I was a quiet child. I did what I was told and I loved my mum. Relatives who visited always commented on what a well-behaved, contained child I was, unlike my younger sister who was a bit wild and noisy. She got into scrapes and fought her way out of them. I was always likened to a quiet, docile cow – gareeb gai. I was told I was a good girl, unlike ‘that younger one’, who was not docile.
We lived in a quiet little army town and usually did not have much to do with the Dawoodi Bohra community to which we belonged. We went to a convent school and we had more non-Bohra friends than Bohra ones. Our friends belonged to every religion and were a colourful, fun-loving lot. I have happy memories of spending Diwali and Christmas and Navjot in the homes of my friends as I was growing up. We saw the members of our community infrequently during festivals or during majlis at Moharram. By comparison, I thought that the people in my own community were a serious lot, although there were some aunties who were loud and colourful and had funny stories to share. So, when I was five or seven years old and my mum said that we were going to visit one of the aunties in the community, I didn’t think anything of it. I don’t even remember exactly how old I was. Time has a way of blurring some memories into manageable chunks so we can survive. Obediently I got into the cycle-rickshaw and went with her. My mother did not say anything beyond the name of the aunty we were going to see, and true to my docile nature, I didn’t ask any questions. I remember that ride. It was a long one, but it was nothing compared to the return journey.
When we got to the auntie’s house in a small, congested mohalla that always smelled of urine, she put on her rida and hurried my mum and me along a dirty little street filled with stinking gutters and darkened houses. We climbed a long and narrow staircase into a small, dark house. A woman I had never met before opened the door and my mum, her friend, and I were asked to step inside. There was a barrier that I remember stepping over to get into the house. The woman pointed to cushions on the ground and went away. We sat on the floor and waited. I wasn’t very happy but unconcerned because my mum was with me.
The woman came back a few minutes later and took us into another small, dark room. This room was just like the other room, with floor cushions and not much furniture. She told my mum to go outside. My mother did not look at me as she left me alone with the stranger and her friend. This time I was scared and started to cry. I called out to my mum and the woman shushed me and said I was a good girl. It would only take a minute, she said. She sat on the floor and drew my head down on her lap. Her hands were rough and I saw that she had a blade in one of them. The aunty who had accompanied us here told me not to worry and everything was going to be fine. This auntie (my mum’s friend), put a hanky over my eyes and pulled down my knickers. I was so alarmed and embarrassed I thought I must have done something wrong. I felt my mum’s friend hold my legs tightly. I couldn’t move my legs and the strange woman told me to keep my arms away from my body, stretched out, I think she said. Despite wanting to cry and shout, I did as I was told. I didn’t dare move the hanky from my face to see what was going on down there. Then I experienced the worst and sharpest pain I had ever felt in my life. I felt a cut so sharp I could not even cry out, so great was the shock. The auntie wiped my tears and said I was a good girl. The other woman told me to go and wash in the bathroom. Make sure you pour water over your private bits, she said.
It hurt so much, especially when I poured water over my vagina. I think there was blood, but again, I don’t remember if I connected what had happened to me with what I now think of as a violation. When I came out, the woman put something that looked like ash inside my knickers and I cried out because it hurt so much. Then she led me to where my mother was sitting and said, ‘Mubarak ho,’ to her and my mum smiled and patted my head. We went home in the same cycle-rickshaw that we had come in. The jolts over the bumpy roads and the long ride home were horrible. I couldn’t sit on the hard seat and the sharp burning pain felt as if it would never go away. My mother scolded me softly when I cried and told me not to tell anyone, especially my younger sister or my dad.
As an adult, retrospectively, I am angry with my mum for leaving the room, for not being there when this thing was done to me and for scolding me when I cried. I am 60-years-old and I have not had an easy life, but I remember every detail about the experience. What was done to me and to thousands like me was wrong and is still wrong. To this day I cannot understand how a mother could have allowed this to happen to a child who trusted her.
My sister was spared this violation because my mother couldn’t trust her to keep quiet about it. I remember a conversation mum had with my auntie in which mum said that the younger one was not as docile as I was and would make a big noise and cry. As we grew up together, my sister and I have had many conversations about this but neither of us has ever spoken about it to our mother. We don’t know how to. And what purpose would it serve now, anyway? We are old enough to be grandmothers now and I never had a daughter. I’m speaking up now because I don’t want a new generation of women to ever contemplate doing this thing to their daughters.
Shehrebanu is a self-employed businesswoman in a town in Maharashtra. She believes it is important to speak out against FGM in her community and hopes the practice will be banned in India.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.