Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice occurring in the United States as well as other parts of the world. The practice is highly controversial, in that it is traditional to perform FGC on young girls, as a way of either introducing them into womanhood or protecting them from temptation.
There are four different classifications of FGM, though some FGM survivors do not know their type due to lack of FGM-related healthcare. Type 1, known as a “clitoridectomy,” involves the removal of the clitoral hood, and may also include the total or partial removal of the clitoris. Type 2, known as “excision,” involves the removal of the clitoris, and may also include the removal of the labia minora. Type 3, known as “infibulation,” involves the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora, as well as stitching of the vaginal opening, leaving a small hole for urine and menstruation. Type 4 includes all other alterations to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, which may include pricking or piercing, incising or scraping, or cauterizing.
I was able to speak with Dena Igusti, a New York native and Indonesian-Muslim poet, writer, producer, playwright, and the author of “CUT WOMAN.” Their book is a collection of poems that navigates what it means to anticipate grief and loss as a queer, non-binary person, not only as a survivor of FGM, but also as someone who has been affected by environmental racism.
Lilli: Writing about Trauma takes a lot of courage. What do you think drove you to be able to get to that point, creating written work from your experience?
Dena: So, it’s a couple of things. I think in terms of initially writing about it, a lot of it just came from the frustration of this constant battle between identifying your trauma and actually defending your community all the time. For me, when I underwent it was when I was nine, but I didn’t process it until I was 19 because it wasn’t very normalized, but also no one talked about it because in general, mentions of genitalia were considered taboo. Talking about what happened like we are now wasn’t something that was done. In terms of writing a full collection, I had to know the difference between writing in the moment and writing it as a muse, versus writing it from retrospect – not to say that I had to be completely healed from things. But I went through slam, that’s how I started with my career in writing. And when you’re a youth poet, especially if you are a marginalized identity of any kind, there’s so much pressure to use your traumas … you want to have a cathartic experience of writing your feelings, but at the same time, there’s no reason for you to have a panic attack on stage, and there’s no reason for you to trigger yourself on stage and relive your experiences, just for a couple of points.
I think just in terms of understanding writing from trauma or writing from traumatic experience, especially when you’re a youth writer or when you’re in marginalized writer, it’s very easy to feel as though you have to write about your experiences and still go through them at the same time. There’s this weird pressure that feels like I have to have lived through some pain in order for it to feel authentic, and that’s not true whatsoever. There are different versions of you, and sometimes the version of you where you’re not caught up in that moment is not always the best reflection of how you want to write about something.
Lilli: We’ve seen through research that no health benefits have been found with FGM. Lasting emotional and physical trauma, however, are common. Could you talk about your experience with some of the lasting effects of FGM?
Dena: Physically, when it happened, I couldn’t walk for little over a day and it was very terrifying. I was very much gaslit into thinking like, “Oh I’ll be fine, I’ll be completely fine.” There was still a very tangible, physical pain. I think what also contributes to the results of the lack of bodily autonomy and the lack of control over your body, is the fact that it’s forced on you under the guise of protection. It is usually your maternal line that is passing this down to you, they try to tell you that it’s fine is by saying things like, “this is going to remove the temptations, it’s going to stop you from doing bad things, this will prevent you from getting pregnant, this will prevent you from being lured into sex,” or something along those lines. They try to make it seem as though this is for your own benefit.
The other thing that happens to FGM survivors is that there’s a threat of you being cut again. Elders will threaten to cut you again, if they think that you are engaging with anything promiscuous, or engaging with temptation, they’ll say that it didn’t work the first time, so they’ll do it a second time. This is always something that boggles my mind because they first presented it for protection, but then they threaten you with it shortly after. I was very tomboyish, and they’d say to me that I was only cut a little bit and they could take it all off if I wanted to be a boy. Womanhood was never comfortable with me, but I felt moving away from it just felt like a punishment.
Lilli: And how that kind of dialogue and interaction ended up shifting or changing the relationship that you have now with your mom or with the elders in your family?
Dena: It’s tricky because we don’t talk about it too much. But I guess it’s easier in terms of explaining through a timeline. It just led to this level distrust, and it leads to this silence that no one talks about it but it’s still something that carries over. It’s a violent process that ends up becoming a weird expectation to live by and it ends up turning into a conversation about expectation of womanhood and what it means to be a good Muslim.
Lilli: If you’re comfortable, could you go into the timeline?
Dena: First, I want to say that when you’re in like low-income environments, in which survival comes in various and different forms, I think my family was very quick in judging those things and those means of survival. It just affirmed a lot of their fears of American teenagers and they saw people doing sex work, and they were like, “this is bad and this is what happens if you fall in temptation,” and not understanding the role of socioeconomics and class.
