‘I just remember screaming’: Toronto FGM survivor recalls the day she was cut
Experts say there is a lack of local services in Canada for women like Yasmin Mumed who have undergone female genital mutilation.
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Yasmin Mumed remembers the brand new pale pink dress with embroidered flowers.
She remembers the morning trip to the busy market with her grandmother. And the candy she got to eat. It was a sunny, happy day.
Then her mind flashes to the dark room filled with women. The blindfold. Being laid on her back. The confusion, the fear and the piercing pain.
When it was all over, and the blindfold came off, she remembers looking down and seeing a patch of blood on her dress, just below her belly button.
Mumed was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting, at the age of 6 in her village in Ethiopia before immigrating to Canada. She grew up in Scarborough and, now 23, studies at the University of Guelph. She is one of more than 200 million girls worldwide who have been cut.
An ongoing Toronto Star investigation has revealed that the federal government is aware of cases in which Canadian girls have been taken abroad to be cut. Canada has failed to address and measure the scope of the problem.
Unlike the United Kingdom, which has undertaken research and is tracking FGM cases, Canada has not collected data on Canadian women who, like Mumed, are living with the physical and psychological affects of FGM, regardless of where and when it happened to them. In the U.K., there are an estimated 137,000 women and girls affected.
Experts say there is also a lack of local services in Canada for women, and far too few trained professionals, such as doctors and counsellors, to offer support.
Mumed was cut three years before she immigrated to Canada at the age of 9. She is now fundraising to go to California to have reconstructive surgery.
“I know there’s a lot of young girls out there who are just like me with a similar background, similar childhoods, who have never heard anyone that looks like them talk about this,” says Mumed of what is often a stigmatized and incredibly private topic. She never spoke about her cutting with her grandmother, who raised her and took her to have it done. She has also never spoken about it with her mother.
There are no health benefits to FGM, which varies in severity from partial removal of the clitoris to its most severe form — the incision of the clitoris and labia and stitching the vulva together, leaving only a small opening. This is known as infibulation.
Mumed’s clitoris and part of her labia were cut, preventing her from feeling sexual pleasure in the same way other women do. She looked for support services in the Toronto area to help her live with the anxiety and confusion she was feeling, and to help her navigate day-to-day life, including dating.
She didn’t find any.
Instead, Mumed found Dr. Marci Bowers in California, who has placed her on a wait list for a surgery, which some consider controversial, that would remove the scar tissue on her clitoris. It has given her some hope.
For the last several years, after she became sexually active, Mumed has relived the vivid memories of the day she was cut. At times, the flashbacks have left her with crippling anxiety.
She remembers walking back to her village from the market with her grandmother, and stopping at her great-grandmother’s home, which was at the end of a row of houses. It was sunny outside, but dark inside. A group of older women were huddled together with one very elderly woman sitting and holding a bowl of water.
The women then took hold of Mumed, some holding on to her arms and others, her legs. Another, her head.
“I just started panicking and didn’t know what was going on … I was just kind of freaking out and trying really hard to get out of the situation,” she says. “I didn’t understand what was happening. There was no conversation about what was happening.”
She was blindfolded and put on her back. That’s when she felt the pain shoot through her body. “I just remember screaming,” she says. Because she was fighting so much, the square-shaped razor the size of a paint chip the woman used to cut her clitoris slipped and also cut part of her labia. When she stood up the blood wasn’t just on her new dress but also pooling on the floor.
“I remember standing up and I remember my grandma sitting in the crowd looking at me. It was like she was sad but also trying to be strong. She gave me this look to also stop crying,” says Mumed. “I always wanted to make my grandma proud and for her to know that I’m strong.”
Her great-grandmother made a paste of herbs to place on the wound to help stop the bleeding. For the next several days Mumed stayed in bed, as family members, neighbours and even acquaintances from nearby villages came to bring treats of sweet tahini halva and say hello. Her great-grandmother checked in on her often to make sure there was no infection.
“I just remember people celebrating, people looking at me,” she says. “I felt kind of happy after. I guess the way people were acting with me was very proud. I felt I was at this different stage of my life.”
