When Jenny (who asked us not to use her last name) was five, she was taken on a mysterious journey. She and her sister, were met at the airport in a strange city by a woman they did not know who took them to a strange house. “It was done there,” recalled Jenny.
“It” was female genital mutilation–FGM. Also known as female circumcision, FGM involves removal of some or all of the external female genitals. It is a brutal procedure with no medical benefits, with the sole intent of reducing the sexual pleasure of adult women.
It’s a procedure that’s common around the world, and is even an issue in the United States, where more than half a million girls have undergone or are at risk for FGM. Jenny and her sister did not fit the mold of young girls who undergo this secretive practice. It’s most common among African, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, but Jenny is the daughter of a preacher.
When we suggested that Jenny had grown up in a culture that is outside the mainstream she insisted, “Everyone needs to stop trying to attach this to something that is not the ‘norm’ and see this as an issue that can happen to any girl/woman they love.”
Working with the AHA Foundation, established by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in 2007 to fight against female mutilation, honor killings, and forced marriage, Jenny was a leading voice in the successful campaign to get the Kentucky legislature to ban FGM in Kentucky. The bill passed earlier this year and it has been unofficially dubbed “Jenny’s Law.” Kentucky is the 38th state to pass such a law criminalizing FGM.
Upon awakening, she noticed the doll she had brought with her was “sitting in a pool of my blood.”
“No one likes talking about genitals, especially the genitals of little girls, but the silence about female genital mutilation protects perpetrators and harms women and girls. That is why we — a senator, an activist, and a survivor — are speaking up about and fighting against this atrocity,” Kentucky state legislator Julie Raque Adams, who sponsored the bill, and Amanda Parker, senior director at AHA Foundation, wrote in an op-ed published in the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Adams and Parker went on to describe the procedure in graphic detail that made for uncomfortable reading: “Female genital mutilation is any procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical purposes. It is typically performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 14, often with a razor blade or pair of scissors, to ensure their virginity until marriage and curb their libido. In the most physically severe form, following removal of all external tissue possible, what remains of a girl’s vulva is sewn up, leaving only a small hole for menstruation and urination.”
Jenny added that the operation can be done with anything sharp and that it is not necessarily to preserve virginity until marriage but to control women.
Jenny, who now lives in a small town in Kentucky, grew up in several states. The family moved from state to state because of her father’s work. Jenny still doesn’t know where her FGM procedure took place but has vivid memories of the event itself. Adding to the fear, Jenny has hearing problems (she wears hearing aids) and was separated from her sister for the procedure. She was especially unable to understand what was happening.
“I struggled with anger, as well as sadness…wondering what life might have been like/could have been like.”
The pain was terrible—the procedure is often done without putting the girls to sleep, with no painkillers and in a non-sterile environment. Upon awakening, she noticed the doll she had brought with her was “sitting in a pool of my blood.” “After being cut,” she recalled for the AHA Foundation, “I remember being very sick, and the strangers kept putting a cold cloth on my head to cool me down. This type of trauma on someone’s body is almost too much to handle, especially for a five-year-old. The whole time during my ‘recovery’ I prayed for God to take away all the pain, and reunite me with my family.” Jenny’s legs were tied together during the recovery period to prevent her from moving them while healing.
Jenny doesn’t know if the operation was even performed by a doctor. “I don’t know who it was, honestly,” she told IWF. “I don’t think it was somebody in the church or I would have recognized them. But I have for years tried to figure out who it was and why the belief in this practice grew in our church.”
When Jenny and her sister returned home, their mother, usually not a baker, made a cake to celebrate what her parents thought was obedience to God. And then they were told never to talk about what had happened. “We were told it was a sin to talk about it,” Jenny told IWF. “That, even between each other, it was something we were never supposed to talk about after that day. My sister and I were scared enough of God that we didn’t have that conversation with each other, and I think it impacted both of us in the fact that silence will destroy you. It’ll destroy your ability to live when you have a secret like that that you carry.”
It may seem incredible to women in a culture that is frank and relatively open about sexuality and human anatomy, but Jenny and her sister did not realize that what had happened to them was not the norm. Today, Jenny is a nurse, and she admits that she didn’t realize something was amiss until she began studying to be a nurse. “When they were studying female anatomy, I knew I didn’t look the same. So, I did question in my own mind why they would show [the female anatomy] as they did in classes. So, I had those questions in my mind. But at that time, I was still young and didn’t think it was something I could ask, or that it would be right to ask.”
Remarkably, it was only when Jenny was giving birth to her fifth child—all were born by C-section—did a doctor ask her what had happened. It was an epiphany. Although Jenny had begun to suspect that she was different, it wasn’t until this doctor’s question that she was able to begin to grasp the magnitude of the difference.
