An Interview with Sultana and Zainab
By Rashida Murphy
Sultana has lived in Australia and various cities in Asia and Europe for the last 35 years. She is a jeweler by profession and an artist by disposition. I spoke to her in her home in Perth on March 8, 2016 (International Women’s Day). Zainab is a businesswoman living in a small town near Mumbai in India. I spoke to her via email and text messages on March 6, 2016. I asked the same questions of both women, who also know each other. Although geography and a generation separate them, their experiences of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are chillingly similar.
They will be identified in the conversation by their initials – SS for Sultana, ZM for Zainab and RM for interviewer (Rashida Murphy).
RM: How old were you when FGM was performed on you and what can you recall about that day?
SS: I was 5-years-old and I remember it was my cousin’s wedding. There were lots of people and lots of festivities in the house. My grandmother (dadima) took me to some dingy little house in the mohalla. There was a woman there I’d never met. She made me lie down on a gunnysack in the bathroom. She took out something that looked like nail scissors and cut me. Afterwards I had to walk back to the house with my grandmother. I remember the pain and feeling terrible because everyone was having such a good time and I could barely walk.
ZM: I was 7-years-old. My aunty (mami) told me she needed to go to the doctor’s and she would buy me ice cream if I went with her. So, of course, I went. She took me to some woman’s house and made me lie down on the floor. I remember the pain. I don’t think I can ever forget it. I screamed and cried very loudly and was told to keep quiet. I could not walk afterwards but I had to.
RM: Did your mum know? Have you spoken to her about it? What about your sister/daughter/other siblings?
SS: I think my mum knew but she was angry as well as powerless. I never really spoke to her about it. Over the years I have absolved my mum completely because there was nothing she could have done to stop it. We lived in a joint family and whatever the elders said was law. No one could disobey. I left the community and married someone outside of it and raised my children far away from them. I wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that to either of my children. I have a son and a daughter and I am happy to say that I did not subject either of them to any of these ‘rituals.’
ZM: Yes, my mother was aware of it and my younger sister, too, was ‘done.’ No one explained to us what the procedure was and why it was being done to us. We also lived in a joint family and I think all the girls were cut, but no one spoke about it. We just knew. I never spoke to my mum about it but my sister recently had a baby boy and she had him circumcised at just 1 month old. The poor baby was in so much pain and cried so hard. It’s a form of brainwashing, I think. The elders in the community and the so-called religious leaders get away with anything. No one knows why these things are done to us but they do them anyway.
RM: What are your thoughts now about the way this has affected you?
SS: I think I threw out the baby with the bathwater. I rejected everything about Bohra customs. I rejected their clothes, food, community and men entirely. I married an outsider and decided that my life was going to be one of joy. No secrets. This ghost act that no one wanted to talk about would not define me. There’s enough pain and sadness in life. Why should we add to it by doing this to our children? I guess I rebelled and filled my life with things that gave me pleasure. I have a naturally positive personality and I refuse to allow anyone to take away the things that make me happy.
ZM: The people in our community are brainwashed by our leaders. They follow the dictates blindly without thinking of the pain they put their children through. They believe that khatna controls the sexual desire of the girl and keeps her pure. In fact, our girls suffer from vaginal and urinary tract infections which the people in our community fail to acknowledge or understand. I’m married to a really nice guy now and I’m happy I don’t have to pretend or be anything other than myself with him. I have a supportive group of strong women friends and I can live my life without fear.
RM: Any other thoughts and comments?
SS: I find joy in the things around me. I find joy in my art and in my garden and in my children. The sad thing is, I feel that the Bohra community have forgotten how to have joy. They are so busy following their cult-like leader that joy has disappeared from their everyday life. It’s ridiculous to think that women have to campaign to end this senseless and pointless cruelty. Where are the Bohra men in all this? Why don’t they stand next to their wives and daughters and call it unacceptable? In the past, the reformist Bohra men disagreed with the Syedna’s politics and we applauded them. Why did they not speak out against this practice? We need to end this hypocrisy and double standards.
ZM: The people in our community are quick to judge and slow to help. They notice it when you don’t go to the mosque or you don’t wear a rida. They don’t notice when injustice is done right in front of them. They look away. Or they tell you that you are wrong. They tell you to do what everyone is doing, follow the rules blindly.
RM: Thank you.
Dr. Rashida Murphy is a Perth based writer and poet who has written about FGM previously. Her short poem about clitoridectomy titled, Twelve, is forthcoming in Veils, Haloes and Shackles and her novel, The Historian’s Daughter, will be published in September by UWA Publishing.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.