Soon, Mumed pushed the day out of her mind completely. She moved with her grandmother to Ethiopia’s bustling capital, Addis Ababa, to live with her uncle, leaving behind the village, with its open fields and nights lit by oil lamp. Her mother immigrated to Canada when Mumed was a toddler, after her husband, Mumed’s father, died. She had remarried and was trying to bring her only daughter to Canada.
At the same time, her grandmother was also preparing to leave Ethiopia because of the persecution of her Oromo ethnic group. One day, Mumed woke up and the woman who raised her had gone, left for a refugee camp in Kenya. Mumed stayed with her uncle until her immigration paperwork came through, in 2001. The only reminder of her cutting, her pink embroidered dress, now stained with brown spots from where the blood had faded over the years.
She continued to wear the dress. It was the nicest garment she owned.
For many years — growing up in public housing in Scarborough, learning English, adapting to life in Canada — Mumed, whose Oromo name, Galme, is a reference to the diary that holds the history of her people, never thought of her cutting. She took care of her younger half-brother. She spent most of her free time at the local community centre that became her refuge. Her relationship with her mother, who had her when she was just 15-years-old, was rocky. When she was a teenager, Mumed, left home, sleeping on friend’s couches before a family in her neighbourhood took her in.
The first time she thought at all about the issue of FGM was in her early teens. She was watching an episode of America’s Next Top Model, when a Somali contestant tearfully shared she’d been cut and couldn’t experience sexual pleasure. “Even then I still didn’t make the connection,” she says.
Soon after, when Mumed was 15 and in Grade 11, she had her first sexual experience. “When I found out something was different with me I immediately started having all these flashbacks,” she says. She turned to the internet and discovered a familiar story. Of the hut. The ambush. The group of women holding down flailing arms and legs.
She became depressed. “It’s like my whole life had been kind of a lie,” Mumed says. “I just felt like I wasn’t woman enough or I wasn’t whole. Like I wasn’t normal.”
Then she became angry. By that time her grandmother had been granted refugee status in the U.S. and was living in Seattle. “I remember I would be angry to even want to talk to her,” she says.
Looking back on it now, though, Mumed does not feel resentment towards her grandmother, who died three years ago.
She believes that the woman she loves and credits with teaching her how to be the resilient person she is now, wanted her to be cut because she knew her granddaughter was destined to live in another culture.
“It was her trying to protect me,” Mumed says. “She knew I was going to be raised in a world that’s completely different . . . It came from a really loving place and a place of just genuinely trying to pass something down to me that she genuinely felt was really important.”
FGM is practiced in 29 countries around the world, in Africa the Middle East, India and other parts of Asia. It is seen by some as a rite of passage into womanhood or a condition of marriage. Though it is not considered an Islamic practice — it predates the religion — for some, it is a religious ritual or requirement and there are tremendous societal pressures put on families to have it done.
In her village in Ethiopia, where today 63 per cent of women are believed to have been cut, according to UNICEF, it was the norm. “If anything, for people who weren’t cut, I remember that they would feel that they didn’t fit in or something was weird with them,” says Mumed.
That’s not to say she believes that any young girl should endure what she has. She worries for her little cousins — three girls under the age of five.
Mumed believes the best way tackle FGM is by “complicating the conversation” — by humanizing the people who are often demonized for perpetuating the practice because they often do it out of love, and by girls like her speaking out about it in a way that shows respect and sensitivity, and takes the issue out of the shadows.
“If we’re talking to each other and we’re tackling it within ourselves that’s the only way any type of real change, real understanding is going to happen,” she says. She and her friends talk about the complexities of the issue and how they don’t want to continue the tradition with their own children.
“We talk about it stopping with us,” Mumed says.
It wasn’t until the fall that Mumed began searching for resources, to help her talk about the traumatic memories of her cutting, or her body image or dating as a young woman. The urge came about because she had met someone she liked through mutual friends. They started talking on FaceTime. But the fact that she might have to tell this person about such a private thing filled her, again, with anxiety. She started losing sleep.
“When you’re not in an intimate relationship I don’t have to think about it but as soon as something happens where I might have to be intimate with somebody or I’m attracted to somebody that’s something that automatically comes out of nowhere,” she says.
