Taking Back Her Power to Feel

Photo by Andy Mkosi

Sometimes I couldn’t see their faces, but I could always taste the fear in my mouth and the feeling of helplessness as they held my naked body still; one on each side, holding my arms and chest while two more held my legs open, ignoring my pleas and screams. However, today was different, and I could see their faces clearly. They were faces I had seen all my life, women who had fed me and taught me how to clean and cook and be a woman. 

“This is just a rite of passage, Amina,” my Aunt Kadija assured from my right. “Your mother and I went through it too. It will make you a better woman, and your husband would appreciate you more.” 

My mother said nothing, only gripping my arm and chest firmly from my left side while my aunt tried to soothe me. The other women holding my legs didn’t speak either, but it didn’t matter. I had heard all the explanations before. They had told me I was almost a woman now, and I had to be prepared for my husband. This was supposed to make me a better woman, but I didn’t want to be a better woman; I was too scared. I was not looking forward to this rite, and nothing they said could prepare me for it. How could they? Not all the girls that went through this rite survived. Just two days ago my friend Ayeesha died. I had snuck into her house and into the room they had her in, worried because I had heard whispers that something was wrong after she couldn’t pass water ten days post-operation. When I found her, her legs had been bound together, and she looked grey and frail lying on the mat, nothing like the loud and energetic Ayeesha I knew.

“It hurts, Amina. It hurts so much. There was so much blood, and it hurts. Don’t let them do it to you, Amina. Please.” 

I ran off when I heard the telltale sound of her mother returning from the market, terrified for her and for myself. I had contemplated running away, but where would I go? Two days later she was dead. And now it was my turn. I felt more terror when Baba Kona took out his tools. The knife looked sharp and deadly, and he was aiming between my legs. My aunt and my mother clamped their hold on me harder when I began to struggle in earnest. Why were they doing this to me?

“Why, Mama? Please! I don’t want to die!” Those were the last words I managed to utter before the last woman moved behind me to cover my mouth so I could not scream anymore.

“You won’t die, Amina. Your husband will be pleased with you.”

As I felt the first stab of pain, I vowed never to have a husband. 


“Amina! Babe, please wake up! Wake up!” 

Through the fog of that recurring dream that forced me to revisit memories I had long buried, I hear his voice, thick with worry and love, calling me back and pulling me from the dark pockets of my memories. 

“Amina, please! I’m here, you’re okay. It was just a dream. A nightmare.” 

But it wasn’t. Maybe now it was, but it had been my reality, and sometimes I relived it. Still, his gentle and soothing voice was enough to pull me from the clutches of those memories manifesting as dreams. 

When I open my eyes, I’m lying across my boyfriend David’s lap on his three-seater sofa.

“Oh, thank God. You’re okay, you’re fine. It was just a dream, baby. I’m here.”

As the last fog of the dreams cleared from my mind, I realised that we had fallen asleep in his living room while binge-watching Stranger Things Season 4 on Netflix.

“Are you okay now?” he asks, still looking worried. 

“I’m fine, David. Really,” I try to reassure him.

“Do you want to talk about it? What were you dreaming about? It sounded horrible, and you were screaming as though someone was trying to kill you.”

I feel my heart drop at the question. I wasn’t ready to talk about it. I may never be ready.

“I’m not ready to talk about it, David. I’m sorry.”

“No, no. It’s alright. You don’t have to talk about it if it will upset you. As long as you’re okay now. Do you need anything? Let me get you some water.”

When he leaves, something drops from the side of the sofa where he had been sitting. I open my mouth to call out to him, but I stop when I see what it is. With a trembling hand, I lean down to pick up the box, opening it to see the beautiful engagement ring just as he re-enters with the glass of water.

“Oh hell. Damn, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I was going to ask you last night, but then we fell asleep, so I planned to wait for another chance to ask you.”

I take the water from him, sipping as I try to gather my thoughts. My first reaction had been joy – I love David – but reality set in seconds afterward, leaving me feeling emotional, sad, and bereft.

