This is part two of a blog series. If you have not read part one, please click here. The series is chronological and therefore reading them in order is integral.
Imagine with me that you’re five years old again. What comes to mind? Who comes to mind? Every person reading this will have a unique story. But it’s likely that, invariably, every reader’s memories might include family or friends. Aisha’s version does too. In fact, there are six specific people that come to Aisha’s mind: her mother, cousin, aunt, grandmother, and two neighbours.
But let’s go back.
When Aisha was five years old she was taken on holiday. As you might remember from the first post about her, when Aisha was five she and her family were living in Saudi Arabia. So this particular holiday was to her birth country of Sudan. Aisha remembers traveling there with her cousin who was around the same age, her mother, aunt, grandmother, and two neighbours. She remembers that, upon arrival in Sudan, both her and her cousin were showered with beautiful clothes and toys. She remembers getting henna tattoos, getting her hair cut and styled. She remembers jewellery. She remembers gold, laughter, and money.
Aisha also remembers one word very vividly: Tahoor.
Tahoor. Tahoor. Tahoor.
In Sudan, the word Tahoor is derived from the Arabic word Tahar – meaning to clean or purify. As Aisha knows now, as a 43-year-old woman, the word she heard over and over again during this holiday at the age of five –Tahoor – denotes something much more dangerous. In Sudan, Tahoor describes the process of female genital mutilation (FGM). Thus in Sudan, female genital mutilation is the process of ‘cleansing’ and ‘purifying’ young girls. And this linguistic association between FGM and purity does not occur only in Sudan. One other such example is in Somalia, the process of FGM is often called Halalays, derived from the word Halal, meaning sanctioned and pure.
At five Aisha didn’t understand this, and at 43 she still doesn’t understand it. After contemplating this sinister practice, and the words used to describe it, Aisha continued recounting that fateful holiday to Sudan. In short, she said, ‘I thought it was my birthday.’
But this perception came to an abrupt end when her aunt, grandmother, and two neighbours took Aisha and her cousin to a house near the Nile River. The house was big enough for only three or four rooms, and it had a large yard around the house. Aisha recalls the house and yard being filled with countless women and little girls. She also remembers hearing and seeing the women celebrating and singing. Still riding on her waves of bliss from her party, and no doubt still thinking it was her birthday, Aisha was gleeful. The only thing missing from this outing was her mother. Little did she know then, the absence of her mother in those following moments would go on to haunt Aisha for the rest of her life.
On that warm day in Sudan, 38 years ago – Aisha, her grandmother, aunt, two neighbours, and her little cousin (no doubt a close companion in this state of youthful, trusting bliss), entered the house.
Upon entering this house Aisha remembers first seeing a green room. And almost instantly after seeing this room, her reading of the house, the day, and her mother’s absence, changed drastically. The sights and sounds of the house overwhelmed her. First she heard the screaming. In the midst of Aisha mentally seeking out the source of the blood curdling screams, she saw a girl being quickly carried out of the green room. But this little girl was not the source of the screams – she was unconscious and covered in blood. Aisha says now that she thought this little girl had fainted. But of course it’s certainly possible that this little girl was dying. Death by haemorrhage is one of the most common causes of death by FGM. Even worse, sometimes the blood loss alone is not the direct cause of death, but neurogenic shock – which is caused by the combined blood loss and severe pain.
Although it is not easy, we must pause and understand female genital mutilation for what it is. We must understand what this unconscious, blood-soaked girl had just been forced to endure. The process of FGM involves untrained women (and sometimes men) often using dull, unsanitized razors to cut across the high pressure clitoral artery, so as to remove a girl’s clitoris – commonly without anaesthetic. And this is just one type of FGM. There are many variations of FGM, but generally the other types continually get more dangerous and painful, up to sewing the vaginal wounds closed (wounds from the removal of the labia majora – outer lips) so that scar tissue will fuse together over the vaginal opening so as to make intercourse impossible (or excruciatingly painful and dangerous).
Without understanding this, we can never understand Aisha.
So let’s return to her. But first, let’s imagine little Aisha in those moments after entering the house. In doing that, we must imagine ourselves. Imagine young you at your birthday party with your best friend. Imagine your giddiness, your smile, your unbridled joy, your innocence. Do you remember that? Most of us do, at some points in our young lives we were all little happy Aisha, and she was all of us. We were all Aisha until right after she walked into that house and spotted the green room. Right up until the blood-soaked girl and the screams. Can you imagine how her world shifted in those seconds? How might yours have? Your child’s?
Aisha’s smile dropped, I imagine, as her eyes widened. Perhaps her and her cousin were holding hands and suddenly they released each other without noticing that their grip fell slack. Or perhaps they squeezed each other’s hand tighter in terror. Aisha’s pupils must have dilated, or constricted. Her palms may have gotten sweaty. Her legs might have started trembling. When she walked into that house dressed up in henna, new clothes, with new hair, and dripping in love and attention from her family, with the sound of singing and celebration in her ears – she must have been confused beyond belief. When you’re up so high, the farther you fall – and Aisha was falling.
Aisha’s senses must have kicked into overdrive in an attempt to understand what world she had just walked into. I imagine her eyes scanning the familiar faces of her family, searching for a clue that everything is going to be okay, or that this is all a practical joke that will end in laughter and more fun – that the bleeding girl is not really bleeding – that the screams are screams of joy. Or perhaps not. Perhaps she thought that her and her family were there to save those girls and it was going to be her job to hold their hands, calm them down, and sing them songs until they’re better.
I imagine Aisha’s ears and eyes were desperately seeking out for an anchor in a reality that she was familiar with, safe in. A reality that she could find a useful role in and make sense of. A reality that would calm her little thundering heart. Those mind-boggling seconds must have been nothing short of torture. But they were over soon enough, because it only took a few seconds to realise that the reality she was familiar and safe in, was gone. And she would never get it back. The unconscious, bloody girl hinted at this new reality – and the dragging of her screaming cousin into the green room solidified it.
Please check back soon for part three of Aisha’s story.