This is Ayaan Hirsi Ali's personal account, from her book Infidel, published by Free Press, 2007.KORAN school was a shed down the road. The other pupils were from the neighbourhood. At first I liked it. I learned to mix ink from charcoal, water, and a little milk, and to write the Arabic alphabet on long wooden boards. I began learning the Koran, line by line, by heart. It was uplifting to be engaged in such an adult task.
But the kids at madrassah (Islamic religious school) were tough. They fought. One girl, who was about eight years old, they called kintirleey, "she with the clitoris".
I had no idea what a clitoris was, but the kids didn't even want to be seen with this girl. They spat on her and pinched her; they rubbed sand in her eyes, and once they caught her and tried to bury her in the sand behind the school.
The madrassah teacher didn't help. Once in a while he called her dammin, dunce, and kintirleey, too. My teenage cousin Sanyar used to pick me up after madrassah. One day she arrived just as a girl hit me in the face. Sanyar took me home and told the story. "Ayaan didn't even defend herself," she said in horror. "Coward!" my family jeered.
The other girl got the same encouragement. We flew at each other, fists tight, hitting, wrestling, pulling each other's hair, biting. "Ayaan, never cry!" Sanyar called out. The other children cheered us on. When they let us stop, our dresses were torn and my lip was bleeding, but Sanyar was delighted. "I don't want you to ever let another child hit you or make you cry," she said. "Fight. If you don't fight for your honour, you're a slave."
Then, as we walked away, the other girl shouted after me, "Kintirleey!" Sanyar winced. I looked at her, horror dawning on me. I was like that other girl? I, too, had that filthy thing, a kintir? In Somalia, like many countries across Africa and the Middle East, little girls are made "pure" by having their genitals cut out. There is no other way to describe this procedure, which typically occurs around the age of five.
After the child's clitoris and labia are carved out, scraped off, or, in more compassionate areas, merely cut or pricked, the whole area is often sewn up, so that a thick band of tissue forms a chastity belt made of the girl's own scarred flesh. A small hole is situated to permit a thin flow of pee. Only great force can tear the scar tissue wider, for sex.
Female genital mutilation predates Islam. Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic. But in Somalia, where virtually every girl is excised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam. Uncircumcised girls will be possessed by devils, fall into vice and perdition, and become whores. Imams never discourage the practice: it keeps girls pure.
Many girls die during or after their excision, from infection. Other complications cause enormous, more or less lifelong pain. My father Abeh was a modern man and considered the practice barbaric. He had always insisted that his daughters be left uncut. In this he was quite extraordinarily forward-thinking. Though I don't think it was for the same reason, Mahad, who was six, had also not yet been circumcised.
Not long after that first fight of mine at the madrassah, Grandma decided that the time was right for us to undergo the necessary and proper dignity of purification. My father was in jail and my mother was away for long periods, but Grandma would ensure that the old traditions would be respected in the old ways.
After she made the arrangements, Grandma was cheerful and friendly all week long. A special table was prepared in her bedroom, and various aunts, known and unknown, gathered in the house. When the day itself came I was not frightened, just curious. I had no idea what was going to happen, except that there was a festive atmosphere in the house and we - all three of us - were going to be cleansed. I wouldn't be called kintirleey any more.
Mahad went first. I was driven out of the room, but after a while I stole back to the door and watched. Mahad was on the floor, with his head and arms on Grandma's lap. Two women were holding down his spread-eagled legs, and a strange man was bending down between them. The room was warm and I could smell a mixture of sweat and frankincense.
Grandma was whispering in Mahad's ears, "Don't cry, don't stain your mother's honour. These women will talk about what they have seen. Grit your teeth." Mahad wasn't making a sound, but tears rolled down his face as he bit into Grandma's shawl. His face was clenched and twisted in pain.
I couldn't see what the stranger was doing, but I could see blood. This frightened me. I was next. Grandma swung her hand from side to side and said, "Once this long kintir is removed you and your sister will be pure."
From Grandma's words and gestures I gathered that this hideous kintir, my clitoris, would one day grow so long that it would swing sideways between my legs. She caught hold of me and gripped my upper body in the same position as she had put Mahad. Two other women held my legs apart. The man, who was probably an itinerant traditional circumciser from the blacksmith clan, picked up a pair of scissors. With the other hand, he caught hold of the place between my legs and started tweaking it, like Grandma milking a goat. "There it is, there is the kintir," one of the women said.
Then the scissors went down between my legs and the man cut off my inner labia and clitoris. I heard it, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat. A piercing pain shot up between my legs, indescribable, and I howled. Then came the sewing: the long, blunt needle clumsily pushed into my bleeding outer labia, my loud and anguished protests, Grandma's words of comfort and encouragement. "It's just this once in your life, Ayaan. Be brave, he's almost finished." When the sewing was finished, the man cut the thread off with his teeth. That is all I can recall of it. But I do remember Haweya's bloodcurdling howls. Though she was the youngest - she was four, I five, Mahad six - Haweya must have struggled much more than Mahad and I did, or perhaps the women were exhausted after fighting us, and slipped, because the man made some bad cuts on Haweya's thighs. She carried the scars of them her whole life.
I must have fallen asleep, for it wasn't until much later that day that I realised that my legs had been tied together, to prevent me from moving to facilitate the formation of a scar. It was dark and my bladder was bursting, but it hurt too much to pee. The sharp pain was still there, and my legs were covered in blood. I was sweating and shivering. It wasn't until the next day that my Grandma could persuade me to pee even a little.
By then everything hurt. When I just lay still the pain throbbed miserably, but when I urinated the flash of pain was as sharp as when I had been cut.
It took about two weeks for us to recover. Grandma tended to us constantly, suddenly gentle and affectionate. She responded to each anguished howl or whimper, even in the night. After every tortured urination she washed our wounds carefully with warm water and dabbed them with purple liquid. Then she tied our legs again and reminded us to stay completely still or we would tear, and then the man would have to be called again to sew us back up.
After a week the man came and inspected us. He thought that Mahad and I were doing well, but said Haweya needed to be resewn. She had torn her wound while urinating and struggling with Grandma. We heard it happening; it was agony for her. The entire procedure was torture for all of us, but undoubtedly the one who suffered the most was Haweya.
Mahad was already up and about, quite healed, when the man returned to remove the thread he had used to sew me shut. This was again very painful. He used a pair of tweezers to dig out the threads, tugging on them sharply. Again, Grandma and two other women held me down. But after that, even though I had a thick, bumpy scar between my legs that hurt if I moved, at least my legs didn't have to be tied together any more, and I no longer had to lie down without moving all day.
It took Haweya another week to reach the stage of thread removal, and four women had to hold her down. I was in the room when this happened. I will never forget the panic in her face and voice as she screamed with everything in her and struggled to keep her legs closed. Haweya was never the same afterward. She became ill with a fever for several weeks and lost a lot of weight. She had horrible nightmares, and during the day began stomping off to be alone. My once cheerful, playful little sister changed. Sometimes she just stared vacantly at nothing for hours. We all started wetting our beds after the circumcision. In Mahad's case, it lasted a long time.
When Ma came back from her trip this time, she was furious. "Who asked you to circumcise them?" she yelled, more angry with her mother than I had ever seen her. "You know their father doesn't want it done! Allah knows, I have never in my life been so betrayed as by you. What possessed you?"
Grandma turned on my mother in fury. She yelled that she had done Ma a huge favour. Everyone was cut.