want it to come from a good place and I also acknowledge that it is a lot.”
“ You have to come out of that, learn to love and value yourself again, all over again. Because in a way, you might look back and say I was the best that I could have been defending myself, but when I look back what I was doing, it was just because that was what I was supposed to be doing. Because I possibly couldn’t have loved or valued myself knowing what had been done to me.”
So does it come from a place of self esteem?
“My parents loved me, all those other parents would too, they loved their daughters, but they loved them in a way society told them to love them. Now I don’t need my parents love, I did when I was a child. I don’t really care what they think now because I can love myself fully, and I need to, because if I don’t I can’t move on. “
Although the battle against FGM is a long one, sometimes all it takes to get rid of darkness is for someone to open a door where light can shine trough and even though Rahwa’s struggle is only one in 125 million, her decision to publicly open this door might be holding the key to finally eradicate yet another form of human suffering.
“ If you are closed (pointing down), you are closed as well (pointing up), you closed your life.”