Washington D.C., July 2010
The first and only time I had sex it did not go well. I was twenty-two, a late bloomer by most of popular culture’s standards, and for the year my boyfriend and I had been dating, we’d skirted around the issue. He’d repeated that he was willing to wait, however long it might take me to be ready, and I’d chafed at his understanding.
“Don’t you want me?” I asked after another false start, our breathing heavy. He rolled off me gently, panting. “It didn’t seem like you wanted it,” he replied. He was right. I’d clenched every muscle in my thighs and squeezed my eyes shut when his hand climbed above my knee. That’s when he stopped. For the next two days he was rewarded for his patience by my unwillingness to kiss him back.
I couldn’t explain the crawls that I felt every single time he touched me in the wrong place, or understand the debilitating anger that I felt when he nodded understandingly after I told him I needed a pause. He’d had girlfriends before and I badgered him endlessly about their sexual experiences. He answered all of my questions patiently, never once lying.
After these conversations, as we lay beside each other in his king-sized bed, he would tell me that he loved me, that if I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t ready. For him it was that simple. Yet while I listened to his steady, phlegmy breathing as he slept next to me, I’d be filled with an uncontrollable anger; I’d crawl out of bed and into the bathroom, where I’d stare at my face in the dingy mirror. “You should want him,” I told the wide-eyed girl in the reflection. The truth was that I had no idea what it felt like to sexually want someone so much that I was willing to lose myself to that feeling. I had no idea what it might take for me to let go of all of my fears about sex.
After a year of dating him, I decided that I needed to get the act over with. I approached this the same way I approached most goals in my life. I researched the mechanics on the Internet, taking notes that I hid under the bed. I watched a few porn clips and memorized the way the women moved effortlessly below the men pounding into them. While he was at work I practiced making sounds of pleasure, the shower running so no one could hear.
Then I broached the subject with my boyfriend: I wanted to have sex before the end of summer. “I don’t want you to stop even if I look like it’s hurting me,” I told him. He grimaced, but I repeated the statement again and then again. His quiet acquiescence was disarming, so I gripped his wrists tightly and stared at him directly. “I need you to do this for me,” I told him.
The night I was to commit the sinful act, I drank a half bottle of wine in fifteen minutes as he watched, warily. For a blissful forty-five minutes we made out on the couch, his hands staying in all of the safe spots, the ones that months of dating had taught him didn’t make me involuntarily gag. The wine turned my limbs heavy. My body was warm. I knew that this would be the night.
By the time his body was positioned over mine, we’d moved from the couch to the bed. I closed my eyes, feeling my nostrils flare as I breathed in slowly, counting to control my heartbeat and the nausea welling up inside me: IN one, two three; HOLD one, two three; OUT one, two three….After a couple of minutes we were technically having sex. Pain shot up my body. I could feel it in my teeth and in the muscles of my jaw. My insides felt like they were being scraped out by sandpaper. The pain was everywhere; I couldn’t figure out what hurt and where. After a couple of thrusts, he withdrew, unfinished, kissing my forehead gently. He reminded me he loved me, and left for the bathroom.
I sat in the bed, allowing myself to cry for the first time since we’d begun talking about sex. For the first time since I’d admitted to him that I might never be able to enjoy a sexual experience. That when I was younger, someone had taken a knife to my clitoris and cut out a small but significant part of me. I wanted to call my mother.
When I was seven years old and living in Karachi, Pakistan, my mother took me for my yearly check-up to the pediatrician. While I sat on a stool, polishing imaginary dirt off the buckles on my Mary Janes, my mother quietly asked the pediatrician if it was time for me to get the bug removed. The conversation wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. Earlier that month, my mother had asked me if I was ever itchy or uncomfortable down there. I didn’t understand what the questions meant, and I don’t remember my responses. What I do remember is my mother explaining that around the time I turned seven, a bug inside of me would attempt to grow out of me down there and would crawl to my brain. It would need to be removed, she had said. After a brief examination, my pediatrician agreed.
A girl down the street that I’d grown up playing with had her bug removed, my grandmother told me. She was also seven, a few months older than me, and after she came home from the “operation” she felt so good that she was able to jump up and down on her bed. It was a story my grandmother told with gusto, and it made me itchy all over. I wanted this to be over and done with, to jump on a bed in unabated joy afterwards. Be gone bug, I whispered on the night before my operation.
My elder cousins, both girls, were each presented with a piece of gold jewelry when they returned home from their respective operations. Remembering this, I asked specifically for a simple gold chain with a teardrop pearl at the end. My mother’s eyes filled with tears for a brief moment before my grandmother clucked her tongue disapprovingly.
I did not feel well enough to go around jumping on beds after my surgery. For two days I wore what felt unnervingly like a big-girl diaper, wet with blood. Peeing was so painful that I tried to last for hours without relieving myself, until my mother explained that I could give myself an infection. For the next year, I’d break out into a cold sweat whenever I encountered the kind-faced woman who’d laid me down on a tarp on her living room floor and spoken to me softly as she took a knife and cut me. I received the exact necklace I had requested, and wore it at almost every opportunity.
Washington D.C., July 2010
When my boyfriend finally reemerged from the bathroom, I was biting my lower lip and crying silently. He looked at me for a long moment, until I waved him away. Years of dating had taught him that in moments of high emotion, I didn’t want to be touched or spoken to. He mumbled the name of our favorite neighborhood bar, then quietly left the apartment. “I love you,” he told me, as he closed the door. It took me about four minutes to open up my laptop and finally call my mother in Karachi, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a year.
The last time I’d spoken in person with my mother had been in August 2009. I’d been hovering over my suitcase, trying to decide between two polka-dotted shirts, in the bedroom that belonged to me in my parent’s Karachi apartment. I was returning for my senior year at college in Massachusetts, and did not know when I’d be returning to Pakistan.
