From Girl to Woman at Seven

Imagine yourself to be a seven year old girl if you will.

At seven years old, the only thing on your mind is how to get Papa to give you a biscuit even though your mom has already said no, and who your next playmate is going to be. It is hardly an age where one should have to think about anything related to their sexuality nor endure physical pain and emotional pain that will last them a lifetime

Imagine that, you live in a rural village. You have been outside playing and are growing bored. You walk into your kitchen and see Mama and Grandmama discussing in the corner, all you want is to see if Mama will give you a sweet even though it is two hours before dinner. She smiles at you and tells you to come here that she has an errand for you to run.

You skip happily to her side curiously. She asks you to run to the neighbors house and get a knife for her..

You think maybe she’s cooking something for dinner and needs a special knife. Maybe it’ll be something delicious! You agree happily to go to the neighbors, the whole time on your way there you can only thing of the delicious things that might be for dinner.

The neighbor hands you a knife wrapped in a bloody, white cloth. She gives you a funny look, at seven you can barely discern what look means what, but later on you will remember her eyes filled with pity looking down upon your small, seven year old frame.

You make off for home, eager to show Mama that you were able to do what she asked of you without fail.

Upon entering into the kitchen you notice that it is no longer Grandmama and Mama, but that they have been joined by a third woman. You greet the visitor as you have been taught to and hand Mama the knife with a big smile. As you prepare to run outside again, Mama asks you to stay. You are interested to know why and stay where she asks you. You are approached by Grandmama and in an instant both her and Mama are by your side.

You are laid down on a pallet and the next moments are a blur. You remember a wad of cloth being put in your mouth and your pants being pulled down. The next thing you feel is the cold steel blade of the knife you’ve just given your Mama on your skin and the strange woman above you. Next thing you remember is pain. And blood, a lot of blood.

In that moment, at the young age of seven, you have become a victim of tradition, you have become a victim of Female Genital Mutilation.

The sad thing is that thousands of girls all over the globe are forced to go through this traumatic experience at such young, crucial and formative years of their lives. And it shapes who they will be for the rest of their lives.

Fast forward twenty years.

You have managed to go to school despite the odds against you, and have been fortunate and hard working enough to make it out of the village and are now living in a developed nation where basic healthcare is a right. As a twenty seven year old woman, you are having your first visit to the gynecologist, and are terrified. You are terrified and ashamed of what the doctors will think when they examine you. But of course they must have experience with FGM and hopefully they can counsel you in an appropriate manner and point you toward some resources that might be able to help you. I mean, it’s the 21st century and you are living in a developed country, of course they should know how to relate to victims accordingly, right?

Wrong. You lie down on the table and wait for the doctor. The doctor finally comes in after what seems like forever and begins your examination. As the doctor lifts the sheet, her eyes are filled with horror, she looks at your face and then back down again at your lower body. But she doesn’t say anything to you. She stares for what seems like forever then leaves the room. She comes back in five minutes with three other doctors. Now they are all taking a look and discussing in a language that you barely understand. All the while, you are splayed out on the table for the world to see. You are overcome with an abundance of emotions, but the one at the top of the list is humiliation. And anger, anger at your mother for making this your life, anger at your culture for taking part in a tradition that causes so much pain to women, and anger at yourself for trusting these Western doctors, you think should have known better.

No woman should ever be made to feel this way, but this is the unfortunate reality of many.

To learn more about FGM, and what you might be able to join the fight against it, click on any of the following links:

http://tostan.org/

http://orchidproject.org/

http://www.global-alliance-fgm.org/

http://www.stop-fgm-now.com/campaign

FGM: Raising awareness accross the world

I recently attended a conference called AfroMadrid. This conference focused on issues that plague those of African descent in Spain, as well as the issues on the continent which are the catalysts of transnational migration of immigrants. Issues such a race and education were discussed, as well as discrimination and racism and the mindsets necessary to combat the two. Something that stuck with me the most however was the discussion revolving around health.

During the panel on women’s health, there was a testimony by a woman who was of Somalian descent but Kenyan born, as there is a Somalian population in the North Eastern province of Kenya. She spoke of an issue that many women in about 30 countries, many of which are located in Africa, face. She talked about her experience with Female Genital Mutilation also known as FGM. FGM is defined as non-therapeutic, partial or complete removal or injury of each of the external female genitals. There are Four type of FGM, all ranging in severity, from removal of the clitoral foreskin, to complete removal of clitoris, labia minora and majora, and sewing up of the vaginal opening. The practice is deeply rooted in tradition and dates back to the fifth century BC.

