“Cut”: International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM/FGC

This tender and evocative poem by Mina Hadi follows a girl as she grows up, marries and comes to terms with the impact of Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation (FGC/FGM).

Art work by Beatrice Florence Taylor.


basma is sixteen years old when she weds.

clad in white from head to toe, she tries to

smile as the bridegroom lifts her veil to show

her face. but all she manages is a

kind of grimace. still, this is her life now,

and kareem is a good man – twelve years her

senior, true, but still handsome and (it

seems) good-natured. he is gentle as he

takes her hand, drops a kiss on it, and when

he looks up, meets her eyes, basma wonders

if perhaps the beating of the drum – which

matches the thump-thump of her heart – is not

as terrible as she thought it would be.

she is eight, dressing her dolls, carefully

combing their hair, when basma becomes a

woman. she sees her first blood. her mother

kneels until she is level with her child

and says your sins are being counted now.

allah is watching, ya basma. you may

be a princess, but one day you will be

a wife as well. you are a woman now.

her child just dissolves into tears and then

complains of the pain, of the ache in her

abdomen. little does she know that that

pain is nothing – nothing – compared to what

awaits her in two weeks’ time. she is led

by the hand to a tent, greeted by the

slow, steady beat of a drum. duff. duff. duff.

she knows why she is wearing white for her

wedding. she is supposed to leave them – her

family – in a white dress, and return

to them in a white dress. and sometimes she

wonders when that will be, when she will be

returned to the very earth she came from.

she wonders whether anyone would mourn

her. she glances up, catches her sister

jamila’s eye, tries for a smile. she does

manage one this time, slight though it may be.

jamila doesn’t smile back, though. her eyes

are watery, kohl barely kept in place.

she looks beautiful, basma thinks, clad in

pink like her other sisters. jamila

would mourn her, basma decides. so too would

her father. maybe even her mother.

there she is. in the tent. the woman who

is beating the drum is brimming with pride

and basma wonders why. she cannot for

the life of her understand what she is

doing here. a celebration was in

order, said her mother, now that basma

had blossomed into womanhood. women

are flowers, ya basma, beautiful when

they are in bloom, but they are delicate.

fragile. this will make you strong, habibti.

she doesn’t want to be strong, though. not when

there is a towering woman in her

fifties coming through the tent’s opening.

she zips it firmly shut behind her, and

the beating of the drum intensifies.

it’s time to say her farewells. she hugs her

jamila the longest, weeping into

her shoulder through her veil (she’s dressed in black

now, from head to foot, and only her eyes can

be seen behind her niqab). next is her

father, who kisses the top of her head.

last is her mother, who murmurs words of

blessing to her daughter. remember, ya

basma. you are a flower. but you must

be strong now. you are a grown woman and

a wife. basma whispers back, I love you.

ana bahibak, habibti, says her

mother, just before basma is lifted

off her feet and placed on a sheet. lie back,

the older woman orders. she starts to

undress her from the waist down. no, basma

says in defiance. she tries to get up –

but a warm hand grabs her wrist and stops her.

stay, orders her mother. what’s happening?

cries basma. this is the beginning of              

your womanhood, child, the older woman

barks. the hand on basma’s wrist tightens, and

another woman holds down her other

arm. two more women hold down her feet, in

a vicelike grip. stop, you’re hurting me, she

tries to say, but the words just taste like blood

on her tongue as she bites down in pain. she

screams, for never before has she felt such

agony, the sharp sensation in her

groin, the flash of red, the glint of silver –

they are in a hotel in bali. the

honeymoon suite is theirs. basma prepares

for bed, quickly undressing and putting

on her nightgown. kareem comes out of the

bathroom, still dressed, and basma tries to smile

at him. you do not have to be nervous,

he tells her. let us take our time. basma

shakes her head. let us get this over with.

they cut a piece of flesh from between her

legs and she kicks and screams, but it only

makes the pain worse. tears spurt from her eyes, and

they drip down her cheeks and slice down her neck

while her shrieks cut through the hot air of the

tent. basma tries to remember what her

mother said: habibti, this will make you

strong. habibti, ana bahibak. but

basma does not feel strong, held down by four

women panting with the effort that comes

with restraining an unruly girl in

more pain than she has ever been in in

her life. nor does she feel loved. if she was

loved by her mother, truly beloved,

she would not be shackling her daughter to

the sheet, holding her wrist tight, or – later –

standing by while the older woman sews

up her wounds. basma is compliant now,

for the deed is done, and the damage, too.

he kisses her, gently, softly, so she

is almost enjoying it as she lies

beneath him on the bed. he pulls up her

nightgown, squeezes her breast, kisses down her

neck. kareem asks if he should stop, slow down,

and basma is actually surprised that

he does, so much so that she reaches up

to kiss him, hand on his chest. kareem smiles

against her lips, murmurs, I will take that

as a no, then, and basma laughs, truly

laughs, so when he’s inside her the pain is

all the more cruel and unexpected.

they celebrate with a feast, but basma

can’t eat. she can barely walk on her own

two feet. she pushes her food around her

plate, waits, waits, but no one is outraged. her

mother sits at the head of the table,

telling the story of her strength during

her circumcision. it is allah’s will,

she declares, and alhamdulillah, my

daughter has undergone the sacred rite.

