Re-writing the Dialogue on FGM
By Galme Mumed
Let me start off by saying a few things about myself. My name is Galme Mumed and I am 24 years old. I was born in what is known as Ethiopia. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old after my mom sponsored me. While I was in Ethiopia I was raised mostly by my grandmother in a small village called Karamile. Once I moved to Canada I grew up in Toronto, specifically Scarborough and moved to Guelph to study International Development at the University of Guelph. I recently graduated and am now living back in Toronto.
Even though I was born in Ethiopia, I am specific about identifying as an Oromo woman instead of identifying as Ethiopian. Ethiopia is a colonial state that exists on the oppression and genocide of Oromo people, who are the indigenous people of Ethiopia, and so it is important for me to make this distinction.
Getting into my experience with FGM (female genital mutilation), I actually got the procedure done right before I came to Canada. I think my grandmother strategically did it because she knew that I would be coming to Canada. I think she kind of panicked and made me go through the procedure because she didn’t want me to leave without me getting cut. A lot of women in my culture believe that if a woman is uncut she is unclean and no one will marry her. I think she wanted to protect me and for me to carry my culture going into this new place that would be so different than where I came from. I have always remembered everything from the procedure but it was never explained to me why it was happening or the reasons why it was done. There was never a conversation about it.
When I came to Canada I kind of just lived my life and forgot about it. It wasn’t even a thing. I just figured it was something that happened that one time. I didn’t think it was something that was going to follow me or something that made me different than other women. It wasn’t really until high school that I thought about it for the first time. In grade 10 I started having an intimate relationship with a girl. We started off as friends and we were together all of the time and eventually we were a thing. When we first started getting intimate, I realized that things were different. Obviously I know that every vagina looks different but hers had extra parts that mine just didn’t have. In terms of the clitoris I was looking at hers and was like woah what is this. That was really the first time I made the connection.
You know in the movies when someone sits there and their whole life is rewinding and replaying? That’s what it felt like. In that moment I rewound back to that day that I was cut and was like, okay, that’s what that was. When they held me down and did that all those years ago it was because they were removing this thing.
Before this moment I used to watch shows that had survivors of FGM who would talk about their experience and I always use to feel bad for them. I never made the connection that it had also happened to me. Once I realized what had been done to me, I told the person who I was with at the time but she didn’t really know how to respond because it was something that she had never really heard of it. No one else knew. It was overwhelming because all of these thoughts started coming in. Being in high school you are very limited to the information you have about this stuff and it is mostly just from what people tell you. So I was thinking that I’d probably never feel pleasure sexually or be able to have a good intimate relationship with anyone. Later on I found out that this wasn’t actually true but at that time I believed all of those things because that was the information that I had access to.
So I started to do research. I was googling everything. At that point I didn’t even know that there were different stages or levels of FGM. Like sometimes the lips get sewn together, sometimes there is complete removal of all of your parts. It was so much information. Googling it was helpful in some ways but the problem was that most of the information was coming from white people who were going into these communities and creating a specific narrative. I mean I did find out that it was banned in countries all over the world including Ethiopia and that it was condemned by the UN but I was like if it is illegal than why is it still happening. A lot of things didn’t make sense. Finding out almost felt unfair because I was like well if it is illegal then why did it happen to me. It hit me that even though so much research was going into this issue; the policies were being passed and statements were being made by the UN, none of these things were actually reaching the communities that were doing FGM.
Also there were so many articles that just talked about the negative results of FGM. The fact that you’d never feel anything again after the procedure. I knew that they were doing it because they wanted to make sure people understood why it shouldn’t be legal but only having one narrative sucked for me as someone who had already had the procedure done. I’m sure it sucked for others too because it paints the picture that this is the only result you’ll have which is actually false information. A lot of it depends on the type of procedure you’ve had done.
Illustration below: Quiet girls are seeds by Mia Ohki
Initially I did all of this research but after I graduated and got into university I kind of just stopped and continued to live my life. At some point I became intimate with someone again and felt like it was something I had to share. It felt like such a big thing and I was ashamed of it. I felt like I was missing something important and it just weighed on me. I also felt like any intimate experience I would go into I’d have to have this conversation which I didn’t really want to have. I didn’t want to keep having to be vulnerable with people. On any other day nobody would know but all of a sudden I am intimate with someone and am having to reveal this thing. I tried to forget about it but it was always something that was in the back of my mind.