The city, stifling hot in the throes of monsoon build-up, felt claustrophobic to me, infusing each of my relationships with a panic. I had never learned to separate Karachi, the physical location, from my hatred for my religious sect. I hated the neighborhood we lived in, I hated my grandmother’s words of religious wisdom, and I hated how much I felt like a perennial outsider.
My family, all ethnically from the Indian state of Gujarat, immigrated to East Africa three generations before I was born. My mother grew up in Tanzania, moving to Pakistan when she married my father. He had moved to Karachi with his family when he was six years old. I was born in Karachi, but soon after my eleventh birthday, my family moved to the United States, to Texas. During my sophomore year of college, my parents learned that our family’s application for a green card had been denied. I was in western Massachusetts, studying at Mt Holyoke College, when my family received the news.
When I returned to Texas for Christmas break, as I sat on my bed in my Houston bedroom, they gently told me that we would have to move. Initially, I pretended to be positive about this move, but my time in Karachi was miserable. I missed being part of a world I knew and understood. In the United States, I’d figured out where I belonged, but in Karachi I found it hard to make friends, and missed the friends I’d already made. A year after my family moved to Karachi, as I packed my suitcase with my mother watching, I was filled an uncomfortable feeling of finality.
I’d grown up in an incredibly close family. Throughout my childhood, both in Karachi and in Texas, I’d been forced to sit through my brother’s sports tournaments and he’d watched me as I learned how to jump my first fence. We were required to eschew plans with friends on birthdays for family dinner, and we ate together four nights a week anyway, without fail. Even after I left for college in Massachusetts, these rules persisted when I came home for break. This time though, I’d be going back to the United States without them. This would be the longest period of time I’d go without seeing my mother.
I spent that final year of college entirely apart from my parents, missing them desperately during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, when I attached myself barnacle-like to the families of my closest friends. I learned to build an entire support structure from scratch. I stopped asking my parents for help, quietly plugging away on graduate school applications and financial aid forms without consulting them on my choices.
This was one of many things my parents and I never spoke about: a silent vow that I should never return to Karachi if I could help it. It was painfully obvious that I’d never fit in. Realizing how difficult and expensive it would be to go home the summer after I graduated from college in 2010, I spent the better part of eleven months convincing myself that I didn’t need my parents, that the brief phone conversations where I’d outline the most relatable part of my college life were enough to sustain a healthy relationship with them.
Yet my relationship with both of my parents suffered that year—I found it more and more difficult to explain to them what I was doing with my life. When I announced that I’d be moving in with my boyfriend in Washington D.C., a decision born out of a stark reality—I had no other place to live over the summer—my parents took it in stride. No one mentioned sex. Not once in my twenty-one years had my mother and I ever explicitly or even implicitly discussed my sex life. I knew that her strong Muslim faith put her firmly in the “no sex before marriage” camp. I wasn’t sure if she suspected that I was sexually active, but I knew that we were never supposed to mention it.
Yet my mother and I did once speak about what happened to me when I was seven. I was sixteen, and a woman within earshot at my Houston mosque had asked the woman next to her if her daughter had the “operation” already, and if she’d gotten it done in the U.S. or back in India. Her question niggled something deep in my brain. The kind-faced woman came back to me; I could hear her no-nonsense tone as she told me it would be over quickly.
I’m not sure what I googled, but three hours after returning home from mosque I had words to describe what had happened to me: female genital cutting, clitoridectomy, female genital circumcision. Later that night, I sat with the illicit copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves that my American aunt had given me. My aunt was born in the United States and married my mother’s brother, a relationship my parents sometimes still had difficulty with, even five years after the scandalous marriage. My aunt realized that her Western, agnostic upbringing was startlingly different from mine, and she gave the book to me while visiting one Christmas, gently telling me that she was around for any questions I may have. One of the things the book suggested was to put a hand mirror between my legs. In the harsh lights of my bathroom, looking at the pictures, I realized that there was something horrifically different about what I had between my legs.
Over the next few weeks, the Internet gave me a sense of outrage that I wasn’t prepared to handle. I latched onto the most controversial name for what had happened to me: Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM. Years later I’d find a printout from an outdated website with the words highlighted. “Because that’s what it is Mom,” I wrote underneath. “Religion, no religion, it’s mutilation. It’s wrong.”
I read article after article about girls in African villages, their labia sewn shut, dying from the cutting. This was not me. Though my parents were raised in East Africa, I wasn’t black African. I was Muslim, from a small sect of Shi’ites who prided themselves on their progressive actions. I googled “FGM Islam” and found no correlation between my religion and this horrible act. FGM in South Asia, however, seemed confined singularly to my sect. Why hadn’t anyone else said anything, I wondered? I seethed internally for days, an anger bubbling inside of me. I had no one to talk to. For the next few days, I’d remember my mother’s cool hand on my forehead after I finally peed for the first time after being cut.
I couldn’t talk to her, I realized. She’d done this.
Yet who else could fill in the blanks? When I finally asked my mother, the two of us were cleaning my bathroom. I’d been standing in the bathtub, a roll of steel wool in my hand. I hadn’t meant to talk to her about it, but the porcelain was spotless from my fury and I was running out of things to clean to perfection.
The words didn’t come out spaced the way I’d imagined. My mouth was full of marbles, of cotton, of peanut butter. After the words escaped, I couldn’t swallow. Every last trace of spittle had dried up.
My mother’s expression was unreadable, cloaked in an emotion I knew but could not name. I was terrified that my question made no sense, that I’d have to clarify further. Then, as a beat passed without her responding, I realized I was even more scared that it had made perfect sense. That she’d been expecting this question since I was seven years old.
My mother’s explanation came out as fumbled as my initial question, something about women not being sexual and shortening my clitoris.
