Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Menstruation

A couple of years ago I read the autobiography of Waris Dirie (a woman who grew up in Somalia but moved to London at the age of 14).

In her book she describes the horror of  the FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) that she underwent at a young age. The FGM left her in pain whenever she urinated, and made urination a very slow process (it would take her 5 minutes to pee). She was also was in excruciating pain whenever she had her period (because her body was unable to excrete the blood as fast as it needed to). She and her sisters used to dig a big hole in the ground and bury themselves in it to help cope with their period pain. 

Here are some extracts from her book:

Getting FGM:

“The prevailing wisdom in Somalia is that there are bad things between a girl’s legs. These ‘unclean’ things need to be removed. The clitoris, labia minora and most of the labia majora are cut off. The wound is stitched shut, leaving only a scar where our genitals were. But the actual details of the ritual are left a mystery; you just know that something special is going to happen to you when your time comes… I lay awake with excitement that night until Mama was standing over me…”

“There’s no way in the world I can explain what it feels like. It’s like someone slicing through the meat of your thigh, or cutting your arm, except this is the most sensitive part of your body… my legs began to quiver of their own accord, and shake uncontrollably, and I prayed: ‘Please, God, let it be over quickly.’ Soon it was, because I passed out.”

“When the ties that bound me were removed from my legs, I was able to look at myself for the first time. I discovered a patch of skin completely smooth except for a scar down the middle like a zipper that was definitely closed. My genitals were sealed up like a brick wall that no man would be able to penetrate until my wedding might, when my husband would either cut me open with a knife or force his way in.”

Getting genital reconstruction surgery in London:

The tiny hole the circumciser had left me permitted urine to escape only one drop at a time. It took me about ten minutes to urinate. My periods were a nightmare always. I couldn’t function for several days each month; I simply went to bed and wanted to die so the suffering would stop. The problem reached a crisis while I was living with my Uncle Mohammed.

Early one morning, carrying the tray from the kitchen to the dining-room table, I had suddenly blacked out, and the dishes crashed to the floor. When I came to, Aunt Maruim said: “We have to take you to the doctor. I’ll make an appointment with my doctor this afternoon.”

I didn’t tell the doctor I’d been circumcised. Since he didn’t examine me, he didn’t find out my secret. “The only thing I can give you is birth-control pills. That will stop the pain.”

I began taking the pills, but they produced drastic changes in my body that seemed weird and unnatural. Deciding I’d rather deal with the pain, I stopped taking the pills. It all came right back again, fiercer than ever. Later I visited more doctors, but they too wanted to give me birth-control pills. I realized I needed to do something else. I said to Auntie, “Maybe I need to see a special kind of doctor.”

She looked at me sharply. “No,” she said emphatically. “And by the way — what do you tell these men?”

“Nothing. That I just want to stop the pain, that’s all.” I knew the unspoken message of her comment: Circumcision is our African custom — and not something you discuss with these white men.

I began to understand, however, that this was exactly what I had to do — or suffer and live like an invalid for one third of each month.

When I went to see Dr. Michael Mcrae,* I said: “There’s something I haven’t told you. I’m from Somalia and I..I..”

He didn’t even let me finish. “Go get changed. I want to examine you.” He saw the look of terror on my face. “It’s okay.”

He called in his nurse to show me where to change, how to put the gown on, and asked her if there was someone in the hospital who could speak Somali. But when she came back,  she brought a Somali man. I thought: Oh, here’s rotten luck, to discuss this using a Somali man to translate! How much worse could it get?

Dr. Macrae said: Explain to her that she’s closed up way too much — I don’t even know how she’s made it this far. We need to operate on her as soon as possible.”

I could see the Somali man was not happy. He glared at the doctor and then said to me: “Well, if you really want, they can open you up. BUt do you know this is against your culture? Does your family know you’re doing this?”


“The first thing I’d do is discuss it with them.”

I nodded. His was the response of a typical African man.

Over a year went by before I was able to have the surgery. I had to overcome some practical problems and my own last-minute doubts, but Dr. Macrae did a fine job, I’ve always been grateful. He told me: “You’re not alone. Women come in with this problem all the time. A lot of women from the Sudan, Egypt, Somalia. Some of them are pregnant and terrified. So, without the permission of their husbands they come to me, and I do my best.”

Within three weeks I could sit on the toilet and — whoosh! There’s no way to explain what a freedom that was. 

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One Response to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Menstruation

  1. Diana says:

    That is a very moving account – it is nothing short of child abuse and severe neglect. What happens when a lady gives birth? The skin all breaks again then they stitch it up tightly again or is a lady not stitched up again once her husband has broken her and therefore completely sexually abused her too.

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