He sits next to me, eyes shining with love and sincerity. “I don’t know how to say fancy words that can articulate how I feel, but I want to marry you, Amina. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, building a life together and giving you reasons to smile and laugh every day.”

My eyes prickle with tears. “Oh, David. I can’t. I really can’t.”

The hurt on his face pierces my heart. “But I thought you loved me too.”

“Yes, I do. So much, and I want so much to marry you too, but I can’t. It will not be fair to you.”

“What do you mean?” he asks, the hurt turning into confusion. 

“Remember what I told you when you first expressed romantic interest in me?”

He nods, “You said you were not capable of it.”

“And that hasn’t changed so much. I love you, and that’s why I’ve been so selfish and leading you on with this relationship when I knew that eventually, it wouldn’t work out. I can love you, but I can’t give you sex, and I doubt you can live with that. I can’t ask you to live with that.”

His brows draw together in confusion. “I know you said that initially, but I’ve been patient. I haven’t pressured you. Or have I?” he asks with a horrified look as that possibility hits him. “I didn’t force you to do–” 

“No, you didn’t,” I interrupt, grabbing his hand. “I eventually allowed the kissing and the fondling because I wanted to make you happy, and also because I liked it, but not for the same reasons you do. I like kissing you and letting you touch my breasts because it makes me feel closer to you, but I don’t feel anything sexual.”

He looks stunned by my admission, and I feel horrible for deceiving him. “But you, you moan and stuff. And you give me blowjobs.”

“I moan because I know it is expected, and I give you BJs because I love you and I know you like it, so that makes me happy. But at some point that is no longer going to be enough for you. I know you think I will give you access to my lower body with time, but it’s not likely to happen. I can’t accommodate vaginal sex, Dave.”

He is quiet for a few seconds, the hurt, unhappiness, and confusion rolling off him in waves. It makes me want to hug him badly, but I need to explain things. To tell him the truth so that he understands, but I just can’t get the words out. 

“Is it because you were raped?” he asks quietly, surprising me. 

“Why do you think I was raped?”

He shrugs. “You have some of the signs of a woman wary of men from experience. You were jumpy from the start, and I had to ensure I didn’t touch you suddenly. I tried not to spook you or scare you away by being your friend first, and even though you said you weren’t capable of a romantic relationship, you agreed to be my girlfriend after six months, and we’ve been good together since we started dating. I thought we were making progress when you started allowing me more sexual liberty. I asked you several times if you were okay with what we were doing and you said yes.”

I nod. “You didn’t do anything wrong, and I said yes because I wanted to. A part of me hoped that it would be different, that I would feel something with time.”

“But you didn’t,” he comments flatly, and I can see that he feels terrible, which makes me feel even worse.

“It’s not you or anything you did, Dave. And it’s not–” I pause, trying to find the best way to tell him the truth, but it’s hard. Harder than I thought it would be. “It’s not rape, Dave. I wasn’t raped.”

He stares at me, trying to understand. “But something bad happened to you, right? Someone abused you somehow.” 

The fact that he clearly sees that something was done to me almost undoes me. 

“Dave, I have tried so many times to tell you, but the shame is too much to bear each time. However, you deserve to know, especially now. I’m…different from other women. I’m different down there.” I would have laughed at the way I was passing the message across if not for how serious the situation is, and how nervous I am about how he would take it.

“Different?” His eyes open as wide as saucers. “Are you a trans woman?”

The question throws me off and gets a surprised laugh out of me, relieving most of my tension. “No, Dave. I’m not transgender.”

His brows draw together. “What is it then? Are you intersex?”

That gets another laugh out of me, and I realise that he said that deliberately to calm me down. I have a good man, and it’s sad that I can’t keep him.

“What do you know about Female Genital Mutilation?” I ask him, plunging right into it.

The question throws him off, and I realise that it wasn’t something that would ever have crossed his mind. 

“We did something on it in school. It’s where they remove the clitoris of girls so that…” He trails off when understanding hits him. 

