Talking FGM, and why we PG-rate conversations on the Global South
I am posting this on behalf of my friend Priyanka Joseph, who originally posted the essay on Facebook. If anyone on Tumblr could point me to/share links or resources for these women dealing with the complications and ramifications of FGM in the Virginia-NY-DC area, this would be greatly appreciated.
The best part about volunteering as a Writing Consultant in Northern Virginia (NoVa) is how every conversation serves to destroy some stray pre-set notion about global identities and cultures. A session can begin with discussing APA formatting or why books are considered so dangerous in the world of F451, and end with chatting about how various communities genially attempt to make money off of each other in a tightly-packed, diverse suburb like Alexandria or Falls Church.
Over the past two years, I’ve been privy to insider perspectives on which community overcharges for eyebrow threading,which country produces the worst cab drivers, and where’s the best place to buy Gibna Bayda, a Sudanese soft cheese that can be a delicious alternative to feta. All generalizations and none of them statistically tested,but all perspectives that have helped inform my understanding of this Post-Post-Everything swathe of busy life, just across from the hum of importance that is DC.
In fact, I’ve learned more as a Writing Consultant about realities of global identities as they are experienced on the daily in Northern Virginia,than when I worked in a DC non-profit or studied political science and public administration. Every person I’ve worked with so far has one foot placed firmly in their country of origin, and the other placed firmly here in NoVa— I’ve been introduced to families over Skype, waving awkwardly as I make notes on my clients’ drafts.
Not all the adults I work with are international teenagers in ESL programs either. A majority of them are returning learners,who immigrated to Virginia and then took their Citizenship Test when I was entering middle school back home in India. In addition, a majority of them are women.
Our conversations are not always about cheese and eyebrows either. In recent months, several of the ladies I work with have begun to speak with me about their health concerns, confiding in me with a level of trust that both inspires AND terrifies. I of all people, a flabby F-1 veteran with no medical background, who is constantly attempting to keep the strands of her own health and humor together while balancing bills and deadlines. I have been asked about diabetes testing equipment, whether avocados are actually good for one’s health, and can I help find affordable health insurance.
I’ve of course informed these client-friends of mine that I’m not the best person for their needs, and that they should really speak directly with their doctor, or maybe request information from local .gov or college health centers. I tell them that I can help write their letters, or coach them in a telephone script, but that’s as far as my training carries me.They in turn laugh, and say sure, but return with a question about CoQ10 capsules. I used to subscribe them to RealAge emails, and let them know when local open clinic hours were announced. But that was before one of my client-friends (let’s call her A—) spoke to me about her troubles dealing with the long-term health outcomes of female genital mutilation, or FGM.
A— was and is privy to all my ignorance on the subject: I had seen the incredible Waris Dirie movie, but had no idea how to speak about the issue face to face with someone who has actually been through this harrowing experience, and who resents and criticizes it while accepting that it fell within the framework of her community’s belief systems at that time. A— always says that hers was the last generation in her family to have experienced this. A— is a strong, independent, single, mature lady, who brought herself to the United States over 15 years ago from Sudan,and who has seen a good amount of the world. Why this vibrant, short-tempered,sharp-tongued powerhouse would want to confide in me is still beyond me, but I agreed to help find her some sort of medical solution.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO),the long term consequences of FGM can include “cysts, infertility, an increased risk in childbirth complications, and recurrent urinary tract and bladder infections” (Fact sheet N°241, Feb 2013). What the WHO doesn’t tell you and what A— told me is that FGM also makes a simple yearly visit to “lady business doctors” impossible to bear, mentally and physically.
“Briyanka [sic], do you know what they put INSIDE you? I cannot bear this thing! Who does this?”
She’s fucking right— who does do this? Why isn’t there [a] local program in place here in Northern Virginia to offer relief to older women who are still suffering from the long-term effects of FGM?
Doesn’t help that A— and the other ladies don’t look like the poster kids for anti-FGM movements. They have told me that doctors aren’t prepared to have a conversation with them about FGM, and that there’s no way for them to bring it up in conversation until they are in stirrups being looked at awkwardly.
I was so angry for A— the first time she described what a doctor’s visit for her is like, and why she is always looking for a new gynecologist. I was so angry that no local college or community website offered information or guidance on the subject of FGM treatment or reversal for grown women (tax payers! American citizens!) who wanted the same.
When I met A— last week, she looked run down, tired.She’s worked 18 hour shifts on weekends for six months now and has been on diabetic medication for a while. She said it hurts to pee more than ever before, but that the nurse at the last clinic she had gone to warned her that a pap smear would cause a lot of bleeding “in her condition.” She shot me a wry grin, and asked me if I could try to find anything on that “internet of yours” that would help.
I looked. I looked and looked and looked.
Finally, in some desperation, I posted a query on my facebook timeline regarding FGM treatment options in the Mid-Atlantic region. I had taken pains to word the query carefully, using acronyms alone as much as I could, staying away from links and sensationalist language. The folk I tagged were those who one might assume are better placed than I am to have information on the subject— some I knew as friends, others as administrators of the scholarship program I entered the US with back in 2005.
One of these administrators immediately sent me a message, decrying the fact I had posted this query “so publicly”,enjoining me to immediately de-tag her from a discussion of such a private issue. My first reaction was remorse: I figured I had used triggering language,which was why I was being scolded. I deleted the post, and apologized to the lady. I explained that the only reason I posted publicly was to cast the net as far as possible, as my friend was facing a time sensitive health crisis. Said administrator works for the federal government, and I was horrified at the thought of having possibly jeopardized her time-line.
Instead of accepting my apology and educating me on the subject, said lady continued harping on the private vs. public aspect of the situation. She then clarified that her friends and family did not have to see this issue talked about openly on fb.
I am not ashamed to say that this made me mad.
All of a sudden, here was a conversation on decency, in place of what I had envisioned as a conversation on a very real problem faced by large numbers of women everywhere in the United States and elsewhere in the world. As Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton herself came out publicly several times to decry FGM and call for a shift in attitudes towards this practice. Google tells me there’s a wonderful doctor in Southern Colorado who (at least in 2010) was providing reconstructive surgery options to adult survivors of FGM. There are established organizations in the UK and Australia who are advocating for FGM reversal or other forms of treatment, while advocating for its global ban at the same time.
And here was a gov employee telling me off for bringing the discussion to fb.
Of course I understand not wanting to be tagged in a post that makes you uncomfortable. But there was something about the back channel scold (and the un-friending that followed) that felt like a low, sharp kick to the ovaries. The lady in question wanted to ensure she had the last word, and so her final message to me claimed that had I not been “rude”, she might have”obliged” with helping out, but now she did not feel inclined to anymore, as I obviously had no understanding of how to handle the”discreet problems” of these ladies.
All emphasis my own.
Personally speaking, I feel I wasn’t rude enough, as if my South-Indian upbringing would let me be rude at all. Anyone who is more comfortable posting postcard-pretty images of travels through the Global South rather than proactively educating some lesser idiot(that would be me) about discussing a sensitive issue is not worth the bandwidth. I of course, am also a fool for letting her perspective in under my skin.
But this left me wondering where this leaves everyday people who want to enter into the FGM conversation publicly: are we not supposed to talk about it because it offends sensibilities that survivors of FGM themselves are not vocalizing?
A— and women in shoes similar to hers want to talk about FGM survival and treatment. Aforementioned ex-administrator does not want this. It is possibly safe to assume she’s not the only one who thinks this way.
Which is why I’m reaching out, folks—Have you faced a similar situation regarding a discussion of FGM? More importantly, do you know anyone who can help A— here in the United States?