“You removed the part of me that makes me feel good while having sex?” I asked. Our Bodies Ourselves, and some of the Internet articles I’d read, gave me the confidence to say this last part. At sixteen, I thought I knew exactly what had been taken away from me, even if I wouldn’t have any idea what this really meant for another five years.
“I didn’t have a choice,” said my mother. “It happened to me too.”
I understood in that very moment that this look on her face was one of naked fear. “You didn’t have a choice so you didn’t give me one?” I asked her.
“All seven-year-old girls have to go through this,” she said.
We didn’t talk about it again, but the moment followed us around. My trust in her as my one able parent, the one who understood the supreme otherness of being a gawky, Pakistani, Muslim immigrant in Cypress, Texas, a Houston suburb where at that time there were hardly any other South Asian immigrants. My anger soured our relationship.
She attempted to crack down on my decision to drink coffee regularly during my senior year. “This isn’t good for your health,” she said firmly, unplugging the Mr. Coffee from the counter in the middle of a brew cycle. “Really?” I shot back, glaring, and we were stuck with the weight of what I didn’t say next. You know what’s also not good for my health? It was one of many times when I shrugged off her authority with one glance, invoking that one unspeakable act.
My parents had a quietly rocky relationship, although they’d swear up and down that everything was perfect, always. The first time the two of them ever met, in Arusha, Tanzania, my father made some vague statement about moving to the United States. He’d been invited over for dinner, presumably so my extremely picky mother could approve or disapprove of him as a suitor. Infatuated with the idea of getting out of her tiny East African town, my mother decided to marry him. They were engaged for three years, their relationship blossoming on the pages of the onionskin paper letters she sent to him from Tanzania as he finished his studies at the University of Houston, where he was majoring in finance.
My mother said her marriage vows while her mother was terminal with breast cancer, and after my grandmother finally passed away, she packed up a few suitcases and followed my father to Karachi, Pakistan, where he had returned after college.
The two of them shared a bed for months, very slowly working their way, in a stop and go fashion, to an open sexual relationship. I’d stumbled across this information accidentally, when in a rare moment of unguardedness, my father told me that while my mother had lost her virginity to him, he’d lost his in Houston some three years earlier. I peppered him with questions, and in the flurry of confusion after he’d said something he thought he shouldn’t have, other words came out. Barely fourteen, I’d only recently learned more than the simple mechanics of sex. I pieced together the first few months of their relationship with awe. I imagined that they lay next to each other night after night just like I’d done with my perfectly understanding boyfriend, never allowing each other to touch. Years later, I asked my mother if this was true. Her silence was the only confirmation I needed.
Weirdly, this made complete sense to me. The idea of marrying someone I barely knew and then having him touch me seemed unfathomable. I understood why my parents had lived with each other for months, learning about each other, falling in some semblance of love before actually enjoying sex. It wasn’t until I found myself panicking every time my boyfriend’s hands moved somewhere I didn’t want them to move that I realized that perhaps my mother had other reasons to not have sex.
Cypress, Texas, between 2003 and 2005
Before I heard about FGM, my mother caught me with a grocery store Harlequin novel. Though she’d never told me I wasn’t allowed to read them, she raised one practiced eyebrow as I shoved it quickly under my covers. It wasn’t until weeks later, when she was driving me somewhere, that she mentioned she’d seen it. My mother was unnervingly intelligent about timing her conversations, preferring to hold me captive in a moving vehicle before embarking on a lecture. I calculated the minutes before we’d get to our destination as my mother told me that sex was never really pleasurable.
“Those books never really tell you what it feels like when a man is selfish, when he’s able to find his pleasure so quickly. For us, it’s different.”
After I found out about my mother and my FGM, I wondered if she’d meant women when she said “us,” or the two of us specifically. The conversation replayed over and over again in my head: the set line of her mouth as she explained that sex was almost never a good feeling, and that the movies and the TV shows had it wrong. “Don’t go looking for that,” she’d told me. “That’s almost never true.”
Washington D.C., July 2010
During the three days before I finally had sex with my boyfriend, the only person I wanted to talk to about it was my mother. There wasn’t anyone else I trusted to tell me the truth about what it was like to have sex with a part of your clitoris missing.
At the same time, I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know that my mother might have lived her entire life without finding pleasure in sex. This terrified me. What if this was my future too? Worse, what if she’d successfully had an orgasm but I wouldn’t ever be able to? I worried that my hatred for her could tip in either direction. While more hate seemed almost impossible, less hate seemed like the worse option: If I couldn’t hate her for this, who could I possibly hold responsible?
It wasn’t until right after my failed sexual experience that I found the courage to call her. I dialed the number without hesitation, calculating the remaining credit in my Skype account as it rang. Twenty-three minutes. That’s exactly the amount of time I’d have to speak, and if it wasn’t enough time, it was up to her to call me back.
Both before and after I realized what my mother had done, I believed that she was my most ardent supporter, a champion of every possibility that stretched out in front of me.
She’d quit after high school, when her own mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, silently giving up on the dream of college or any sort of further education. While her younger brother went to expensive private schools—and later to the United States for a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s, and a Ph.D.—she took care of her mother in the kind of servitude that’s expected of Indian daughters. When her mother’s cancer became terminal, she started trying to find ways out.
My father provided the best opportunity: a naïve optimism and the possibility of America. She chose him unfalteringly, though my grandfather told me repeatedly that she’d had no shortage of suitors. In my grandfather’s eyes, this was my mother’s biggest talent, I realized—that she could have picked any man she wanted.
I’m not sure why my parents didn’t immediately pack their bags and move to the United States, as my mother had dreamed when she married him. Over the last decade, their answers to this question have changed mercurially. Sometimes it’s because my father needed to prove himself to his father. Other times it is because my mother had given birth to the only grandson, and ripping him away from his family seemed like a betrayal.
