"On Thursday they said I'd be married. On Friday they told me they'd cut me. At midnight I escaped."
Fauziya Kassindja narrowly escaped female genital mutilation by fleeing from her remote village in Togo under cover of night and making her way to the United States where, in December 1994, she sought political asylum. Instead of receiving this seventeen-year-old orphan with understanding and humanity, U.S. officials proceeded to strip her naked, put her in chains, imprison her, and send her through the Kafkaesque nightmare known as the U.S. immigration system. After extensive advocacy by a law student at American University and an appearance on the front page of The New York Times, Kassindja became the first person to receive political asylum from the United States based on the threat of female genital mutilation. Up to 130 million women worldwide, the vast majority concentrated in twenty-six African nations, have been subjected to female genital mutilation, and 2 million annually confront it. The procedure involves cutting off the clitoris. No anesthesia is used. Often other parts of the external genitals are also excised, and the entrance to the vagina is commonly sewn almost completely shut. Infection, scarring, infertility, excruciating intercourse, complex childbirth, and almost unbearable pain are common side effects. Many women die in the aftermath of the procedure, which is performed with razor blades, sharp rocks, knives, and in some instances, scalpels. Despite the trauma she suffered, Kassindja has spoken actively against the practice and about the difficulties she faced in the U.S. immigration system. She is currently on the advisory board for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies based in California. She is the co-author of Do They Hear You When You Cry, a memoir of her experiences in Togo and her struggle to gain asylum in the United States.
I have four sisters and two brothers; I was the sixth child, the last girl. I was a mischievous one, very close with my father—he was my best friend. All my sisters were encouraged by him to do whatever we wanted with our lives. Our parents didn’t decide for us. They always said, "It’s your decision. If it’s a positive one we’re going to help you make it come true. If it’s negative, we’re going to advise you not to do it, but if you think that’s what you want, go ahead. Later on you have yourself to blame. You can’t say your parents forced you." My father sent all of us to school, so that we could learn English and help with his business. This was unusual for girls in Togo.
When I was sixteen my father died and everything changed. My aunt and my uncle, my father’s siblings, hated my mom right from the beginning because Mom was from Benin and they thought she didn’t fit in—she’s not from their tribe. They tried to force my father to divorce her, but he didn’t listen. They said my mother was behind all of us going to school. They thought she poisoned my father’s mind.
After Father’s death, Aunt moved into our house. She told us that my mother had decided to go live with her family in Benin, which was untrue. She and my uncle made my mother leave, and my aunt became my new guardian. I was allowed to go to school until the end of that year. When I turned seventeen she told me that I wasn’t going back to school because there was no need to waste money and time, and besides, all my sisters had gone to school and had just ended up married. I had lost my father, I had lost my mom, and now school. I thought, "Oh my God, what is going to happen next?"
Shortly after a gentleman started coming to the house. I thought maybe my aunt wanted to get remarried, so whenever he left I said, "Oh I think he’s a great guy." She kept going on, praising him, how rich he was, how famous, how nice he can be. I thought she was in love. I didn’t know that she was really saying that to get me interested. She didn’t tell me that she wanted me to marry him until one time she mentioned, "I told him that you weren’t going back to school." I was surprised. "Why would you have to tell him I’m not going back?" So she said, "Remember how you always say he’s a nice person? He wants to marry you."
I thought she was kidding. She told me that he was forty-five years old. I said, "Forty-five!!!" And she kept going, "Don’t worry. He has three wives and they will help take care of you." I said, "I don’t want to do this." So after that it was a huge fight in the house all the time. Then one day she said, "I know you don’t love him now but once you get kakiya [genital mutilation], you will learn to love him."
