Wearing a pale pink headscarf and a long floral skirt, she meets me at the train station in Basel so we can take the tram to her home. She’s warm and chatty, and soon whips out her gold-tone iPhone to show off photos of her three children.
Originally from Sudan, Amal Bürgin has lived in Switzerland for many years. She and her Swiss husband have two sons and a daughter, aged between four and 11. The fact that she managed to conceive and deliver three children is almost remarkable considering the brutal tradition she herself endured as a child.
When Bürgin was five years old, she and her older sister found themselves at the centre of a genital cutting ceremony in their native Khartoum. In addition to sweets and fancy henna tattoos, they were given the so-called pharaonic circumcision. This involves the removal of the clitoris as well as the labia, and then the fusion of the remaining flesh. Only a small hole is left to pass urine and menstrual blood.
Now 42, Bürgin still suffers from the consequences, as she first told swissinfo.ch in 2008. In the meantime she has confronted her mother and gained experience speaking about her ordeal publicly.
An ugly tradition
Although considered a crime according to Swiss law, Bürgin is reluctant to describe female genital mutilation (FGM) as such.
“It’s a very old and a very ugly tradition, but I’m against calling it a crime because people like my parents and their parents did it. It’s been passed down from generation to generation – they thought they were doing the best for their girls,” Bürgin said.
According to her, the tradition is important to them for cultural and religious reasons. The idea is that the daughters will stay physically “clean” and that they won’t think about sex before marriage.
In fact, Bürgin’s father was against the procedure, but he wasn’t home on the day that it happened.
“When he came back and realised what had been done, he was very angry. I think that being married to my mother, he knew how it would be for us. And I think that’s why he never wanted it done to his two daughters,” Bürgin said.
Despite his opposition, Bürgin and her sister suffered a double-dose of FGM.
“When I was eight or nine they did it again. My two aunts in Khartoum said it wasn’t a ‘good enough’ job the first time – that I was still ‘too open’. So they brought me and my sister to a famous midwife to have it redone,” Bürgin said. At the very least, both procedures were carried out hygienically and under anaesthesia.
Afterwards, any time Bürgin cried from the pain of relieving herself or having her period, her father would get angry and tell her female relatives: “This is all from what you did to her.”
Husband was shocked
As a young woman, Bürgin moved to Switzerland, where she met her husband. She was still a virgin when she married him at 28 – something he found hard to believe. Although he had converted to Islam as an adult, he was completely unaware that FGM was common in some Muslim communities.
“My husband was shocked when he found out on our wedding night. He didn’t know anything about this subject, and really, he couldn’t have sex with me,” Bürgin said. She agreed immediately when he suggested that they see a doctor.
“The doctor was also very shocked, and that surprised me in a negative way,” Bürgin recalled, having expected a gynaecologist to at least be aware of FGM. “I had an operation to open me and all of those memories came back,” Bürgin said. It took her about a month of bed rest to recover from the surgery: “It was very painful, but I’m glad I did it.”
While any loving husband would surely take his wife to the clinic rather than forcing sex on her, this is not a solution, says Bürgin: “The solution should be that men say they don’t want women who have had FGM.”
Although some men insist that FGM is women’s business, others campaign actively against it.
“I recently found a group on Facebook, even. I was surprised and I liked it,” Bürgin said. Meanwhile, her brother has three daughters – and he and his wife have decided not to have them circumcised. Bürgin’s sister is also against the procedure.
After attending a Unicef Switzerland event on the topic in 2007, Bürgin decided to speak out to help eradicate FGM worldwide. More recently, she gave a talk at Basel University; her eyes shine as she remembers the applause she received afterwards.
Back in Sudan, her sister has spread the word about Bürgin’s activism.
“I know that all of my old friends are educated and against FGM. Of course, they had it themselves, but they are against it and I’m sure that they won’t have it done to their daughters,” Bürgin said.
How God made her
She can now talk to strangers about it, but for decades, Bürgin didn’t dare broach the subject with her mother.
“Unfortunately, I couldn’t discuss it earlier because it was taboo, but now it’s becoming more acceptable,” she said, adding that she could never understand why circumcision was treated like a “lovely, happy occasion” where she grew up.
It was not until a couple of years ago that she finally had the chance to discuss the topic with her mother, who visited her in Basel.
While Bürgin was changing her daughter’s diaper, her mother remarked: “Oh, will you leave her like that or will you do it for her?”
Bürgin answered: “No – never,” and took a deep breath. “OK, mother, you brought up this theme so now I’d like to ask you: Why did you do this to us? Do you remember how I cried from the pain?”
Bürgin’s mother replied that it was a tradition and from Islam, to which Bürgin countered that there was nothing in Islam stating that girls should be genitally mutilated.
“My mother said, ‘So you won’t do it?’ and I said ‘No’. And after that she didn’t say anything,” Bürgin said.
Her daughter is now four years old, and Bürgin is very aware of how different their bodies are.
“I see now the difference between me and my daughter. I would never say mine looks nice or beautiful – no, it looks terrible. But how my daughter looks is how God made her.”
Female genital mutilation (FGM)
Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some Asian countries and the Middle East – as well as among migrants from these areas. Those in favour of FGM cite a mix of cultural, religious and social reasons.
FGM is classified into four major types.
I. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris and, in very rare cases, only the clitoral hood.
II. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
III. Infibulation (aka pharaonic): narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner or outer labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
IV. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, infections, urine retention, open sores and injury to nearby genital tissue.
Long-term consequences can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, pain during sexual intercourse, infertility and an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths.
Source: World Health Organization