Nada, a twelve-year-old girl from Egypt, bled to death earlier this week in a botched attempt at Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). When I read the article, I couldn’t help but feel sick to my stomach. It brought back memories from my childhood.
I was seven years old when I was cut.
My brother and I travelled to India for summer vacation, staying with my dad’s sister. One sweltering afternoon, my aunt offered me a jumbo-sized Toblerone if I would come down to her basement clinic. She asked me to lie flat on my back. I blacked out from the pain.
In that instant, my childhood was destroyed.
The memory was so traumatic, I buried it for years. It wasn’t until I was 17 years old, listening to an anthropology student discuss her senior thesis on FGM, that I had a jarring memory jolt. When I confronted my parents, I discovered that my aunt cut me without their consent.
February 6 is International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM—and it comes in 2020 during a big year for gender equality. We are commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing declaration. We are 10 years away from measuring progress on the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. (FGM is a target in Global Goal 5). But we still live in a world where 200 million women and girls are living with the consequences of FGM.
When I shared my story of surviving FGM in the Guardian, friends and colleagues were initially shocked. I would often hear: “Does FGM even happen in America? I thought it was only practiced in remote villages in Africa.” The truth is, FGM is global in scope and transcends race, religion, geography and class. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that 513,000 girls and women are either FGM survivors or at risk of being cut in the United States.
One of the reasons FGM persists—and girls like Nada die senseless and excruciatingly painful deaths every year—is that FGM happens in silence. I’ve spoken with other survivors as part of my own healing and advocacy work. Almost all of us have been pressured not to speak out. Sometimes this pressure comes from community members who are against FGM, but worry that negative press will fuel anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant agendas. I am lucky to have supportive parents who proudly stand alongside me, but that’s not the case for many survivors.
FGM is often framed as an exotic cultural ritual occurring in faraway places exclusively to black and brown bodies. This simply isn’t true. Defenders of FGM deploying cultural relativist arguments or even some physicians calling less invasive versions a “benign pinprick” (as the American Association of Pediatrics once argued in 2010), minimize the gravity of the violence.
Public attention from the first federal case against FGM in US history in 2017 inspired more survivors to speak out, including Jenny, a white survivor from a conservative Christian community. She is now leading a movement to ban FGM in her home state of Kentucky. My brother, Abid, is leading a campaign in Washington state, which currently has pending legislation in the state senate, to fill the gap in the federal loophole (now that the federal ban was ruled unconstitutional).
To bring about a sustainable end to FGM, we need more than just legislation. We need a national conversation that engages all sectors of society. We need to understand that FGM is as much an American issue as it is a global one. We need the stories of FGM survivors integrated into what I hope will be a more inclusive and intersectional #MeToo movement. The language we use matters. There is nothing culturally “benign” about FGM. At its core, FGM is child sexual assault.
To mark International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, I encourage you to take action in three small ways: Share this story on social media with the hashtags #MeToo, #ZTD and #GenerationEquality. Amplify the stories of other survivors through the Voices to End FGM/C storytelling project (a collaboration of Sahiyo and Story Center) and the Ordinary Equality podcast. If you are in the United States, check out this map and find out if your state is one of the 15 that hasn’t criminalized FGM; if not, call your state representative. (There are three petitions underway at the state level that you can sign: Kentucky, Massachusetts and Washington.)
All it takes to break the cycle of violence is for one family member to say no, preventing this from happening to their daughter, niece or loved one.
Together, I believe we can #endFGM in a generation.