B: “The [S] men are blaming the [S] women for starting the war by not dressing conservatively enough.”
E: “So when their wives showed skin, instead of having sex, the men decided to kill people? 'Cause that makes sense.”
The gender culture of this place is straight from hell. Before you jump all over me for saying that, hear my stories - I am not saying this lightly. And if you are not an adult, please don't continue reading, because I am about to be as graphic as my experiences have been and it's hard enough for an adult to handle.
As I walk through villages in my long skirt, wearing a shirt that covers my shoulders and cloth to cover my head, I know I am part of a farce. Despite the attire, I am treated no differently than any other member of my team. I assess, diagnose, and prescribe for patients, I have authority and responsibility, I am respected. I do not fear the men on my team. I am safe. My life is very different from the lives of the women here. I wore the head coverings to enter into the lives of the women, because that's how you become socially accepted. Entry into this world by means of attire and general femininity has opened my eyes to a world of intense pain and incredible suffering - a world for women that has resulted from a world for men.
"Meera, would you mind seeing this patient for us? We're not getting very far at all." T was getting nowhere trying to assess a young girl, whose shyness prevented her from speaking up. B was translating for him, but periodically would get up and shout at the village men, trying to get them to back up and stop crowding the girl. Surrounded by men, there was no way for her to discern that T was a trustworthy doctor, that B would not harm her. So, she sealed her lips. Brought over to me by the frustrated pair of guys, she looked furtively at my male translator, a local from the village. I understood, and asked him to leave. M, our cook, also spoke Somali so I brought her in to come translate with me. Finally in a corner away from the men, alone with two women, she began her story.
She was 16 years old, and had been married for 7 years. She had underwent female genital mutilation of the most extreme kind (including clitoridectomy, excision, and infibulation) when she was 7 years old, by the old women of the village. When she was 9, she was married, and the sutures were ripped open forcefully on her wedding night as she screamed, her first experience of men and sex. When she began her period at 15, she was re-sutured shut so tightly that her monthly period could not flow properly. It began to build up inside, causing an infection. She would not let me see, as she would be beaten. So instead, slowly, I asked her question after question through the gentle voice of my translator M, to figure out how I could treat her. The most helpless feeling in the world was knowing that all I could do for her was give her antibiotics to save her life but not her heart. Knowing that she would have to wait for her husband to return from one of his other wives, only to rip through the sutures once more, bringing both pain and relief from infection. Knowing that she would never experience sexual pleasure or the intimacy that was meant for a covenant marriage between two people in love.
It was more than I could bear. But it kept happening. Taking advantage of the fact that all of a sudden there was an all-female medical team, the women surrounded M and I. I say women, but I mean girls. Because nobody we saw was over 18. They all had similar problems, and I treated many infections. Some were sexually transmitted, by husbands with multiple wives who didn’t think that a few prostitutes made much difference because his wives were only there for sex anyways. I am being harsh to the men, and it’s mostly deserved, but I have also heard stories from young men who were shocked on their wedding night and simply didn’t know what to do. Those men are a minority. Apparently 80% of the men here chew khat, or miraa, a plant containing stimulant drugs. It makes them aggressive, and prone to sadism as a culturally acceptable way of dominating women, who are seen as worthless. B just came over to chat with me and help me debrief as I am writing this, and he says: “The men want their women to be tied because they all want a virgin. They’re sick. They’re just sick.”
Story after story of torture was enough to make me stumble outside and throw up, thankfully unseen. I took a drink of water and a deep breath, covered the vomit with dirt and leaves, and came back inside, bracing myself for more. At the end of the day, shocked and sad beyond belief, I came outside and hugged J. “You wouldn’t believe my day.” I saw my sadness reflected in her eyes as she told me a story of her own.
A woman came up to J and her translator, a man. She looked utterly void of life and came complaining of indigestion. The men from the village were hanging over the wooden bar, pointing at the woman. They hooted with laughter, and shouted: “Look at her leg!” J gently lifted up the woman’s dress, to find that her leg had been brutally cut. The woman was hesitant to tell the translator how she had received the cut. She would not reveal more than her knee. When asked if she was married, she said she used to be. She was only 20. Delving into the story a little more, it became apparent that this women’s cut went all the way up her leg to her genitals and that this act had been intentionally committed by a husband to a wife unable to bear him children.
This is the world of Somali women that I have experienced here. This is hell. I have experienced evils against women, and I have seen others experience them. I have seen them in Canada, in Angola, in Nicaragua, in Cameroon, wherever I have gone. But this has been by far the worst.
The last woman I saw that day didn’t have many complaints. No infections. No pain. Her issue was dizziness. I saw at once that the dizziness was caused by anemia, as the gums of her teeth and insides of her eyelids showed me. I prescribed an iron supplement, then in a burst of masochism asked her why I had seen so many women who were iron-deficient. She told me that it is because the men eat first during times of drought and starvation. Then the children. Then the women. When the meat is scarce, women are the ones who go without. They are the ones who wait at home without meat while the men take the animals to sell. And so, they are the ones who become malnourished first, who become iron deficient. Could you imagine cooking a meal for somebody else while you are starving, then watching them eat it?
How can these women know that there are men who exist in the world who are good? There are men who I run to when I am afraid, men who I trust with my life, men who love me as family and who I love the same way. How can I ask the women to identify with Jesus when he was male? The assumptions about Him, about all men, are correct for their culture but wrong for the world. All men have darkness in them, but some also have good inside too. And the ones that consistently choose the light instead of the darkness – those become the ones worthy of honor, worthy of love. I am so fortunate to have good men in my life. I wish everyone could.
Part of writing out these stories is for me to heal. Part of it is so that you will know what is happening. And part of it is out of a helplessness that there is absolutely nothing I can do right now except tell the stories. I don’t know how to help you cope with them or understand them, because I don’t know how myself. But I do know that in the midst of all this, God is present. When J and M and I showed compassion to these women, God was there. When the men of our team treated the women well to the surprise of the onlookers, God was there. When B carried an older boy with cystic fibrosis back to his hut so his mother wouldn’t have to try and lift him, God was there. When the two Muslim Somali nurses who do outreach from the closest urban clinic come out repeatedly to try to change the culture around FGM, God is there. God is present in compassion, in love, and in goodness. This is not a God-forsaken land. Even now, there is still hope.