By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 3, 2008
The women's stories all begin with a searing childhood memory they cannot describe without weeping.
The stories stretch back to villages in North and West Africa, where tribal traditions include various rites to protect family honor. For generations, mothers there have passed on the practice of genital circumcision to their daughters, believing it will make them respectable and chaste for marriage.
The stories leap to present-day America, where foreign-born victims of forced circumcision have been allowed to apply for political asylum since a landmark immigration ruling in 1996, but where, in the past year, some immigration courts have been trying to narrow the grounds on which they can receive legal sanctuary.
Only a few hundred women have sought or won such asylum claims. A handful live quietly in the Washington area, working in hospitals and offices and beauty salons. All carry deep physical and mental wounds. Five agreed to be interviewed, but none was willing to be identified. No one at their jobs or in their neighborhoods knows their secret. In court documents, they are referred to as "A-T" or "H-M." Yet they live in fear that a distant, smothering culture can reach out and harm them again.
"I was 7. They put a large fabric on the floor. There were about 50 other girls there, too. The people danced and beat drums. The grown-ups held me down. My mother was screaming, but they beat her and held her away. Then they cut me and I was bleeding. It hurt and I was crying and bleeding and crawling. I crawled for a whole week."
That is Eliza speaking. She is poised and articulate, but tears well up as she describes the childhood ordeal in her native Senegal, then her escape to the West and a harrowing visit home when the clan tried to force her to marry an elderly cleric, shaved her head and fed her charcoal as punishment when she refused.
Now living in the United States as a tourist with a long-expired visa, Eliza is awaiting her asylum hearing and could be deported. Divorced, she lives with her mother and has two small daughters who are U.S. citizens. If her case is denied, she says, she will have to choose between leaving the daughters behind or taking them home to face near-certain circumcision.
Today, despite world condemnation, legal bans in many nations and years of educational efforts, female circumcision is still widely practiced in Africa. In nine countries -- Egypt, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Eritrea, Gambia and Djibouti -- more than 75 percent of women have been circumcised.
During the brief procedure, known in the West as female genital mutilation, part or all of the external genitals are cut off. The subjects are usually pre-pubescent. In many cases, health organizations report, they suffer lifelong problems with urination, menstruation, childbirth and sexual relations. The practice cuts across religions, classes and borders, but is far more prevalent in rural areas than cities.
Senegal has made significant strides to reduce the practice, with about 28 percent of women undergoing circumcision. Women's groups there said more than 2,000 villages have abandoned it in the past 20 years after a process of community education and discussion. But they also said cultural pressure can outweigh laws against genital mutilation, and that its practitioners are motivated by a sincere desire to see girls become proper wives and mothers.
"It has been going on for 2,000 years, and it is deeply engrained social norm. If a girl is not cut, she will not get a good husband," said Molly Melching, an American who heads a women's advocacy organization in Senegal. "If you live in certain villages, everyone tells you this is the way to become respectable. If you stand up and object, you are ostracized," she added in a telephone interview. "Women do not do this to harm their daughters. They do it to help them succeed. They do it out of love."
Eliza comes from a family in which three generations of women -- her grandmother, her mother and herself -- represent a difficult evolution from ardent belief in the practice to confused resistance and finally adamant rejection of genital cutting.
Back home, her grandmother was a village elder in charge of coming-of-age ceremonies for girls. When Eliza's mother was old enough, the grandmother planned the celebratory rite that would make her presentable for marriage. She gathered the trusted relatives who held the girl down. Then she took a razor blade and mutilated her daughter.
Eliza's mother fled her native land long ago. Despite the powerful bonds of culture and family, she says she grew up with an awareness that was different from other girls in her tribe and felt cheated by what had been done to her. She obtained some education and eventually fled with her father to the United States. Several years ago, she was granted asylum on the grounds of female genital mutilation. She lives in Virginia and says she is determined to help prevent more girls from being cut.
But despite her convictions, Eliza's mother can not bear to have anyone know it happened to her. Even after 40 years, when she tries to describe that day and the painful inner conflicts it unleashed, she breaks down in uncontrollable sobs.
"I love my mother, yet she did that to me." Her voice fails, and she tries again. "I know she thought it was the right thing to do. I know it came down from her mother's mothers. I know people are ignorant and need to be educated. I know she loved me. But it is not loving someone to cut them and make them bleed," she says. "I had to stand up and stop it, or it will go down to my daughters' daughters."
* * *
Of the millions of rural African women who face circumcision, most submit and go on with their lives. Only a few, usually those with money and education, defy their tightknit cultures and flee to the anonymity of larger African cities or abroad. Even those who immigrate to the United States, however, remain largely silent, accepting of tradition and enveloped in conservative emigre microcosms.
But a handful of women have sought protection from U.S. immigration courts since the law recognized female genital mutilation as grounds for asylum 12 years ago. Some circumcised women have won asylum by proving they feared further persecution; others have convinced judges that their daughters would face the same ordeal if forced to return to their native regions.
A year ago, two court rulings began to roll back those grounds, alarming women's rights activists. In the case of a woman from Mali, known as "Matter of A-T," the Board of Immigration Appeals found last October that because genital mutilation "generally is inflicted only once," that meant the victim "no longer has a well-founded fear of persecution" that would entitle her to be sheltered as a refugee.
In a second ruling, the board found that an illegal immigrant from Senegal was not entitled to asylum solely over concern that his U.S.-born daughters would be circumcised if they returned home with him. The court said the daughters could remain safely in the United States and that the pain of family separation was not enough to prevent his deportation.
Five weeks ago, the Attorney General's office ruled that the decision in "Matter of A-T" had been "flawed," and it ordered the board to reconsider the Malian woman's case. The order said genital mutilation is "only one aspect" of persecution that women in certain social groups can face, specifically including forced marriage.
"This is a very important development, because FGM is never a single act. It is part of a set of broader cultural practices that can affect women for life, especially in ways that restrict their personal freedom," said Layli Miller Muro, director of the Tahirih Justice Center in Falls Church, which helps abused immigrant women.
One African-born Tahirih client described how relatives accused her of bringing a curse on the family by refusing to circumcise her daughter, then tried to kidnap the girl and exorcize her to remove the curse. Another client said the day her husband died, his tribe planned to force her to marry his brother and circumcise her daughter. She said she barely escaped with help from relatives.
Even when such women obtain legal sanctuary in the United States, experts say they often feel isolated and depressed -- separated from the families and cultures that raised them, and unable to find confidantes in a new foreign society. Eliza and the other women interviewed also said they were fearful that their identities and whereabouts would become known, shaming them among African communities here and exposing them to pressure by persistent relatives to send their daughters back.
"At home, when you are to be circumcised, you are part of a system that honors and celebrates you. Here, when you get asylum, you are legally safe but alone. You have rejected what you are, and what do you replace it with?" said Zeinab Eyega, a Sudan-born activist who runs Sauti Yetu, a group in New York that offers mutilation victims a substitute for the social embrace that accompanied their circumcision. "We bring women together. We celebrate their birthdays and Mother's Day," she said. "Our message is: You are not alone."
Eliza and her mother participate in a women's group at the Tahirih center, where they can talk freely about their struggles. But both said they still feel uncomfortable revealing their stories, guilty and confused about the family ties and tribal beliefs they fled, and permanently damaged by their long-ago ordeal.
"It is not a scar. It is a wound that never goes away," Eliza's mother said. "I heard that the courts said once you are cut, then it is over and you are fine. But how can you be fine when what makes you a woman is missing? How can you be fine when you have a hole in your body and your soul?"