Soon after I woke up and she called me into her room and I saw all this beautiful clothing on the bed—dresses, jewelry, shoes—and she said, "This is all from your husband. He wants you today. So tomorrow will be the day of kakiya." I said, "What! I am going to get married today?" I had no idea what to do. The marriage proceeded and, after, they gave me the marriage license to sign, but I refused. My older sisters and brothers came, and we talked about it. They apologized for not doing anything to prevent things so far. My older sister was so upset. She told me not to cry—everything would be okay. She would make sure that nobody would do kakiya to me. But I didn’t believe her because there was nothing that she could do. I was somebody else’s wife now. She says, "Don’t worry. Amaray and I will disguise you." Amaray is what we call my mom; it means "bright."
She told me not to sign the marriage license, told me not to worry. Everything would be fine. She came back in the middle of the night and we left the house and crossed the border to Ghana. The next available plane was to Germany. My sister gave me three thousand dollars, all the money she had. I got on the plane from Germany to the United States by purchasing a passport. When the immigration officer at Newark Airport said, "Do you have any money?" I showed her the little money I had left and then told her that I wanted asylum. She said go sit over there, and she would be with me shortly. So I sat waiting until she checked everybody and came to me. She said, "Okay, tell me what you want from the United States." I told her I wanted asylum. She told me I had to tell her what is the problem. So I told her everything. Well, not everything, because it is so embarrassing. How could she understand? I didn’t know the words even to say it in English.
I didn’t know what it was called. I told her my father was dead and my mother had vanished, and my aunt wanted me to marry somebody I don’t want to marry and that I wanted to go back to school. That basically summarized everything—I didn’t mention kakiya because I knew she probably couldn’t understand and she would also think I was crazy. Whether I got asylum was up to the judge, she said, so I would go to prison, then see the consular official from my country, and then I could go home and be with my family.
I started crying and screaming—telling her that I was only seventeen, and I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t want to go to prison. Then they brought the cops to the waiting area where I was sitting. Her supervisor said if I didn’t want to stay, then I either had to go back to Togo or to Germany. I didn’t know anyone in Germany, and Togo was the last place I wanted to go. They took my fingerprints and everything. A woman in uniform called me into her room, where she asked me to take off my clothes. I said, "Please, I am menstruating, can I keep my underwear on?" And she said to take it off. It was the most humiliating moment in my life. I took it off and just wished I could disappear into the wall. She gave me back my pants and my sweater and then she started putting the handcuffs on me. I felt just like the criminals I had seen in movies. I started crying. I said, "Please, don’t take me to prison." She ignored me and she put the chain around my waist. I couldn’t walk very fast with the chains, but she kept pushing my back, saying, "Let’s go. Let’s go." So I was taken to this detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey.
That’s where the nightmares really began. I was strip-searched again, and left in this huge cold room and this man came in and stared at me, as I was standing there naked. Then I was taken to this prison in Hackensack where I was sexually harassed by an inmate. I think she was a drug addict. They put me in the maximum security part, with a cellmate convicted for I don’t know what. She smoked, and I had terrible asthma. I told the doctor that I couldn’t stay in that room and he just said, "I am sorry, ma’am, I can’t help you." I started coughing and throwing up blood. But I was denied any medicine because of my immigration status.
Then I had to go to Lehigh County Prison in Pennsylvania. A girl from Tanzania and I were handcuffed together. During all this process of transferring from one prison to another, we were chained, like criminals. First they sent us for a medical evaluation, where they thought I had tuberculosis. As a result, I was put in isolation. They kept me in this room for eighteen days, and I lost thirty pounds. Before I could talk to anybody I had to put on a face mask, like the one doctors use for operations. When I needed something I had to stand in the other corner of the room, turn to the wall, and yell for a guard. The door had this small window in the middle where they passed my food. I couldn’t come near the door. They treated me like an animal. I needed soap. I needed a toothbrush. I called and called—most of the time, nobody would come.