But when I was eleven my parents finally made the move. For years afterwards, I’d hear friends’ parents and teachers ask them what had convinced them to give up the comforts of an upper-class Pakistan life for the United States. Their answer never varied: The U.S. provided many more opportunities for them and their children.
The truth was a bit more complicated. My mother was unwilling to let me grow up in my younger brother’s shadow simply because I was a girl. For years she watched as I was ignored by my grandparents while my brother was spoiled. She wanted to raise her children to be equal.
Thus the move to America was my fault, born of my mother’s wish that I have a life that was nothing like hers. I wore this responsibility like a badge of honor; my mother’s love for me and her hopes for my future were the best kind of baby blanket, soothing me every time I did something right, every time I made her proud.
After the fateful conversation in my bathroom, though, I learned what it was like to love someone without forgiving her. The two halves of my relationship with my mother did not match. Most days we’d go about our lives, her betrayal far from my mind. She’d groan when I turned up the radio to a song she particularly disliked, and I’d grin back at her and then sing, in the off-key, toneless voice I’d inherited from her. Other times, she’d say something entirely innocuous and I’d be filled with a murderous rage. How could someone who claimed to love me so much have done something so horrible, I wondered.
The last two years that I lived at home in Cypress, Texas, before leaving for college, I found a way to coexist with my hatred. I knew that it was my mother’s grit and willpower that forced my father to commit to the promise he’d made, perhaps inadvertently, when they first met. She held our entire family together in the United States, forcing me to take horseback riding lessons, crying when I told her I needed a training bra for gym. This mother I knew couldn’t be the same one who’d watched as a stranger cut me. The woman who attended every free seminar about preparing her children for college couldn’t be the same person who’d stared at me when I’d asked her about FGM, no apologies spilling from her mouth, no admission of guilt ever assuaging the pain of what I’d realized had happened. Our relationship was far from perfect, irreparably broken in so many ways. Before moving to college, though, it was her that I held onto, sobbing about going somewhere so majestically far away.
South Hadley, Massachusetts, 2006—2008
I attended a small all-women’s liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts. There, I watched as confident upper-class women walked around with hairy armpits and greasy hair. The stark contrast to the perfectly coiffed girls at my Texas high school felt jarring for the first few weeks, but soon I realized this wasn’t the only difference. My first semester in one of the student residence halls, I heard what sounded like a heartbreaking keening noise coming from the dorm room next door. As I listened to make sure she was okay, I realized that the girl was having sex. My second semester, I walked in on my roommate masturbating. She withdrew her hand from her crotch to grin at me sheepishly, barely any embarrassment visible on her face.
I hadn’t dated in high school, a combination of my self-imposed awkwardness and my parents’ stern rules. And none of my high school girlfriends would have discussed their sex lives with me frankly. My roommate was different. Later that night, as I highlighted a sociology text, she asked me if I masturbated. I sputtered: No. “You should try it,” she told me. She moved off her twin bed and onto the corner of mine. “Don’t be so prude,” she said when I cringed. Then without any additional prompting from me, my roommate explained erotica and female-centric porn and what a true orgasm felt like. For the first few minutes, I feigned total ignorance.
Excited to open my mind to the idea of liberal sex, my roommate continued. “Have you ever even looked at your clitoris?” she asked. I felt something squeeze deeply inside of me and I began crying, tears trickling down from my eyes as I clamped my lips shut. She sat patiently as I garbled an explanation, of finding out about FGM, of feeling so horribly violated and alone.
My roommate and I would never be close, but she was the first person I spoke to honestly about what had happened. I’d told my best friends in high school that this had happened; I’d let them in on the superficial horrors of my secret. Unlike my roommate, though, my friends in Texas were devoutly Baptist, believing that sex before marriage was entirely taboo. And most of them only had a vague understanding of what a clitoris was. We’d never discuss masturbation or orgasms. Though they knew what had happened to me, I was never able to tell them about my fears about what this would mean for my future relationships. Until speaking with my roommate, I had never really told anyone that I had no idea what it meant to have a clitorectomy, that I had no idea about the extent of the damage.
To my roommate, I inexplicably opened up. I explained about the girls in the African villages and the pictures of their labia sewn shut, though making clear that this wasn’t my situation. But I still had no words to explain what had actually happened. She smoothed my back, chewing on her lip. Finally, I moved my head into her lap, breaking down into uncontrollable sobs. She held me as we both fell asleep, her tears wet on my back.
In the months that followed, we didn’t get closer. After a few attempts at getting me to open up again, she gave up. Every few days, though, she encouraged me to go see an ob/gyn at the school. Before going home for the summer, I made an appointment at student health services. I ended up in stirrups only twenty minutes after walking in, and when the doctor finally arrived, she sat down between my legs murmuring something about a pap smear. “Let’s have a look,” she said, using the same no-nonsense tone I remembered from the lady from my childhood, the one who cut me. I clamped my knees together and started bawling.
The doctor didn’t miss a beat. She was in her late fifties and had seen enough during her quick glance to make a correct assumption about why I was crying. “Why don’t you sit right up and let’s talk about any questions you may have.” She had questions of her own, too. “When did this happen? How long did it hurt? Are you able to wipe yourself with toilet paper without discomfort?” The doctor admitted up front that she didn’t know much, but said that taking a closer look might help her out.
By the time I finally let the doctor take a look, she let out a long, low breath. For a few long moments she looked without speaking. Then, she asked me for my cell number. She would ask around, see if anyone in the area knew more that she did. “What I can tell you is that there is a lot of thin scar tissue, most of which looks extremely painful,” she said. “This doesn’t look like a full clitorectomy,” she added, explaining that while she’d never seen one before, it looked like a partial cut. “Did a medical professional do this?” she asked as I shook my head. I didn’t know, I admitted. The question would linger with me, and for months I would weigh the consequences of asking my mother.
