Female Circumcision Comes to America

Performed by new immigrants, veiled in deference to a cultural tradition of the developing world, female circumcision is becoming an American problem

"In this country you see a lot of young women unmarried, pregnant," Yashanu, an Ethiopian taxi driver in his mid-forties, says, leaning back in his chair. "Maybe if American girls were circumcised, this wouldn't happen. When I was growing up, a girl had to stay within the family. She could be home no later than five or six in the afternoon. But in this country there are no rules." He shakes his head. "When you circumcise a woman, they're less active sexually and more interested in their schoolwork."

Mimi describes the physical pain, the burning and irritation, she still feels from what was done to her when she was six years old. She takes a small tube of cream from her purse and shows it to them. The cream is supposed to soothe her damaged nerve endings. "I can't enjoy sex," she tells them. "I feel nothing. I will never forgive my mother for doing this to me. Will you join me in stopping people from doing this to little girls? We have to help them," she says, smiling, touching one of the young men on his arm.

By the time Mimi stands up, thirty minutes later, the three younger men, all of whom knew vaguely about FGM because they had had sex with women who were circumcised, are horrified. They each promise earnestly to call their families back in Ethiopia to talk with them about the practice. But the older man remains unconvinced.

Across the street, at another African-owned restaurant, Ramsey speaks to a table of very modern-looking young women. One of them, a beautiful twenty-five-year-old in jeans who works for a Hollywood studio, pulls Ramsey aside and hands her a piece of paper. On it is the name of one of her close friends, a Los Angeles resident, who is planning to take her baby daughter back to Ethiopia for a circumcision in a week's time.

In her own community Ramsey patrols the African shops and restaurants like a diligent security guard. Her golden-brown face lights up whenever she sees a person she recognizes as a fellow Ethiopian, and she immediately engages in traditional greetings before turning the subject to that which is taboo.

"Was this done to you?" she asks the women. "It was done to me. I'm trying to stop this practice. Will you join me?" These encounters, usually the first time these women have ever discussed the issue, often end with tears, an embrace, and an exchange of phone numbers.

Beletu, a thirty-five-year-old Ethiopian immigrant, lives with her husband and their three daughters just outside Washington, D.C., in Maryland. She has had all three of her daughters circumcised—the youngest, two and a half, just last summer, during a short trip back to Ethiopia. "People practice without knowing," Beletu says regretfully, now that she has learned about the harmful aspects of the procedure. "Even though I lived here years, I didn't know. Nobody told me. I wouldn't have put my daughters in this situation if I had known." Five months pregnant with another girl, she vows to leave this one uncircumcised.

"My mother told me it's protection for us—from boys," says Azza, the Egyptian immigrant in Louisiana. "It's very bad pain. I don't want my daughter to have it, but it depends on what the doctor tells us." When told that information exists about the medical effects of the procedure, she begs for it to be sent to her. "The more education the better," she says. "It's done from generation to generation by word of mouth. But why is it done? I'm confused about it."

SORAYA Mire, the Somali film maker, is one of a handful of women trying to find the finances and forums to educate an immigrant population that views FGM as a comforting tie to the morality and traditions of its homeland. She uses screenings of her documentary as opportunities to discuss the issue. Like others, Mire is motivated by her own experience as a mutilated woman.

"They use vegetable thorns to sew because they are very strong," Mire says, describing the process of infibulation that she experienced. "The stitches stay in until marriage. Then three days before the wedding they ask the groom, Do you want to open her or do you want us to open her? A good man will say, You go ahead and do it. Others want to tear the woman open themselves.

"I get calls from people within the community asking me if I know someone who will circumcise their children. I of course say no, and try to talk them out of doing it. I got a call last year from a man in L.A. who said he had just performed a circumcision on a girl. He said, `She had a problem with her clitoris and I corrected it. There's nothing you can do to stop it.'"

Last year Mire went into hiding after receiving death threats from Somalis who were angry about what they saw as her traitorous behavior. She is now cautious when she's out in public and is reluctant to divulge the whereabouts of her secluded Los Angeles-area home.

At the Raleigh Studios, in Los Angeles, she shows her film to an audience of thirty-two people. The viewers cringe as they watch. A young girl is shown being held down. The circumciser reaches for a razor blade. The audience recoils. Mimi Ramsey is part of that audience. She drops her head to her lap and sobs.

After the film is over, Ramsey is asked to speak. She walks to the front of the stage but is still overcome. She simply cries and gasps, unable to talk for several minutes. The theater is perfectly silent except for her crying. Finally she speaks.

"I was struggling and calling my mother," Ramsey says in a hushed and breathless voice, trying not to break down again. "Little did I know that my mother had set me up. She paid for it to be done to me. This is something we all have to struggle with. While we're watching this, more little girls are being cut. My best friend was cut. She was my friend. My buddy. They did her the same day they did me, only she bled to death. What I'm doing now, I'm doing for her. I'm doing it for my buddy. She died for no reason. Please, let's fight it together. Please. Please."

Ramsey is still shaking an hour after the screening. "I need to go home, to face my mother. I need her to say she's sorry. Then I want her to go through Ethiopia with me, talking to women—talking them out of doing this to their daughters. She needs to go ahead of me. I will stand back and let her take the lead. It's only through this that I will forgive her."

Back home in San Jose, some time later, Ramsey hears again from Genat, in Washington. Genat has sent her mother back to Ethiopia. She happily reports that her daughter is safe. Crying, Ramsey thanks her, returns the phone to its cradle, and bows her head in prayer.

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