Like all of the other seven-year-old girls in my religious sect, I had an operation that removed part of my clitoris. In my quest to identify who could be held responsible I learned that forgiveness was the only way forward.
The first and only time I had sex it did not go well. I was twenty-two, a late bloomer by most standards, and for the year my boyfriend and I had been dating, we’d skirted around the issue. He was willing to wait however long it might take me to be ready. I chafed at his understanding.
I couldn’t explain the crawls that I felt every single time he touched me in the wrong place, or understand the debilitating anger that I felt when he nodded after I told him I needed a pause. He’d had girlfriends before, and I badgered him endlessly about their sexual experiences. He answered all of my questions patiently.
After these conversations, as we lay beside each other, he would tell me that he loved me, that if I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready. Yet while I listened to his steady, phlegmy breathing as he slept next to me, I’d be filled with an uncontrollable anger. I’d crawl out of bed and into the bathroom, where I’d stare at my face in the mirror.
The truth was that I had no idea what it might take for me to let go of all of my fears about sex.
After a year of dating him, I decided that I needed to get the act over with. I researched the mechanics on the Internet, taking notes that I hid under the bed. I watched a few porn clips and memorized the way the women moved effortlessly below the men pounding into them. While he was at work I practiced making sounds of pleasure, the shower running so no one could hear.
I wanted to have sex before the end of summer.
“I don’t want you to stop even if I look like it’s hurting me,” I told him.
He grimaced, but I repeated the statement again and then again. His quiet acquiescence was disarming, so I gripped his wrists tightly and stared at him directly. “I need you to do this for me,” I told him.
The night it was to happen, I drank a half bottle of wine in fifteen minutes as he watched, warily. For a blissful forty-five minutes we made out on the couch, his hands staying in all of the safe spots, the ones that months of dating had taught him didn’t make me involuntarily gag. The wine turned my limbs heavy. My body was warm.
By the time his body was positioned over mine, we’d moved from the couch to the bed. I closed my eyes, feeling my nostrils flare as I breathed in slowly, counting to control my heartbeat and the nausea welling up inside me: IN one, two three; HOLD one, two three; OUT one, two three. After a couple of minutes we were technically having sex. Pain shot up my body. I could feel it in my teeth and in the muscles of my jaw. My insides felt like they were being scraped out by sandpaper. The pain was everywhere. I couldn’t figure out what hurt and where. After a couple of thrusts, he withdrew, unfinished, kissing my forehead gently. He reminded me he loved me, and left for the bathroom.
I sat in the bed, allowing myself to cry for the first time since we’d begun talking about sex. For the first time since I’d admitted to him that I might never be able to enjoy a sexual experience, and that when I was younger, someone had taken a knife to my clitoris and cut out a small but significant part of me.
I wanted to call my mother.
When my boyfriend finally reemerged from the bathroom, I was biting my lower lip and crying silently. He looked at me for a long moment, until I waved him away. It took me about four minutes to open up my laptop and finally call my mother in Karachi.
The last time I’d spoken in person with my mother had been almost a year earlier, in August 2009. I’d been hovering over my suitcase—trying to decide between two polka-dotted shirts—in the bedroom that belonged to me in my parents’ Karachi apartment. I was packing for my senior year at Mount Holyoke and did not know when I’d be returning to Pakistan.
Karachi, Pakistan, 1995
When I was seven years old and living in Karachi, Pakistan, my mother took me for my yearly check-up with the pediatrician. While I sat on a stool, polishing imaginary dirt off the buckles on my Mary Janes, my mother quietly asked the pediatrician if it was time for me to get the bug removed. The conversation wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. Earlier that month, my mother had asked me if I was ever itchy or uncomfortable down there. I didn’t understand what the questions meant, and I don’t remember my responses. What I do remember is my mother explaining that around the time I turned seven, a bug would attempt to grow out of me down there and would crawl to my brain. It would need to be removed, she had said. After a brief examination, my pediatrician agreed.
For the next year, I’d break out into a cold sweat whenever I encountered the kind-faced woman who laid me down on a tarp on her living room floor and spoke to me softly as she took a knife and cut me.
Houston, Texas, 2004
My mother and I did once speak about what happened to me. When I was sixteen, a woman within earshot at my Houston mosque had asked the woman next to her if her daughter had the “operation” already and if she’d gotten it done in the US or back in India. Her question niggled something deep in my brain. The kind-faced woman came back to me; I could hear her no-nonsense tone as she told me it would be over quickly.
I’m not sure what I Googled, but three hours after returning home from mosque I had words to describe what had happened to me: female genital cutting, clitoridectomy, female genital circumcision. Later that night, I sat with the illicit copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves that my American aunt had given me. My aunt realized that her Western, agnostic upbringing was startlingly different from mine, and she gave the book to me while visiting one Christmas, gently telling me that she was around for any questions I may have. One of the things the book suggested was to put a hand mirror between my legs. In the harsh lights of my bathroom, looking at the pictures, I realized that there was something horrifically different about what I had between my legs.
