Thousands of Africans seek asylum in the United States every year. Some have suffered political or religious persecution. Others have struggled against a more insidious enemy – their own culture. They are the women who have faced banishment and beatings for refusing to accept a forced marriage or the ritual practice of female genital excision, also known as circumcision or female genital mutilation. The World Health Organization discourages the practice and says it is damaging to a woman’s physical and mental health.
The journey of Isatou Diallo* and her daughters began in the West African country of Guinea two years ago, but the momentum for their departure actually began to build about three decades ago, when the parents of Isatou first approached her about an arranged marriage. “During my youth I studied, but when I reached 13 or 14 years the family wanted me to marry,” she explained, “but I was able to convince my parents to let me study, and when I got my degree I would accept their wishes.”
In the meantime, Isatou met someone special. “We went to school together. I was at the medical faculty and he was in accounting,” she said. “But my parents, despite all that I did – school they could accept, but they wouldn’t accept that I chose my husband myself.”
In developing countries, arranged marriages are one way for families to ensure financial security. The man chosen for Isatou was considered a good catch – he was a wealthy diamond merchant who already had two wives.
Isatou refused the marriage, saying she wanted to continue her education. She says her aunts who had arranged the union beat her. There was no backing out. The dowry had already been accepted, the ceremonial cola nuts broken to seal the matrimony.
But one more thing needed to be done to prepare 17-year-old Isatou for marriage. She had to undergo female genital excision. “The day that they did the excision they said, ‘Come see your aunt.’ I entered and they made me go into a small room behind the toilet,” she recalled. “When I entered, I didn’t see anyone, but they blindfolded me and four people came in and they held me to the ground. I cried and screamed. I cried and screamed.”
There was no anesthetic.
During the struggle, Isatou said the cutting instrument slipped and sliced open the length of her inner thigh. She said no comfort followed. “They didn’t say anything,” she recounted. “For them it is our custom. As it is our custom, you’re obliged to accept it.”
There are varying degrees of female genital excision. In its most common form, the clitoris is removed with the aim of preventing women from having sexual pleasure. It is believed that this helps maintain a woman’s virginity prior to marriage and keeps her chaste.
Eventually, Isatou’s physical wounds healed, but she said she remained emotionally scarred by the ritual. She married the man chosen by her aunts and got a job in a lab. Aside from being employed, Isatou’s life unfolded like that of other women in her village. She cooked, she did housework, she took care of her family and she spent time with her friends.
The village was more like an extended family than a community. As most African villages lack Western distractions such as television, movie theaters and shopping malls, people seek diversion and joy in their families and communities. That is partly why the tragedy of a neighbor hit Isatou so hard.
“There was a woman, and she had three children – only one of them was a daughter,” said Isatou. “They circumcised her. The girl hemorrhaged and died…. [The woman] didn’t bear any more children. She was the only girl – a pretty girl. I said, me, I don’t want that to happen to my children.”
So, Isatou took action. She said she became part of a women’s group, which she refers to as “the movement,” that went door to door to educate the local population about the dangers of female genital excision. They told villagers about the risk of infection and hemorrhage, as well as the risk of transmission of HIV/AIDS through the use of shared cutting instruments. The women also told them about gynecological problems that women who underwent excision could suffer for the rest of their lives.
“Some people accepted us, but when you go to some places in Fulani or Muslim families, they don’t have the time to receive us to listen to us,” she said. “They say we make people rebel against their customs.”
But the resistance that Isatou faced on the village doorsteps at that time was nothing compared to what she was about to go up against in her own home...
(This is part one of a four-part series that examines African gender issues. In the next segment, Cindy Shiner reports on Isatou Diallo’s fight to protect her daughters from the practice of female genital excision)
* At the request of those interviewed for this story, the names have been changed.