Photograph: Jane Hahn/Panos for the Guardian
n America, Jaha Dukureh has advised Barack Obama on the fight against female genital mutilation. But can she convince her own father at home in the Gambia?
Jaha Dukureh lies collapsed across a two-seater sofa in the living room of her father’s house in Serekunda, the Gambia. A fan attempts to break through the stifling mid-afternoon air. Sitting here, waiting, she knows she is about to open the closed box of her own history for the first time, and speak to her father about the practice that put a blade to her flesh when she was just a week old.
A few days ago and 4,000 miles away, in a very different air-conditioned room in Washington DC, the 24-year-old stood up to speak to advisers of the Obama administration. She explained that, as a baby, she had been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM): her clitoris cut off and her vagina sealed, with only a small hole remaining for urine and menstruation. She warned that American teenagers were still being subjected to this practice, taken to their parents’ countries of origin to be cut in preparation for marriage.
Dukureh’s life has transformed in the past six months. The Gambian-born immigrant, who lives with her husband and three young children in Atlanta, Georgia, recently started a small NGO, Safe Hands for Girls, to help women like her who are dealing with the daily consequences of FGM. But after her online petition, backed by the Guardian, calling for a new study into the practice gathered more than 220,000 signatures, she found herself propelled into the spotlight. In a matter of months, Dukureh has organised the first youth summit on FGM in the Gambia, quitting her banking job and cashing in her pension just to keep going. “People don’t know how much I’ve had to give up,” she says. Her aim is to bring an end to FGM within a generation, and having her own children has only made her more determined. “My daughter will never be cut,” she says. “It stops with me.”
But here in her father’s living room she is not a campaigner, just a nervous daughter. Over the next week, she will take on the government, religious leaders and traditionalists, launching a controversial youth-led movement to end FGM in the Gambia, a country where three in four girls are still cut. Harder still, she will visit the woman who did this to her and attempt to explain the damage it caused.
“Emotionally, it’s difficult,” she admits, before her father arrives. “In the States, you’re just in your house, with your kids: you go to work, you come back. Being here… It’s different.” Since her return to the Gambia two days ago, her anxiety has grown. “I worry we won’t get the results, I’m worried we will fail,” she says, fiddling with her phone. “People believe in me. What if I let them down?”
More than 130 million girls and women worldwide have gone through female genital mutilation which, in its most extreme form, sees the labia removed or sewn together. It can cause severe bleeding, chronic pain, infections, cysts, problems during childbirth, infertility and trauma, and destroy sexual pleasure.
Despite these serious consequences, it has long been a minority issue, often ignored. Only now are campaigns gaining momentum, with anti-FGM petitions attracting half a million signatures on both sides of the Atlantic; public figures including Ban Ki-moon, Malala Yousafzai, David Cameron and Barack Obama have spoken out against the practice. October saw the launch of the Girl Generation, an Africa-led consortium, funded by the UK government, which aims to end FGM on the continent, where the 29 countries that practise it are concentrated.
Dukureh is at the vanguard of this movement. But while she has been hailed as a human rights activist in the US, in her birth country large swaths of society – including members of her own family – are fiercely opposed to her work.
Her first difficult conversation takes place in the rambling family compound, where two of Dukureh’s father’s four wives, and the younger of his 30 or so children, are in orbit. He is a wealthy imam, and moves about the house in a pristine white tunic and matching cap, with the air of a man used to being obeyed. Finally, they enter his sparsely furnished private room. There is a mattress on the floor, a sofa, a prayer mat embroidered with an image of Mecca. Father and daughter sit facing each other awkwardly on plastic chairs.
The conversation, when it comes, unfolds without heat. They dance around the issue, neither wanting to turn up the volume. “Have you heard about my work in the US, the reason why I am on TV and in the newspapers?” Dukureh asks. He says he has. She asks what he thinks about the harm caused to women who go through FGM, but his reply skirts the issue. “I am not in a position to say a lot about that because I don’t know much about it – it’s a woman’s secret,” he says. But he adds that the practice is “Sunnah”, part of the teaching of the prophet, and he believes it is necessary.
Dukureh does not talk about her own experience. She does not tell her father of the agony she felt when her first husband tried to have sex with her. She sticks to matters of health. “In the US, we see women who have gone through FGM experience a lot of difficulties during childbirth, which is the reason why we started this campaign.” She pauses, then adds: “When I started, I was careful not to do anything that would upset or embarrass you.”
Her father does not condemn her work; he barely comments on her headline-grabbing conference, due to start in two days. But he reminds her, sternly and repeatedly, that she must be respectful of her culture and guided by her religion. “Do not force anti-FGM on people,” he warns. “Remember this is what your grandparents, parents and yourself went through. If you use force, people will not listen to you.” Gambian culture insists on deference to one’s elders, so Dukureh keeps her eyes lowered and says: “I will not do that. OK, Father.”
