Across the shores – the story of a Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) survivor
By Zarine Hashim
The memory of that fateful day is clear in my mind. It was a Saturday. And like every Saturday, mom, my older sister and I headed to our grandparents’ home to spend the day. I used to wait eagerly for the weekends, as we had so much fun there. We indulged in sumptuous delicacies and also occasional movie screenings.
But this day was different. It had something else in store for me.
On reaching my grandparents’ home, I noticed my grandma was ready to leave for somewhere else. She said that she was going to see her friends and asked me to accompany her. I was excited about the outing. Little did I know that this would be a trip I would want to forget.
We walked through the Bohra mohalla in the metropolitan city of Pune and climbed up a flight of stairs into a very dingy looking apartment building. We were greeted by a woman at the door who ushered us into the house. On entering the room, I noticed two other women sitting on a carpet that was laid out on the floor. One of the women asked me to take off my underwear and lie on the floor. I was very confused and looked at my grandmother who comforted me by saying that it was okay and I should do as told. So I did and as soon as I lay down, one of the ladies spread my legs and pinned them down hard while the other two pinned my arms above my head.
I remember fighting to get free but they were too strong for me. Then I felt this sharp pain and screamed in agony. It was all over quickly, but it felt like a very long time. I was very scared and closed my eyes. The lady then wrapped a gauze-like bandage around my private parts, almost like a nappy and I was instructed not to mention this to anyone.
Then the other lady said, “You’re going to get new underwear.” I remember thinking that I just wanted to go home to my mom.
This is how vividly I remember that fateful day. But until I signed a petition to stop this practice four years ago, all this was just a suppressed memory, buried deep inside. I’m not sure how it would have affected me physically, but it had a serious impact on my mind. I still shudder with pain each time I talk, think or read about FGM. I felt cheated of my innocence.
In 2012, a case of FGM performed on two girls from Sydney came to light after an anonymous tip-off to the police in New South Wales in Australia. Arrests were made and an investigation into the happenings and prevalence of this practice in Australia were widely publicised.
On seeing my signature on a petition to the then Syedna (head clergyman of the Bohra community) to end this barbaric practice, a reporter from the ABC channel in Australia got in touch with me for an interview. It was a very daunting proposal for me to narrate my experience so openly on television. After much deliberation, I decided to go ahead with it. This was the first time ever that I had spoken about my experience of FGM and it was like reliving every single moment of that dreadful day.
This was also the first time that my husband had learnt what had happened. Until then, I hadn’t even shared this with him. The practice of FGM has stigma attached to it, both physical and mental, and speaking about it brought me a sense of shame, even though I had no say in what had happened.
But since my story went on air, it was as if a huge weight had been lifted. I felt liberated. I have received so much support from friends and acquaintances from all over the world, most of them from my community, pledging never to have their daughters subjected to this barbaric practice.
After my interview was aired, the Australian Migrant and Refugee Women’s Alliance contacted me. They were going to organise a round table conference with the then Health Minister of Australia, Tanya Plibersek, at the Parliament House in Canberra. They invited me to join the discussion.
The main purpose of this meeting was to hear the personal experiences of survivors from different communities and propose changes to the legislation to help curb the practice in Australia.
It was great to meet and share stories with the other survivors from Africa and Iraqi Kurdistan. There were also some community social workers who shared their experiences working for the refugees and migrants in Australia.
After a few hours of discussion, we came to a consensus that the best way to end the practice is by awareness and education. We did realise that this practice was predominantly undertaken by the communities that migrated to Australia and also brought along their religious beliefs and cultural practices.
We proposed an education program to be set up as part of the orientation given to new migrants and refugees into Australia. This program included basic knowledge about Australian culture and lifestyle and could also educate these new arrivals about the laws that govern Australia.
This was very well received by the Minister and changes were proposed to the legislation based on the suggestions.
Coming out and speaking about my experience on FGM was by far the most difficult thing I’ve done. But today, I call myself a survivor and not a victim. I feel empowered by being a part of a group of very strong and brave women who are collectively fighting to eradicate this barbaric practice.
I am blessed with a two-year-old daughter. She is the symbolic representation of my endurance and perseverance.
Zarine Hashim is a 36-year-old woman currently living in Melbourne on the east coast of Australia. She is an administrator in a private hospital and committed to ending the silence around FGM.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.