In this excerpt from I Dare to Say, a collection of the real-life stories of African women edited by Hilda Twongyeirwe, Yemo talks about female circumcision.
Cover image courtesy of Independent Publishers Group.
Yemo says to me, “Most husbands sodomize their circumcised wives because the wives cannot handle normal sexual intercourse. That has become the norm for most of the circumcised women. But no one can talk about it. Each wife is silent—silent so as not to shame her husband, silent so as not to shame her society, silent so as not to shame herself. It is heartbreaking. Every married woman knows that bedroom matters are very personal and very private. As I talk to you now, I feel as if I am making a confession in front of a Catholic priest. I feel as if I am undressing right in front of you. But it is OK. I want to tell you my story.”
I encourage Yemo to speak. I tell her that, together, we have to break the silence. I tell her that it is not right that social norms continue to silence women in matters that affect them so seriously.
“I agree with you,” she responds. “But these are things I have never talked about to anyone before, not even my fellow circumcised women. We are all silent. When I tried to talk to my mother, she just told me to be patient; she did not give me her ear. I had hoped that maybe she would share with me her own experiences. But she did not. She did not treat it as a matter of any importance. ‘Just be patient,’ she said to me, and she changed the subject. She sounded as if we were not supposed to talk about it. I pressed on, but she just did not talk.
“After that attempt, I decided I would live with it silently, and that is what I have done for the ten years of my marriage. Silence. I have kept quiet and pretended that all is well. Tell me, what else can I do?”
I do not respond to Yemo because I am not sure what else she could have done. It is difficult to respond to issues about which one does not have firsthand experience. Sometimes we hurt people when we try to tell them what they know as if we knew better. So I keep quiet and just listen.
I have an anger that makes me calmer than my sisters. An anger that makes me resigned. An anger at what took away what I should have been.
I have three young sisters. I am the firstborn in our family. Fortunately they are all not circumcised. As I looked at them growing up, I was very inquisitive, especially when we would be in the bathroom or in our bedroom dressing up. That is when I realized that they were not like me. Sometimes my mother would ask me to help her bathe them, and I would jump at the opportunity to discover them in order to discover myself. But when I discovered what I discovered, I fell silent. I did not ask anyone to explain, even though I felt a strong urge to ask. Later I started hearing about circumcision, and I came to realize that I was circumcised. Slowly I started becoming a very withdrawn child.
My early childhood was not exciting at all. As we were growing up, there was a very distinct difference between my sisters and me. While I was very reserved, they were very free-spirited. As a result, my mother started mentioning my circumcision as if to confirm what I already knew. She would shout at my sisters and insult them that they were stubborn and not well behaved because they had not been circumcised. On the other hand, she always commended me for my calm behavior.
According to my mother, and maybe according to custom, I was sensible and well behaved because I was circumcised. Of course she is right, because for the bigger part, my lack of spirit, my silence, was a result of my recognition that I was different, the recognition that something was wrong with my womanhood. I don’t hate my mother and I know that I am my mother’s favorite daughter, but I feel sad that she looked on as a knife changed my life. I fail to understand how a mother gives birth to a normal child and then offers up the child to be disabled. To tell you the truth, I have a great sadness that sits deep in my heart. I have an anger that makes me calmer than my sisters. An anger that makes me resigned. An anger at what took away what I should have been.
What reason do I have not to be resigned?
I have every reason to be resigned. I will tell you that since I got married ten years ago, I have never enjoyed sex. To date, I still bleed every time my husband and I meet. No matter how many times we have done it, no matter what we do, it never ceases to hurt. Tell me the truth, my sister, what brings a husband and wife together? You and I know that all other reasons that we always give are an apology for the real reason. So tell me, why shouldn’t I be resigned?
I was circumcised when I was six months old. And my mother tells me that I was a baby of slight build.
My great-grandfather was a medicine man. He was very influential and was believed to be very knowledgeable about almost every cultural and medicinal issue. That is what I was told about him. Thank God I never met him in my adult life. By the time I grew up, he was long dead.
I was his first great-granddaughter who came among several great-grandsons. When I came, the family celebrated my arrival. My great-grandfather was especially happy. As a special child, therefore, I had to get special and preferential treatment. I was the lucky child, and so I had to be circumcised by the renowned, knowledgeable medicine man. I was cut by my great-grandfather.
What I have always asked myself is how he found and cut the little parts. I look at my little daughter today, and the parts are too small and slippery. How that man gripped and cut me at six months of age is not comprehensible.
My only joy comes from the fact that FGM is now a crime in Ethiopia. But of course it is still going on behind curtains. The target is small girls and babies, who they know will not talk or report them. But at least criminalizing it makes it easier for those who are fighting it. There is a need to educate women so that they can fight for their daughters without waiting for things to go wrong, like it did for my mother and me.