The conversation comes to an end as the imam stands up and orders everyone to “come, eat!” and Dukureh’s eyes follow him out of the room. It is only later, on the family mango farm her father has insisted she visit, that the emotional toll of the meeting starts to show. The farmer and his children crowd around; a girl of seven or eight stirs a pot on an open fire and, in the dust, chickens fight over the entrails of a ram left over from Eid, its head still lolling in the dirt. Dukureh stands apart, exhausted. “I just want to go home,” she says.
America has been Dukureh’s home for almost a decade, ever since she was sent to New York at the age of 15 for a marriage she didn’t want, to a man more than twice her age.
After her wedding, following weeks of agonising pain, Dukureh was taken to a small clinic in Manhattan to have her vagina opened. The doctor didn’t ask what had happened to her, or why this scrap of a teenager was already married; he just told her, “Have sex tonight, or it will seal up again.”
I ask if this experience had weighed on the earlier conversation with her father, and she shakes her head. “I just don’t like to go there,” she says. “Going into that just brings up memories, and hate, and things that I’ve tried to lock away.”
Dukureh won’t talk about what happened in her first marriage, only that she refused to stay. After several months of misery, she moved in with a disapproving aunt and uncle in the Bronx, and supported herself by working nights in a restaurant in Harlem. Then she tried to enrol in school, but because she had no parent or guardian, she was repeatedly turned away. At the 11th school, she sat in the headteacher’s office and cried for so long that eventually they agreed she could stay.
In the Gambia, she had been the joker, a wild child who got suspended for dancing on a table; now, she studied around the clock. Despite having missed two school grades, she graduated in a year, bought her own dress and went to the high school prom.
But then a few months later, she cracked. “I just got tired of everything and told my dad I wanted to get married again,” she says. “I felt like when I was working in that restaurant in Harlem – people knew that I didn’t have family support, and men were trying to take advantage of me. I just wanted to get out of there.” The next day her father called and told her she was getting married again.
“For days after, I just kept asking myself – why? I got away, I graduated high school, I could have found a scholarship and gone to college, and lived on my own and made it. Why did I give them my word?” She pauses, before answering her own question: “I was just tired. Pretty much, that was it.”
At 17, Dukureh moved to Atlanta and was married for a second time, to a Gambian man a few years her senior, this time with her consent. She was pregnant by the time she was 18, with her son, Muhamed. A year later, she gave birth to her daughter, Khadija. She started a job as a bank teller, and soon moved up the ranks; before long her second son, Abu Sidiq, was born, and while doing a full-time job, she completed a business administration degree after putting herself through college.
Her husband, Hajie, who has come back to the Gambia with Dukureh and their children to see his family, is quietly supportive of what she does. One night, as she sits an exam for her master’s in business administration in the hotel lobby, being invigilated via Skype from the US, he waits patiently, holding her bag. But they are living with his parents, and his mother is a staunch believer in FGM. Dukureh is told to cover her head, to sit down and spend time with her children instead of dashing off for meetings with fellow campaigners. “I know that my husband’s family is bugging him about how I act,” she says. “They say, do you ever sit? You need to sit, you’re a woman. People are constantly reminding me of what my role should be.”
Later in the week, at her in-laws’ house, Dukureh’s sister-in-law tells me that this is not the full picture. Other, younger women in the family secretly support her campaign, even if they will not say so out loud. “Not everyone has Dukureh’s voice,” she says, telling me of her own daily struggle to prevent her daughters, aged seven and five, from being cut. “Every day they call me, people in the village. I keep saying, give me some time,” she says, holding the baby of her husband’s second wife on her lap. “I don’t want to do it, but I don’t know if I will be able to stop it.” She has been through the agony of being reopened, and had difficulties in childbirth – but that’s normal, she says. Women are expected to go through pain. “If you talk about it, they say, ‘Keep quiet, you don’t need to discuss everything.’” When I ask if she thinks Dukureh is brave for speaking out and for defying her mother-in-law, she rolls her eyes and gives a short laugh. “Brave? Yes. She is more than brave.”
A few days after Dukureh’s meeting with her father, that courage is on show at the Paradise Suites hotel, where she welcomes young people from across the country. The youth summit she has co-organised, backed by the Guardian, is not just a conference: it’s little less than a revolution. Born of conversations between Dukureh and other young activists on Facebook, it has brought 100 young people from every area of the Gambia, and put their experiences at the heart of the debate for the first time. Government ministers mingle with teenagers and campaigners who have been fighting FGM here for 20 years. Dukureh fizzes with energy: “Just seeing how much passion there is, how we all want this change – it’s good for me,” she says.
She is giving a voice to those who would otherwise be silenced, says Jama Jack, a co-organiser and one of Dukureh’s oldest friends. “Seeing her gives me hope,” she says. “Young people too often don’t have a voice to talk about hidden things – FGM, rape, child abuse – but together, I think we do.”
The impact of the conference is immediate. The Gambian government publicly states that it is “committed to end all forms of gender-based violence against women and girls, including FGM”, and promises a national action plan which includes collecting data about the harm caused by FGM in hospitals.
