Photography by Brian Moody
Salimata Badji-Knight was brought up in a Muslim community in Senegal, where she was circumcised at the age of five. She moved to Paris when she was nine, and has spent most of her adult life campaigning to prevent the practice of female circumcision in African cultures.
I was five when the women from my village said we were going into the forest. There was a whole group of us girls aged between five and sixteen; we were happy because we thought we were going for a picnic. But it wasn’t a picnic. Even more than the pain and the crying, I remember the shock of realising that they’d tricked us. I knew they had cut something from me, but I didn’t know what. The women were kind in their way, giving us sweets and nice food; it was their way of asking for forgiveness. But it was also their way of seeking revenge – repeating a crime that had been done to them.
Only later, when I was a teenager, did I realise exactly what had happened. We had been circumcised, supposedly to make us cleaner and to stop us having boyfriends. For my parents it was like preparing me for marriage – they were doing it for my own good and I accepted this because circumcised Muslim women have stature and respect. Later, when I came to live in Paris, it was a big shock to discover that this was not something that happened to everyone. I was horrified to see Senegalese girls being told they were going on holiday to Africa, when in fact they were being taken back to be circumcised. For my mother it was a normal part of her culture, and in Paris she secretly had three of my younger sisters circumcised.
I was full of rage and was determined to stop this brutal practice. I started to talk to anyone who would listen: the social services, doctors, the police and other Africans living in Paris. For a long time I blamed all the women in my community who had united to do this to me, and I blamed all the men for standing by and allowing it to happen. I blamed my mother because she condoned it, and my father because he had never been there to stop it.
When I discovered that most people believe circumcision to be a terrible wrong, I felt suicidal. Circumcision takes away your identity and your dignity. It was only when I became a Buddhist and stopped viewing myself as a victim that I stopped feeling unworthy. Out of rage came compassion, and the realisation that this was not my mother’s fault, nor the fault of the women who had done this to me. They were simply blinded by tradition.
If I’d held on to all that anger and blame, I’d be dead by now. But my anger has had great results, because it has made me fight to stop this practice. I now work with a campaign ground called Forward, and I speak at schools both in the UK and France. When I first met my husband, I told him not to expect me to be sexually driven. “If I say no I mean no,” I said firmly. He is a very patient man and has great respect for me.
Today my three sisters work with me to stop the practice of circumcision. Even my mother now understands that it’s a violation of human rights. And before he died six years ago, I was able to have a good talk with my father. I opened my heart to him and explained how female circumcision could affect you physically and mentally. He cried and said that no woman had ever explained the suffering to him. Then he apologised and asked for forgiveness. The next day he called my relatives in Senegal and told them to stop the practice. As a result, a meeting was cancelled and 50 girls were saved.