Over the next few weeks, the Internet gave me a sense of outrage that I wasn’t prepared to handle. I latched onto the most controversial name for what had happened to me: female genital mutilation, or FGM. Years later I’d find a printout from an outdated website with the words highlighted. “Because that’s what it is Mom,” I wrote underneath. “Religion, no religion, it’s mutilation. It’s wrong.”
There was something horrifically different about what I had between my legs.
I read article after article about girls in African villages, their labia sewn shut, dying from the cutting. This was not me. Though my parents were raised in East Africa, I wasn’t black African. I was Muslim, from a small sect of Shi’ites who prided themselves on their progressive actions. I Googled “FGM Islam” and found no correlation between my religion and this horrible act. FGM in South Asia, however, seemed confined singularly to my sect. Why hadn’t anyone else said anything, I wondered. I seethed internally for days, an anger bubbling inside of me. I had no one to talk to. For the next few days, I’d remember my mother’s cool hand on my forehead after I finally peed for the first time after being cut.
I couldn’t talk to her, I realized. She’d done this.
Yet who else could fill in the blanks? When I finally asked my mother, the two of us were cleaning my bathroom. I’d been standing in the bathtub, a roll of steel wool in my hand. I hadn’t meant to talk to her about it, but the porcelain was spotless from my fury, and I was running out of things to clean to perfection.
“What exactly was that bug thing you told me about?”
My mouth was full of marbles, of cotton, of peanut butter. After the words escaped, I couldn’t swallow.
My mother’s expression was unreadable, cloaked in an emotion I knew but could not name. I was terrified that my question made no sense, that I’d have to clarify further. Then, as a beat passed without her responding, I realized I was even more scared that it had made perfect sense. That she’d been expecting this question since I was seven years old.
My mother’s explanation came out as fumbled as my initial question, something about women not being sexual and shortening my clitoris.
“You removed the part of me that makes me feel good while having sex?” I asked. Our Bodies, Ourselves and some of the articles I’d read gave me the confidence to say this last part. At sixteen, I thought I knew exactly what had been taken away from me.
“I didn’t have a choice,” said my mother. “It happened to me, too.”
South Hadley, Massachusetts, 2006–2008
At Mount Holyoke I watched as confident upper-class women walked around with hairy armpits and greasy hair. The stark contrast to the perfectly coiffed girls at my Texas high school felt jarring for the first few weeks, but soon I realized this wasn’t the only difference. My first semester in one of the student residence halls, I heard what sounded like a heartbreaking keening noise coming from the dorm room next door. As I listened to make sure she was OK, I realized that the girl was having sex.
My roommate and I would never be close, but she was the first person I spoke to honestly about what had happened. I’d told my best friends in high school, letting them in on the superficial horrors of my secret. But until speaking with my Mount Holyoke roommate, I had never really told anyone that I had no idea what it meant to have a clitoridectomy, that I had no idea about the extent of the damage.
None of my high school girlfriends would have discussed their sex lives with me frankly. My roommate was different. She sat patiently as I garbled an explanation, of finding out about FGM, of feeling so horribly violated and alone.
Before going home for the summer, I made an appointment at student health services. I ended up in stirrups only twenty minutes after walking in, and when the doctor finally arrived, she sat down between my legs murmuring something about a pap smear.
“Let’s have a look,” she said, using the same no-nonsense tone I remembered from the lady from my childhood, the one who cut me. I clamped my knees together and started bawling.
The doctor didn’t miss a beat. She was in her late fifties and had seen enough during her quick glance to make a correct assumption about why I was crying. “Why don’t you sit right up and let’s talk about any questions you may have.”
She had questions of her own, too. “When did this happen? How long did it hurt? Are you able to wipe yourself with toilet paper without discomfort?” The doctor admitted up front that she didn’t know much but said that taking a closer look might help her out.
By the time I finally let the doctor take a look, she let out a long, low breath. For a few moments she looked without speaking. Then, she asked me for my cell number. She would ask around, see if anyone in the area knew more than she did.
“What I can tell you is that there is a lot of thin scar tissue, most of which looks extremely painful,” she said. “This doesn’t look like a full clitoridectomy,” she added, explaining that while she’d never seen one before, it looked like a partial cut. “Did a medical professional do this?” she asked as I shook my head. I didn’t know, I admitted. The question would linger with me, and for months I would weigh the consequences of asking my mother.
Later, after I put my clothes on, she came back in to hug me. “Come see me anytime, with any questions,” she said, and before I could stop myself, I blurted out. “Can I ever have an orgasm?”