While every woman’s experience and memories are different, FGM can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression, says Jasmine Abdulcadir, a gynecologist working at a specialized clinic for women with FGM at the Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland. And negative public messages about FGM and warnings of serious complications, such as lack of sexual pleasure, aimed at preventing the practice in future generations can also contribute to the stigmatization of women who are already cut, Abdulcadir says.
Mumed looked on the web for anything in the Toronto area that might help her — a support group, specialized health care professionals, an organization that focuses on FGM. She couldn’t find anything. Her case demonstrates that there is a lack of local services available for women living with it, experts say.
“It’s still something that people think doesn’t happen,” says Reyhana Patel of Islamic Relief Canada, whose organization has done research on the issue of FGM, adding that if there are services here “no one knows about it.”
Patel and her organization are calling on the Canadian government to do more, starting with conducting research to understand the issue nationally.
“When you get a sense of what’s happening you can start applying appropriate services,” she says.
In the U.K., for example, England’s Royal College of Nurses has undertaken efforts to create an enhanced dataset on FGM. In 2015-16 there were 5,700 new cases of FGM records, including 18 cases in which FGM had been undertaken in the U.K. There is also a government-funded national centre that provides support for survivors of FGM, including directing them to local resources.
Mumed is waiting for her reconstructive surgery with Bowers, a gynecologist who specializes in transgender surgery. She has performed more than 250 operations on women who have had FGM in her clinic, which is south of San Francisco. Bowers learned how to do the operation — which removes the scar tissue from the clitoris and cuts ligaments around it, allowing it to descend, in the hopes of giving the woman back some sensation — from Dr. Pierre Foldes in Paris, who pioneered the technique.
A non-governmental organization called Clitoraid, based in Las Vegas, covers the cost for the surgery, but Mumed is fundraising for her airfare and accommodation, as well as prescription drugs. She is also required to bring a friend for support. Her GoFundMe page has raised a little over $2,000 of her $6,650 goal.
In order to get approval for the surgery, Mumed had to see a gynecologist in Canada to send confirmation to Bowers’ office that she had indeed been cut and that her clitoris had been damaged.
The entire process was a negative experience, she says. When she went to the walk-in clinic to get a referral, the doctor there didn’t seem to know what she was talking about, Mumed says. When she went to see a gynecologist last December, she says the doctor told her that he didn’t think she needed the surgery because she had not been cut enough to cause problems with going to the bathroom or giving birth.
“He said ‘you’re perfectly fine.’ I said, ‘that’s not what I’m here for,’ ” Mumed says, adding that the doctor made her feel like she existed only to give birth.
She left the office and cried.
Dr. Bowers’ office let her send in photographs instead, to qualify for the surgery.
“It’s heartbreaking to see your friend go through that,” says Mumed’s friend, Shabina Lafleur-Gangji, who was with her at the gynecologist’s appointment. “It’s just one more hard and difficult step.”
In 2003, former midwife and anti-FGM campaigner Kowser Omer-Hashi co-authored a book with Beverley Chalmers about giving proper obstetric care to women who have had FGM. At the time, she heard from dozens of women who reported hearing hurtful comments from caregivers. “It really makes me sad,” she says. “Years later we are sitting here discussing the same issues.” While Omer-Hashi says she’s grateful for Canada’s health-care system, she says there should be more education and training about FGM.
Not all doctors agree on Dr. Bowers’ technique.
In 2012, Foldes, the doctor who invented the surgery, and his colleagues published a study in the medical journal, The Lancet, that found after a one-year follow-up of 866 patients, most reported an improvement in clitoral pleasure and just over half experienced orgasm.
In response to Foldes’ study, a group of British doctors wrote The Lancet saying his claims were not “anatomically possible.” (Foldes rejected their remarks).
While Mumed hopes the surgery will work, she is not certain it will. Her decision to pursue it is, more than anything, about making her own choice about her own body, she says.
“It’s something that was taken away from me without my consent,” she says of her cutting, adding that she is pursuing the surgery to have “that power back.”
“I’ve made a decision over my body and I’m choosing to do it. Not everyone makes the same choice. Everyone needs to do their own journey.”