« Repairing » a clitoris : a cultural dilemma

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Djenaba’s dream came true on March 12th : “repairing” her clitoris which had been excised when she was 13 years old. For this young Ivorian woman living in France surgery was her last resort to enable her express her womanhood. Still recovering, she tells us why she decided to be operated upon, the cultural dilemma it provokes and what she gained through her experience.

Djeneba was thirteen years old when she underwent excision. A year later, the Ivorian teenager was married to a man “as old as her father, if not older”. And when her husband died, she was married to another in France. In the beginning everything was fine. But then her knight in shining armor became violent. Very violent… Upon arrival in a Paris based centre for women, where she still lives today, the thirty year old took the necessary steps for a clitoral repair surgery and was operated the 12th of March. This was due to the fact that her excision had always haunted her and she wanted “what had been taken from her without her approval” back not withstanding the heavy cultural consequences of such an act.

Afrik-news.com: What made you want to get operated?

Djeneba: Most of all the comments of my husbands. My first husband used to say I was the woman he wanted because I had been excised and that he wanted a submissive wife that would not question her husband’s authority. Every time he reminded me of the fact that I had been excised it made me think about the pain I had gone through during the excision. The pain was so acute that I fainted several times and had to be revived every time. My second husband, now he was even worse. He caused me grief because I was excised. He spat terrible words in my face saying that I was not a woman, that he felt as though he had a man lying next to him, that I did not feel anything and that I could not give pleasure. Once during a meeting the excision topic was raised. I said that excision was really a horrible thing and that it was wrong to have little girls go through that experience and that I thanked god that I had not gone through it. My husband screamed back saying; “But you have!”I said I had not, but he insisted: “I sleep behind you every night and you are telling me that you have not been excised?” I felt suicidal that day.

Afrik-news.com: When did you decide to get operated?

Djeneba: It was hard for me to talk about my excision. But my arrival at the centre changed that. I got closer to the chief educator who told me she had already helped several women through surgery with Dr. Foldes. So I asked her to get all the necessary information.

Afrik-news.com: So you got psychological help from then…

Djeneba: I had sessions with a psychologist a gynecologist a sexologist… The process was long and tough but my educators were very supportive and gave me the strength to go on with the operation.

Afrik-news.com: How did the day of the operation go?

Djeneba: The day I had to go to the hospital was not easy. My educator came to see me several times asking from behind my door if everything was alright. I was dragging my feet because I was mortified. When I finally came out I was drained and the burden of the fear was enormous. Eventually everything went fine. The operation though hurt so much that I relived the painful experience of my excision. I had very high fevers and I had to be rushed to the ER several times. I often feel pain I walk long distances.

Afrik-news.com: Going through this surgery meant leaving part of your culture behind you. How did you get through this stage?

Djeneba: It is hard to think that one comes from elsewhere, where this tradition that we look away from exists. This operation makes me feel as though i had discarded this tradition, this thing that covers me, as if i wanted to live like an european woman. It was not that simple to accept this operation but i had to be strong.

Afrik-news.com: Do you sometimes regret this operation?

Djeneba : i often feel some guilt when i think about it, because i tell myself that my family did this for me. But i always correct myself saying “no they did not do it for me but for themselves!” My mother allowed this to be done to me for people to say she is a good mother, and so on… but i suffer ! it is my body we are talking about !

Afrik-news.com: Does your family know?

Djeneba: I can not yet speak to my parents and family because it is like I went against a tradition. I intend telling my family someday, I know that I will get threats and ex communicated … But I will do it anyway; when I am ready for it.

Afrik-news.com: Do you think you would have wanted clitoral repair if you had stayed in Ivory Coast?

Djeneba: I told the doctor that operated me several times that being in France was a chance for me to be able to say that I want to become like other women. I got the chance to access information I couldn’t have in Ivory Coast. Over there it was out of the question to speak to anybody about this type of surgery.

Afrik-news.com: Do other African women ask you for advice on the surgery?

Djeneba: A lot of girls call me for information. I usually tell them that they should go through surgery whether their excision was traumatizing or not. If they have taken something from us without asking we must get it back. But I also explain to them that surgery is no easy task and neither is the decision.

Afrik-news.com: What did this surgical operation give you?

Djeneba: Some do it to be able to get pleasure not me. I did it not to be ashamed of my body. Nobody is perfect, but I could not look at myself in the mirror, I told myself that I was not a woman because I did not look like any of them. The surgery was made to help me get back something they took from me without my opinion, put something back where it belonged and silence my anger. Because of the men that traumatized me and made me feel guilty I had become aggressive. I did not feel good.

Afrik-news.com: What do you feel nowadays when you look at yourself in the mirror?

Djeneba: When I look at myself I am happy! I am a woman! Now I can go out proudly, and if somebody comes towards me I do not close up like I used to. It is like if I was in somebody else’s body and I had become me again. When I go out, I make up, I laugh, I am satisfied, I am radiant! I really feel like I am blooming. I am another woman than the one that arrived in the centre: I used to hide, I was agressive with others, I used to refuse to go out.

Afrik-news.com: How do you approach your future love life?

Djeneba: I am a woman to be won! I tell myself I can meet a man without being ashamed of myself. I hope to be able to give back the pleasure he will give me. As all women, I want to finish making love with my man and feeling that I am the happiest woman on earth.

Photo : Sébastien Cailleux

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