Korto (not her real name), 46, is a nurse from Liberia. She is also a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Korto told Muslim World Today of the harrowing ordeal: “I underwent type two FGM. I was eight years old. My maternal grandmother excised me. The impact it had on me was the fact that I trusted both my mother and grandmother. I knew they loved me but my mother deceived me by telling me a lie that we were going to see the great big Atlantic Ocean.”
“When we got to the bush, and they knocked me down to the ground, I saw my grandmother coming, and I felt happy because I thought, “Good, my grandma is coming to protect me from these women.”
“But I saw a shining blade in my grandma’s hand and she got on her knees and began to cut off my clitoris and part of the lips of my vagina. I did not want to speak to anyone because the two women whom I trusted with my life had lied to me and deceived me. I wanted to just die. The pain was so much.”
In 2014, Korto’s daughter nearly became a victim of FGM.
“My grandmother who excised me wanted to excise my daughter. I had found refuge in a house in Monrovia, far away from my village in Kolahun, Liberia, and I thought we were safe there. My husband was on assignment in Uganda. My grandmother sent two men to kidnap my daughter and take her to Kolahun to excise her. I looked through the window and recognized the men and I did not open the door. I contacted my husband and he quickly arranged for us to flee Liberia for Uganda. Because of my husband’s work which takes him to countries of conflict, we could not remain in Uganda, so he arranged for us to come to the U.S. It was then that we applied for asylum,” Korto said.
That incident proved too much. “The breaking point was when my grandmother sent those two strapping men to my hide-out in Monrovia to kidnap my daughter. Everything came back to me how my grandmother had gotten on her knees and cut me when I was eight years old. I knew I had to get out of Liberia and get my daughter to safety. My sister was also excised when she was a little girl. All of the women in my family have been excised except for my 12-year old daughter, and I am determined for her not to be cut,” Korto said.
Korto and her children landed in Minnesota, but have now eventually settled in Maryland.
However, the asylum status of Korto and her two children are still pending and they are waiting to be called for an interview. And despite being in the U.S, Korto still fears that she and her children might be sent back to Liberia.
“My grandmother wants me to go back home and take my daughter to her. She said that when I was eight years old after they had cut me, they stood me in front of the devil and had me take an oath and that when I grew up and had a daughter I would bring her back to the bush to have her cut. I have not done that with my daughter and they are angry about that. This is the culture and they hold you to that oath for as long as you live. I am afraid that they might send somebody here to kidnap my daughter and take her back to Liberia,” Korto said
Korto and her children rely on the moral support of Korto’s nephew, niece and older sister.
Korto also sought the assistance of the non-profit Global Woman Peace Foundation, who helped Korto get a pro-bono lawyer.
“I have a really good lawyer now, but I was scammed by two other lawyers before I met this one. They had me pay thousands of dollars, and they never got me my asylum. They only had excuses all the time. Then I met Global Woman Peace Foundation, and they helped me get a pro-bono lawyer who volunteers her time to help women like me with asylum cases. She is very nice and more than a lawyer to me and my children,” she said.
Korto’s advice to other FGM victims who would like to seek asylum in the U.S is to get a good lawyer. “Do investigate to see if there is a lawyer like mine who is not bleeding you for money, and you are getting no results. Seek an advocacy FGM organization like Global Woman Peace and get advice from them.”
Female genital mutilation (FGM) – also known as female genital cutting (FGC) – has long been a critical health issue. According to the United Nations, 200 million women in 30 countries are survivors of FGM.
FGM is prevalent not only in sub-Saharan Africa, as it is commonly thought, but also exist in countries such as India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Maldives, Brunei, Russia, Bangladesh and Iran. It happens in Europe and U.S too.
Many people regard FGM as an issue mostly isolated to Muslim and Christian communities, but Mariya Taher, the founder of the organization Sahiyo which works to eradicate FGM mostly among the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, debunks this.