Later, after I put my clothes on, she came back in to hug me. “Come see me anytime, with any questions,” she said, and before I could stop myself, I blurted out. “Can I ever have an orgasm?”
She shrugged carefully, handing me a few printed pamphlets on healthy masturbation.
When I finally started dating, it would take me months to finally let my boyfriend know why we weren’t progressing past second base. In his Washington, D.C. dorm room, I took three shots of green apple vodka, then blurted out as much as I could. My boyfriend silently listened, holding my hands as I spoke. When I was finished, we lay down beside each other and he still said nothing at all. The next morning, he sat beside me as I puked up my stomach bile in the communal bathroom. He didn’t ask questions, or try to break up with me. Later that night, he told me he would wait until I was ready. I wondered if I would ever be ready.
The early days of our relationship were mired in uncertainty and self-consciousness. A week after I told him about FGM, we were laying in bed together naked, limbs intertwined. He whispered that even if I had been cut, what he’d seen down there was absolutely beautiful. I recoiled physically, pulling on a T-shirt. I spent the remainder of the night on the couch of his dorm suite’s common room. I never lay next to him naked again.
I always knew that the relationship would go nowhere. My boyfriend was sweet, loyal, and unbelievably kind, but I couldn’t see us having a future. He was half American, half Dutch, and so pale that we got comments about our brave interracial relationship from servers in restaurants. He’d never met my parents and was unlikely to ever visit them in Karachi. They’d have rejected him immediately and he wasn’t built to withstand their scrutiny. Though I loved him, I was self-aware enough to know that ultimately my parents as well as my desire to travel and to freelance, would end the relationship. Still, before breaking it off with him, I decided that I could use him as my one shot to figure out how much someone who loved me was willing to take. I could learn whether I’d ever have success at a relationship, even if I wasn’t ever ready to have sex.
Washington D.C., July 2010
In the seconds before my mother answered the phone in Karachi, I chewed on the words I wanted to use carefully. By the time I heard her voice, though, my carefully planned sentences had disappeared.
“Is sex ever good for you?” I asked her, my voice still watery from my tears. There was a brief but important pause. I heard the click of a door and then her voice, clear, unmuffled. “Excuse me?” she asked.
“I tried to have sex with my boyfriend.” I said. “It didn’t go well. It hurt so bad that I’m not sure I ever want to try it again. I know you don’t think I should be having sex, but I’m so scared.”
What I didn’t say out loud, what my mother instinctively knew, was what exactly I was so afraid of. She didn’t learn about her own FGM until after she was married, when my father, raised without a formal sexual education, pointed out that she looked different from his other conquests. She filed this information away until I turned seven, realizing almost too belatedly that this had happened to her too. She heard in the words I never used, my one greatest fear: that true love would escape me forever, simply because I carried the weight of what I considered a defective body part.
During college, I’d figured out that getting to orgasm wasn’t going to be easy. Even when I attempted to pleasure myself, any wrong move, any sudden accidental movement, would shoot pain inside of me. The scar tissue was tender and grew inflamed quickly. The skin sloughed off easily sometimes and it was quick to bleed. I kept this information close to my chest, hardly ever mentioning it to anyone. After college, when I finally had sex for the one and only time, I told no one that it had been a disaster, that the pain had been so bad that it hurt to pee for weeks afterwards.
Even when friends who knew my secret talked about sex, I’d pretend I was just like them. I’d assure them that I was hooking up randomly with people same as they were. They all knew about my FGM, something I’d tried to let my closest friends in on when they saw me balk at physical intimacy, but I never allowed them to delve deeper into what exactly that meant. If they bothered to ask, I’d admit freely that having sex wasn’t the easiest thing ever, but would then laugh it off by joking: When was having sex ever easy? I’d read enough books, watched enough television to appropriate a cavalier attitude towards my imaginary sexual exploits. To the outside world, I was as liberated as they were.
The lies built upon other lies, tangling in a web that soon became an alternate life. The broken, scared version of me was my own secret identity, known to no one else. She prevented me from hooking up with the cute guy at the bar, from jumping into a relationship without any guarantee that it wouldn’t blow up in my face. She stopped me from admitting to someone that I was deeply, madly in love with him, knowing that revelation would soon be followed by another.
A year after my attempt at sex, a friend was lamenting his lame sex life. “I’m a born-again virgin,” he said, wistfully. It had been three years since he’d had sex, and I murmured the appropriate words of sympathy. “I know how you feel,” I said, almost accidentally. “Really?” he replied. “You’ve not only had sex more recently than me, you’ve had it with someone who loved you, who you loved.”
In the moments that followed, I said something apologetic, falsely conceding that his situation was far worse. But my anger was a physical pain, pulsing under my fingernails. I wasn’t sure what I was so furious at—him for not knowing that I hadn’t had sex as recently as he’d imagined, or the world because even though the boy I had sex with had loved me, it wasn’t enough to make it good.
Washington D.C., July 2010
I worried that my mother would hang up. Over the previous year, I’d been distant with her, but I knew she was the only one who would understand the fears that had been bubbling inside me, for years. I worried she would ignore my questions, or even pretend that her outrage about my premarital sex was more important than what I was asking.
Instead, she told me about how, when she was a teenager, she saved up pocket change for Harlequin romances. “All I wanted was to figure out how to feel like those women,” she told me. “When your father and I first got married, him touching me would light me on fire. But sometimes, if he moved too fast, if he tried something new, that fire just became pain.”
I knew exactly what she was talking about—pain that suffused into every pore, suffocating the good. “I get panic attacks when that happens,” I told her.