One day I couldn’t sleep and was thinking about it all night. I got up and was like you know what, I am going to start researching again and focus more on if something can be done to fix this. In highschool that had was actually my first thought but when I was researching, everything I found said that reconstructive surgery was impossible. That it was impossible to get your clitoris back.
So I just started over with researching. Eventually I found a website that talked about this doctor named Dr. Marci Bowers who is based in California. She is a trans woman who is a doctor who did a procedure to change her own sex. After that process she came up with this whole concept that there hasn’t been enough research done about the clitoris and re-constructive surgery to say that it is impossible. Basically she says that the clitoris is not just this small piece that once it is cut it is gone. It goes deeper into the sexual organs than the parts that you can see. Once you remove the scar tissue the clitoris would still be there.
She was basically proving all the people who said it was impossible wrong. I ended up watching a Vice documentary about this Somali girl who underwent the reconstructive surgery through Dr. Marci Bowers and it showed that the whole process was a success. After watching the documentary, I initially was like woah this works but then got a little bit hesitant and wondered if it was fake. You just never know with the internet. I ended up talking with a bunch of my friends to see what they thought and we realized that it was legit. My friend Shabina and I sent the organization an email and they explained to us that the surgery was free but that we had to pay to rent the room for the surgery and pay for accommodation, travel and a $500 deposit to book the appointment. Also one of the requirements was that I had to go and see a gynecologist to confirm that I had actually undergone FGM. They had this requirement because girls were showing up to get the procedure but actually still had their clitoris intact. Because it is something that is never talked in our communities, they had thought they had been cut when they hadn’t. So to tackle that they now had this requirement.
Going through the process of getting a note from the gynecologist was a rough experience for me. I went to the university campus clinic to get a referral for a gynecologist and even just trying to explain to them why I needed the referral was awful. They didn’t know how to respond to what I was telling them or what to do and here I am already feeling awkward because it’s the first time I am saying this thing out loud to anyone outside of my close friends. So the whole thing made me feel more uncomfortable because I had to repeatedly explain what I needed. There was a lot of back and forth and finally they gave me the referral.
Going to the gynecologist was even worse. I went with two of my friends Mina and Savannah who came into the room with me to support me. The gynecologist was really just supposed to examine my vagina and give an assessment of whether I had or hadn’t been cut. At first I was excited because he was Muslim but then I remembered that a lot of this stuff has to do with men in our culture not thinking we are clean if we don’t have the procedure. Even though he is a doctor and has gotten an education here, he still thinks like that. Basically it turned into him saying I didn’t really need the surgery. He was insinuating that it was purely for the purpose of having pleasure which wasn’t really necessary in his eyes and that I could still pee without issues and give birth with what I had so I was fine. My friends and I started to argue with him in his office that it wasn’t up to him to decide, his job was just to give an assessment and in the end he just refused to write out the referral.
I ended up emailing the organization and explaining what had happened and how the gynecologist had treated me. They responded saying that if I could just take a picture of my vagina and send it to them that that would be okay. I was approved right after they received the picture.
The next thing was raising the money for the surgery. Shabina suggested I start a GoFundMe. So she made the page and at that point my name was not mentioned because I wasn’t really ready for that so it was anonymous.
Through the GoFundme, this reporter named Jayme Poisson contacted Shabina. She said that she was trying to do a story on FGM in Canada. At first I was like, hell no. I didn’t want my name out there and everyone in my community to know all of these aspects of my life. Plus generally I am so against the media and how they move. It’s just such a complex and touchy subject so its like if it’s going to be done it has to be done properly and with a lot of care. I didn’t know if I was ready to do that.
Shabina did some researching on the reporter and realized she had done some reporting on police brutality in Toronto, carding and BLMTO and had done a good job. So that kind of changed my mind and I decided I would give it a chance.
When I was thinking about it something hit me. I was thinking back to high school and remembering that when I was researching, I never saw women who looked like me. There were never any black, Muslim, East African women who grew up in this culture here in Canada and were publically talking about it. So I felt like I needed to do this and that this was a part of my journey. I was like, this isn’t a coincidence that this opportunity is happening when I am a lot older and understand my sexuality and body a lot more. I wanted to do it in case there was another girl just like me waiting for someone just like her to shed light on this. I was worried I would get some backlash but I dunno at the same time I trusted that my community would really see my story and understand. I felt like it was about time that we controlled the narrative and that it would happen with us talking to each other and that this would be the only way that people would want to start talking about it.