Ms Taher told Muslim World Today: “FGM/C is a global issue that happens to women of all different races, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic status, and education levels. The practice itself goes back at least 2000 years, beyond the advent of major religions such as Christianity and Islam. There are many theories as to its origin, including that it might have begun in Egypt as a sign of distinction amongst the aristocracy, or that the Romans performed it to prevent slaves from becoming pregnant or to ensure their chastity.”
Ms Taher, a first-generation American-born woman whose parents hail from India and belong to the Dawoodi Bohra sect, is a survivor of FGM herself. She also cites women like Renee Bergstrom from the Midwest who was subjected to FGM at the hands of a Christian doctor when she was just three years old.
“In fact, FGC was a practice performed by physicians for centuries, up until the 1950s, in the U.S. and Europe, to treat females who had what they considered to be ‘hysteria’ or ‘mental illness,’ Ms Taher said.
In her paper, American attorney and women’s rights activist Layli Miller Bashir noted: “While most girls are mutilated between the ages of four and ten, the age can range from a newborn to a woman on her wedding night to a mother who has given birth to her first child.”
She explained that FGM is a result of a myriad of reasons, and this includes “superstitions, perceptions of gender roles, beliefs regarding health, and religious customs.'
Ms Bashir cited four studies which explains why FGM happens. They are: “meeting a religious requirement; preserving group identity; protecting virginity and family honor by preventing immorality; helping to maintain cleanliness and health; and furthering marriage goals, including greater sexual pleasure for men.”
The brutality of FGM
Ms Bashir cited Dr. Nahid Toubia, a Sudanese physician and associate professor at the School of Public Health at Columbia University who devised a sophisticated system of categorizing FGM. Dr. Toubia sorts FGM into two broad categories: clitoridectomy and infibulations.
According to her, type 1 clitoridectomy ("Sunna circumcision") is the least severe type of FGM and “involves the partial or complete removal of the clitoris.”
Meanwhile, type II clitoridectomy ("excision") “involves the excision of the clitoris and part of the labia minora.”
In a type III infibulation ("modified infibulation") the clitoris, labia minora, and parts of the labia majora are removed, followed by the anterior two thirds of the labia majora being sutured together, leaving a posterior opening.
Perhaps the most damaging form of FGM must be type IV infibulation ("total infibulation"), “involving the same amount of cutting as a type III, but in this case, the labia majora are sutured together to cover the urethra and the vagina, leaving a very small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood.”
Ms Bashir explained the process of FGM in horrific details, citing it as “often unsanitary and brutal.”
“The mutilation itself is frequently done by elderly women with poor eye sight who use dull razor blades, kitchen knives, or broken glass on young girls writhing in pain. Usually no anaesthetic is used. Consequently, a little girl's body must be forcibly held down and her thighs pried open by up to five women,” she noted in her paper.
“This practice results in a dangerous, unsanitary, and imprecise surgery. In the case of infibulation, the two sides of the vulva are sutured together by thorns or catgut, and the small opening left so that urine and blood may escape is preserved by the insertion of a tiny piece of wood or a reed. After the operation, a mixture of herbs, earth, cow-dung, and ashes are rubbed on the genital area in order to stop the bleeding. The incision may be treated daily with a native soap, palm oil, Vaseline, kerosene, or even engine oil. In order to prevent the re-opening of the wound, the legs of the girl are bound together from hip to ankle for up to forty days, making it very difficult to walk or pass urine,” she explained further.
The medical consequences of FGM are damaging: according to a study in Kenya, more than eighty per cent of survivors report at least one health complication. Some statistics note that up to fifteen and thirty per cent women die from bleeding or infections. Many women also suffer from abscesses, ulcers, tetanus and gangrene as a result of FGM.
Ms Taher told Muslim World Today: “My organization, Sahiyo, has come across women who have had lasting physical scars because the person who did the procedure cut off the entire clitoris or more. In these cases, it can result in pain and bleeding for several days after the cut and pain during sex later in life.”
