Somewhere in Kenya my four year old self lays on a table. I am in a backyard and everything is lush and green. The memory of it fades in and out like a weak signal on a television screen. Familiar faces peer down at me reassuringly but confusion is buzzing in my ear. The faces hovering over tell me that it’s my big day. Upon hearing those words my confusion melts into happiness. The faces are soothing with their big smiles. I feel arms all over my body. Arms gently holding me in place at first. Suddenly, I am filled with a sense of unease and I began to struggle. The arms hold me tighter. A man with a tool is heading towards the spot between my legs. I struggle and ask what’s happening. I struggle and I struggle and I struggle. Then there is only blackness.
After, Part I
I first realized I was a survivor of female genital mutilation when I was 17 years old. In my household, the female anatomy was almost never discussed. The only time vaginas were mentioned was in relation to menstruation or babies. I didn’t exactly have a sense of shame when it came to my vagina; it was mostly just something I pretended didn’t exist. My vagina existed only fleetingly when I was masturbating secretly and sheepishly. In my household, you didn’t ask questions about vaginas because that meant you were having sex. Like masturbation, pre-marital sex was both a grave sin and prohibited.
Most of my peers had been sexually active for years. As a virgin, my sexual education came from the stories that my friends told me about their sexual exploits. The more I heard about their experiences, the more I began to suspect that my anatomy might be different. My friends talked about their clits and which boys were good at getting them off. I was unfamiliar with this clitoris thing they kept referencing but often played along.
One day with a mirror in hand, I went in search of it between my legs. I looked closely for a long time and sat in different positions but I could not detect it. Feeling frustrated, I sought guidance from Google and relied on text message directions from my girlfriends on how to find my clitoris. Try as I did, I was never able to locate mine. I started to suspect that it did not exist. Not wanting to share my suspicions, I lied to my girlfriends about being able to find it. I lied because I wanted to keep this sneaking suspicion to myself because I felt that a lack of a clitoris made me a freak.
Another thing that made me feel suspicious about my vagina was my inability to cum whenever I masturbated. I would often be on the edge of what I later discovered was called an orgasm, and then it would just…disappear. The promise of pleasure never to be realized. It frustrated me deeply and I became convinced that I would never be able to achieve an orgasm. This was something I began to view as a personal short-coming. I had not yet connected my difficulty attaining an orgasm with my possible missing clitoris. The pieces started to come together when I overheard a conversation between my aunties about the circumcision of a girl in our community and their own reflections about being cut. I began to wonder if I also had been circumcised.
Over the next year, I began doing covert internet searches about female circumcision. I found out that it was called female genital mutilation. There were several different levels that could be done and that it was common in many parts of the world. Most people who practiced it used religion as a justification for it. As a young feminist, it was immediately clear to me that FGM was a tool to control the sexuality of women. There was no defense for it in Islam from what I had researched and there seemed to be no health benefits to it.
I began obsessively examining my vagina in order to figure out what parts were intact and what parts were missing. I wondered if I would be able to have sex and whether I would enjoy it. Nothing I found online answered these questions for me. There was nothing online about the sex lives of FGM survivors. Only tragic facts that made me wonder if I was doomed to a life of painful and unfulfilling sex.
Due to a fundamental lack of understanding of my own body, I made an appointment with a gynecologist in order to answer some of the questions I was struggling with. My doctor was a handsome young man and I immediately felt mortified that this hot doctor would be examining my vagina when nobody besides my mother had ever seen my vagina. As he began to examine me I decided to boss up and ignore my embarrassment and instead get confirmation about whether I had experienced FGM. At that point, the idea of possibly being a survivor made me upset. I had spent 17 years mostly ignoring my vagina only to suddenly find out that it might not be in the condition it was naturally supposed to be in.
During my visit, my doctor confirmed that I had experienced FGM. I calmly asked him what stage of it I had experienced. He told me that my clitoris and one of my vaginal lips were gone but that I had not been sewn up. I had a mixed reaction of relief and shock. Relief about finally having confirmation for what I had long suspected; but shock to know that I was really a survivor. I asked the doctor if I would ever be able to have sex. He told me that I would, but that I would have to find a very patient partner who would be willing to explore my pleasure with me.
I left that doctor’s visit feeling confused. I suddenly had this huge secret that I couldn’t share with anyone. I wondered if other girls I knew had also experienced this. I knew that it was likely that most of my mother’s generation had gone through this but I wondered if any of my peers had as well. I also began to feel depressed. Who would ever want to have sex with me? I feared that a romantic partner would take one look at my vagina and run out the door. I felt hideous.
I needed more answers about when this happened to me and why. After much thought and apprehension, I decided to ask the person who would likely have the best answers: my mother. I was intimidated by the thought of discussing this with her for the first time. When I brought the issue up, my mother seemed unsurprised by my line of questioning. She explained to me that she had it done and so had most of her female friends and family members. She explained that she thought it was a religious requirement at the time. But later, she learned that it was not a part of our religion. As a result, I am the last woman in our family to experience the procedure. Being able to finally discuss this with her made me feel less alone and I could not help but soften towards her. After all, she was a survivor too.
After, Part II
I graduated high school and went on to university. As all of my friends continued to lose their virginity, I held on to mine. I held on to it not out of a specific belief in saving my virginity for marriage but because of the terror I felt at the thought of having to explain to someone that I was an FGM survivor. I sensed that their reaction would be one of two; pity or disgust. I was interested in neither.
I had several romantic partners throughout my time in college. I never reached a level of physical intimacy with my partners because I was always afraid. This constant fear and anxiety around physical intimacy led to many sour relationships. Each partner eventually grew frustrated by the fact that I wouldn't have sex. In response to my frustrating love life, I took a long break to focus on myself.
After a year of abstaining from dating, I finally met a partner who made me feel incredibly safe. Unlike my former partners, my new partner never pressured me to have sex. They made it very clear that it was completely my decision whether I wanted to have sex at all and that they were interested in being in a partnership with me no matter what my decision was. For the first time in my romantic life, I felt safe and loved.
With this new partnership, I contemplated physical intimacy for the first time. I went over it in my head for months. One night, I worked up the courage to have a discussion with my partner. I had never admitted to being an FGM survivor to any of my romantic partners before. I was terrified that my body would horrify my partner as soon as I told them. However, their response was nothing that I expected. They were understanding, loving and judgment free. The pity or disgust I had been expecting to be directed at me never came. The sense of relief that I felt was tremendous.
With the newfound self-confidence and sense of safety I felt, I began to explore my sexuality. I had always assumed that sex would be painful for me. But my partner was incredibly patient and kind. They paid careful attention to my body and were utterly devoted to helping me experience a type of pleasure that I had never known before: my first orgasm. I never thought I would be able to achieve an orgasm. I simply did not know enough about my own body or what parts still had feeling.
These new experiences taught me that sex could be for pleasure and not just for marriage and procreation. I became someone that I did not recognize. I loved sex! I felt safe and I felt desirable. I explored my sexuality furiously. I also had many, many orgasms. My partner also encouraged me to explore my own body and helped me realize that I could give myself orgasms. They encouraged me to pursue my pleasure unapologetically. This is a gift that I will always treasure.
Over time, my perception of myself began to change. I began to realize that nothing was wrong with me. That I was deserving of love and of pleasure. That my body did not need fixing. Ultimately, I learned that the state of my vagina didn’t define me.