She shrugged carefully, handing me a few printed pamphlets on healthy masturbation.
Washington, DC, July 2010
In the seconds before my mother answered the phone in Karachi, I chewed on the words I wanted to use carefully. By the time I heard her voice, though, my carefully planned sentences had disappeared.
“Is sex ever good for you?” I asked her, my voice still watery from my tears. There was a brief but important pause. I heard the click of a door.
“I tried to have sex with my boyfriend.” I said. “It hurt so bad that I’m not sure I ever want to try it again. I know you don’t think I should be having sex, but I’m so scared.”
What I didn’t say out loud was what exactly I was so afraid of. She didn’t learn about her own FGM until after she was married, when my father, raised without a formal sexual education, pointed out that she looked different from his other conquests. She filed this information away until I turned seven, realizing almost too late that this had happened to her, too. She heard in the words I never used my one greatest fear: that true love would escape me forever, simply because I carried the weight of what I considered a defective body part.
During college I’d figured out that getting to orgasm wasn’t going to be easy. Even when I attempted to pleasure myself, any wrong move, any sudden accidental movement, would shoot pain inside of me. The scar tissue was tender and grew inflamed quickly. The skin sloughed off easily sometimes, and it was quick to bleed.
I worried that my mother would hang up. Instead, she told me about how, when she was a teenager, she saved up pocket change for Harlequin romances. “All I wanted was to figure out how to feel like those women,” she told me. “When your father and I first got married, him touching me would light me on fire. But sometimes, if he moved too fast, if he tried something new, that fire just became pain.”
“I get panic attacks when that happens,” I told her.
“I did too,” she told me. “So your father and I talked through what felt good and we figured out a way,” she explained. I told her that I loved her. I wanted her to apologize for giving me the same pain that she herself had suffered. But my mother stayed quiet.
The Skype clock showed that I had one-and-a-half more minutes left, and I told her that. “Talk soon, OK?” I said, our signature goodbye. “I hate everyone else too,” she said, unprompted. “Those women on TV who love sex, who enjoy it. I hate them too.” I knew what that last part was supposed to be—the closest thing to an apology my mother would ever be able to make.
New York City, April 2011–Boston, June 2012
After breaking up with my boyfriend in April 2011 and completing my master’s at Columbia, I moved to Boston to work at an international news startup. There, I made out with a coworker. It was the first moment in my life that I’d allowed myself to be overtaken by my own desire. While he kissed me, I wanted something more, pressing myself firmly against him. Yet when his hand sneaked under my shirt and I pulled away, nauseated, I was more upset than he was. Though we hung out for the next few months, we never made out again.
A week later I delved into my meager savings account. I was living without health insurance that year, and when I called the doctor’s office, explaining this, the receptionist told me to plan to spend somewhere around $2,000 for the consult. The money was worth it. This doctor, unlike so many of the gynecologists I’d seen before, didn’t wince when she peered between my legs. She didn’t over-apologize or pat my knees. She didn’t murmur, in a hushed whisper like the medical resident at Columbia, “Oh, bless your dear heart.”
Instead, she silently examined me. She’d heard of the religious sect that I belonged to and had examined other girls like me. She explained that because the cutting is done without proper medical equipment for girls in my sect, the results varied. “Some of the girls can easily go on to have great sex lives, the only part removed is part of their hood,” she explained. But for me the difference was in the scar tissue, and the fact that all of my hood and a large chunk of my clitoris had been removed.
She told me what I’d long suspected: I’d probably never have the kind of wonderful, easy, glowing sex that everyone had in the movies. I wouldn’t likely even have the real, imperfect kind. Instead, it would likely involve many conversations in bed, a sex therapist, and a willingness to trust another human being completely. I wasn’t horribly mutilated or defective in a way that made me incapable of sexual pleasure, she explained.
Karachi, Pakistan, July 2012
My job in Boston wasn’t a good fit, and when my work permit ran out a year after I earned my master’s, I moved back to Karachi.
Readjusting to life in Karachi was difficult. My family expected me to attend religious services, but I dragged my feet every time I had to enter our neighborhood mosque. I’d scan all of the faces to see if I could recognize the woman who had cut me. I sat next to girls I’d grown up with and knew that they had suffered this same fate.
In Karachi, family took precedence over everything. My grandfather, my father’s father, had passed away in the months before I moved home, and my grandmother sleepwalked through her grief.
I’d always viewed my grandmother as tough as nails, the kind of woman who wouldn’t disappear into the woodwork like so many of her friends. While in mourning, her vulnerability was masked by a kind of vitriol, one I’d recognized in myself. After her mourning period ended she grew intolerable, lashing out at everyone to let them know how much they’d disappointed her, just so she could have a conversation that she felt like she was in control of.
