“It Makes You Calmer”: Stories of Women Who Underwent Female Genital Mutilation
Documentary photographer and journalist. Born and lives in St.Petersburg. Graduated from St. Petersburg State University with major in Journalism in 2007. Currently studies at Mikhail Domozhilov Documentary Photography School. Published her work in National Geographic, Lenta.ru, Mediazone, Discovery, Russia Beyond The Headlines.
— Female Genital Mutilation, or Female Circumcision, is the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia. The operation is prevalent mainly in Africa, as well as in several countries in Asia and the Middle East. At the present time it is estimated that about 125 million women have undergone the procedure. There are no medical benefits from it. ‘Scars’ are personal stories of 12 Gambian women who survived the procedure as children. Many of them had to go through not only the crippling operation, but also the realization that they had suffered irreparable mutilation.
For several years, Gambia has been actively spreading information about the harm of female circumcision, which was once considered part of a cultural tradition designed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and keep her clean before the wedding. According to recent statistics, 76% of the country’s women were subjected to the procedure. Officially, the procedure has been banned since 2015, but continues to be carried out secretly to this day. There are very few cases of prosecution, also with the change of power this year, many people think that the old laws are no longer valid. Whether this ritual will become a thing of the past, depends on the consciousness of women and their attitude to this issue.
Sarjo Bah, 37
— “Let’s go to the woods for firewood” — I will remember my mother’s words forever, I was only five years old. Who would have thought that they portend such pain, and this walk will be different from all previous ones. In the forest we were waiting for a woman to undergo the operation. There were two other girls about my age. I remember that everything happened quite quickly. I was simply taken to the bushes, where, without any preliminary procedures, she pierced my clitoris with a needle and just cut it off with an ordinary blade. There were no painkillers other than folk remedies, such as menthol and donkey urine. And there was unbearable pain that lasted for weeks… Mama did not say a word to me, she did not explain anything even after everything healed.
I got married early, at 14 years old. I cannot say that my parents insisted — the choice was mine, I felt that I had fallen in love. My husband was 25, but despite the tender feelings, any sexual contact with him was painful. I gave birth to five children and each birth was difficult, one of the reasons for that was the remaining scars. I am sure that there is nothing good in the procedure of female circumcision. Loss of blood, infection, pain, and sometimes death. Today female circumcision is illegal, but the procedure continues to be conducted secretly. Sometimes there are rumors that someone here and there cut a baby in the toilet. I want it to stop.
Mariama Joof, 24
— I underwent surgery when I was five years old. I remember how my sister and I were taken to another house, where there were three other girls. Of course, we didn’t know what was to come. It all looked like a small celebration, but something was not right. We were told not look up or look around, and then one by one they led us to the bathroom. The drummers clattered louder and louder to drown out our screams. I remember, I myself was allowed to beat the drum and I even smiled till it was my turn. To say it was painful is an understatement. For a week I lay almost motionless, and when I needed the toilet, I was in terrible pain. They do not use any painkiller nor any treatment methods. Unless they boil water with a goat’s dung, on which you then need to sit down. I had problems later, with infections, so the pain did not go away.
When I got married, I had a painful sexual relationship with my husband and I did not feel any pleasure. Talking with my sister who lived in Senegal, who had not had the Procedure, I found out that it was different. If I could return to that time, I would tell my mother never to do this to me. Now I have a 4-year-old daughter and my mother insisted that she have the operation, too. “I’ll kill you if you do that!” was my reply.
Ida Mbenga, 22
— I think that I was under some kind of hypnosis during circumcision. I almost do not remember anything, everything is as if in a fog. My mother said then: “We will go to Banjul’s birthday” and we really went somewhere. And there was a house, and some woman, and then everything disappeared. Was it painful for me? I do not know. I remember that after I was in the hospital, they told me that I had lost a lot of blood, but everything turned out ok.
My father is from the Wolof people, in which it is not customary for the girls to circumcise. Mama is from the Serer people, in which, on the contrary, this tradition flourishes. She sincerely believed that circumcision is necessary, that it ‘makes you calmer’ she later said.
