Photographer:Fotograaf: Philip Driessen
Ambassador lecture – Jaha Dukureh
“When a woman is not circumcised, it always itches,” says the woman who cut off Jaha Dukureh’s clitoris when she was a week old, probably with a razorblade or a piece of glass. “If the thing underneath is not removed, the hand will always be down there scratching.”
The Guardian made a documentary about Dukureh, as she is one of the key figures in the abolishment of female genital mutilation (FGM) all over the world, primarily in Africa. Last Thursday, she was in Maastricht, in the Franz Palm lecture hall, as a speaker for the Ambassador Lecture series.
Oooooh, aaaaaaaah, the audience is making uncomfortable faces when an urologist in the documentary speaks about a case in which a 26-year-old woman is cut without an anaesthetic, ripping open her entire vagina. “She will have lots of infections during her life and that may finally destroy her kidneys.” Yet, people continue to do it. FGM happens to all the girls in The Gambia. Most people in the villages that Dukureh visits are convinced that giving birth is not possible without being circumcised and that it’s part of Islam. Imam Fatty, statehouse imam to the - at that time - Gambian president and member of the supreme Islamic council: “No one who fears Allah, says circumcision is not Islamic. It’s Islamic.” One minute later, the same imam says: “Do it is better than not do it. We say it clearly, if you want to do it, do it. If you don’t, leave it. It’s not compulsory. It’s a choice.” Confusion in the lecture hall.
The documentary ends with words by former president of The Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, in November 2015: “For 21 years, I’ve been searching to see where it is stated in the Quran that this should happen. I’ve not seen it. FGM is banned, as from today, from the surface of this country.” It is the result of Dukureh’s and her team’s tireless efforts to reach and convince the president, she tells later.
Relieved clapping in the audience, but it becomes clear very quickly that we aren’t supposed to be too euphoric at the end of the video. “This is just the beginning. It’s not over yet until all the girls are protected,” says Dukureh. The main message is that there is still a lot of work to be done. And preferably with as little help as possible from the West. White people coming to Africa telling people how to live and what’s wrong or right only proves to be counterproductive. She’s an ambassador for the United Nations (UN), but she calls the UN “the most inefficient entity in the world. All their events are in fancy rooms, with expensive suits; in 2030 - when they say FGM will be ended - they are probably still clapping for themselves.”
The only way it will work, she says, is from the bottom up. “The biggest difference can be made in the local community.” Around 70 per cent of the people who practice FGM believe it’s a religious requirement; that’s why she goes from village to village - primarily in The Gambia, Somalia, Kenya, Libya and Sierra Leone - to speak to local key figures and religious leaders. She also organizes summits for spiritual leaders, government officials, and law enforcement agencies, with the help of doctors and FGM survivors. Convincing them that FGM is wrong is the way to go.
Host Marieke Hopman kicked off the Q&A part of the evening: “Did your mission come at great personal cost?” “Well, when I started to do this, there was a lot of backlash in the community. At family meetings, nobody wanted to sit beside me, my sister stopped talking to me for two years and since the very beginning, I have received e-mails from people hoping that I get raped or killed. Now my sister calls me every day, but the threats are still coming. Those don’t bother me anymore.”
Her father is an imam, what was his reaction to her becoming an activist? Dukureh: “In the past, we had a difficult relationship because I went against his beliefs, but he still loved me because I’m the only child who looks like him, haha. Today, he is my biggest supporter. He comes to the office of my Safe Hands for Girls foundation every day. My dad tells everybody that I got the Nobel peace prize. He thinks I won, but I was only nominated. He makes a huge scene out of it in our village; he killed a cow to celebrate it. My dad’s switch really shows how things can change.”