September 16, 2008

Her Sexuality

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 from 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 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 off the thread with his teeth.

That's all I can recall of it.

But I do remember Haweya's bloodcurdling howls...

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. Sometime she just stared vacantly at nothing for hours...

— Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Infidel, New York: Free Press, 2008

If you are a female, imagine, in every excruciating detail, the procedure described above performed on you. Every minute movement of the knife, every suture with the needle, and every occurrence of the pain when your bladder is full, and you cannot pee.

If you are a male, do not dismiss it as just another form of circumcision. Imagine that every nerve ending in your phallus is carelessly snipped off, the scrotum is incised, sewed back over the penis, phallus and all, leaving only a tiny little hole for you to pass urine. The sutures will be removed only on the night of your nuptials. Until then, you will remain pure. Of course, you will not be able to masturbate either, and I suppose, more often than not, that too is the intention.

Ayaan was six, and her sister, Haweya, was four, when their genitals were brutally mutilated. It was 1975, the same year that my daughter was born, who would grow up to be a fine woman, free to choose. She was lucky, and most likely your daughter too, to escape this living hell. Ayaan and Haweya, however, were not so lucky, as were not 100 to 140 million women around the world today. Every year, 3,000,000 female children, most of them in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and among certain Islamic sects spread around the world, are likely to be subjected to this cruel and barbaric practice.

Closer to my country of birth, India, the film, Maya, by Digvijay Singh, portrays another gut wrenching form of purification of the female child. A fictional rendering of the practice followed by certain communities in the border regions of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the film is brutally explicit. A ten year old girl, Maya, when she attains puberty is raped by the local temple priests. Six of them in all, young and old, take turn in assaulting the little girl, screaming in pain. The girl's parents willingly go along in the false belief that their daughter will be purified through the ritual rape by these unholy men. While her genitals may or may not have been permanently injured as a result, I could only imagine what her attitude toward sex would be for the rest of her life.

Ritual rape of young girls has been a common practice among the Devadasi [god's slaves] community of Southern India. Ostentatiously, the ceremonies connote a symbolic "marriage" to the local deity. In actuality:

... the sadanku or puberty ceremonies, the devadasi-initiate consummates her marriage with an emblem of the god borrowed from the temple as a stand-in 'bridegroom'. In practice this often means that the priest will have sexual intercourse with the devadasi in addition to the other nuptial rites that are performed at a typical Brahmin wedding.
According to a recent study by Caroline Lalou:
The Devadasi system is still prevalent in the districts of Belgaum, Bellary, Bijapur, and Gulbarga in Karnataka. It is estimated that around 10,000 girls are dedicated each year, amongst whom 3,000 on the January-February full moon day.

While female genital mutilation and ritual rapes of children are extreme forms of robbing their inalienable right to free sexual expression, subtle and not so subtle brainwashing of girls to suppress their sexuality and remain pure, is common in many cultures. In my childhood days, I have noticed that the girls in my circle of friends and play mates would invariably disappear when they reached puberty. In Tamil Nadu, India, puberty signals to the girls that they must wrap their bodies in several folds of clothing — save being veiled from toe to head, but close enough. At 83, my mother, refuses to wear a cardigan even today, because it is immodest!

Phir kahi koyi phool khila From the film Anubhav (1971), Dir: Basu Bhattacharya, Lyrics: Gulzar

Transliterated from Hindi:

Phir kahi koyi phool khila, chaahat na kaho usko
Phir kahi koyi deep jala, manzil na kaho usko...
Man ka samundar pyaasa huwa, kyu kisi se maange dua
Lahero ka laga jo mela, toofaan na kaho usko
Dekhe sab woh sapne, khud hi sajaaye jo hamne
Dil unse bahel jaaye to, raahat na kaho usko

Translated into English [Thanks, Anusha]:

Just because a flower bloomed, don't call it love
Just because a light beaconed, don't call it destiny
The sea of mind is thirsty, but why beg someone else
And if the waves gathered, don't call it a storm
Why everyone likes to dream, the dream that they fancied themselves
And if the mind is distracted by it, don't call it comfort

The obsession with purity and chastity is at the root of much unnecessary and avoidable human suffering in history. I can perfectly understand the mental anguish arising from infidelity in a relationship, but the long past and forgotten sexual relationships should have no bearing on the current one. The song in the sidebox, from one of my favorite movies, Anubhav (1971), by Basu Bhattacharya, says it all.

Remember the violent protests and countless lawsuits against the actress Kushboo for her straight talk on safe sex and the risk of HIV infection? Her words were twisted out of shape to imply advocacy of pre-marital sex in the land of Kannagi. These are the same fellows who question the existence of the Hindu god Rama, and ridicule the Vedic rituals as irrational. Why does their reason go into a hiding, when questions are raised on the whereabouts of a tiny piece of tissue?

Of course, in civilized societies that are governed by the rule of law, and not the words of bygone gods and godmen, explicit practices designed to suppress female sexuality are prohibited. Most nations where FGM is prevalent have enacted laws designed to eradicate the practice — Egypt only as recently as in 2007. Enforcement of these laws in these conservative societies mired in blind faith and tradition, however, is lax at best.

In India, where women mostly enjoy equal rights in law, why does the Devadasi system persist? Why don't those self-styled guardians of Dravidian culture, who are more than willing assault the actress Kushboo for her sensible remarks on safe sex, rile against the annual parading of 3000 pubescent girls in the nude? If Ayaan Hirsi Ali could be deported for speaking the truth that purportedly hurt the sentiments of the blindly faithful, shouldn't the high priests of sexual suppression be in the slammers for the rest of their lives for child abuse?

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