My father was against the procedure, but my mother decided to keep it a secret from him. He still does not know, but I still cannot venture to tell him. Fortunately, my other sisters did not suffer, since people began to speak actively about the negative consequences of female circumcision, my mother changed her mind. I would like all women to change their minds, this custom is really terrible!
Halimatou Ceesay, 26
— I remember that the ceremony of circumcision was prepared as a real celebration. It was held in a big house, relatives came round, there was a kind of unusual enthusiasm in the air. There were about ten girls, not only neighbors, but also my sisters. I was six then myself. There were dances, songs, treats, we were given sweets, we played and were almost happy. I noticed that someone was suddenly being led away, and then that someone was crying, but after all we were children, and back then everything was perceived in a different way. I did not see the face of the woman that cut my clitoris off. But I will never forget her and all the pain that I experienced. I remember a strange mixture, which she used as an anesthetic: it consisted of some herbs and tomato paste. And although I managed to avoid numerous infections, today I am perfectly aware of what was done to me and what my life could be if it were not for this.
When I was in school, activists from an organization struggling with female circumcision in Gambia came to our classroom. From them, I learned the whole truth about this operation and decided to do something to stop it. I work as a journalist, and a couple of years ago I made a short documentary about this procedure. And although today much is being done in the country to stop this, female circumcision continues to exist clandestinely. Just one day you wake up and find out that a neighbor’s child’s was cut off at night. Who has done this, you will never know. Some women continue to believe that this tradition should be preserved, unfortunately.
Sainabou Bah, 19
— I was circumcised when I was nine years old. And although I knew in advance from my older sisters that it would happen to me, how and when it would happen, was kept a secret. The ceremony was held in our house, there were a few more girls as well as me. From the outside it all looked like a festival, there were dances, drum rhythms and very tasty food. Then, one by one, they began to take us away. I will never forget the pain. Several days after the circumcision, I lay down. I remember that I was given some ampoules and constantly wrapped around my waist was a ‘belt of wet leaves,’ which was to relieve my pain. I was lucky that I managed to avoid infections and complications.
Later, my mother tried to explain what was done to me: “This is a tradition, respect for the family and for oneself, this is our culture.” Today I’m happy that this tradition has finally been banned. It is very painful and I would not wish this on anyone.
Fatou Bojang, 52
— I do not have any memories of my own circumcision, it happened when I was an infant. It’s a tradition, my mother did exactly the same as all the other parents. I think it’s good that it happened when I was very young. They say that the older you become, the more painful it is. Later, other women taught me to perform the operation myself and from the age of seventeen I was circumcising the girls. Over the years, I became a real professional, trusted and people were not afraid to bring their children to me, because they knew that I was doing it well. In my practice, there were no cases of complications after surgery.
A year ago, when the operation was banned, I had to hand in all my tools and forget about it forever. I’m sorry that this law was passed. I believe that we must preserve our traditions. And what’s wrong with it? If the hands are good, there will be no complications. And as for sexuality, I think that for a woman, first of all, the mental pleasure, the realization that she lives in a family, with her husband is important. Physical pleasure is absolutely unimportant.
Sally Manneh, 48
— I was quite a baby, about three years old, when I was circumcised. I do not remember any pain or blood, but I clearly remember the razor in the hands of an elderly woman. In our culture it is not accepted that parents explain something before or after, so until they started talking about it on TV, everyone thought that it was just so necessary. “My mother was circumcised, I myself was circumcised, and you, too, should be circumcised,” that’s the only thing my mother told me years later. I myself sincerely believed that this is a good tradition, which is designed to preserve the purity of women. I circumcised my daughters, it seemed to me that there could not be any other way. Now I have changed my mind. Yes, in my family everything has turned out fine, but I know that for other women the consequences are terrible. It’s good that they began to talk about this and it’s good that the procedure was banned.
Amie Jallow, 38
— I was circumcised much later than other girls, at 12 years old. It happened because of health problems — because of a medical error, I’m limping from childhood. The ceremony was prepared as a real holiday, I thought something good would happen and I remember my mother then said, “everything will be fine,” and I believed her. In fact, there was terrible pain. I was barely able to hold back — I was already almost an adult. The pain was so unbearable that I’ll never forget it. Although I was given some painkillers, they only helped me a little.
