Thursday, March 20, 2014

FGM: The Elephant In The Room


Originally published in ElleAfrique Magazine

Female genital mutilation is one those terrifying realities that is still practiced openly today, mainly in Africa and parts of Asia, although globalization and massive migration has carried the practice to parts of Europe, Australia and the Americas. Its  right up there with child brides and burying female children on the long and painful list of crimes against women. FGM is believed to keep girls ‘clean’, curb their outrageous instincts for promiscuity, make them smell nice, and look eternally beautiful for their husbands. It is also believed to be a solid Islamic teaching that all God-fearing Muslims must abide to. The fact that the practice has severe health and psychological complications, and that actually FGM doesn’t really prevent promiscuity after all, don’t seem to deter the practice much.
Sudan is on top of the list of countries still holding onto the practice. According to the latest Sudan Household Health Survey of 2010, 66% of women have undergone some form of FGM, while 72% of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 have been cut. The latter statistic is much more disconcerting than the former, as it shows that FGM is alive and kicking. Despite the usual argument in a typical patriarchal society that it is men who dictate and insist on this practice (like everything else wrong in the world), it is actually women who are mainly implicated in the practice’s refusal to die. Little girls are lured with new clothes, money and sweets, with henna on their hands and feet and a ceremony to celebrate their ‘cleansing’; while those who grow up ‘uncut’ are considered dirty and impure. The latter statement was actually used by a well-known MP as an argument against banning the practice by law, I kid you not.
FGM and Health
Around 10% of females die in the immediate period following FGM due to excessive bleeding leading to shock, and from overwhelming infection (Sharif et al, 2013), since the vast majority of FGM is carried out by traditional workers and midwives in rural areas, without medical supervision and in unsterile environments. The medical complications range in severity and duration and affect both the urinary and the gynecological systems of women; fistulas, cysts, recurrent infections, obstructed labour, urethral strictures, vesical stones, infertility and delay in diagnosing cervical cancer. The emotional and psychological complications are a whole other story. Many young women request defibulation (reversal) due to the severe pain and infection especially after marriage. On the other hand, the majority of women request refibulation after childbirth; and even if they didn’t someone else (mother, husband, etc.) will instruct and pay the midwife to do it.

FGM and Islam
Many defenders of FGM, especially in Sudan, fall back on its being considered an Islamic teaching. This particular argument has been debated and thrown back and forth between both extremes of opinion with each side using it for their own propaganda. The facts are that FGM is a pre-Islamic practice, and often is carried out in places where Muslims do not form a majority. There is no direct or clearly stated Islamic order or teaching that instructs the cutting of female genital parts in the Quran, and what evidence there is from the Sunna (teachings of the Prophet PBUH) is relatively weak and therefore cannot be used as a direct order. More compelling is the evidence that Islam prevents changing God’s creation; the only exception to this rule is male circumcision. What has been agreed upon by scholars, however, is that Islam does not ban FGM, but tolerates and potentially overrules it within terms that would make carrying it out legally almost impossible; i.e. if any cutting is to be done it cannot be in any degree of excess that would cause harm or prevent a woman from coital pleasure. It can only be done by a medical professional (in this case an OBGYN), and if so only in a prepared environment with sterile and specialised equipment. Combined, these directions cannot in anyone’s right mind be seen as Islam teaching and/or advocating for FGM. Several countries’ Islamic bodies have even signed Fatwas banning the severe form altogether.