I was nine so when it happened. I was in Indonesia, it was my first time being there, but by that time I already kind of knew the general routes of how to get places. I knew how to get to the market and how to get to the mall. In general, my aunt didn’t let me go anywhere with her in case I got lost because I didn’t know how to speak Indonesian very well, so she was very worried. But there was this one particular day where she was very adamant on leaving, she was like, “You don’t have to get dressed, just put on your shoes, we need to go now to the market.” I knew the drive to the market was like a 15-20 minute drive, but once we left, it was like a two hour drive. I fell asleep twice probably and then we parked into this alleyway. We went all the way to a back alley and there was a doorway. There was a woman in a house dress, saying “hurry up, hurry up, you just need to get her in here.” I had no clue what was going on and they pushed me into a kind of kitchen, but there was a metal operating table. I was told to lie down, and I felt like I shouldn’t, but it was my aunt, and I couldn’t just not listen to her. Then the woman put on a face mask, had no gloves on, and she dipped the blade into this bowl of muddy water, I don’t know what it was to this day. They forced me open and it happened. There are two pains. The first one is the actual cut, but it’s cold. It’s the coldness, followed by shock, and then there’s the gauze. They stuff it into the cut, and you can feel it, like it shouldn’t be there at all. It was just so much blood, I had to angle myself in the back seat of the taxicab so the blood wouldn’t pool. They pulled out the gauze later and then I felt a little bit more mobile, and a bit better. But they saw me as just being dramatic.
When I got back, my mom and my aunt told me that girls are cursed with temptation and they have this little temple, the clitoris, that will tempt you to do bad things, like sex before marriage, and by cutting this, it will prevent you from the temptation.
It was this kind of undermining of what happened, and undermining the pain, undermining the actual experience and again, it became a conversation of rank and fake resilience.
It’s complicated because I’m trying to acknowledge the fact that they’re survivors too, and they’ve been gaslit into thinking this was good for them too, that this was something that they needed to do. I understand the intention but that still doesn’t deny the harm that happened.
Lilli: And your experience with FGM therapy, do you want to talk about what that experience was like for you?
Dena: It’s very difficult, even just looking up therapy for FGM survivors, you end up just getting a bunch of articles that bring up FGM survivors in a way where there’s pity on them. I finally found a website that actually gave resources and links to free counseling, so I sent an email out. But at the same time, I was still navigating my gender identity, and identity overall, and I was about a year into being solid in being non-binary. I did therapy through Sanctuary for Families, and I know it was far from their intention, but they presented their services only for women and girls. It felt uncomfortable because I wanted to get this help, but in this particular instance, there was an assumption that all FGM survivors are women and girls. I really loved the fact that my counselor was an FGM survivor too. I had a focus on navigating the complexities of feeling like I had to defend my culture all the time, but also still knowing what happened shouldn’t have happened. There were still things were very dysmorphic for me and they didn’t mean to be. The way they would be reassuring me in womanhood, in this case they would reassure people like, “You’re still women and you can still get pleasure, no matter what you do like you’re still a woman, this does not define you as a woman.” And that’s great when you are a woman, when you are not it’s awful, so it was one of those things where you have to bear through it.
I also want to say that people write off FGM as something that happens out in non-western countries, and non-white people only experience it. These ideas perpetuate here more and more, and also be used as tools for other agendas. I’m seeing language in some proposed laws banning female genital mutilation that would also ban gender-affirming surgeries and that caused a lot of really terrible discourse, as a result of a lack of intersectionality between both.
Lilli: As an advocate, what would you say to others searching for recourse in dealing with the healing process in the aftermath of FGM?
Dena: Research can be really hard. SAHIYO has a really good database that has resources for survivors across a global landscape of different countries, in a tangible sense. In more of an emotional sense, one of the main things I would first say is making sure that they know that like there was nothing wrong with them in the first place, and that what makes FGM difficult, and understandably so, is the fact that these are all often done by people who are meant to protect you. And knowing that makes it very difficult to not feel guilty, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be wrong. Your elders have the capacity to be wrong, and I’m sorry. Intention and execution are not the same, and intention will never override execution. It was unsafe and it wasn’t okay, and therefore whatever feelings of uncertainty you have – whether that is distance from your body, whether that’s gender dysmorphia, whether that’s struggles of navigating relationships, it’s not ridiculous – know that that’s all tied with the trauma of FGM.
Dena’s book, “CUT WOMAN,” can be found at Game Over Books, and they are currently touring for the collection, as well as their other work, “I NEED THIS TO NOT SWALLOW ME ALIVE.” They continue to be an advocate for FGM survivors, while also powerfully continuing to navigate notions of grief and loss in the wake being a survivor, themselves.
To keep up with Dena’s advocacy and activism in FGM and environmental racism awareness, as well as their poetry and other written works, view their website at www.denaigusti.com or follow them on Instagram @dispatchdena !