UNCUT: The War Against Female Genital Mutilation

In Somaliland, Mothers Save Daughters From Genital Mutilation Rites

Nuura Mahamud Muse holds one of her girls
Nuura Mahamud Muse holds one of her girls
Emanuela Zuccalà

When fear gets hold of me

When anger seizes my body

When hate becomes my companion

Then I get feminine advice, because it is only feminine pain

And I am told feminine pain perishes

like all feminine things.

â€" Dahabo Ali Muse, "Feminine Pains" poem, 1998

HARGEISA â€" "On my wedding night, it felt like having a flame on an open wound," the woman with honey-colored eyes says, enraged. "He enjoyed it, but I experienced the same pain I felt when I was a little girl and they cut open my genitalia with a razor and then sewed it closed with thorns," she continues. "I couldn’t move for 10 days because my legs were tied together, and I couldn't even go to the bathroom. My memory of it is still bitter and intact."

On the outskirts of Daami, the undergrowth overflows with garbage and the round huts are covered in rags. Nuura Mahamud Muse, 35 and the mother of six girls, sits on a filthy mat and remembers the torture ritual that her country practices to sanction female virginity. "I won't let my daughters to be touched, though," she says over the noontime call to worship. "I don't want them to suffer like I do every menstrual cycle, during sexual intercourse, when giving birth. I don't care if the neighbors badmouth me."

Daami is situated beyond the Waaheen River shoal in Hargeisa, the windy capital of Somaliland, a republic not easily found on a map. North of the Horn of Africa, the former British Somalia declared independence from the former Italian Somalia in 1991 to disengage from the conflict that continues today in Mogadishu. But it paid for its freedom by being virtually non-existent. The international community doesn't recognize this state of four million residents, who are divided into three family clans that, aside from the war, have everything else in common with Somalia: language, poverty and a patriarchal culture that blends Islam with ancient traditions.

Barbaric rites

These traditions include gudniinka fircooniga, the "pharaonic" female genital mutilation or infibulation, a seal of chastity inflicted on girls from the age of five and beyond in which all external genitalia is removed. Then the vagina is sewn together using needle and thread or thorns from the wild-growing qodax plant, until the tissues from the wound bond leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual blood, to be cut open on the wedding night.

All over the world, more than 125 million women are branded by blood and condemned to infections, chronic cysts, excruciating menstrual pain, agonizing sexual intercourse, complications during childbirth, all in the name of presumed ideals of morality and respectability. Of the 27 African countries where various types of vaginal amputation are in use, Somalia and Somaliland practice the most extreme type and hold first place with the highest prevalence rate.

"Ninety-eight percent of our women are infibulated and sewn up again after the birth of each child, resulting in 6 to 13 stitchings throughout their lives," says Sadia Abdi, the young country director of the ActionAid NGO in Somaliland who studied in England and later returned to the dirt roads and hectic marketplaces of her native Hargeisa to resume the battle she started when she was just 14 years old. "I saved my younger sister from infibulation," she says. "My mother kept telling me, "You can't fight against it, it's part of your identity and womanhood, an Islamic precept." When an Imam assured me that there is no mention of this practice in the Koran, I told my mother and she gave in but placed the honor of the family upon my shoulders. I felt so relieved when my sister found a husband who wanted to marry her for love even though she was different from the others."

Motherly protection

Abdi doesn't talk about herself. She emphasizes the fact that infibulation is "an extreme act of violence against women, a concept of male domination that saturates our society and perpetuates gender inequality."

But listening to her, you notice that her subversive tenacity flows from deep within. "My daughter is five years old and she will remain intact," she says. "She won't miss a day of school because her menstrual blood burns with pain. She'll be able to play and run free from the fear that the stitches could rip open. She will never damn the fact that she was born female."

To understand just how overwhelming the social pressure is, Abdi recalls the tragic story of her cousin, who committed suicide because she didn't undergo infibulation, which meant she was called kintirleeyi at school, an insult for a trampy woman with a clitoris.

Thanks to Abdi's placid stubbornness and ActionAid's commitment, there are currently 53 women's coalitions in Somaliland challenging the cruel custom. Hawa Muhumed Madar, 65, leader of the women in Agamsaha village, admits to the guilt she feels for having had her daughter infibulated. "Back then, tradition was not put under discussion, but now we are strong, united, and we won't take it anymore."

Maryan and Nymco, who were professional circumcisers earning $10 to $15 per girl until recently, have taken the same stance. "We've been taught that it's against Islamic law, so now we teach this to our communities."

A 40-year-long fight

The iconic spokesperson for the abolition of female genital mutilation is a glowing, energetic 78-year-old lady, Edna Adan Ismail, a midwife, former foreign minister and a UN delegate. In the 1970s, she was the first woman in the Horn of Africa who dared to publicly challenge the ferocity of the pharaonic ritual. "It means death for mother and child," she says today in the hospital she had built in Hargeisa with her own funds, recalling that the maternal-infant mortality rate in Somaliland is over four times higher than the average of developing countries. "Only seven hospitals in Somaliland carry out caesarean sections. In the other health facilities, if the artificial barrier hasn't already suffocated the child, the stitching is ripped open with scissors which can lead to the fistula, the worst death sentence possible. Why do you think I've been fighting against infibulation for over 40 years? Because it kills."

Aamina Milgo, chair of the Network Against FGM in Somaliland (NAFIS), says there is now a national movement that involves even husbands and religious leaders. "But we haven't reached a critical mass yet," she says. In a country where 85% of the women are illiterate (and 64% of the men), her primary target is ignorance. "There are people who believe the clitoris will grow disproportionately if it's not cut, and those who accuse you Westerners of inciting us against our own culture," she explains. "In the past, they instilled us with the belief that suffering through the torture was something to be proud of. To this day, for many women, not being sewn is a stigma."

Though the codes of the clans here come before the laws of the state and even before Islamic Sharia, the women's coalitions continue to fight to make female mutilation illegal, just like in 21 African countries where it has been banned. "A draft of a proposed law has been in the Parliament since 2011," Abdi says, "but the Ministry of Religious Affairs that examines and evaluates all decisions has yet to take a stand."

Eminent Imam Yousuf Abdi Hoore explains that while infibulation "is cruel and extraneous to Islam," a milder type of female circumcision appears in a prophetic tradition (hadith) and so, according to the Islamic school followed in Somaliland, it's recognized as an obligation. "It's called Sunnah, a very small incision to the clitoris thereby bestowing beauty and purity."

But women reject any sort of compromise. "We demand zero tolerance for all types of genital mutilation," says Abdi who, law or no law, wants to first and foremost change the way people think. "By creating awareness and knowledge in the villages, and getting mothers, fathers and religious leaders involved, my hope is that the next generation will be free from the horrors of infibulation."

While the usual afternoon wind blows, she takes us to view her Hargeisa from high ground: a flat geometry disturbed by the two twin hills Naasa Hablood, which means "girl's breasts" in the Somali language. As if femininity, in this non-place, were already blooming on the horizon.

*Photography: Simona Ghizzoni, Maps and graphic: Alessandro D’Alfonso, Data research: Emanuela Zuccalà, Valeria De Berardinis, Video: Emanuela Zuccalà, Simona Ghizzoni, Video editing: Paolo Turla

**This report is part of the UNCUT project on female genital mutilations (FGM). Produced with the support of the “Innovation in Development Reporting Grant Program” of the European Journalism Centre (EJC), funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and carried out in partnership with ActionAid NGO and the cultural association Zona.

Copyright: Emanuela Zuccalà Simona Ghizzoni - Zona.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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