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.

— Dahabo Ali Muse, "Feminine Pains" poem, 1998

HARGEISA — "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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