“I did too,” she told me.
For her, divorce wasn’t an option—culturally or emotionally. It wasn’t something that would fix anything. “So your father and I talked through what felt good and we figured out a way,” she explained. I told her that I loved her. I wanted her to apologize for giving me the same pain that she herself had suffered. But my mother stayed quiet.
The Skype clock showed that I had one and a half more minutes left, and I told her that. “Talk soon, okay?” I said, our signature goodbye. “I hate everyone else too,” she said, unprompted. “Those women on TV who love sex, who enjoy it. I hate them too.” I knew what that last part was supposed to be—the closest thing to an apology my mother would ever be able to make.
New York City, April 2011—Boston, June 2012
After breaking up with my boyfriend, in April of 2011, and graduating with my masters from New York City, I moved to Boston to work at an international news startup. There, I made out with a coworker, almost a year after breaking my boyfriend’s heart. It was the first moment in my life that I’d allowed myself to want something with abandon, to give into the primal urge for physical contact that I’d been battling for years. I wanted it. W hen his hand snaked under my shirt, teasing the bottom of my bra, I willed myself not to flinch. I wasn’t entirely successful. I broke contact with his lips, turning my head so that his lips landed instead on my neck. A moment later, I pulled away, my stomach churning.
My rejection masked what was really going on. For the first time, I’d been overtaken by my own desire. While he kissed me, I wanted something more, pressing myself firmly against him. Yet when his hand sneaked under my shirt and I pulled away, nauseated, I was more upset than he was. Though we hung out for the next few months, we never made out again. When I spoke to my closest friends, I pretended that the relationship was more sexual that it really was. But I knew better, and after the incident I finally went to get answers, landing at the office of doctor who specialized in women traumatized by FGM.
Since my first experience with an ob/gyn in college, I’d been to three other doctors. All of them had been horrified when they’d looked between my legs. When I’d peppered them with questions, they seemed hesitant to respond with authority. The reality was that many of them had no experience dealing with someone who’d been a victim of genital mutilation.
A week later I delved into my meager savings account. I was living without health insurance that year, and when I called the doctor’s office, explaining this, the receptionist told me to plan to spend somewhere around $2,000 for the consult. The money was worth it. This doctor, unlike so many of the gynecologists I’d seen before, didn’t wince when she peered between my legs. She didn’t over-apologize, or pat my knees. She didn’t murmur, in a hushed whisper like the medical resident at Columbia, “Oh bless your dear heart.”
Instead, she silently examined me. She’d heard of the religious sect that I belonged to, and had examined other girls like me. She explained that because the cutting is done in a living room, without proper medical equipment, for girls in my sect, the results varied. “Some of the girls can easily go on to have great sex lives, the only part removed is part of their hood,” she explained. But for me the difference was in the scar tissue, and the fact that all of my hood and a large chunk of my clitoris had been removed.
I’d read of a surgery developed in France, where a doctor was rerouting nerves from a pinky finger as part of a regenerative process. She shook her head, “I wouldn’t recommend this,” she said.
She told me what I’d long suspected: I’d probably never have the kind of wonderful, easy, glowing sex that everyone showed in the movies. I wouldn’t likely even have the real, imperfect kind. Instead, it would likely involve many conversations in bed, a sex therapist, and a willingness to trust another human completely. I wasn’t horribly mutilated, or defective in a way that made me incapable of sexual pleasure, she explained. “This is not terminal. This is not a life sentence,” she told me. “Find a sex therapist you trust, learn to allow yourself to let go.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, and didn’t ask further questions. In the moments after she gave me her verdict, she mentioned a support group she held at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I nodded enthusiastically, knowing I’d never attend.
Karachi, July 2012
Two years after my mother and I had our big phone conversation, I finally saw her again. After three years without seeing my parents, I’d moved back to Karachi.
Working in a newsroom in Boston, I realized that all I’d ever really wanted to do was report and write long features. Unfortunately, my student visa made it impossible for me to find such a job. In Boston, I added GIFs to listicles, and came to think that the kind of writing and work I wanted to do didn’t really exist for me in the United States. I knew that I could get back to the longform journalism I was eager to do if I moved back to Pakistan, where I could market myself to a U.S. audience. So when my work permit ran out, a year after I earned my master’s degree, I moved back.
Readjusting to life in Karachi was difficult. My family expected me to attend religious services, but I dragged my feet every time I had to enter our neighborhood mosque. I’d scan all of the faces to see if I could recognize the woman who had cut me. I sat next to girls I’d grown up with, many of whom had married, and wondered what their sex lives were like.
Still, I realized deep down that I wasn’t truly alone, that seated beside me were at least another hundred girls who had suffered this same fate. The difference, I realized, was that I knew. Did these girls have any idea that they were entitled to a better, healthier sexual life? Did they want that? Or did they lay motionless while the deed was done. I’d sit fidgeting, wondering if any of them had escaped the cutting.
In Karachi, family took precedence over everything. My grandfather, my father’s father, had passed away in the months before I moved home, and my grandmother sleepwalked through her grief. Muslim women must isolate themselves from any non-related men for the first four months after losing their husbands, and my grandmother, deeply devout, didn’t exempt herself from this rule. She cloistered herself in her bedroom, in the house where I’d been brought up. She wore only white, her skin yellow from months away from sunlight. Her eyes seemed permanently rimmed with red, and she seemed smaller and frailer than I remembered her. To avoid men, she had to stay in that bedroom, and every time I visited her during the last month of her mourning, I’d be frustrated with the small space. Most often she’d be found on the floor, clutching her Quran in her hands, a string of prayer beads beside her.
