Growing up in the Somali Diaspora in the UK, I always knew perceptions of sexuality and female genital mutilation (FGM) went hand in hand. When young girls would misbehave, it was not uncommon for them to be chastised and berated because of their lack of circumcision – as though they were misbehaving due to some misplaced sexual frustration. It seemed as though a woman’s sexuality and sexual organs were something to be ashamed of. A woman’s sexuality did not belong to her at all.
FGM is an umbrella term used to describe the actions that involve the “cutting” or mutilation of female genitalia. There are four main types of FGM, with each one differing in the scale of damage it causes internally and externally.
In mine and many other communities, FGM is a practice that is used to control a woman. A woman is ‘cut’ to curb her sinful lust and allow her to remain ‘pure’ for her husband. This, of course, affects a woman’s mental, physical, emotional and sexual health.
Proponents of FGM loosely base their rationale on the belief that people, in particular women, should not be having sex before marriage. Yet with the complications that FGM brings, a woman can’t easily have sex within marriage either. Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse is the Global Head of Partnerships and Advocacy at ForwardUK, an organisation committed to gender equality and safeguarding the rights of African girls and women. Many women who have gone through FGM are traumatised, and Adwoa says whilst some women have said it hasn’t affected their sexuality, the majority of women she has observed throughout the years found sex to be “yet another burden”.
Not feeling in control of your own body
Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse (pictured) is the Global Head of Partnerships and Advocacy at ForwardUK, an organisation committed to gender equality and safeguarding the rights of African girls and women
Adwoa recounts a conversation with a young woman who had been cut. The nearer it got to night-time, the more anxious the young woman would become. She would busy herself with mindless tasks in order to pass the time until her husband fell asleep. When he finally entered into a deep sleep, she would creep in and lay on the edge of the bed, making sure she didn’t wake him. All so that he wouldn’t demand sex. This is indicative of the emotional and physical trauma that FGM can have on a woman and how some survivors can feel they are not in control of their own bodies.
Below, three survivors of FGM, who have chosen to remain anonymous, describe how they reclaimed their sexual identity. All three women said they needed to come to terms with happened to them through self-acceptance and unlearning a lot of what they had been taught about sexual identity.
‘I’ve placed less pressure on myself’
Faduma, 37, lives in Birmingham
“Communication is key: communicating with your partner and realising when you need to be kind to yourself. I never used to speak to my friends about FGM and what I had been through, but I think that’s also important. Once I opened up, I realised I wasn’t alone and that helped me with the healing process.
When I was a teenager I didn’t think about it that much, but that all changed when I got married. I was a victim of type 3 FGM, so I had to go to a doctor to get part of the procedure reversed before my wedding night – I was one of the lucky ones who could afford a doctor. But taking that responsibility for my own sexual health was a pivotal step.
I am reclaiming my sexual identity, but slowly. Sex will never be easy or linear for me, but now I’ve placed less pressure on myself, it’s easier to move forward. A lot of it has to do with accepting my body as it is and not feeling shameful. I’ve read a lot about FGM and I’ve been educating my partner on it. It used to be considered a taboo subject and something that only women had to deal with but actually it involves both men and women, especially when you are in a relationship.
I also talk about it with my mother. She was also the victim of FGM and I don’t blame her for what happened to me. I know there was a lot of cultural pressure involved.”
‘I taught myself I wasn’t an object to be used’
Khalia, 27, lives in London
“I felt like I never had a sexual identity, like it was taken away from me when I was seven. I had to unlearn a lot of rhetoric that I’d been taught, so that’s where I started with reclaiming my sexual identity. I taught myself that I wasn’t an instrument, that I wasn’t an object to be used.
I went to the doctor here in the UK and had some reconstructive surgery. I’m now open and honest with the men that I date – I tell them what has happened because I accept that it wasn’t my fault.
It sounds silly but positive affirmations helped me a lot. I also know that sex doesn’t define me. Downplaying the significance meant that I didn’t have so much emotional baggage attached to it, which meant I could explore my sexuality without feeling guilty. My sexual identity is just one part of my overall identity and once I accepted that, it actually started to have more of a significance.
Leila, 52, lives in London
“It was emotionally traumatic. When I used to think about it, I never used to leave the house.
I’ve come to terms with it over the years. Women are always defined by men, but you have to find your own self-worth and your own purpose. I feel a lot more confident now. I can say no when my partner asks for sex because it’s my body – at my age, I’ve finally realised that.
I have learnt to prioritise myself and accept what has happened. I was taught to feel shame for simply being born a woman and learning to fall in love with myself was key – I started reclaiming my sexual identity by first loving myself.”
names have been changed
More from iwomen