After my great-grandfather cut me, he went back to his home. He was from my mother’s lineage. My father, I understand, was not aware of my circumcision. My mother had hoped that she would nurse me quietly and I would heal without involving my father. Unfortunately for me and my mother, my wound festered. My mother gave me antibiotics, and the great medicine man also sent the best of his collection, but the infection dug deeper and wider. My mother has told me several times how she almost lost me to the infection, a tiny baby with massive, massive wounds. How, during countless moments, she sat and held me in her hands and cried over my tiny and formless body. How she saw me slip through her fingers and regretted the act of circumcision. What am I supposed to do? Sympathize with her?
After several weeks of trauma, she took me to the hospital, where we spent several more weeks. The most incredible thing is that my mother’s relatives said that I got the infection because I was visited by an evil spirit. They blamed me, the baby. They said that I had a bad omen that attracted the evil spirit. It was disgusting as I listened to my mother explaining to me about the evil spirit. She too believed it. She still believes it.
As if my pain was not enough, my father also denied me. He said that I was not his daughter since my mother and her people were doing whatever they wanted without his involvement. Interestingly, my father has never accepted me to date.
My mother suffered so much with me. When I finally recovered, she swore that if she got more daughters, she would never have any of them circumcised. “You were the sacrificial lamb,” my mother always tells me.
When I got married at the age of twenty-one, I did not have the slightest idea what lay on my bridal bed. I had kept myself pure and had never had any sexual intercourse. When my boyfriend proposed to me, I was very excited. I wanted to be his wife because I liked him a lot and we had been friends for some time. Shortly after that, he proposed that we inform our parents and seek their blessings so that they could help us to organize our wedding. We, especially him, did not want to have sexual intercourse before we were officially wedded, officially husband and wife. And so, by the time we were wedded, we wanted each other so much. I had looked forward to our wedding night. I had waited for him just as he had waited for me.
It was funny though. On our wedding night, we remembered that we were not supposed to share a bed. So we slept in different rooms. Our religion prohibits sex after the wedding for at least seventy-two hours! That was too long, but we waited patiently. After the seventy-two hours—although I don’t remember whether we quite spent all the seventy-two hours apart—we sought each other. I had not at all anticipated any challenge, but as we locked and rocked round and round without success, I sensed danger. It was as if the task was to pull down the moon with our bare hands. By morning, I was tired and he was tired, but we had not gotten anywhere. Our hearts were sore, our eyes were sore, our bodies were sore. We were consumed by a fire of desire and pain. The second night came and went just like the first one.
In the middle of the third night, I offered to divorce and free the man I loved most. But you see, my wedding was very dramatic, which did not offer me many options. When my husband and I agreed to get married, none of our relatives supported us. They thought we were too young for marriage. He was twenty-one years old and I was twenty. But we felt ready. He was already out of school and working, and I was about to complete university. I was in my final year. We were in love, and we knew that we wanted to be husband and wife. When our parents refused, we did not argue with them. We had already made up our minds. His parents did not want to see me near their son, and my parents did not want him anywhere near their daughter.
After one year, my boyfriend and I had gone ahead and secretly organized our wedding. We went to a monastery several kilometers away from home, and we stayed with the monks for two days praying and getting to know each other more. We also used that time for planning our wedding at a church near the monastery. On the third day, we went with our rings and were wedded. We stayed at the monastery still, in two different rooms, to fulfill the seventy-two-hour ritual. When it was all over, we proceeded to his home where my real womanhood journey was yet to start.
My mother did not even notice that I could hardly walk. But perhaps I shouldn’t blame her.
The major reason I offered to divorce him was not because we had failed to consummate our marriage but because he insulted me. As he hit against the rock of my womanhood in the middle of the third night, he looked at me with daggers in his eyes and told me that I was a virgin not because I was a good girl but because other men had failed to penetrate me just like he had failed. He was so angry for failing to consummate our marriage. I was so angry and in pain from his continuous rubbing and pressing as he tried to force entry. I was so angry that, after many years of purity on my part, the reward from my dear husband was to taunt me. That is when I offered to divorce. I got up, picked up a jacket, stepped into my shoes, and staggered out of his house into the darkness outside. One part of me told me to slump back on the bed and stay, but I was determined to leave him. It was not easy leaving my marriage behind, but the physical pain I was suffering propelled me out of the house.
I was in a sorry state, walking like a duck, careful not to open myself wide and cause further damage and careful not to rub against myself and cause more pain. Fortunately our homes are less than one kilometer apart.
When I got home, my mother was not amused to see me for two reasons. One, I had eloped against her wish, and so I had no right to leave the marriage I had gone into with eyes wide open. Two, she thought that I had started my marriage with a fighting spirit. She suspected that I was leaving because maybe I had discovered another girl in my husband’s life. But that was very unfair. I really needed someone to talk to. Finding my mother at home had been such a relief, because I knew that as a woman she would understand. You can imagine my disappointment when she bashed me instead!
