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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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The ones who whisper in the shadows’: On FGM

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Amran Gaye

By Amran Gaye

Four decades, give or take: that’s how long the women had fought. They were from all walks of life and from all over The Gambia. Some of them had been cut, and some had not. Some were religious, and some not. But they all knew the harm in it, and wanted to make sure no other Gambian girls had to go through it.

They were aware of all the challenges they would face, of what it would cost them personally. They knew of the accusations that they had come to erase culture and tradition, led and manipulated by the West; that they had abandoned and denied their own religion and traditions.

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And so the women took their time, settling in for the long war. They went from one community to another to speak with Gambians and convince them of the rightness of their cause. They did research around things like the economic need of the woman who did the cutting, and how to mitigate that factor. Everywhere they went they tried to convince rather than impose; to understand rather than judge.

And finally they got the ear of the man who both made the law and was the law. He agreed with their message, and clamped down on the act. He banned it practically overnight, threatening violence against those who practiced it, and those who aided them.

It was a great victory for the ones who had fought, a respite at last, a place to rest that wasn’t the mirage they had become accustomed to. But, as it turned out, it was only a temporary one.

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Because the law, imposed, bred resentment amongst the segment of the population that practiced the act. One that had been done to them and so also must necessarily be done to their daughters. They saw it as not an attempt to harm, but only their parental duty. And who would stand against that would stand against their tradition and culture. Against their religion.

*

Friends and acquaintances, loved ones and ones I only recently met. They all whisper to me their stories, these women.

In the middle of a conversation about FGM, they will grow silent and guarded. Gauging what kind of reaction they will get, testing the boundaries of their safety.

And then they will tell me. The details are always different, the tone always the same. A tone of resignation, an acceptance of a pain that will never become a scar and then a memory; one that will only grow fresher as they go through the stages and rites of womanhood. They never sound angry, or bitter, or even resentful. Only resignation, final and complete.

*

It wasn’t that the men didn’t know. They each had their own group of whisperers, whose pain they felt deeply and whose suffering angered them. But their reaction was always the same. A flaring of anger, as if it had only just happened, as if violence would undo the act or bury it in memory. They would huff and puff, curse and threaten bloodshed. 

Until it wasn’t about the woman or what had been done to her. But only a redrawing of the line separating the men who would commit the act, and the men who would beat them up for even thinking about it.

But, in their indignation, the men did not connect the pain of their loved ones to the larger pain. And – even worse – they did not recognize their part in its making, did not see their hand in the construction of a system in which women had to be decided for in the first place, and told what was best for them by men  who set the law.

Whether to be abused, or to be fought for. Whether to be heard for being deferential enough, or dismissed and shamed for being too demanding.  Whether to pass laws unilaterally to ban the act, or insist on its continuation as tradition and religion.

And they fought over the acronym too. The men who were in support of the act renamed it, insisted that the last word in the acronym was the decider. Some wanted a name they thought made the act more palatable, a painful necessity. Others wanted the word that reflected the barbarity as they saw it. As if that one letter would make any difference, as if changing the label of an act also changes its intention and effect.

But in the end it wasn’t about science, or religion. It wasn’t about tradition. It wasn’t about any of the things the men loudly proclaimed and fought over, threatening and condemning each other, nursing their anger until it grew into violence.

What it was about was control: the men didn’t even try to hide it. When the women marched only a handful of them showed up, though many more claimed to be on their side. When a conference was initiated to discuss the matter, not a single woman was invited to give her opinion or input. And so with the statement released by the Supreme Islamic Council, signed only by men. And so with countless khutba and fatwa, all exclusively decided and delivered by men.

Some of the women were allowed to speak, of course – that could not be avoided if only for appearances’ sake. And after they spoke, the men judged their speech, not what they said. Divided them first into the  ones who demanded, and the ones who pled. The former tarred and feathered; the latter told to patiently accept the natural order of things. Neither group got what they wanted, of course – the men had already decided and only wanted tokens that agreed with their decisions. The approach didn’t matter, the verdict was already known and final.

*

Some of the women came out in supper of a repeal, because of where they lived, or who they were, or what they believed. The men on the other side called them names. They spoke of oppression and  infantilisation; of sheep who were forced by Mullahs and could not make decisions on their own.

Some of the women stood against it, insisting that they would not have decisions made for them. They marched and wrote and signed petitions. And the first group of men insulted and called them names in their turn. Manipulated, Western, kafirr. Self-hating, feminist, lesbian. Just as loud as the opposing team in their condemnation.

It was almost a sport to them, in some ways, a strident debate over a champions league final before moving on to the next match.

And yet all of them ignored the uncomfortable truth: that we only pass and fight over laws that affect Gambian women’s bodies. There are no similar laws when it comes to Gambian men. No law for or against the circumcision of boys, no public discussion, no marital judgement. No debate over the age of consent of boys, or when they are allowed to take a wife.  No tests of their purity. No training to ready them to become glorified servants at home, in addition to whatever else they can and want to be. And yet all the men, no matter what they believed, claimed all they did was only out of love.

What a strange and self-serving form of love it was. Each single man could absolve himself of guilt, because as an individual he had made his love and support of the women who mattered to him widely known. He would sincerely die for them.

And each man had decided what lifestyle was best for all the women he knew, and all the ones he didn’t. And each fought alongside other men similar to him in belief, against a common enemy that consisted of every man who disagreed with them on how a woman should live, the way she should dress, the rights and responsibilities she should enjoy.

*

The women needed protection – on that all the men agreed. The debate was only over what form that protection would take.

Guarded by a hijab: loved and cherished by God, headed straight to heaven. Or liberated by feminism and able to choose whatever they want to do or wear (as long as it wasn’t hijab).

In the discussions the men had, these were the sole representations of the women they claimed to fight for. There was no in-between. There were only two extremes: they were either saved or sinful; free or bound. And on these forced archetypes the whole edifice was built.

Each side emphasized that they only wanted the best for women, that in the end they were free to make a choice. As long as that choice fit with the way they saw things, made them comfortable in the world that is made by men, and in which only men live.

*

I hesitate to publish this piece. I do not know if I am the right bearer of this message. All the ones who whisper to me: I have not felt their pain; I have not lived their trauma.

Yet they whisper in my ears still, and their stories weigh heavy on my conscience. And lately their voices have become a crescendo.

And what it is roaring is: after we have decided, after we have had our political fights and moved on, only this will remain: the pain that will forever numb their sexual pleasure; the sorrow of babies lost early and babies almost born; the resolve to continue somehow, to listen to people speak of their bodies and the things allowed to be done to them; while forced to remain in the shadows because their experience only adds nuance, which is forbidden in a conversation where only extremes are allowed.

It is only their voices that matter – all else is noise. The whispers they cannot speak aloud contain the whole truth, whether we listen or not, accept it or not.

Amran Gaye is a computer engineer born in Banjul and lives in North America.

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