basma’s aunt speaks up from next to her, says,

she kicked and screamed. that is not strength. basma

recognises her now, as one of the

women who held her down by the wrist as

she was sewn up, excruciating stitch

by excruciating stitch. basma looks

down, bowing her head in shame, until her

mother lifts her chin and says her name. she

is strong. she is with us now, is she not?

her chastity is now ensured. allah

can protect her. my princess. habibti.

she tries not to cry out, but the pain is

comparable only to one time in

her life: when she was eight years old in a

tent at the mercy of a woman with

a razor. kareem immediately

withdraws, the smile gone from his lips, and he

lightly strokes her cheek. something is wrong, he

says. no, basma lies, nothing is wrong. she

knows that there is meant to be pain and blood,

has been sat down with her older sister,

who told her what to expect on the night

of her wedding. something is wrong, kareem

insists again. I did not expect to

see so much blood. why do you cry out so?

have you felt pain like this before? he asks.

he pulls his clothes back on, insists on the

same for her, covering her with a sheet.

there is a moment of hesitation.

yes, basma says at last. when I became a

woman. and she tells him the story, what

she remembers, of the tent, the drum, the

red blood on the white sheet, the tears, the feast.

the details are stamped on her heart, written

 – carved – into her skin with a blade that digs

right through to her bones as tears trickle down

her cheeks. kareem brushes them away with

his thumb, kisses her forehead, vows to fix

this. you cannot fix this, basma replies.

wounds heal. so too does skin and blood replace

itself, replenished as if it never

was lost in the first place. even pain does

not last forever – the physical kind,

at least. basma is examined by a

physician a few weeks later. she is

from england, this woman, and there is no

mistaking the way her eyes widen with

horror. basma listens in, hears her speak.

her whole external genitalia

has been excised, she says. how could you let

your daughter go through such a thing? it is

barbaric, is it not? then basma hears

her mother’s voice. this is not england. this

is saudi arabia. we did not

ask you here to judge. nor do we expect

you to understand our practices. we

want to know if she is healed. the doctor

sighs, says reluctantly, yes, she has healed.

a deinfibulation is arranged.

kareem vows to delay intimacy

until then, but first basma returns to

her mother. she asks her why. because it

is allah’s will, ya basma. and you were

deterred from sin until you could marry.

basma closes her eyes and asks about

the tearing and bleeding on her wedding

night, all as a result of this backward

rite. it is a necessary pain, her

mother replies, that I have been through too.

I told you. it makes you stronger, basma.

circumcision shows you can withstand pain.

I am proud of you for being so brave.

life is a test, and this is allah’s will.

but basma says, I will never go through

that pain again. she gets up and leaves. she

can do that now; she is no longer her

parents’ property. she was kareem’s, and

he relinquished ownership of her on

their wedding night. her mother watches her

go, crestfallen, still chained to her customs.

whenever she goes out now, she covers

herself completely in black. mostly, though,

she stays inside, in the warm walls of

the palace. when she closes her eyes she

is blinded by the glint of the razor;

and then she claps her hands over her ears,

deafened by the drum. then, one day, when she

is thirteen, she picks up her own blade, cuts

her thigh. the blood dribbles down her leg, and

it hurts, enough to dull the pain in her

heart, so she does it again and again

and again, until she forgets it all.

it comes back to her, though, in the dead of

the night, when she least expects it, her cries

echoing in her cavernous room where

no one can hear her. she is trapped, feels like

she will snap soon, her trauma cutting her

into pieces, one fragment at a time.

when they cut her this time she welcomes it.

this time, she feels nothing but safe, drowsy

from the anaesthesia, and the man

towering over her is a surgeon

who sits her down, explains the procedure

to her before it is done. after, the

pain is still there, but it’s dulled, the sharpness

blunted by kareem’s hand squeezing hers, tight.

and she realises as she returns home,

hand in hand with her husband, that she was

never mutilated. no, she was cut,

subject to the jagged bleeding edge of

an imperfect custom so ingrained in

her mother’s mind. edges can be refined,

though, smoothed over time. and basma vows – as

she lies in bed, her head on her husband’s

shoulder, arm around his waist – to restore

what is missing for her mother as well.

she is almost sixteen when she receives

the proposal from a royal cousin.

she agrees, but her father insists on

her finishing her schooling. basma likes

school, is good in class. one day, she decides,

she wants to be a teacher and work with

children. she agrees without argument

to the arrangement. (she learned long ago

that it was futile to put up a fight.)

basma is eighteen years old when she gives

birth, to a beautiful baby girl she

names talia. kareem whispers the adhaan

in their child’s ear, places a date in her

mouth. basma rejoices as her child is

placed in her arms. when her mother comes to

visit, basma lets her hold talia, and

she watches as her mother kisses the

baby on the forehead, gently, tender

to the touch. under her breath, basma says,

barely louder than a whisper, mother,

I forgive you. allah help me, I do.

but as she takes back her child she swears to

allah that talia will not go through

her anguish, nor will she suffer her pain.