I had many problems later, both infections and complications during childbirth. I married early, my husband is also disabled, he spent his life in a wheelchair. It was not easy, at times we even begged. I gave birth to six daughters, and I did not circumcise any of them, although at that time there was no law and everyone was free to do everything. But I remembered the pain and did not want them to experience the same. I kept my dress from the ceremony, I do not know why, probably just as a memory for them.
Amie Sowe, 19
— I do not remember anything about the ceremony of circumcision, I was not even a year old. About what it did to me, I only found out when I was older. I remember that I was so upset and offended by my mother, when I found out, that I did not talk to her for a very long time. I already knew by then that it was bad. We were told about this in school, and on television more than once. I’m glad that today the operation is banned. I myself could not do without the consequences — my stomach often hurts, and the doctor says that maybe it’s because of the circumcision. But I was lucky compared to my younger sister — she was constantly experiencing pain during urination and did not go to school for months. Everything was so bad that Mama herself decided not to do the operation to my other sisters.
It’s too early for me to think about marriage, I must finish my studies first. I’m not afraid of the future much, because I do not know what I will feel with my husband and whether it will hurt me. But I will never circumcise my children.
Eggeh Sowe, 18
— I was circumcised in infancy, so I do not remember anything about the day. But when I think about it, I’m so angry with my mother. Why did she do this to me? She said that it is a tradition and that it must be protected, but today I know about all the consequences that the procedure can have. I have infections myself, I feel pain when urinating. I think if it were not for circumcision, I would be healthy now.
I haven’t thought about marriage yet. First, I want to study and become a doctor. From my girlfriends I have heard that they experienced pain with sexual contact, but I’m not afraid of a relationship with my future husband, I believe that everything will be fine. They say the main thing is to love. Although I have not fallen in love yet. At school, we were told a lot about the threat of circumcision and I’m very glad that the operation was banned. I think it will become a thing of the past. I have not heard of someone breaking the ban and conducting the ritual secretly. I think today everyone understands that this is bad.
Binta Bah, 39
— I have always lived with the conviction that we are women of Fula, we must go through this tradition because we are Muslims, this is our culture and religion. In our village, the ceremony was held several times a year and I kept thinking when it would be my turn. I was already grown up when my mother told me that the operation had been done to me a long time ago, even in infancy.
I changed my opinion only six months ago, in connection with all these programs on TV. But I still believe that a girl should abstain from sex before the wedding and pray for her cleanliness. In fact, the tradition itself is not bad. If not for all these complications for the woman’s body, it could be preserved. But health is more important, young girls have to learn to control themselves and their sexuality. They say that there is a big difference in sensations, if you are not circumcised. But I think that it is rather good to feel a few feelings. I never think about pleasure. My grandmother took my daughter to the ceremony at seven. It was more than ten years ago, then I sincerely believed that it should be so. Today, I would not have done it.
Fatou Bah, 31
— It was necessary to go to the ceremony quite far away, to another village. I was accompanied by my grandmothers but we were late by a couple of days. Other girls were circumcised at the ceremony and they rested, healing the wounds. However, in my case there was no ceremony or drums. I was simply taken to the bank of the river, where they cut it off in the bushes. I was ten years old, usually girls are operated on much earlier. It took five people to hold me down, I was so strong then. It hurt, but the woman conducting the procedure was quite experienced and did it in one fell swoop. In this I was lucky, because there are times when they cut piece by piece. Later they told me to go down to the river and sit down on the water. It is believed that salt water will help healing the wound, It did not help me — when I was brought home, I nearly died of heavy bleeding.
When I got married, my husband and I did not get intimate on our wedding night. As it turned out, I was not only circumcised, but also sewn up. It was necessary to pass all this nightmare anew, to go to the sorcerer after the procedure of ‘embedding’. Needless to say, after all this, to experience any kind of sexual pleasure is very difficult for me. In addition, I needed a Caesarean section to give birth to my Child.
For a long time, I was sure that the procedure was alright. That this is a tribute to the tradition, helping to preserve the purity of a girl before the wedding. Over the years, my opinion began to change, largely due to educational work. Now I believe that female circumcision is terrible. It is necessary to tell people about this. I work on the radio and we have repeatedly raised this topic. Do I want a daughter to have this? Never.