FGM and Legislation
FGM has been known and fought for its severe health risks and complications, but since 1993 a new dimension was added when the UN General Assembly labeled it as a human rights violation against women that should incur criminal responsibility. The more extreme forms of FGM were outlawed in Sudan in 1946 during the English colonization of the country, and again in 1974. Both laws didn’t seem to make much of a difference as the practice continued, often openly, despite increasing awareness and raising the educational and economical level of the population. Promises to tighten the law on FGM have turned out to be nothing but fluff: an article banning the practice of FGM was actually dropped from the 2010 Child-Law, with nothing more severe than a 10 year jail sentence to the parents of a child who has died as a direct result of the practice in existence. Efforts are still ongoing to pass a strong and finalizing bill that will prevent FGM once and for all.
FGM and Activism
FGM is probably the most publicized form of activism for women in existence, as it comes in handy on so many different fighting fronts: political, religious, ethnic, and gender to name a few. Although not everyone always has women’s best interests in mind when fighting against FGM, any effort to raise awareness and help drive the practice out of existence are more than welcome. The majority of those leading this fight are international non-governmental organizations of various backgrounds. However, many local bodies for women empowerment exist, such as the Babikir Badri Scientific Association for Women’s Studies which plays a leading role in terms of research and capacity building. In fact, Ahfad University for Women (founder of the association) has been on the forefront of the war against FGM and other harmful practices, integrating its teachings into all undergraduate and postgraduate programs, especially in terms of counseling and community behavioural change. Much use is also made of  social media sites which manage to spread the message farther and deeper on many levels, albeit restricted to internet users and generally youth. On the other hand, public national campaigns against FGM are being criticized by their not making as much noise as they should, sending a vague and barely understandable message for the exact same reason that the practice has been so difficult to criminalize.  The topic is still a sensitive one to discuss and no one wants to tread on anyone else’s toes.
It is not enough for jeans-and-t-shirt-clad young men and women to show up in remote villages and show people embarrassing pictures of mutilated genitals and shout big medical terms at them in a condescending attempt to raise their awareness. Changing something as deep-rooted and multifaceted as FGM requires an integrated and sustained approach from the base upwards, and the most important targets are religious and traditional leaders, both men and women. Also, without real and genuine political support, it is unlikely that these campaigns will get anywhere.
The UNICEF has set a 5-year target from now to eliminate FGM in Sudan forever. If the current efforts are stepped up and everyone – and I mean everyone – is taken on board, it is not unlikely that this target can be met after all. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