It is an encouragement of the patriarchy, a method of birth control, a guarantee that women will behave morally, avoiding promiscuity and promising faithfulness to their husband. It is viewed as a symbol of femininity and beauty, often considered a right of passage from girlhood to womanhood. Unfortunately, the tradition comes with very serious physical and mental consequences, such as bleeding, wound infections, sepsis and shock. Chronic physical problems like anemia, infections of the urinary tract, infertility, pain and menstruation problems are frequent. Women also have a higher risk for HIV infections. Both mother and child suffer during pregnancy and childbirth. Examinations and vaginal application of medicine are more difficult. Women have a higher risk for a prolonged delivery, wound infections, tearing during childbirth, the need to resuscitate the baby during childbirth and an inpatient perinatal death. Mental consequences after FGM include the feelings of incompleteness, fear, inferiority and suppression. Women report chronic irritability and nightmares. They have a higher risk for psychiatric and psychosomatic diseases. FGM carried out by doctors, nurses or midwives is also called medicalisation of FGM and is definitely unacceptable. It is a practice that is done for the approval of men and older generations, but the women and children are the ones who face the consequences of this unjust practice.

FGM is unacceptable, and many international organizations such as the World Health Organization, UNESCO and UNICEF condemn its performance. It is considered an abuse of a woman’s basic human rights, as FGM refuses women the right of freedom from bodily harm. Thankfully, specific laws that ban FGM exist in many countries in Europe, Africa, USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. However what about the treatment of women who have been subjected to FGM? There needs to be conversation between doctors and patients of FGM to support and inform the victims of the medical consequences and international attitude in order to avoid the future mutilation of newborn daughters in foreign countries. In addition, there needs to be an international conversation that creates awareness of how healthcare providers can support victims of FGM who live in western nations. Due to migration, an increasingly higher level of women with FGM now live in foreign countries. However, the knowledge and experience of medical staff in these countries is insufficient enough to handle cases, often leaving women unsatisfied with OBGYN healthcare. In order to prevent the exclusion of these women, it needs to be talked about and people need to be educated! The cycle needs to be ended.

Sources: Utz-Billing & H. Kentenich. Female genital mutilation: an injury, physical and mental harm. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, December 2008; 29(4): 225-229

“Natural” Beauty: African beauty as requested by Spain

I walk out the metro of Embajadores and step out into the square and am immediately accosted by a Pakistani man, handing me a card that red “Laiba Cosmetics: Pelo Natural Africano, Latino Europeo”.

Sidenote:  I looked Laiba up, it is an Urdu name. Laiba translates to something akin to “Angel of Heaven”.

He urges me to take a left and then another left and come visit his store. I asked if he was the owner and he said yes. Curious that a man who knows probably next to nothing about the upkeeping of African or Latino hair is the owner of a shop catering to exactly that customer base. Of course I decide to go and take a look, no intention of buying anything but for the sake of research I  give in to his urging and walk over to his shop.

I enter and see a small, one-roomed store, two walls lined with cosmetic products while another wall is lined with all different types of extensions. I walk over to the extensions, and it seems to me like just any other store I would see if I were to be in the U.S. Only difference in the hair is that there are fewer colors and fewer textures, more of the texture varying from wavy to straight, and no kinky Marley Braids like I would see in the U.S, the type of hair usually used for kinky twists, crochet braids or to amplify an afro. I turn in the direction of the cosmetic products and notice two things

1. That there is a limited amount of products compared to what I am used to in the States.

2. I sit back and observe the products and realize that there are at least 4 rows filled with perms, hair straightening creams and skin lightening and bleaching lotions and soaps. Nowhere in the shop do I see anything that I would consider remotely “natural”.

Looking at those shelves, I pretty much wouldn’t have used any of those products on my hair, unless I was looking to have to cut my hair off in a month or two. Much less put any of the lotions on my skin, as I know the extensive damage that can happen as a result of using skin whitening/bleaching creams .

Even in the United States large corporations such as Wal-Mart and Target have began to cater to the natural community, offering a small but good selection of products safe for naturalista consumption. However here it is not the case. The chances of you finding anything like a curling cream, or a sulfate free shampoo are pretty much slim to none. You’re much better off making your own products here to escape the damage that you could incur to your hair by using these.

Not to even speak of the fact that all of the products I saw seemed to be geared towards a demographic who clearly desired to achieve the Eurocentric standards of beauty that plague our Afrodescendent community of women. Straight hair and even straighter extensions accompanied by fair skin seems to be what is sought after by those who would frequent the store, and that is African women in Lavapies and whoever else happens upon the shop in search of beauty products. It says a lot about the standards of beauty on the continent of Africa and outside the continent and how are women have embodied these standards, desiring to do away with their kinks and curls and no longer loving the gorgeous, glowing melanin rich skin that they were born with.