I talked to the reporter and she let me know that I would have a lot of power in creating the narrative, that she wasn’t looking to demonize my culture and people and that nothing would get released without my approval. So I started to think about it and how I would present this issue in a way that was complex and created a real conversation around FGM.
I feel like I was able to achieve that and once the article did come out this girl from Ottawa who wants to stay anonymous reached out to me. She had grown up here and is in her second year of university. When she was 13 she went back home to Somalia to visit her family and they cut her. I ended up going to Ottawa to meet her and she’s actually now done her own story anonymously and has a GoFundme for her surgery. It was cool because for the story I was just supposed to be there to support but then I actually got to interview her for the story and the reporters just listened. It was very beautiful. Now I am helping her with her GoFundme and we text each other. Her GoFundme hasn’t been moving as quickly as mine, she is not part of the community that I am so she hasn’t reached her goal but hopefully she can still reach her goal.
One time I was at a restaurant eating with some friends and as we were walking out these older Oromo men came up to me and were like we are so proud of you, we are so happy you are one of our own. It was a few weeks after the article had come out and he had the article in his bag and said he had been walking around with it. So many older immigrant East African women were not only happy I was shedding light on it but also the way I was talking about FGM while showing respect for my community and my people. One of my friends’ mom told me this was the first story that she really connected with.
Before all of this, me and my mom weren’t talking (we have a complicated relationship), but after the article she reached out to me and left me a message saying that it takes a lot of courage to come out and talk about this. She said she was really proud of me and said she didn’t know that it impacted me the way that it did and let me know that she would stand beside me in anything I needed. She was just so supportive about this thing coming out. She also felt like we need to stop walking on eggshells about FGM, that the practice should be stopped but for that to happen it means we need to be actively talking about it.
None of this would have happened if I didn’t do the article and work to be honest and complicate the narrative. It feels so good because my people are always the ones being demonized and it’s like just because people don’t circumcise women in Canada doesn’t mean that men here treat women any better. Patriarchy is everywhere, it has affected every part of the world. It’s not just a Muslim and African problem. If anything we learnt gender inequality from the colonizers…
I hope that the dialogue continues in this way. I want to hear more of us taking control of the narrative. I want to hear more of us talking about our experiences about ourselves instead of being studied. Right now most of the research and conversation is being led by people who don’t even know anything about our culture. It makes a huge difference when you hear the experience of someone who has actually gone through it. Why is it always people who study it have the most to say about it? It’s also so crucial to mention that all of these NGOs like UNICEF are so big on making it illegal and eradicating FGM but they have their own agendas. A lot of the reasons why they create this narrative is to justify Islamophobia and anti-blackness. I feel like the more that you tell people look how Muslims are, they are so barbaric we need to save these women. It justifies them going in and invading and doing what they’ve always been doing. It’s the same narrative as when they went to go colonize black people in the first place. It allows them to justify going in and taking all of our resources with the guise of helping but like I said their policies are not doing anything on the ground to begin with.
All in all this a family issue so it should be handled that way.
In terms of resources, through my experience and the research that I have done, Canada has a long way to go. To begin with, they need a doctor here who will do this type of surgery. I shouldn’t have to travel all the way to California. There are surgeries like this in France, in Kenya, the UK why not Canada. Apparently there is a doctor in Toronto who was trying to start it here but for some reason it has been a lot harder for him to set up. For me, I was very lucky that I am very well connected in a lot of communities which helped me reach my fundraising goal but not everyone has that. I know a lot of people want this surgery but could never afford to go to the states or might not have papers to get there. If we could even have people who are trained to deal with women who are FGM survivors in the healthcare system, or more affordable resources that people can seek out that would be good too. Things like sex therapy specifically for FGM survivors so that people can have a different relationship with their bodies or just therapy in general. Ideally there could be some sort of organization that people can connect to that has a physical space. Even if you have something as simple as training gynecologists and doctors so that they know how to respond when someone comes to them that is an FGM survivor.
There is just nothing right now so anything would help
Link for Ottawa Woman’s GoFundMe
I was born in Hararge Oromia. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old but my heart and my memories are still in Hararge Oromia. I believe I am here in Canada for a reason and have a purpose to serve both here and in my home. I am proud to call myself Oromo and Muslim and Black. I feel like my ancestors have left me with many teachings and gifts that I’m constantly trying to listen to. I am a revolutionary because that’s the legacy I was born into.
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.