How To Get Through A Bad Day

We’ve all had bad things happen to us, sometimes more often that we would like. Whenever I go through something like this and look for ways to heal, I find all sorts of rosy crap that’s doesn’t do much good. When I’m upset, I want to break something, kill someone, you know. I don’t want to listen to how I should forgive and forget, get a new hobby or sponsor an orphan. So based on my own vast experience of bad luck and bad times, this is a realist’s guide to getting through a rainy day. Or week. Or lifetime.
Sh** happens: and the sooner you understand that the sooner you can move on. At one point, you will realize that no matter how hard you try, no matter how prepared or qualified you thought you were, no matter how well you planned, sometimes things just don’t work out. You can’t force life to conform to your idea of how it should be. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy planning for something else. You will always lose on some level, at some point. It happens. So yeah, get upset and everything, but not for long because you’re going to have to do something about this mess you’re in and get on with your life. You’ve probably been through worse anyway. Or maybe this is the worst thing that has happened to you, but still, think back on all those things you thought you would never get through it, and where you were 6 months later. Was it really as bad as it seemed?
Accept the blame – and feel free to blame others are well: a fact that others will frequently remind you of is that whatever happened is partially (probably completely) your fault. That’s probably true in most cases. You could have kept your mouth shut that one time. You could have swallowed your pride and let things go. You could have nurtured your hurt feelings by yourself and let things slide. Whatever, there’s always something you could’ve done or not done that may have changed the course of how things turned out. But hey, guess what. It’s not all your fault. No, it’s not. Other people involved in this mess share pretty much the same, if not more, blame. Those people pushing you forward, those people who refused to help you no matter how much you begged them, those people who kept putting obstacles in your way even if they didn’t mean to, those people who refused to make an effort and refused to listen to reason and insisted on doing what they want. Everyone. Sure, you should acknowledge that part of this was your fault, because that comes with the discomfort of being an adult. But it’s perfectly ok, and actually necessary, to acknowledge that other people messed things up for you as well. So feel free to spread the blame around. Tamot belmaghasa barak ya3ni?
Stop judging people: now that you’re life looks like it’s pretty much over, you probably realize that actually you’re NOT better than all those people you kept criticizing. All the ready explanations and solutions you had for other people’s problems turned out to be nonsense, cuz they sure didn’t help you. Why so and so’s marriage fell apart, why so and so couldn’t get his/her career off the ground, why that family seems to be so dysfunctional, why those people didn’t invest or make something for themselves – please. Get over yourself. ‘Those people’ are probably much better off than you ever will be. Now is a good time to reflect on your own life and your own decisions, and keep your judging self to yourself.
Be thankful: seriously, whatever you’ve got that isn’t working, someone out there has it a whole lot worse. You don’t really have to look that far (especially in Sudan). So it didn’t work; so what? Just take a stroll down the street and look at a few homeless people in rags sleeping under a tree, or a sit-shay sitting on her bambar from day-break to midnight with all the mouths back home she has to feed. So you lost your job today? Someone out there lost a parent or a child, another person lost a limb, a third one lost their life. Pass by the airport and have a look at the dozens of Syrians flooding in: just look at their stricken faces and think about the living hell they managed to escape and what and who they left behind. Take a walk through Alsoug Al3arabi and see how many Southerners you can count, and think about how a year ago these people were probably the happiest on earth, and now they’re worse off than when they started. Yeah, you got it rough. But honestly, is it really that bad? Start counting your blessings; you don’t have to count them all. You can stop after about 35 or so.
If/when you fall, hit the ground running and don’t stop no matter what: don’t stop to feel sorry for yourself, wonder where you went wrong, replay what happened in your head over and over, wonder what-if (different scenarios), try to go back and change things – all this is useless and just gets you into a rut that is really, REALLY difficult to get out of. Whatever happens, just keep going. There’s always something to be done anyway; a report to finish, studying to be caught up with, a project that’s been hanging. Whatever. Avoid wallowing in your misery and self-pity because that just holds you down, and it only gets worse.
Laugh: yeah, there’s that cliché about how laughter is the best medicine. Well it’s not, Prozac is, but it sure does help (if only temporarily). A good laugh is priceless and really helps getting you out of the dumps, faster and better than someone’s advice or getting a hobby or whatever. Download some old Whoopi Goldberg movies like Eddie and Sister Act. Old Disney cartoons are also a blast, and the nostalgia they bring back has an uplifting effect as well. Raid Youtube for vines and silly animal clips and movie parodies, or according to your taste, Al7aj Mutzakir. Watch Everybody Hates Chris or The Cosby Show. Do whatever you have to do, just get your hands on some funny stuff and laugh your head off.
Stop complaining: for several reasons. First, no one cares about your problems as much as you do. I mean they could care (depending on how close you are), but not as much as you do. So you will never be anyone’s priority, and they won’t want to listen to your nagging forever. Second, you’re bound to hear some stupid things that your gallbladder won’t always have the capacity to handle. Like when they tell you to ‘just don’t think about it’ or ‘just stop worrying about it’, and of course to ‘go one with your life as if nothing is happening’. Really? Sure, I’ll just turn off that section in my brain that’s going crazy with this problem of mine, just as soon as you turn off that section in your brain that controls your breathing and circulation, and of course your mouth. Control my anxiety? Sure. Show me how you control your skin colour and weight, cuz I’m sure it’s the same thing. If this problem I’m going through is simple enough to just throw behind me and go on with my life normally, then I’m sure I wouldn’t be crying about it to you or anyone else.
