Transcript – Born a Girl in the Wrong Place by Khadija Gbla at TEDxCanberra
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Khadija Gbla – Cross Cultural Consultant
Hi. Today I’m going to share my personal journey with female genital mutilation, FGM. Feel free to cry, laugh, cross your legs, or do anything your body feels like doing. I’m not going to name the things your body does.
I was born in Sierra Leone. Did anybody watch Blood Diamond? If you have any thoughts — I don’t have any diamonds on me, by the way.
If you have heard of Ebola, well, that’s in Sierra Leone as well. I don’t have Ebola. You’re all safe. Don’t rush to the door. Be seated. You’re fine. I was checked before I got here.
My grandfather had three wives. Don’t ask me why a man needs more than one wife. Men, do you need more than one wife? I don’t think so. There you go. He was looking for a heart attack, that’s what I say. Oh yeah, he was.
When I was three, war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991. I remember literally going to bed one night, everything was good. The next day, I woke up, bombs were dropping everywhere, and people were trying to kill me and my family.
We escaped the war and ended up in Gambia, in West Africa. Ebola is there as well. Stay away from it. While we were there as refugees, we didn’t know what was going to become of us. My mom applied for refugee status. She’s a wonderful, smart woman, that one, and we were lucky. Australia said, we will take you in. Good job, Aussies.
Before we were meant to travel, my mom came home one day, and said, “We’re going on a little holiday, a little trip.”
She put us in a car, and we drove for hours and ended up in a bush in a remote area in Gambia. In this bush, we found two huts. An old lady came towards us. She was ethnic-looking, very old. She had a chat with my mom, and went back. Then she came back and walked away from us into a second hut. I’m standing there thinking, “This is very confusing. I don’t know what’s going on.”
The next thing I knew, my mom took me into this hut. She took my clothes off, and then she pinned me down on the floor. I struggled and tried to get her off me, but I couldn’t. Then the old lady came towards me with a rusty-looking knife, one of the sharp knives, orange-looking, has never seen water or sunlight before. I thought she was going to slaughter me, but she didn’t.
She slowly slid down my body and ended up where my vagina is. She took hold of what I now know to be my clitoris, she took that rusty knife, and started cutting away, inch by inch. I screamed, I cried, and asked my mom to get off me so this pain will stop, but all she did was say, “Be quiet.”
This old lady sawed away at my flesh for what felt like forever, and then when she was done, she threw that piece of flesh across the floor as if it was the most disgusting thing she’s ever touched. They both got off me, and left me there bleeding, crying, and confused as to what just happened. We never talked about this again.
Very soon, we found that we were coming to Australia, and this is when you had the Sydney Olympics at the time, and people said we were going to the end of the world, there was nowhere else to go after Australia. Yeah, that comforted us a bit.
It took us three days to get here. We went to Senegal, then France, and then Singapore. We went to the bathroom to wash our hands. We spent 15 minutes opening the tap like this. Then somebody came in, slid their hand under and water came out, and we thought, is this what we’re in for? Like, seriously.
We got to Adelaide, small place, where literally they dumped us in Adelaide, that’s what I would say. They dumped us there. We were very grateful. We settled and we liked it. We were like, “We’re home, we’re here.”
Then somebody took us to Rundle Mall. Adelaide has only one mall. It’s this small place. And we saw a lot of Asian people. My mom said all of a sudden, panicking, “You brought us to the wrong place. You must take us back to Australia.”
Yeah. It had to be explained to her that there were a lot of Asians in Australia and we were in the right place. It’s all fine, it’s all good.
My mom then had this brilliant idea that I should go to a girls school because they were less racist. I don’t know where she read that publication. Never found evidence of it to this day. Six hundred white kids, and I was the only black child there. No, I was the only person with a bit of a color on me. Let me say that. Chocolate color. There were no Asians, no indigenous. All we had was some tan girls, girls who felt the need to be under the sun. It wasn’t the same as my chocolate, though. Not the same.
Settling in Australia was quite hard, but it became harder when I started volunteering for an organization called Women’s Health Statewide, and I joined their female genital mutilation program without any awareness of what this program was actually about, or that it related to me in any way. I spent months educating nurses and doctors about what female genital mutilation was and where it was practiced: Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and now, Australia and London and America, because, as we all know, we live in a multicultural society, and people who come from those backgrounds come with their culture, and sometimes they have cultural practices that we may not agree with, but they continue to practice them.
One day, I was looking at the chart of the different types of female genital mutilation, FGM, I will just say FGM for short. Type I is when they cut off the hood. Type II is when they cut off the whole clitoris and some of your labia majora, or your outer lips, and Type III is when they cut off the whole clitoris and then they sew you up so you only have a little hole to pee and have your period.
My eyes were drawn to Type II. Before all of this, I pretty much had amnesia. I was in so much shock and traumatized by what had happened, I don’t remember any of it. Yes, I was aware something bad happened to me, but I had no recollection of what had happened. I knew I had a scar down there, but I thought everybody had a scar down there. This had happened to everybody else.
But when I looked at Type II, it all came back to me. I remembered what was done to me. I remembered being in that hut with that old lady and my mom holding me down. Words cannot express the pain I felt, the confusion that I felt, because now I realized that what was done to me was a terrible thing that in this society was called barbaric, it was called mutilation. My mother had said it was called circumcision, but here it was mutilation. I was thinking, I’m mutilated? I’m a mutilated person. Oh my God.
And then the anger came. I was a black angry woman. Oh yeah. A little one, but angry nevertheless. I went home and said to my mom, “You did something.” This is not the African thing to do, pointing at your mother, but hey, I was ready for any consequences. “You did something to me.”
She’s like, “What are you talking about, Khadija?” She’s used to me mouthing off.
I’m like, “Those years ago, you circumcised me. You cut away something that belonged to me.”
She said, “Yes, I did. I did it for your own good. It was in your best interest. Your grandmother did it to me, and I did it to you. It’s made you a woman.”