I’d always viewed my grandmother as tough as nails, the kind of woman who wouldn’t disappear into the woodwork like so many of her friends. While in mourning, her vulnerability was masked by a kind of vitriol, one I’d recognized in myself. She hated asking for help, hated asking questions. She had to wait for us to serve her meals, for us to tell her who had entered the compound. She became clingy, too, and being around her was difficult even at the best of times. After her mourning period ended she grew intolerable, lashing out at everyone to let them know how much they’d disappointed her, just so she could have a conversation that she felt like she was in control of.
My grandmother and I had never been particularly close, her religious dogma rubbing abrasively against my need to question everything. When I told her about my travels, or my experiences in the parts of Karachi that everyone else was too terrified to visit, she’d ask how I’d dressed, what prayers I’d said beforehand. Most of the time, she’d mention how I was failing her, failing God, with my refusal to marry.
I parceled out my visits to her house, calculating how many days it had been since I’d seen her face. I’d allot her twenty-minute increments, heading there right before an appointment, an escape clause built into our conversations. Most of those visits followed the same pattern: She’d ask me what I was working on, and I’d follow her eyes as they intently watched the TV set, not even bothering to listen to the words of my reply. She’d ask me if I planned to get married, then offer me food, and I’d nod yes just so that I could comfort myself by watching my grandmother stroll from one physical space to the next, no longer confined to her bedroom.
During one of these visits, something happened. As I willed myself to not check the clock on my phone, my grandmother suddenly asked me what FGM was.
We were sitting in the living room, the TV on mute. I sat alert, and asked her what she was talking about. She handed me a carefully folded piece of the local English-language daily. In it was a review of a documentary, screened during a film festival in Karachi. The documentary, A Pinch of Skin, showed several obscured women talk about their genital mutilation. My grandmother had first heard about it in her women’s group. Then she’d read about it in the paper.
I had only seven minutes before I’d be late to my next appointment, one I couldn’t miss. So I asked her carefully if she remembered what she’d done to me when I was seven. I debated walking across the room, sitting beside her on the loveseat she occupied.
She nodded. “What did you think that was?” I asked her. She shrugged insolently, a gesture familiar from every other time she had insulted or angered me. Gujarati, the only language that my grandmother and I had in common, wasn’t my strongest suit, and speaking about female anatomy in it made my words stumble up against each other. But I told her that women were supposed to enjoy sex, that we had an organ similar to a penis, except tiny, that was supposed to make it feel good for us. That’s what they cut out. That’s what FGM was.
“Do you think that’s right?” she asked me.
The moment was precious. She was asking me for my honest opinion, so I dove right in with as much restrained anger as I could. “No. It was wrong. Being able to enjoy sex is a basic human right and you took that away from me. You took that away from every girl they cut,” I said, lumping her in with the rest of the members of the sect, all of whom I blamed for what had happened to me. “Why?” I continued. “So that we were easily controlled? That you wouldn’t have to deal with our independence?”
I had to force myself to stop, realizing that I could damage the tiny bit of progress I had made with her. Instead, I told myself to watch her facial expressions, that later I’d want to remember how every one of her muscles had responded to my words.
I believed that someone had to be held responsible for what had happened to me. For years, I’d held my mother accountable, but suddenly my blame had sprung free, latching onto my grandmother and the women she knew. That she wouldn’t have the slightest idea about what this really meant astounded me. I realized: The decisions that had been made about my life came from a group of people who were woefully ill-informed.
My grandmother had always been the matriarch; her insidious emotional blackmail was legendary in our extended family. With one sentence she could convince my father to do something he never wanted to do. She’d easily make my mother’s life miserable if my mother did something she didn’t approve of. When I left to go to her house, my mother would carefully inspect my outfit, hoping it would meet my grandmother’s expectations. We bided our time with her, measuring each conversation against intended or unintended consequences. And now, what I’d said was the most honest and real opinion I’d ever given her. I’d meant every word, but now that they were out, in the vast space between the separate couches we sat on, I didn’t know if I wanted them there.
My grandmother gave one, slow nod. Then, in her gravelly voice, she told me that she didn’t really know. “The religious elders,” she explained, “they know what’s best, I suppose.”
It was those last two words that gave her away. For my grandmother to imply even a little bit that her faith wasn’t unwavering was gigantic. Days after our conversation, I found out that she’d asked my uncle about this too, and addressed it with my cousin as well. I’d been the third person she’d talked to. Later, when I found the courage to ask her about it again, she’d pretend she had no idea what I was referring to, using the veil of old age to shove it away.
Yet before I left for my appointment, my grandmother held my hand and looked me in the eyes.
“Your mother tried to stop it,” she told me.
Even after she soothed me on the telephone in 2010, my hatred for my mother had continued to coexist with my love. I had hoped that the conversation would heal my relationship with her, that I would come to accept that my mother hadn’t expected this operation to go so horribly wrong, but my anger was still present.
In the two years since that conversation, I’d done a lot of growing. I’d moved from my boyfriend’s tiny apartment in Washington D.C. to my student housing apartment in New York, and then moved again to Boston for my first real job.
While moving to Boston, I’d felt alone for the first time in my life. I’d have to find my own apartment and parcel out my own income, no longer relying on loans. Each task seemed monumental, and disturbingly difficult. I kept thinking about how my mother did it, alone in the United States, navigating an American grocery store with two small children. She’d never attended a college like I had, never had a football team’s worth of American friends help her understand the difference between, say, Kleenex and Puffs.
It was in Boston, too, as I grew more independent, that I stopped viewing my mother’s decision as a decision, or even as a betrayal. And I began to realize how many choices I had in my life. I’d gone to a private liberal arts college, had been allowed to continue my education without being pressured into marriage. I wondered, objectively, for the first time, about my mother’s options. I tried to imagine what it was like to be her. How informed was my mother’s decision, I’d begun to wonder? She didn’t have the Internet. She didn’t grow up with Hollywood’s liberated sexuality. How fully had she understood what it was she was subjecting me to?