Listen to advice – but you don’t have to take it: this goes with the above point, but also has a point of its own. Everyone will have advice to give, and you will somehow be forced into taking it, either by being convinced that there’s no other way, or by emotionally blackmailing you into taking it, or by downright bullying because you have to listen to what that person tells you to do. Yes, they mean well (most of the time) and genuinely have your best interest in mind. But remember this: in the end, you suffer alone. You’re the one who stays up night after night, who spends New Year’s crying in the bathroom, who spends hours on end trying to push memories and regrets out of your mind before you go crazy. Yeah, they feel bad. But no one will feel the pain more than you. Of course, if their advice turns out to be good advice and things work out, everyone rejoices but of course you benefit the most. But in this context, you can listen to what people say, but no, you don’t have to do what they tell you to do. No matter who they are. You’re an adult, and you’re entitled to making your own decisions. And at the end of the day, this failure (for want of a better word) will affect you the most, so that pretty much gives you the right to do what you want in the end.
Look on the bright side: because even though it looks like this is the end of the world, there’s always a bright side. I don’t say this in a fluffy, happy optimistic way. I’m talking from practical experience. There’s always another, worse scenario that could have happened. Losing this job could be a reason for you going back to school and getting a better qualification. A failed relationship leaves you with things other than a broken heart: experience for the future, better realization of what you’re worth, and probably the good luck of having dodged a bullet. Getting sick (or someone close to you), remember that at least you can afford to get yourself treated. If you can’t then think about the countless much worse diseases you could have had. If you have it really bad, like cancer (which is far from the worst thing you can get), then be thankful that at least you have someone to hold your hair out of your face while you vomit your brains out. If you’ve got it really bad, and can’t afford treatment, and have no one around you to help, then, well… poor you.
Take care of yourself: because bad experiences have their toll. All that crying and moping around, it does stuff to you. Both physically and psychologically. And these things take a long time to heal: much longer than your broken heart does. When you don’t watch your eating or don’t take care of your skin and hair, when your sleep patterns gets all messed up. There’s a difference between a grief reaction and actual depression, but both are on the same continuum. Like my point about not stopping too long, it’s very easy to slide into depression, and trust me, you really don’t want to go there. So while brushing your hair when you feel like dying seems like the most insane thing to do; brush it anyway. When your soul is crushed and you can’t find a reason to wake up in the morning, wake up and eat your breakfast anyway. Go shopping, or treat yourself to some ice cream. Better yet, treat yourself to a vacation if you can afford it. Travelling and changing scenery does wonders, I kid you not. Whatever you need to do, do it.
But don’t do anything stupid: like writing that letter, quitting your job, busting that person’s tires. It may seem like a good idea at the time, but it’s not. Especially things that stay for a long time after they’re done, like killing yourself for example. If you absolutely must do something, then so something that won’t leave evidence that will keep coming back and haunting you. Like, if you simply MUST swear at the boss who let you go, do it over the phone. Not an SMS or email. But really, try not to, because people rarely forget people they wronged. Trust me, if you feel bad, they probably feel worse. But of course they might just be evil and not feel bad at all.
Keep the faith: by far the most important point of all, and sums up all the above mentioned. Anyone who has been through anything knows that, at times, you are left completely alone. People will let you down. Your money can’t buy you out of the trouble you’re in. You are trapped by rules and regulations that prevent you from doing things you think would make you feel better (like killing someone). Sometimes we get to a place that is so dark, so deep, and so damn lonely, that it looks like it’s the end. If you’ve been there, then you know that there is only One that you’re left with in the end. Only One who won’t abandon you. Only One who is there wherever you look. Even if you can’t see Him, you’ll realize on some level that He’s there. When you keep this fact in your head, you can start making use of it. Start by simply asking Him for help. Ask for forgiveness for whatever sins you committed that might be a reason for this mess you’re in. Ask for guidance out of the dark. Ask for a breath of fresh air and a relief of the weight on your soul. Ask, and you’ll get it.
Ask, and He will tell you that even though you think what’s happened is bad, it might actually be good for you.
 وَعَسَى أَنْ تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَكُمْ وَعَسَى أَنْ تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَكُمْ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنْتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
He’ll tell you that sometimes He likes to boost your points, so he sends a little bit of discomfort you’re way. Because sometimes we’re so caught up in our pathetic lives we need a little pinch.
قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم " ما يصيب المسلم من نصب ولا وصب ولا هم ولا حزن ولا أذى ولا غم حتى الشوكة يشاكها إلا كفر الله بها من خطا رواه البخاري
He’ll tell you that even though it looks like the end of the world: it’s not. And the end of the darkness is right around the corner.
"إن مع العسر يسرا، إن مع العسر يسرا"
He’ll tell you that no matter how fly you are, what’s written is written, and there’s nothing you can do about it, except pray to God that you He protects you from the worst of it.
مآ أصاب من مصيبة في الأرض ولا في أنفسكم إلا في كتاب من قبل أن نبرأهآ. إن ذلك على الله يسير. لكي لا تأسوا على ما فاتكم ولا تفرحوا بمآ آتاكم. والله لا يحب كل مختال فخور

All you have to do is pray. It’s easy, and its free. And when things don’t work out anyway, a few magic words do wonders you can’t even begin to imagine:
انا لله وانا اليه راجعون. اللهم أجرني في مصيبتي واخلفني خيرا منها.

At the end of it all, know that things get better (cuz they can’t possible get worse anyway). You’ll look back on this a few months/years from now and you might even laugh. Or you might not. But at least you’ll be in a better place. The important thing is to learn what you can from this experience, because really, as long as you’re above the ground bad things will keep on happening to you. When you’re underground bad things can happen to, but that’s a whole other story. But as long as you have faith in Rabana, He won’t let you down.
There will always be an end to the darkness, Insha’ Allah.