Juliana was held down, her mouth covered to smother her screams, as a legally blind woman cut at her genitals.
She doesn’t remember how old she was when it happened. Was she four years old, or maybe five? She just can’t recall. But 33-year-old Fatou Mandiang Diatta does remember the iron grip of the women who held her down, the blood that spattered her feet, and the terrible pain between her legs.
And it wasn’t just the pain she felt. There was the shock and confusion. Why was she being punished so badly when she hadn’t done anything wrong?
Decades have passed since Diatta underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) as a young girl in Senegal, but the pain and trauma have remained with her ever since.
Now an activist, rapper and singer, performing under the stage name Sister Fa, she is fighting back against a practise that, according to the World Health Organisation, violates the basic human rights of more than 125 million women worldwide in just Africa and the Middle East.
And one of the foremost ways in which she does this is simply by not keeping quiet about a subject which, in many countries, is still considered taboo.
Slender, energetic, and with a ready smile, Diatta talks openly about it.
“The turning point in my life came when I was about 14 years old,” she says.
Two baby girls in her village had just undergone FGM. To disinfect their wounds they were wrapped in chlorine-soaked diapers.
“The mothers thought the babies cried so hard because they were cut,” she says. In fact, the chlorine “was burning their delicate flesh away”.
When the wounds became badly infected, the mothers didn’t take their daughters to a hospital. Fearing that they would be imprisoned for a practise that is illegal in Senegal, they instead tried using the leaves from a tree believed to be medicinal.
The girls died, Diatta says.
One of the babies lived next door to Diatta. When they heard the mother scream, Diatta and her family ran to their neighbour’s house.
“We all cried when we saw the little dead body,” she recalls. “It was the first time I saw a dead person. It made a deep, deep impression on me. And it made me think. I was only a teenager, but I realised something was seriously wrong. How could a tradition be honoured and respected if it made little babies suffer so much?”
From Senegal to Germany, and back again
Diatta now lives in Berlin. She moved here after falling in love with an Austrian ethnologist who came to interview her for a film he was making about the Senegalese hip-hop scene. That was in 2005.
“We got married a week after we met,” she says laughing. “When you are madly in love, you take risks.”
It is a sunny Saturday afternoon in September and Diatta is hosting an event for the African community in Berlin. She has organised it with a group of enthusiastic men and women from various African countries. She started the group to draw attention to some of the issues facing the African diaspora in the German capital. They all wear purple t-shirts with her portrait on the back.
Dressed in skinny jeans and a simple brown blouse, Diatta speaks to the 50 or so people in attendance about child marriage and FGM. “We really have to protect our children,” she tells them. “Even in Germany, our girls are at risk. It happens all too often that young girls go on a holiday to Africa and come back circumcised.”
A little later on, she raps and sings. She helps children make paintings on calabashes and supervises the buffet of African food – half of which she has cooked herself. Soon, everybody is on the dance floor. Diatta is the life of the party.
“I talk about sensitive subjects,” she explains as we head home from the event, driving through the dark streets of Berlin to her apartment in the multicultural neighbourhood of Neukolln. “But I make sure people enjoy themselves at the same time.”
Sitting at a table in her kitchen, where just the day before she cooked fish and rice until one o’clock in the morning, she begins to speak about just what FGM does to a woman.
“When you are circumcised, you feel like an incomplete woman,” she says. “It has been very difficult for me. I felt mutilated, as if somebody had cut off my ear or my finger.”
“I was angry at my mother because she put me through this ordeal. I was angry because nobody told me what was going to happen at the time. Nobody said anything to me. They just grabbed me and held me down.”
Diatta was about 16 when she learned first about the female body during a school biology lesson. Looking at the pictures in her textbook, she realised she was missing something.
“One organ just wasn’t there,” she says. “All of a sudden it dawned on me what they had done to me when I was a little girl. It made me furious. Why did they cut off the most sensitive part of my body? I just couldn’t understand.”
It was around that time that she began writing “little texts” about the things happening around her.