My mother did not even notice that I could hardly walk. But perhaps I shouldn’t blame her. I, in my hurry to leave, did not even notice that I had put a different type of shoe on each foot. One was brown and flat while the other was black and low-heeled. I noticed this later as I sat down to talk to my mother. But still, I wouldn’t have cared even if I had noticed before. All I wanted was to get away from my husband’s house.
As I talked to my mother, I was shocked by her response. “You are not the first woman to be circumcised,” she said to me. “Maybe you are a chinch,” she taunted further.
In my language, a chincha refers to a naturally frigid woman who runs away from men. Chinchas normally don’t get married because they cannot bear the touch of men. But how could my mother call me a chincha when she was fully aware of the role of the knife?
When she called me chincha, the tears I had held all along the way as I came home tumbled out of my eyes. When my mother saw the pain she had inflicted on my feelings, she started counseling me. She told me that I should be patient and that with time it would be OK. I did not tell my mother that it was not me but my husband who required patience. I was determined not to go back, because I did not see how anything was going to be OK.
I am sure that his mother and his other family members heard me scream, but they did not come to my rescue.
The following day, I was in bed when my sister came to call me and said that I had a visitor. I told her to tell whoever it was to come inside the house. When she insisted that the person was in a hurry and could not come in, I guessed it was my husband. You see, in our custom, a husband is not supposed to enter his in-laws’ house during such a time. I did not feel ready to see him, and so I refused to come out. He was determined to see me, and so he stayed at the gate and sent for me many more times, each time begging for my understanding. In the end, I went and met him.
When we talked, he apologized for his insults and said that he had said what he had said out of frustration. He begged and promised that he would be very patient with me and that together we would agree on what to do. He told me that if I agreed to go back, everything would be on my terms. I did not believe him, but you will be surprised because I agreed to go back. I felt sympathetic, and I decided I would give it one more try. But I knew what awaited me. Whatever plan we would hatch, whatever strategy, we would have to be husband and wife.
One day after his visit, I went back to his home. You see, being with my mother at home did not make things any easier for me. When I got there, I found my husband drinking arkie. There was a lot of arkie in our room. Arkie is a local brew in Ethiopia. I think his friends brought it to him to console him after I left. From the look of things, my husband had been drinking heavily, perhaps since I left.
When I got back, he offered me arkie too. As if possessed, I received it and gulped it down as if I did not taste its bitterness. He was a little surprised when I asked for more. I drank more and more, and he too drank with me. When I got drunk, I allowed him to touch me. He too was drunk. The more we got drunk, the more we loosened up, and eventually I became too drunk to stop him. But when he tore into me, I felt my whole being ripping open! Unfortunately I was too drunk to struggle, and he was drunk enough not to care about my screams that tore into the night silence. I am sure that his mother and his other family members heard me scream, but they did not come to my rescue.
He raped me, and I bled profusely. I think I must have passed out for hours.
For more than ten days, I could not give in to his sexual advances again. I was even careful not to drink anymore arkie. When I agreed to drink it the first time, I was doing it for courage, to be a wife to my husband. But now I had to be fully conscious. My husband begged and pleaded, but I could not agree. He even told me that if I did not give in soon enough, I would close again and be even tighter. I cared, yes, but on the other hand, I did not care.
Later, his pleas melted me, and I gave in again. I had hoped that there would be less pain, but that was just wishful thinking—it was still very painful. With time, it became a different pain. It shifted from the pain of tearing flesh to the pain of forcing entry into a very narrow opening, the pain of heavy pressure. Even today, it still hurts. Even today, I still literally fight with my husband before I give in to his sexual demands. I understand that there are some women who ask their husbands for sex, but that is unheard of in my life. On many occasions, I cause differences so that my husband and I are not on speaking terms. When we are in such a situation, he stays away from me, and that is my joy. However, he has discovered my trick, and so he sometimes refuses to stay away from me.
These days, I use a special lubricant to soften me up. But every time we do it, there is always blood, with or without lubricant, with or without force. But God has his own miracles. In all this mess, two children still found their way to us. In both cases, I delivered normally. I have no idea what happened afterward, because when I healed, I went back to my size, the size that created the fights over my marital obligations. I had somehow hoped that normal delivery would do something for me. But I guess it is also about feelings. The knife takes all the feelings away.
After my second child, I was fed up with the institution of marriage, and I wanted out. I was sure that I wanted a divorce this time.
But no. I am not divorced, my sister. You see, my husband and I love each other very much. It is so difficult for me to have sex with him, but I still love him. It’s a dilemma the two of us were thrown into by the circumcision ritual, which turned me into rock. When I told him of my intentions to divorce, he begged and pleaded with me, and I ended up staying again. And I have decided to stay to this day.
But I will tell you the truth, my sister: I cry during every single sexual encounter with my husband. But of course it is only the four walls of our bedroom that know what goes on in there. Outside, we are a very happily married couple: handsome husband, cheerful wife, and two gorgeous children. But every single day, I ask God why he does not perform a miracle to return my senses to me and take away the rock that I am. I know it will never happen—but God can do it, can’t he?