I met Cecelia Jeffrey, another prisoner, in a detention center in New Jersey. She treated me like a daughter. When I’d go to bed, she would come and tuck me in. She has always been there for me ever since we met. When I started feeling sick again—stomach, heartburn—they ignored me and wouldn’t give me any medicine. So I thought, "If I’m going to die, why don’t I go back." I wrote the request form to the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service], and wrote Cecelia a letter, telling her how much I really appreciated the way she took care of me and that I would never forget her.
She got really upset, because she knew about my situation back home. She got furious. She wrote to the counselor that I was her daughter and that they should please transfer me to minimum security, because she could persuade me not to go back. They were so overcrowded they put a bunch of us in the maximum security part of the prison. The prison guards asked me, "Is Cecelia your mom?" and I said, "Yes." So I was transferred to minimum security, where she was, and she was so upset with me. She said, "Are you crazy? Do you know what you’re going back for?" And I said, "I just can’t take it anymore." Next day she was in the shower and called, "Sweetheart, come here." (She always called me sweetheart.) I went to the bathroom and she was standing in there, and she opened her legs apart and said, "Look. Is this what you want to go back to?" I didn’t know what I was seeing.
It was so scary—terrible—I didn’t know how to explain it. I just saw it and ran away from the bathroom. And she screamed, "Come back here! You want to be stupid? Come back here! Come and look!" So I went back and she said, "Do you know what this is?" I didn’t know. It didn’t look anything like female genitalia. Nothing. It was just like a really plain thing like the palm of my hand. And the only thing you could see was a scar, like a stitch. And just a little hole. That’s it, no lips, nothing. I said, "You live with this?" And she said, "All my life. I cry all the time when I see it. I cry inside. I feel weak, I feel defeated all the time."
I look at her and I see the strongest woman on earth. Outside you can’t really tell that she’s suffering or in pain. I know she’s not happy, but you couldn’t tell from her appearance or the way she treated others. She’s the most loving person I’ve ever met. After she said, "Well, if you want to go back, I’ll help you write the request form. It’s your stupidity. Fine." I introduced her to Karen [Masalo], my lawyer, and together they made me stay.
At my first hearing, the judge was so rude, so mean to both Layli and me. Layli Miller Bashir was a law student from American University Law Clinic who had taken my case. Layli asked me a question and before I could answer the judge said, "It’s not necessary, the court doesn’t want to know this." And he asked me a question and before I answered, he answered for me. I couldn’t talk at all in the courtroom. He didn’t believe that my mother couldn’t protect me from the genital mutilation. And he didn’t believe that my father protected my other four sisters, but not me. It was so scary. He yelled a lot and he said my name and my country’s name wrong and when I corrected him, he got so upset. And he said something, and I spoke out, "No, that’s not what I said." And he yelled, "This will be the last time you interrupt the court." From the way the hearing was going, I knew he wasn’t going to grant my asylum. Even before he came into the court, he had made up his mind not to grant it. Layli told me that I shouldn’t worry, that no matter what happened, she would make sure that justice was done. She begged me not to go back.
I was in prison when I met with the reporter from The New York Times. At first I didn’t want to do the interview. I had already done several, but none helped me get out of prison. So I said, "What’s the use? I feel like I’m exposing my family. And who knows, I might be sent back to my country and that is going to be really terrible for me." They sent a list of the congressmen who signed a petition to the district attorney to have me paroled—it was denied. If twenty-five congressmen couldn’t get me out of prison, could an interview help?
But I finally agreed to talk to the Times, and to our surprise the story appeared on the front page. It was the eleventh and I got out the twenty-fourth. They said that the media was very powerful here in this country. More powerful than the Congress? It was scary, and I couldn’t understand it.
Everything happens for a purpose and whatever happens is destined. So I got out because it is God that made this possible. At that time I was going through all this suffering, I couldn’t see it that way. I thought, "Why me, why doesn’t it happen to somebody else?" But now when I look back I know that if I hadn’t been through all these things, the case wouldn’t have reached the many people that it has today. This is the work of God. And it is truly unbelievable.