During one of my visits to her house, as I willed myself to not check the clock on my phone, my grandmother suddenly asked me what FGM was.
We were sitting in the living room, the TV on mute. I sat alert, and asked her what she was talking about. She handed me a carefully folded piece of the local English-language daily. In it was a review of a documentary, screened during a film festival in Karachi. The documentary, A Pinch of Skin, showed several obscured women talking about their genital mutilation. My grandmother had first heard about it in her women’s group. Then she’d read about it in the paper.
I had only seven minutes before I’d be late to an appointment, one I couldn’t miss. I asked her carefully if she remembered what had been done to me when I was seven.
“What did you think that was?” I asked her. She shrugged. Gujarati, the only language that my grandmother and I had in common, wasn’t my strongest suit, and speaking about female anatomy in it made my words stumble up against each other. But I told her that women were supposed to enjoy sex, that we had an organ similar to a penis, except tiny, that was supposed to make it feel good for us. That’s what they cut out. That’s what FGM was.
“Do you think that’s right?” She was asking me for my honest opinion, so I dove right in with as much restrained anger as I could.
“No. It was wrong. Being able to enjoy sex is a basic human right and you took that away from me. You took that away from every girl they cut,” I said, lumping her in with the rest of the members of the sect, all of whom I blamed for what had happened to me.
I realized that the decisions that had been made about my life came from a group of people who were woefully ill-informed.
My grandmother had always been the matriarch; her insidious emotional blackmail was legendary in our extended family. With one sentence she could convince my father to do something he never wanted to do. She’d easily make my mother’s life miserable if my mother did something she didn’t approve of. When I left to go to her house, my mother would carefully inspect my outfit, hoping it would meet my grandmother’s expectations. We bided our time with her, measuring each conversation against intended or unintended consequences. And now, what I’d said was the most honest and real opinion I’d ever given her. I’d meant every word, but now that they were out, in the vast space between the separate couches we sat on, I didn’t know if I wanted them there.
My grandmother gave one, slow nod. “The religious elders,” she explained, “they know what’s best, I suppose.”
The decisions that had been made about my life came from a group of people who were woefully ill-informed.
It was those last two words that gave her away. For my grandmother to imply even a little bit that her faith wasn’t unwavering was gigantic. Days after our conversation, I found out that she’d asked my uncle about this and addressed it with my cousin as well. I was the third person she’d talked to. Later, when I found the courage to ask her about it again, she’d pretend she had no idea what I was referring to, using the veil of old age to shove it away. Yet before I left for my appointment, my grandmother held my hand and looked me in the eyes.
“Your mother tried to stop it,” she told me.
Karachi, Pakistan, March 2014
I sat with my grandmother’s words for three weeks before talking to my mother. Somewhere inside of me, my hatred had broken away. It moved about untethered to anything, cropping up in phone conversations with my best friend, twisting into my dreams. Dislodged, my anger was both worse and better than it had been before I accused my mother. I felt a global sense of unfairness that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to escape.
I finally told my mother about my conversation with my grandmother. She was folding her laundry on her bed. She continued folding. After a pause that seemed to stretch so thin that I felt a physical ache, I finally whispered what my grandmother had said. My mother looked back at me, her eyes filled with tears. “We tried so very, very hard,” she whispered back. “I told your father that he couldn’t let this happen. Your grandmother just watched, never once interfering.”
But the real villain, if there even was such a thing, was my grandfather. From what I pieced together from my mother’s words, he’d put his foot down firmly. The fights about it grew so out of control that he threatened to kick my mother out of the family. “I’ll keep the kids,” he warned my mother, and she was smart enough to realize that this was true. Because of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Muslim customs and society, she might be able to be unbound from his family, but she’d lose her children in the process.
My mother blamed herself enough that she let me hate her for years. She shouldered this blame silently.
After she told me what really happened, I didn’t ask her many questions. But I knew that our relationship had forever changed. Forgiveness was no longer something I had to learn to give my mother, or something she needed to earn.
Faced with an impossible dichotomy, my mother chose to raise me. She chose to give me every dream that was never possible for her. She gave me ambition and an identity that was separate from my family. She encouraged me to think critically and question authority. I had lived with two diametrically opposed sides of my mother: the champion and the betrayer. She was only ever one of those things. My grandfather’s threat was powerful: either way I’d have ended up a victim of genital mutilation. This way, she was able to hold my hand after I was cut. I told my grandmother that FGM had ruined my life, and I wanted these women to know it. I told her that I was too young to hate so many people for what had happened. She nodded quietly, a rare détente between the two of us.
“They ruined my life too,” she said, patting my hand.
—By Mariya Karimjee ’10
Mariya Karimjee is a freelance writer based in Karachi, Pakistan.
This article appeared in the fall 2015 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
October 14, 2015