Anatomy of a Survivor's Story

Anatomy of a Survivor's Story

Maryum Saifee (@msaifee), New York, USA    

When you do a search for “Female Genital Mutilation” or “FGM” online, an image of four line-drawings of the female anatomy pop up next to its Wikipedia entry. It illustrates four types of violence. The first being a partial cut to the clitoris. The second, a more invasive cut with the entire clitoris removed. The third is progressively worse with the removal of the clitoris, labia majora and minora. And the fourth box illustrates a series of hash marks to symbolize stitches over the vaginal opening to allow only for urination and menstruation.

As a survivor of FGM, most questions about my story fixate on the physical. The first question I usually get asked is what type of FGM I underwent. When I told a journalist once that I went through Type 1, she said “oh, that’s not so bad. It’s not like type three which is far worse.” She was technically right. I had the least invasive form. And for many years, I gaslighted myself into feeling a sense of relief that I was one of the lucky ones. I comforted myself noting that I could have been less fortunate with all of my genitalia gouged out, not just the clitoral tip. Or worse I could have been one of the ones who didn’t survive at all. Like Nada Hassan Abdel-Maqsoud, a twelve year old, who bled to death on a doctor’s operating table earlier this year in Upper Egypt. Nada is a  reminder to me that for every data point -- 200 million women and girls who live with the consequences of FGM globally -- there is a story. Nada will never be able to tell hers.

As much as I find the label “survivor” suffocating at times -- I also realize there is privilege embedded in the word. By surviving, you are alive. You have the ability to tell your story, process the trauma, activate others in your community and gain insights and a new language and lens to see yourself through.

The act of storytelling can be cathartic and liberating, but it can also shatter the storyteller in the process.

Without integrating the psychosocial support of trained clinicians into storytelling and healing retreats, well-intentioned interventions can result in more trauma. This is all the more important as FGM survivors navigate the double pandemic of their own PTSD from childhood trauma, and the indefinite COVID-19 global shutdown.

In many anti-FGM advocacy spaces, I have seen this insatiable hunger to unearth stories -- whatever the cost to the storyteller. The stories help activate funding and serve as a data point
for measuring impact. 

Survivor stories then become commodities fueling a storytelling industrial complex. Storytellers, if not provided proper mental health support in the process, can become collateral damage.

My motivation in writing this piece is to flip the script on how we view FGM survivors, prioritizing the storyteller over the story itself.

FGM survivors are more than the four boxes describing how the pieces of our anatomy were cut, pricked, carved, or gouged out. In this essay, I’ll break down the anatomy of an FGM survivor’s story into four parts: stories that break, stories that remake, stories that heal, and stories that reveal.

Type 1: Stories that break

I was sitting in the heart of Appalachia with a group of FGM survivors, meeting many for the first time. As they shared their traumas, I realized we all belonged in some way or another to the same unenviable club. A white Christian survivor from Kentucky - who I don’t think I would have ever met if we didn’t have FGM survivorship connecting us - told the contours of her story. 

There were so many parallels. We were both cut at seven. She was bribed with cake after her cut. I was bribed with a jumbo-sized Toblerone chocolate bar when mine was over. Absorbing her trauma overwhelmed me. And I imagine when I shared my story, others in the circle may also have been silently unraveling. We didn’t have a clinician or mental health professional in a facilitation role and that absence was felt. The first night, I was sharing a room with six other survivors and tried hard to keep the sounds of my own tears muffled. By the last day, I reached breaking point. Before leaving for the airport, my stomach contracted and I convulsively vomited. I felt like I was purging not only my pain, but the pain of the others I’d absorbed that week. We all dutifully produced our stories into 90 second social media friendly soundbites with narration and photos. But at what cost?

Type 2: Stories that remake

On February 6, 2016, the Guardian published my story as a survivor. The second it was released, I was remade. My identity transformed from nondescript, relatively invisible mid-level Foreign Service Officer to FGM survivor under a public microscope. That same day, then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power tweeted my story with the introduction: “I was seven years old” before linking to the article. The tweet symbolized a moment for me where my personal and professional worlds collided. Since then, they have been forever intertwined. 

