Isatou Diallo and her daughters have already been traveling for more than an hour. They have been on a bus, a subway train, and are about to board another bus near Washington to reach their destination a half hour away. It is the final meeting with their lawyer to prepare for their asylum hearing. Their journey began in the West African country of Guinea two years ago. But the momentum for their departure had begun 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. But I was able to convince my parents to let me study, and when I got my degree I would accept their wishes,” says Ms Diallo.
In the meantime, she met someone special. “We went to school together. I was at the medical faculty and he was in accounting. But my parents, despite all that I did – school they could accept – but they wouldn’t accept that I chose my husband myself,” says Ms Diallo.
In developing countries, arranged marriages are one way for families to ensure financial security for their daughters. The man chosen for Isatou was considered a good catch – a wealthy diamond merchant who already had two wives. Polygamy is widespread in Africa. Isatou refused the marriage, saying she wanted to continue her education. But there was no backing out. The dowry had already been accepted, the ceremonial cola nuts broken to seal the matrimony. However, one more thing needed to be done to prepare 17-year-old Ms Diallo for marriage. She says 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. 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, Ms Diallo says the cutting instrument slipped and sliced open the length of her inner thigh.
There are varying degrees of female genital excision. In its most common form, the clitoris is removed to prevent women from having sexual pleasure. It is believed that this helps maintain a woman’s virginity prior to marriage and keeps her chaste. The practice of excision began more than 2-thousand years ago. Contrary to popular African myth, it is not a tradition of Islam.
Eventually, Ms Diallo’s physical wounds healed, but she says she remained emotionally scarred by the ritual. She married the man chosen by her family and got a job in a lab. She found pleasure in her children and friends. As in much of Africa, her community was like an extended family. That is partly why the tragedy of a neighbor hit Ms Diallo so hard.
“There was a woman and she had three children – only one of them was a daughter. They circumcised her. The girl hemorrhaged and died … She 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,” says Ms Diallo.
So she took action. She says 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. They say we make people rebel against their customs,” says Ms Diallo. But the resistance that she faced on the village doorsteps at that time was nothing compared to what she was about to confront in her own home.
Listen also to Cindy Shiner’s second reporting which we hear how Isatou Diallo fought to protect her daughters from the practice of female genital excision. You can read the series and learn more about African gender issues online at www.voanews.com. At the request of those interviewed for this story, the names have been changed.