“I wrote about my own experience of being circumcised. How I felt deceived and betrayed, with nobody to protect me. I wrote about the tough life of village women in Senegal, who have to get up at six in the morning to work in the fields, to chop wood, to fetch water, to clean and to cook for the whole family. Writing was a way to express myself.”
When her mother fell ill, Diatta moved to Dakar to look after her. She was living with her uncle in the Senegalese capital when she started putting music to the words she had written.
“I started to rap,” she says. “I wanted to share my thoughts with other people; I wanted to make a difference.”
In 2000, at the age of 18, she made her first demo. The next year, she performed at the Senegal Hip Hop Awards.
She sang about social and political issues – the position of women in the country, forced marriages, FGM, Aids and child soldiers. Her music fused old school hip-hop with the use of traditional African instruments, like the kora.
“At that time, the hip-hop movement in Dakar was a social movement. Rappers talked about what was going on in society, about the problems people faced,” she explains.
“I was part of that movement, but it wasn’t easy. For a man to be a rapper was unusual, but for a woman it was unthinkable. But I wanted to make hip-hop music, and I just did it.”
“As a woman, I had to fight twice as hard to make myself heard. Like all rappers, I was wearing baggy jeans, wide t-shirts and baseball caps. But I alone was criticised for it. People would contemptuously say, ‘look at her; she dresses like a man.'”
And her family didn’t understand, either. They wanted her to stay at home to do the housework.
“My uncle used to threaten me, ‘If you don’t cook, you won’t get anything to eat.’ And I’d say, ‘Well if I have to go to the studio, I prefer not to eat.’ ”
In 2005, she released her first album, Hip Hop Yaw Law Fal, on the Senegalese label Fight N’ Forget. That was also the year she met her husband-to-be, Lucas May. “I was one of the artists he wanted to portray in his documentary,” she says.
“I fell in a great big way for him. Lucas did something that was new to me: He listened. I didn’t know that it was possible for people to listen longer than 10 minutes to you.”
“In my family, there never was much talking. If you would talk to a grown-up, even when you had a problem, they would tell you to be quiet because you were a girl. But Lucas listened. And he told me I was smart. That, too, was new to me.”
“At one point, I had to tell him about it. It wasn’t easy. I began by asking him if he knew about female genital cutting. And then I told him that I was cut myself. He was very, very shocked.”
May took her to a screening of the film Moolaade by Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembene.
“It’s a film about a village woman who refuses to have her daughter circumcised. I cried when I saw it. It all came back to me,” she says. “But in this film, the mother defended her daughter until the very end.”
Then, she adds: “I have struggled for a long time with the feeling that my mother didn’t love me because she had me cut.”
Mothers and daughters
Diatta gets up to make tea. From the living room comes the sound of girls’ voices, cheerful and light. It’s her daughter Mariama, a bubbly seven-year-old with a mane of light brown curls, playing with a friend.
“I am glad I can give her a childhood that is radically different from mine,” Diatta says.
Since coming to Germany, Diatta’s life has taken a dramatic turn. In Berlin, she began thinking about how to use her music to fight FGM. She met people who encouraged her. She found a band to perform with. Her sound evolved – becoming a fusion of rap, reggae, Afropop and world music.
In 2008, she toured Senegal for the first time to raise awareness about the injustice of FGM.
“We played in big cities for young people. We had them watch Moolaade and talked with them about the subject. We did television and radio shows. It was a first step to tackle a problem that was heavy and totally taboo.”
Other tours followed, and she gradually learned more about how to best raise awareness. That meant visiting villages, where the girls are more at risk than those in the cities, speaking to entire communities, and working with schoolchildren “because they are the ones who, in the future, will have to decide whether or not to cut their daughters”.
Diatta says she’s always careful never to tell people that what they’ve done to their daughter is wrong. “If you want people to listen to you, you shouldn’t judge them. I just tell them about the dangers of female circumcision.”
The health problems associated with cutting are vast, she explains, and women risk, among other things, infections, haemorrhaging, excessive scar tissue, chronic pain, infertility, and even death.
