Hannah Smothers: When she was 7 years old, Mariya Karimjee sat on a tarp in a neighbor woman’s living room and had an operation that would affect her life forever. As part of a family tradition in her small Dawoodi Bohra sect of Islam, Karimjee had part of her clitoris removed in a procedure that was meant to make it impossible for her to feel desire or “get turned on.”
Karimjee shared her story of slowly learning about what happened to her that day in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1995 on the radio program This American Life this week, and has written about her experience previously for The Big Roundtable. As she said in the recording, her mom referred to her budding sexuality and anatomy as a “bug” that needed to be taken out.
“According to my mother, a bug was growing in an egg down there — her language not mine — and that it would hatch and eventually crawl to my brain, unless we removed it,” Karimjee said. So her mother took her to the neighbor woman’s house, and she received a gold necklace with a teardrop pearl pendant as a gift afterward.
“For two days [after the operation], I wore what I can only describe as a big-girl diaper wet with blood,” Karimjee said. “Peeing was so painful that I tried to last for hours without going 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 saw the kind-faced woman who, on a tarp on her living room floor, had spoken to me softly as she took a knife and cut me.”
A few years later, when Karimjee was 11, her family moved from Pakistan to Texas, just outside of Houston. It was there that she started questioning the strange operation she’d had as a little girl, and with a copy of Our Body Ourselves, was finally able to put words to the experience she’d had — it was female cutting, or female genital mutilation.
SEX FOR ME WOULD LIKELY INVOLVE MANY CAREFUL CONVERSATIONS WITH MY PARTNER, A SEX THERAPIST, AND A WILLINGNESS TO TRUST A HUMAN BEYOND WHAT I COULD IMAGINE.
“I sat with my copy of Our Bodies Ourselves that my American aunt had given me,” she said. “The book has photos and diagrams of female genitalia and suggests using a mirror to be able to see and understand your body better. Locked in my bathroom with a hand mirror between my legs, I realized that there was no diagram in the book that could explain what I saw. It was really confusing.”
It took Karimjee a bit longer to connect her FGM with her culture. She scoured the internet and found only one academic article that referred to the way her specific sect carries out the practice. She said she went back and forth between being furious with her mother, and remembering the way she comforted her when she was in pain after the operation. At 15, Karimjee finally brought it up with her mom.
‘You removed the part of me that makes me feel good when I have sex?’ I asked. I was 15 and armed with Our Bodies Ourselves and some internet articles, I thought I knew,” Karimjee said. “I thought I appreciated exactly what had been taken away from me. It’d take me another five years to realize I had no idea.”
Karimjee’s mom explained that she didn’t have a choice, and she hadn’t had a choice either — she’d also had her “bug” removed when she was 7.
In her essay for The Big Roundtable, Karimjee wrote that she’s had sex once and only once, when she was 22, in college at Mt. Holyoke, with a boyfriend she’d been seeing for about a year. She writes that she was desperate to just get the experience of sex over with — years of failed masturbation attempts taught her that one wrong move resulted in sudden, sharp pain.
“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,” Karimjee wrote. “For a blissful 45 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. 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.”
They stopped having sex, and Karimjee called her mom to talk about the experience and ask if sex could ever be enjoyable her for. Her mom explained that she’d found a way to make it enjoyable with Karimjee’s father, although it took a lot of patient conversations.
A few years later, Karimjee went to see the first gynecologist who was able to examine her without wincing at her labia and learned that for her, sex wouldn’t be impossible.
“I’d probably never have a wonderful, easy, uncomplicated sex life,” Karimjee said on This American Life.
“Instead, sex for me would likely involve many careful conversations with my partner, a sex therapist, and a willingness to trust a human beyond what I could imagine. I wasn’t horribly mutilated or defective in a way that made me incapable of enjoying sex.”
Karimjee is now back living in her hometown of Karachi, Pakistan, where she works as a writer and reporter, and writes about things like public and sexual health in her country.
As she’s grown up, she’s come to forgive her mom for putting her through an operation she knew would be painful, and she’s working to fight back against the practice of FGM so more girls don’t have to go through what she did and can have a choice when it comes to making a permanent decision that makes it nearly impossible to enjoy sex.