The two women met for the first time last week at a sleek Georgetown hotel, where they were speakers at a glittering charity dinner. They shook hands and hugged across a vast gulf of culture, geography and faith: one a devout Muslim from West Africa with her hair carefully hidden under a tight scarf, the other a gregarious South Asian in a stylish sari and costume earrings.
But the horrific stories they had come to tell were surprisingly similar. Stories of gruesome rituals and suffocating family pressure; of two teenage brides a world apart, who somehow found the nerve to defy fate and escape to freedom. Now, years later, the pair were being feted as celebrities, survivors and crusaders for change. As each was introduced in the darkened salon, the clinking and murmuring stopped and the audience rose to its feet.
Jasvinder Sanghera, 46, fled an imminent forced marriage to a stranger in England and became a high-profile activist, telling her story countless times and seeking to protect other female South Asian immigrants from similar fates. Fauziya Kassindja, 35, fled the threat of genital mutilation in Togo and won a landmark U.S. asylum case that brought world attention to the plight of African girls, yet she has shunned the limelight, preferring to forget her painful past and focus on family and business.
“People say I did something brave, but the girls who go through this ordeal are the ones with real courage,” Kassindja said in an interview at the hotel fundraiser for the Tahirih Justice Center. She was referring to “kakia,” the ritual of crude circumcision that girls in her native country were traditionally forced to endure. Female relatives held down the screaming teenagers and sliced off their genitals with a knife, believing this would make them “clean” for their husbands.
At 19, Kassindja was expected to marry a much older man and undergo the rite before the wedding. But she was determined to resist and enlisted sympathetic relatives to help her run away. She eventually reached the United States, where she was detained as an illegal immigrant for 16 months. Then, in an unprecedented legal decision, she became the first person to receive U.S. political asylum for fear of “gender-based” abuse, particularly female circumcision.
Kassindja remained in the United States, where she graduated from college and became a citizen. She married an old friend from Ghana and bore triplets. She runs a successful grocery store on Staten Island that specializes in imported African foods, and she often travels to Ghana to purchase ingredients.
Kassindja’s case helped raise international awareness and condemnation of female genital mutilation, or FGM, as it is often called by human rights groups. The practice was banned in some countries, and in 2009, U.S. immigration courts widened asylum protection to female immigrants who feared other abuses, including forced marriages and protracted domestic violence.
But according to surveys by international rights groups, FGM is still widely performed in more than two dozen countries. More than 90 percent of Muslim girls in Somalia, Egypt, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Guinea undergo the procedure, as do a great majority in Sudan, Mali, Gambia and Eritrea. FGM, aimed at reducing women’s sexual pleasure and urge to stray from marriage, can lead to medical problems including painful urination and sex, complicated childbirth, infection and septic shock.
“In the cities, people have more education now and girls are safer, but in some villages, they still say this tradition comes from our great-great-grandfathers,” Kassindja said with chagrin. “I think it will take a million years to change.”
While Kassinjda was growing up in the tightly circumscribed world of a Muslim Togolese village, Sanghera was trapped in an equally powerful web of social convention in an immigrant enclave 5,000 miles away. Although born and raised in England, she was the daughter of Indian Sikh immigrants, who expected her to leave school and marry an older Sikh man she had never met. Like Kassindja, she refused and ran away, determined to avoid the fate of her older sisters.
“I had seven sisters. Most were taken out of school and sent to India to marry men they had only seen in photos. Nobody asked where they had gone or why,” Sanghera recounted in an interview at the fundraiser. When she turned 14, her mother showed her a man’s photograph and announced that she would soon leave school and marry him. “I protested and said I was not going to marry a stranger,” she said. “I was taken out of class and locked in my bedroom for weeks until I finally agreed.”
Shortly before the wedding, Sanghera ran away, but she was quickly caught by police. “I called home, and my mother said, ‘You are dead in our eyes unless you come back and marry him.’ ” She never went back, and she has been disowned by her family. Her younger sister, who was forced to marry the man, ultimately escaped the abusive union by burning herself to death.
Sanghera exorcized her guilt and anger by plunging into full-time advocacy for women’s marriage rights. She has written two books, including an autobiography called “Shame.” She makes public appearances and testifies as an expert in court cases. She also lobbied for legislation against forced marriage of minors in Britain, which is home to large populations of South Asian and African immigrants. The law was enacted in 2008, and hundreds of protection orders have been issued for at-risk girls.
Indefatigable and driven, Sanghera never misses a chance to highlight her cause. She flew from London to attend last week’s fundraiser for Tahirih, a nonprofit agency in Falls Church that helps thousands of female immigrants trapped by abusive families or foreign customs. Unlike Kassindja, who reconciled with her family long ago, Sanghera remains estranged from her relatives; that gives a sharp personal edge to her crusade.
“My own family deemed it more honorable for my sister to kill herself than to leave her husband,” Sanghera said bitterly. Despite the British law against forced marriage, she said, many South Asian girls there are beaten and threatened for wanting to choose whom to date or marry. Authorities can be reluctant to intervene for fear of offending immigrant mores. “They protect the perpetrators in the name of cultural sensitivity,” she said.
According to a survey conducted last year by Tahirih, forced marriage of female minors among some Asian and African immigrant communities is also a growing problem in the United States. The report said that up to 3,000 cases had been confirmed or suspected in the past two years, but that many victims were reluctant to speak out and that many service agencies had no way to judge whether a marriage was forced or merely arranged by a girl’s family.
Kassindja, who became briefly famous after her asylum ruling, co-wrote a book about her ordeal, “Do They Hear You When You Cry,” and gave a number of TV interviews. But in the years since, she has made few public appearances. She said she prefers not to dwell on her experience, including what she described as callous and humiliating treatment during her months in U.S. immigration jails. When a video clip was shown at last week’s fundraiser, showing her joyful release from detention 18 years ago, she slumped and wiped her eyes.
In a quieter way, though, Kassindja is helping African women who face the pressures and conflicts of conservative customs that have followed them to lives in Western society. In her community, she said, some women gossip about her personal history, but others privately seek out her advice and call her “hajjia,” a term of respect for a Muslim woman who has performed hajj.
“My customers come to me for counseling all the time,” she said. “A lady from Nigeria said her husband was beating her and kidnapped her kids. She was shaking and crying. I kept telling her to calm down and be strong.”
Sometimes, she added, families approach her to talk about whether their daughters should undergo kakia. “I know the horrors involved, so I can put the fear in them,” she said.