Remarkably, it was only when Jenny was giving birth to her fifth child—all were born by C-section—did a doctor ask her what had happened.
“No one ever asked before this doctor,” Jenny said. “When I went to the first doctor for my first pregnancy, they initially let me try to go into labor and give birth the regular way, which was going to be impossible. And the nurse was my advocate. I remember the nurse fighting for me, saying that I had to have a C-section because I couldn’t do this. But that was all that was ever said and then every other doctor that I went to just usually said of course we will just have a C-section, but never asked anything about the situation. So, that kind of intensified the belief in me that it probably happened to everyone, or the doctors would have asked.
“When the doctor finally did ask,” Jenny continued, “my first response was that I can’t talk about that. Because I thought it was a sin, at that time. But what she did say to me was that I needed to know that this was not something that happens to everyone. So, she was the first person that I have ever planted that thought.”
Nobody in Jenny’s family has talked to her about what had happened. The vivacious and supportive older sister, who had struggled with addiction, but gotten sober, had died. Jenny believes her sister’s problems were the result of the FGM inflicted upon her as a child.
Meanwhile, Jenny struggled with nightmares, flashbacks, PTSD. “The hardest thing for me was realizing that this hadn’t happened to everyone,” Jenny said. “Every activity brought with it pain, even simple things like lifting my children or riding a bike. Being sexually intimate with someone was excruciating. When I realized everyone hadn’t lived with the same kind of pain, that this wasn’t normal for most people, I struggled with anger, as well as sadness…wondering what life might have been like/could have been like. “
She continued, “I was looking for understanding of what happen to me and for someone that knew about practice to talk to about how it had impacted my life and was still impacting my life. I had a lot of questions and was looking for answers.” She found a Chicago therapist who urged her to attend an FGM survivor’s meeting in Washington, D.C.
“I was the only Caucasian, American Christian woman. The others were from Egypt, Africa…were women of color. Some were religious, some were not. I didn’t necessarily feel out of place. I just realized that not many women like myself have spoken about this practice.”
She also met Amanda Parker, CFO and senior director of the AHA Foundation. AHA provides women with confidential support and works for policies to prevent FGM, forced marriages, and honor killings from taking place.
Jenny confided one of her great fears to Amanda: that her own daughters would be forced to undergo FGM and that she would not be able to prevent it. She also wanted to memorialize her sister by preventing girls from having to endure what they had endured.
The U.S. had banned FGM in 1996, but a Michigan judge in ruled in 2018 that the law was unconstitutional, leaving the onus with the states. “That was the first time I looked it up to see if Kentucky had a law against FGM, and it didn’t,” Jenny said. “I was driven by what happened to me and my sister. It felt like a responsibility at that point. I thought I can’t have had this happen to me and not do anything to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else here in this state, including my own daughters.”
Jenny knew that fighting for legislation to ban the procedure might get rough. When, for example, Mary Franson, a Republican state legislator in Minneapolis, introduced legislation to ban the procedure last year, U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar attacked Franson as just another publicity seeker. Although Omar adopted a hands-off stance on the bill, Somali nonprofits rallied against it, and it was defeated.
The U.S. had banned FGM in 1996, but a Michigan judge ruled in 2018 the law was unconstitutional, putting the onus with the states.
Jenny felt she was a more behind-the-scenes person and wasn’t sure if she could face the spotlight. Nevertheless, she found herself giving interviews and testifying before the state legislature. “I told a friend it felt a little bit like I was taking my clothes off in a roomful of strangers every time I told my story. At the same time, each time I told my story I found courage within myself I didn’t know I had and I found more healing. I knew that no matter the outcome of sharing my story, I found the greatest gifts in the process—my voice and healing,” Jenny is quoted saying on the AHA website.
Her motivation to speak out was powerful. “I didn’t want any other girl to suffer in silence,” she said. “To believe that what happened to them was something that happened to every girl. I wanted them to know it was not a sin to talk about the pain we suffer in our lives. I wanted to help protect any other girl or woman from suffering the pain that comes from not being able to voice what happen to them.”
Jenny says that she can see herself continuing to fight against FGM and taking the battle to other states. “I also want to be a part of teaching professionals about this practice, because many states are unaware of what the practice is. There needs to be education to prepare those that might encounter women or girls that have had this done or are at risk of having this done.”
Although Jenny no longer belongs to the denomination in which she grew up, she said, “Remarkably, I still have my faith. And I really think that I got a lot of strength from that. I also had good people who came into my life and walked along beside me, like Amanda. I don’t think I could have done it without that support. It was definitely not something I did by myself.”
It was a hard fight, but rewarding. “This journey has helped me find my voice, courage and freedom from the chains of silence,” she said. “It gave me the opportunity to say the things my sister never got to say.”