“Yes, that’s it, but there are different types of mutilation. What you just mentioned is clitoridectomy; removing part or all of the clit. Sometimes they remove the vaginal lips as well, which are the inner folds of the vulva. And other times, they close up the opening of the vagina by cutting parts of the labia/vaginal lips and stitching the vagina close, leaving only a small hole to pass urine and menstrual blood. That is what was done to me. If you’re lucky, they leave your clit as it is, if you’re not, they remove that too. I guess I was lucky,” I add in a tone that betrays that I don’t feel lucky in the slightest.

Dave looks slightly ill after I tell him the problem. “I–I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say. I didn’t expect something like this, and it all sounds like a very terrible thing to do to a woman.” 

I force a shrug. “Story of my life.”

He looks unsure of himself, and he confesses bashfully, “I don’t know what to say, or what it means. Can you talk about it? Can I ask you some questions?” He takes my hand as he talks, linking our fingers together as usual, and that act of normalcy steadies me some more. 

“Sure. Ask away. You’ve more than earned some answers.”

“Who did it to you?”

“It is a normal rite of passage in my family. Every girl has to get the procedure done when she’s twelve. My mother and aunt held me down with three other women while Baba Kano did the procedure. Sometimes the girl would die after the mutilation, but Baba Kano had the fewest deaths by his hand, so I suppose I should be grateful.”

David looks horrified. “Girls died?” 

“Yes. But where I come from, dying from it meant you would have been a bad wife.”


“The procedure was mainly done as part of our culture to preserve a woman’s virtue. The idea was also to narrow the vagina to make sex more enjoyable for the husband. Some cultures have the narrowing done right before marriage, but for us, it is done at age 12.”

What?” David repeats, astounded. 

“That was why I vowed never to get married. I never even intended to have any kind of romantic relationship, but there you were; sweet, patient, and the best man I have ever met. You showed me that you cared. After a while, it was hard to resist you. And I couldn’t help falling in love with you too.”

He leans forward to kiss my forehead. “I do love you, and this doesn’t change that. Is it related to the nightmare you had?”

“I remember the procedure in dreams. You can’t ever forget the pain, but there are times when the whole thing happens all over again in a nightmare. If I’m lucky I dream only of the procedure up to the first cut and wake up. Other times, it is worse and I also dream about the 11-days after the procedure where my legs were bound to aid the formation of the scar tissue.”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he murmurs, pulling me against his chest in comfort. 

“After the operation, I hated to be touched. Every time someone tried to touch me, I would remember being held down and cut. It is why I can’t feel desire. The only thing I associate my vagina with is pain; pain and suffering. So the idea of someone – even you – going near it makes me break out in a sweat.”

“I’m so sorry,” he repeats. “That must be hell on your psyche. Have you ever gone to therapy?”

I look away. “No. My friend Baaba suggested therapy – she’s the only other person that knows about this. I had to tell her because she witnessed some of my nightmares when we were roommates. She said therapy could help but I have been too ashamed to share the experience with anyone else. I didn’t even think I would be able to tell you.”

“Ah, Amina. You can tell me anything. Never be ashamed to share things with me. Besides, you have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not your fault, and it doesn’t make you less of a woman.”

Hearing these things from the man I love fills my eyes with tears of relief and gratitude, and I feel a deep sense of relief. I’m still not confident enough to try anything sexual that involves my vagina – I’m not even ready for him to see me naked, but for the first time, I feel like I could get there someday. I am ready to make the effort. Not just for his sake, but especially for my sake too.

I stay in his arms for a while, just breathing against his chest. “I’m willing to try, for us. And especially for myself. We have something great, and I won’t let that experience prevent me from enjoying everything I can as a woman.”

Remembering something, I pull away. “Baaba sent me a link. I didn’t open it because I didn’t think I was ready. But now I am.”

“What is it?” he asks, peering over my shoulder to see what I am doing on my phone.

“It’s a guide,” I answer, clicking on the link to open the article “Reclaiming your Sexual Empowerment: A Guide for Women Affected by Female Genital Mutilation” on Baaba’s favourite site: Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women.

I shift a little so that he can also see. 

“Oh, okay. Would you like me to excuse you while you read?” 

I almost told him no, but I have to admit that I am still too vulnerable, and I don’t know if the article would be triggering. 