“The woman who cuts the girls is not a doctor, you know. She is not even a midwife. She just comes from a family where the women earn their living by cutting girls. She doesn’t know how to disinfect her knife. After cutting one girl, she washes the knife with water and goes on to cut the next girl. In this way, whole villages can become infected with Aids.”
“And these are only the physical problems. Think about the problems of circumcised wives with husbands who don’t realise they have to be careful with them in bed.”
“In Senegal, you don’t talk about sex, so the woman doesn’t know how to tell her husband she needs more time and attention. Think about the psychological damage that’s done to little girls when suddenly the most sensitive part of their body is cut away without any form of anaesthesia. Many women are traumatised by the experience. This is what I tell people.”
Diatta has worked with an imam who, she says, explained to the villagers that Islam does not demand cutting one’s daughter.
“I have also worked with a midwife who explained about the complications circumcised women face when they give birth. Infibulated women, whose vagina is stitched up, have to be cut open before they can give birth. I haven’t been infibulated, but me too, I had a hard time giving birth to my daughter. I couldn’t walk for a month afterwards.”
Publicly addressing this deeply-rooted practise requires bravery. While travelling around Senegal, Diatta has faced much resistance from those who believe that FGM is a religious or cultural obligation.
“There’s a lot of ignorance. People think that Islam demands it, but the Quran doesn’t mention female circumcision anywhere at all. Other people think that it’s a traditional thing, but I found out [by studying the subject] that it’s neither religious nor traditional: It’s simply a social norm.”
“When all daughters in a community are cut, and yours isn’t, she will not be accepted. In traditional villages, a woman who is not cut is an outcast. She is thought to bring bad luck to the family of the man she marries. She is considered unclean. She is not allowed to cook. Whenever there is a festivity, she is not invited.”
“Cutting basically is a way to suppress women. It’s a way to keep them under control. By having a woman’s clitoris cut, men believe they can control her sexuality. But what they don’t know is that the clitoris is a much bigger internal organ than the small part you can see on the outside. Circumcised women might not be able to have an orgasm any more, but they still long to be with a man.”
Two years ago, in a village in northern Senegal, a group of angry men broke into the classroom where Diatta was speaking to schoolchildren. They were carrying placards with slogans like “Long live Islam”, “Don’t touch our religion” and “Nobody can stop genital cutting”.
One of the men grabbed Diatta. It was a difficult situation. At first she tried to reason with them. Then she decided to leave the village. But she remains undeterred.
“I would have felt bad if it were a group of women, but it was a group of men. They realised I was going to reveal the truth and tried to prevent it. But they are losing the battle. Everywhere in Senegal the taboo is breaking.”
Her own village has openly abandoned the practise since she performed and met with villagers there in 2010, she says. And there are reports that other communities in Senegal are also abandoning FGM.
This summer, Diatta worked with World Vision to help educate health workers, teachers, and local artists who will visit villages to talk about female genital mutilation. “They will continue my work because I can’t change the world on my own.”
Diatta pours another cup of tea and looks me in the eye.
“If I wanted to,” she says, “I could have reconstructive surgery. There is a clinic here in Berlin that specialises in it. The health insurance pays the costs.”
Apart from such surgery, women who’ve undergone genital mutilation also need to be restored psychologically.
“When it comes to this psychological reconstruction, I have been my own surgeon. I have healed myself by talking to people, by telling my story, by telling young girls: ‘They have violated your rights; make sure you don’t do this to your own children,'” she says.
“At one point I have realised that my mother didn’t do this to me because she didn’t love me. She did it because she wanted me to be accepted by the community. She didn’t want me to become an outcast, and that is why she had me cut. She never went to school; she was ignorant. She only wanted the best for me. I can see now that, in a way, it was an act of love.”
“I don’t need reconstructive surgery any more. I have accepted that I am an incomplete woman. I am okay now, and I truly believe that one day Senegal will be free of female genital cutting.” She smiles. “And I will live to see it.”