My conversation with Diakhoumba Gassama, a Senegalese feminist activist and close friend of mine, ends on a more personal note. Catch part 1 about her vision of feminism and part 2 about speaking truth to power.
You spoke out about your experience as a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM). I noticed that the moment you disclosed your experience came quite late in your activist journey, unlike many FGM survivors I’ve met who make their personal experience the foundation of their activism. Why did you decide to speak out?
Growing up, the topic of FGM never came up in any conversations. When it happened, we didn’t talk about it. I remember that while I was recovering, if anyone visited the house, I had to wait in the cellar with all the vegetables. To this day, I can’t stand the smell of yellow peppers.
My sisters were never talking about it, though we all went through it. I thought about discussing it with my mother when she was ill but she had only a few months left to live. We had other things to tell each other.
"I didn’t want people to judge my parents"
Thinking about it, the first reason I didn’t say anything is because I believed that what was happening in my pants was nobody’s business, but the most important reason was that I didn’t want people to judge my parents. Actually the first time I spoke out, I only told people my grandmother was there, and didn't mention that my mum was there too. But she was.
My dad is revered in many circles as a humanist, and I thought people would never understand how we could play a role in what happened to me. Contrary to what happened with my sisters, my dad was asked if I should be cut and he said yes, because he didn’t want me to be an outcast in our community. So I had decided I would only talk about it publicly when my parents are dead.
Wait, your father is still alive, I know that. So, what changed?
I once went to a conference and I heard the wonderful Efua Dorkenoo, who is no longer with us unfortunately. She was giving a talk about the psychological impact of FGM, and I thought “wait, that’s exactly me!” Even then, I didn’t say anything. I thought about it, but some sisters from East Africa were sharing terrible stories about being raped right after infibulation, suffering from fistula or incontinence… I didn’t have that kind of pain, so I told myself: you don’t have a right to occupy this space with your story.
Then I took part in a small group session and we were all sharing personal stories. We were standing in a circle and a young girl was talking about being raped by her uncle. She was crying. I don’t know why, but the microphone was being passed and I just grabbed it and told all those strangers that I was a survivor of FGM. This woman had just stripped her soul bare in front of us and I just felt like a fraud, pretending her story is terrible when I had my own story.
"I felt like a fraud, pretending her story is terrible when I had my own story"
It took a few more years before I could tell anyone beyond that group. On the first February 6 after my mum passed away, I posted something on Facebook about being one of the millions of girls who had been affected by this practice. [Note: February 6 is the international day of zero tolerance against FGM]. And later I wrote an op-ed about it.
What did speaking out change for you as a feminist activist?
For me it was a step towards being my truest self in front of other people. I had been so good at, you know, being a clown and keeping people at bay from my real self. It was a very mixed up period in my life and telling my truth was vital to me.
"Telling my truth was vital to me"
It took me another year to put “FGM survivor” in my bio. Sometimes I still remove it because FGM is what has happened to me, it is not who I am. And I am happy to share it with advocates who are also sharing something about themselves, but in a professional setting… I’m not ashamed, but I want to share with people who are close. If you Google me you will find out anyway.
As a friend you've so often spoken to me about the importance of self-care – in general but particularly for us activists and feminists. Why does it matter so much to you?
It matters so much to me, Françoise, because I nearly died. And it is not a figure of speech. For two years I was waking up every day with suicidal thoughts. I was unable to work: I couldn’t go on my computer, I got scared when my phone started ringing. I had so much anxiety that I completely stopped going out. For seven months I was lying on a couch. These are all symptoms of serious burnout and depression.
When I finally got out of it and sought some help, the psychologist told me I’d been like a car on overdrive for 10 years. I’d described my life to her as this permanent feeling of running: I could not remember a moment in my entire adult life when I had not been running. My mum’s passing was only the last straw.
What did you learn from that period of your life?
At the end of the day it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I wasn’t just sitting there doing nothing, I was centering myself. I got to realize that what I needed most was freedom.
"I got to realize that what I needed most was freedom"
Since then, I’ve become an advocate for self-care. I don’t want others to go through what I’ve gone through.
Last question. What is your feminist life motto?
“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up” (Nelson Mandela)