Religious dogma is one of the toughest challenges campaigners face in the Gambia. Despite the fact that FGM predates Islam and is not referred to in the Qur’an or practised by the majority of Muslims, the Gambia’s Supreme Islamic Council maintains its support for the practice on religious grounds.
The council, which wields significant influence in a country in which 90% of the population are Muslim, has refused to justify its position, but religion may only be a part of it. Last year, its president, Muhammed Alhajie Lamin Touray, the country’s most senior imam, said during a BBC interview that he had heard “on reliable authority that the clitoris makes a woman itch, making her want to scratch all the time, and that the clitoris makes water leak from her private parts”.
It is to challenge this kind of ignorance that Dukureh finds herself, several days after the conference, jolting along a potholed road to meet the woman who brought her into the world, and who cut her just days later.
Sarjo, 63, lives in a simple, one-storey building on the outskirts of town. She was a trusted friend of Dukureh’s mother, and remains close to her family. When Dukureh is ushered into her room, the old woman, regal in an ochre wrapper, a matching scarf in her hair, bursts into tears of joy. “My daughter is here, oh God here you are,” she says, pulling Dukureh towards her.
FGM is often described as barbaric child abuse. But in this room, the love displayed by the woman who carries it out is disorienting. Dukureh attempts to wade against the tide of affection, explaining that FGM is harmful. She asks why her old guardian still performs the ritual. Slightly confused, Sarjo answers: “It is our job and we get paid for doing it. Our parents did it before us, now we are doing it and then we pass it on to our children.”
Sitting cross-legged on a mattress in her back room, its flaking green walls mottled with moisture, she introduces her daughter and granddaughter, 35 and 18 respectively, who now help her with the circumcisions. Then she points to her nine-month-old great-granddaughter, a smiling, plump baby being bounced on her mother’s knee, naked but for a T-shirt and a length of string around her waist.
She was cut last week, Sarjo tells us, explaining that the cord around her waist has been blessed with special prayers. Dukureh looks at the baby, and then down at the mattress. “She didn’t cry at all,” Sarjo continues. “We take a clean cloth and put it round the thread to cover her private parts. That’s it.”
She explains that if a woman is not circumcised, she isn’t considered clean. She also believes that it helps women during childbirth: she has heard that when an uncut woman has a baby, her clitoris can explode – and, anyway, it is better for the husband. “We believe if a woman is not circumcised, making love with them will not be enjoyable,” she says, smiling.
Asked how many girls she has cut, Sarjo says she has never kept a record. But over three decades she must have cut hundreds of girls, and says she has never had any problems. If a girl does bleed badly, she chews a special local nut, says prayers on it and applies it to the wound.
With pride, Sarjo explains that these days she is called on to cut girls from all over the world – France, Italy, Spain, America – who are brought back by their parents to the Gambia so they can be married. “Once they are fully grown, it’s more painful. They cry a lot,” she says.
With her daughter, she demonstrates how, during the cutting, one woman will have to sit on the teenager’s chest, while another holds her legs and another her arms. “They need to be held down,” she says. “They are older, so we have to struggle with them.”
When Dukureh talks of her own pain, as a 15-year-old in the US, Sarjo just smiles. Dukureh shakes her head and stops speaking; there will be no confrontation today. Later, she explains why. “If I speak to her in a way that she thinks is disrespectful, then my message is blocked. She’s never going to listen to me – I’m just a person with western ideology,” she says. “Just saying, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong doesn’t work. I can’t take that approach if I really want to make change.”
She will take up the conversation again on another day, but speaking to this woman she loves has taken its toll. “You’re campaigning against FGM and all of these horrors, and then you sit down with the lady who mutilated you… That’s the woman who took something so important away from me.” Her voice tails off, and then she refocuses. “That meeting was about listening to her. Letting her know that I hear her and respect her, and then from there we can figure out the next steps.”
The trip, though exhausting, has set the ball rolling in the Gambia, she says. The youth summit led the television news and made the front page of the papers. New volunteers have come forward. “The greatest part of the trip for me was the number of girls I was able to inspire,” Dukureh says. “Being back and seeing that the momentum is there means the world to me: journalists are writing about FGM, putting that on the front page is no longer a taboo.”
Taina Bien-Aimé is the director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and Dukureh’s mentor, the woman she turned to after the breakdown of her first marriage. Down the phone from New York, she suggests that Dukureh’s journey – the tension between family and her own convictions, modernity and tradition, obligation and desire – reflects the struggle faced by many FGM survivors, who know the harm they have suffered, but are unwilling to break with the culture that condoned it. “This is why practices such as FGM have lasted for thousands of years,” she says.
When her week in the Gambia is over, Dukureh decides she has to come back. She plans to return in January for a few months of concerted campaigning, to see what can be achieved. Knowing that parts of her family will not agree with what she’s doing has left her anxious but determined. “I know some of my decisions will be judged,” she says, “but we’re at a critical point in the Gambia now. The government wants to do something and it’s up to us to work with them, to push. I know the power of my voice – I have to go and do this.”