“In many more cases, the scars and trauma are more psychological. The experience of being suddenly pinned down on the floor, having your underwear taken off and your legs spread apart so that a blade can cut you down there - many women experience it as a form of sexual assault. Even if this trauma is suppressed for years, it can resurface in adult life. We’ve spoken to women who find sexual intimacy traumatic because it brings back the memories of the assault. Some women have had to go for therapy to overcome it,” she said.
Ms Taher explained further that for centuries, women have long been afraid to speak up against FGM for fear of being called a victim or in places where FGM is illegal, they fear to bring “trouble” to their loved ones.
Ms Taher said this silence must stop.
“FGC can only end if we address the underlying social, religious, traditional structures that hold this norm in place and influence the attitudes and behaviours towards the practice. Thus, to create impactful social change, we must find a way to bring all members of a community—law enforcement, government, health professionals, survivors, community members, social workers—together so that we all understand that this harmful social norm should never have started, and that we have the power and responsibility to end it,” she said.
FGM as a basis for obtaining asylum status in the United States
FGM has pushed some survivors to seek asylum in other countries, usually the U.S.
However, as the Daily Beast recently reported in its article ‘Want Asylum in America? Get Ready for Hell’ the process is not easy.
FGM survivors who seek asylum say that the process has gotten “significantly longer and harder.”
One Ethiopian woman – who became an FGM victim at just seven years old - was grilled so harshly by an American official that she broke down and cried.
To know more about the reality on the ground of FGM survivors who seek asylum in the U.S, Muslim World Today recently spoke to Deirdre M. Giblin over email. She has specialized in immigration law for over 20 years, with a particular focus on asylum and refugee law.
MWT: An FGM survivor wants to seek asylum in the US. What necessary steps should she take? What’s the procedure like?
Ms Giblin: There are two ways procedures for people to ask for asylum: one is to present themselves at a border of entry and pass a credible fear test, or when they enter in any other manner, such as a visitor visa or student visa, and file an application with the government asking for asylum. The second way is if the immigrant is in deportation proceedings, then asylum could be a grounds of defense as to why they should not be deported. The procedure is heavily reliant on a finding of “credibility”, which is essentially whether the claim is believable and the fear expressed by the applicant is “well founded.” The Asylum office of the United States citizenship and immigration services examines the country conditions from the country from which the person is seeking asylum to determine if it accurately matches what the applicant describes.
MWT: How easy or difficult is it for an FGM victim to win an asylum in the US?
Ms Giblin: All asylum claims are arduous and only have s national approval rate 30 per cent. Claims based on FGM fall into several categories, each of which has its own challenges: Firstly, a woman who has suffered FGM in the past can easily show a past harm, but her challenge may be to prove that she has a well-founded fear of harm in the future. Medical research showing that FGM has continuing harm psychologically and physically is helpful in that regard. Second, claims by a parent who fears going back to their country because their daughter would be subjected to FGM have had almost no success in the United States asylum process (because the harm is not to the plaintiff); thirdly, asylum claims brought by a young woman who has not been cut and is fearful of returning because she will be subjected to FGM, is a strong claim but fairly rare because most women are not successful in fleeing their country before the harm occurs.
MWT: Has the chance of someone getting an asylum because of FGM changed now with the Trump administration in power?
Ms Giblin: The Trump administration recently reversed a pivotal asylum claim based on gender violence (Matter of A-B). The involved asylum based on domestic violence. Any erosion of asylum claims rooted in harm that is unique to women is detrimental to all gender based claims, such as FGM. If the administration continues to roll back well established law in this area, it is conceivable that they would reverse the decision that established FGM as a basis for asylum (Matter of Kasinga).
MWT: What are some of the important aspects that is looked into someone’s case before she can be granted asylum?
Ms Giblin: In order to qualify for asylum, a claimant must meet the definition of refugee that the persecution she fears is for reason of her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group (PSG) or political opinion. The most common ground in connection with FGM/C claims is membership of a “particular social group” (PSG) of women (since FGM/C is a practice that affects only women), and can also be based on race or nationality or ethnic group membership, or where the woman’s religion prohibits FGM/C, there is a nexus to the ground of religion or where opposition to it can constitute a political opinion definition a basis can be political.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.