“That would be nice, thank you,” I tell him, and he moves from the sofa, kissing my forehead before leaving for his bedroom. 

“Would you mind sending me the link too?” he asks, poking his head into the hall. I am not ready to read it with him there, but I don’t mind him reading it on his own to give him more insight into what he is dealing with. 

“Sure,” I respond, sharing the article with him via WhatsApp. 

Reading the article is emotional but bittersweet. It makes me feel understood; how FGM had affected my emotions and self-worth and my relationships with others. The steps to regaining my confidence and sexual empowerment seem doable enough, and it gives me hope that maybe I could shed the difference that makes me feel so incomplete, that I could do away with the shame I feel and the slight physical pain I have gotten accustomed to every time I peed. I feel lucky that I have already gone through some of the steps. I have a good support system in the form of my friends Baaba and David, and I am halfway to accepting that what happened was not my fault and I don’t have to feel ashamed.

I had never thought to research the possibilities of what could be done for me physically, and learning that there is a surgical procedure – deinfibulation – that could reverse what had been done to me, filled me with surprising joy. After reading the article, I spent over one hour reading more from the resources that had been linked in the article and tried to find a support group I could join.

By the time David returns with two glasses of wine, I have booked an online appointment with a therapist who is trained in helping victims of FGM. Booking the appointment alone makes me feel powerful, and while we drink wine, David and I exchange notes. “Did you read the whole article?” I ask, knowing that he isn’t much of a reader. 

“Yes, I did. This is important. You?”

I laugh. “Of course, I did. I even have an appointment with a therapist on Monday.”

“So soon?” he asks, delighted. 

“Actually, I should have done this a long time ago. The nightmares alone have been problematic.”

“That’s why you never slept over before, isn’t it? You were afraid to dream in my presence. And here I thought you didn’t trust me to keep my hands to myself.” 

I smile, kissing his cheek. “I trust you, David. Otherwise, we could never have come this far. I trust you because you have proven to be trustworthy.”

He mirrors my affection, kissing me on my cheek just as I had him. 

“It was very hard to read, so I can’t imagine what living it has been like for you. I can’t imagine why anyone would see this kind of cruelty as okay. You’re a strong woman, Amina. You need to believe that.”

Tears clog my throat, and love swamps me. “I love you so much, David.”

“I love you too, Amina. Even more now than I did two hours ago.”

This time, I initiate the hug, wrapping my arms around him and burrowing into his chest. A part of me had felt that I didn’t deserve this man, but now I’m starting to believe that I do. I deserve good things too, regardless of how my vagina looks. It is time to overcome that negative voice in my head.

When I pull back to pick up my wine again, he grins at me. “Did you see the part about the deinfibulation operation?” 

The question makes me chuckle. “I was wondering when you would get around to that. Yeah, I saw it, and I will definitely consider it. It would take away the pain I feel when I pee and leave me more open for sex. After the little research I’ve done, I think most of my lack of sexual feeling is more psychological than physical, but the surgery is also going to make things a lot better.”

“I’m glad you’re considering that too, because I checked, and your health insurance covers the procedure. I don’t like the idea of you hurting whenever you have to pee, but we don’t have to rush anything now. Go see the therapist first and let’s see how it goes. We can take it one step at a time until you’re comfortable and ready.”

Feeling a new rush of emotions, I set my wine down again. I know I am one of the lucky ones, with a partner that is understanding and can help in my journey to reclaim my sexual empowerment. Thinking about that, I wrap my arms around his neck and pull him toward me for a kiss.

For the first time in my life, the moan that escapes my lips is genuine, and I feel a little prick of interest from my core, which lights me with more hope. 

I know that it would not happen now, nor overnight, but I have taken the first steps toward taking back that power that was stolen from me when I was twelve, and I feel a new sense of hope. Breaking the kiss, I smile at David and hand the ring to him. “Yes, I’ll marry you. We’re going to be just fine. It might take some time, but we’ll get there, won’t we?”

He smiles back and slips the ring on my finger, eyes shining with happiness as he pulls me to him again in an embrace. “Yes, my love, we will get there.”

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