After our conversation on the phone, my mother initially demanded some distance, avoiding my calls. But eventually we reverted into our old relationship. We’d joke about my father’s fishing trips and complain about my brother’s arrogance. We never talked about what had happened on the phone, and after a while it stopped lingering in the background. I told a friend that I was pretty sure I’d come as close to forgiving my mother as was possible.
While in Boston, I had continued lying to my new friends about my sexual liberation. When a close friend mentioned how he hated when his partner stuck his tongue in his ear, I laughed in scorn. “You’ve been dating for months,” I told him. “How could you possibly not feel comfortable just telling him you don’t enjoy that?” But at the back of my mind, other questions wove forward: Do you have any authority to speak to this boy about sex? Would I be able to tell a man what I didn’t like and did like? Or would I learn to grin and bear it, like I believed my mother had.
After I visited the ob/gyn, I stopped lying to my friends about sex, complaining loudly that I hadn’t had it in years. Sometimes, tipsy on red wine or vodka, I’d allude to the fact that I was broken, a confession that my friends would treat with awkward silences. No one was able to comfort me, and I didn’t want them to. I simply wanted us to stop pretending we were the same.
After the doctor in Boston told me that 95 percent of women in my sect with FGM had successful orgasms, the hatred dissipated further. And it was after seeing the doctor that I began seriously entertaining the idea of dating. I’d always give up in the past, realizing that I didn’t want to put emotions and feelings on the line only to be rejected. No one seemed worth the time or the effort. I told myself over and over again as I fell asleep that it’d work out, that I’d be okay. I told myself I was releasing the anger, and sometimes I truly believed that I had, that I could.
Yet after I moved home to Pakistan in 2012, I realized that my anger would spring back into the conversation in moments that hardly warranted it. I noticed when it crept into my mind—the idea that my mother had failed me as a parent, tainting a simple parental request—the same as it had when I was younger. When she asked me to make my bed I’d glare, remembering how she’d failed me so greatly, and refuse outright. The unmade bed was a symbol of my refusal to be her daughter, I told myself, even while recognizing it was an absurd fight to pick.
I thought about what I’d told my friend, editing my statement backwards and forwards: If she wasn’t entirely forgiven, I realized, she wasn’t forgiven. There was no halfway, no partial forgiveness.
Karachi, Pakistan, March, 2014
I sat with my grandmother’s words for three weeks before talking to my mother. Somewhere inside of me, my hatred had broken away. It moved about untethered to anything, cropping up in phone conversations with my best friend, twisting into my dreams. Dislodged, my anger was both worse and better than it had been before I accused my mother. I felt a global sense of unfairness that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to escape.
I finally told my mother about my conversation with my grandmother. She was folding her laundry on her bed. She continued folding. After a pause that seemed to stretch so thin that I felt a physical ache, I finally whispered what my grandmother had said. My mother looked back at me, her eyes filled with tears. “We tried so very, very hard,” she whispered back. “I told your father that he couldn’t let this happen. Your grandmother just watched, never once interfering.”
But the real villain, if there even was such a thing, was my grandfather. From what I pieced together from my mother’s words, he’d put his foot down firmly. The fights about it grew so out of control that he threatened to kick my mother out of the family. “I’ll keep the kids,” he warned my mother, and she was smart enough to realize that this was true. Because of Pakistan’s overwhelmingly Muslim customs and society, she might be able to be unbound from his family, but she’d lose her children in the process.
My mother blamed herself enough that she let me hate her for years without ever clarifying what had happened. She shouldered this blame silently, never once believing that she was worthy of my forgiveness.
After she told me what really happened, I didn’t ask her many questions. But I knew that our relationship had forever changed. Forgiveness was no longer something I had to learn to give my mother, or something she needed to earn. After I left her room that day, my anger and hatred towards her disintegrated, almost immediately.
At twenty-six, I worry that I’m going to die alone. That no one will want to go through the hassle of having sex with me and, eventually, they’ll leave me for that simple reason. That’s the secret-identity version of me, the one that doesn’t allow herself to fall into love, or allow herself to be loved in return.
What I no longer do, however, is think that my mother sentenced me to a life where epic love is never possible. My mother did make a decision when I was seven years old, but it wasn’t the one that has made me incapable of a normal sexual relationship.
Faced with an impossible dichotomy, my mother chose to raise me. She chose to give me every dream that was never possible for her. She gave me ambition and an identity that was separate from my family. She encouraged me to think critically and question authority. After I accused her in the bathroom of ruining my life, I lived with two diametrically opposed sides of my mother: the champion and the betrayer. She was only ever one of those things. My grandfather’s threat was powerful: either way I’d have ended up a victim of genital mutilation. This way, she was able to hold my hand after I was cut.
My anger is still omnipresent, coloring every single day of my life with a tint of red. No longer attached to my mother, it is worse than ever. Some days, I believe from the very core of my heart that I’ll have sex again, that someone will love me enough to be willing to try it with me. Other days, I have no faith in that at all. Those days are the reddest.
A few weeks ago, I asked the wife of one of our religious leaders what she thought about FGM. She quietly moved out of the room, her eyes begging me to drop the question. Later that day, she mentioned to my grandmother that I needed to be married immediately. “Don’t you think that she’s become too opinionated?” the woman told my grandmother. My grandmother’s reply: “You think marriage will stop that?” She was almost laughing at this new wave of trouble I’d caused.
I told my grandmother that FGM had ruined my life, and I wanted these women to know it. I told her that I was too young to hate so many people for what had happened. She nodded quietly, a rare détente between the two of us. “They ruined my life too,” she said, patting my hand.
And with unadulterated optimism, I choose to interpret that gesture as encouragement.
This story was originally published at The Big Roundtable.