Even though I spent ten years of my career as a diplomat focused on other issues -- I lived in Cairo during the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011 and served in Baghdad and Erbil when the Syrian revolution turned from an uprising to civil war -- all of those past experiences that began to make mefeel erased. When I spoke on panels, my identity would be reduced to “survivor.” Like other survivors, I have worked hard to rewrite the script on how others see me.

I reinsert pieces of my other identities when speaking to underscore to the broader public that while yes, I am a survivor of childhood trauma and while my FGM story may have remade a part of my identity, it doesn’t define me.

Type 3: Stories that heal

With the guidance of a mental health expert, I have spent the last few months doing a deep dive into my FGM survivor story. I have told and retold my story over dozens of times in public venues. My goal is to break the culture of silence and inspire action. At this point, the telling of my story has almost become mechanized, as though I am reciting a verse from the Quran I memorized as a kid. I would always start with: “I was sitting an anthropology class when a fellow student described her research project on Female Genital Mutilation. And that’s when I had the memory jolt. A memory I had suppressed since childhood came flooding to the foreground.” I go into the details of what happened in granular detail -- the color of the floor, the feelings of confusion and betrayal in the hazy aftermath. And then I go on to talk about the afternoon I confronted my mother about the summer she and my father shipped my brother and off to India to stay with my aunt. The summer it happened. I later found out my aunt cut me without my parents’ consent. In my years of telling and retelling this story, I would have moments I felt nothing, moments I would break down, and moments of relief. It was a mixed bag, often contradictory emotions happening all at once. 

When I began to take apart the story, I discovered the core moment where I felt most gutted. It wasn’t the cut itself. It was the aftermath. I remember sitting in a corner alone, feeling confused and ashamed. When I looked at my aunt on the other side of the room, she was whispering to my cousin and they both pointed and laughed at me. Unearthing the moment of shame - the laughter - has haunted me since childhood. The piece that was carved out of me is called “haram ki boti” which translates into sinful flesh. Over time, the physical scar healed. But for many FGM survivors, the psychological wounds remain 

Type 4: Stories that reveal

Last year, I decided to take a sabbatical from the Foreign Service. I was burning out on both ends -- I had just completed a really tough assignment in Pakistan and was also doing anti-FGM
advocacy in my personal capacity. When I came home, an acquaintance from graduate school approached me to capture my story on film. As part of the process, she would send a camera
crew to shadow me. Sometimes while giving speeches, other times filming mundane interactions with friends and family. On a visit to my home in Texas, I’ll never forget the moment where my mom told me her story of survival. As part of the film, we went on a roadtrip to Austin to visit the university where I first had the memory jolt. My mom is patiently waiting for the cameraman to set up his tripod.  My father is standing next to her. 

In the end, we eventually had the conversation I never had the courage to have with either of my parents face to face. Looking them both in the eye, retelling my story with a camera as witness, we discussed how FGM ripped our family apart (specifically my dad’s relationship with his sister). For the first time, I heard my mom talking about her own experience and the feeling of betrayal when she discovered my aunt cut me without her consent. When I later told her that FGM was actually indigenous to the U.S. and Europe and that it was a cure for hysteria (prescribed by doctors) up until the 19th century, my mother exclaimed “that’s crazy to me, this was a cure for hysteria. I’m going to educate other doctors to speak out.” And in that moment, my mother, a survivor who had never shared her story before, became an activist. 

My story, intertwined with her story, revealed a tightly woven fabric of resistance. With our voices, we were able to break the cycle of intergenerational structural violence. We were able to rewrite the stories of future generations of girls in our own family and hopefully one day, the world.



by Neesa Sunar (@neesasunar), Queens, USA

This is a woman breaking free from her mundane reality, devoid of color. She dreams in a colorful, "nonsensical" way that people in her life would not understand. She could be considered insane, yet her dreams are more vivid and imaginative than actual life. This is frequently how schizophrenia occurs to me, more engaging and exciting than real life.

Neesa Sunar (@neesasunar)

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