The sun had just started to set when I found out that my late grandmother, who raised me for most of my childhood, had leukemia. It was a cold evening in 2015 when she embraced me while I caressed her head on the hospital bed, finally providing her relief from a long and taxing day of blood tests and checkups.
“When I’m no longer in this world, I’d want you to recite Al-Fatiha (a verse from the Quran) not just for me, but also for my teacher, Ustazah Sa’adah, who had taught me a lot,” my grandmother told me, in between her faint coughs. “Who’s Ustazah Sa’adah?” I asked. She responded, “Actually, she’s also the one who helped perform sunat perempuan on you.”
Sunat perempuan is Malay for female circumcision.
I was 21 years old when I found out that I had undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) at about 4 years old. I was already a vocal critic of FGM then, speaking out against it in rallies, but I had no idea that I was a survivor of the practice too. I didn’t question my frequent urinary tract infections, how sex was always painful, or why I’ve never had an orgasm. I felt betrayed after finding out, but I couldn’t get mad at my grandma, out of fear it could worsen her condition. So I had to stomach all the pain. Alone. I felt violated, shocked, and brutalized. I felt degrees of pain I still don’t have the words for until today.
“I felt violated, shocked, and brutalized. I felt degrees of pain I still don’t have the words for until today.”
FGM is still prevalent in the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore, where I’m from. But, for the most part, it is kept away from the public eye. The procedure involves altering or injuring the genitalia for non-medical reasons and is recognized internationally as a violation of women’s and girls’ rights. Yet there is no legal ruling against FGM in the country. Many Malay-Muslims, especially from older generations, believe that women have higher sex drives than men, and that FGM would decrease libido and prevent extramarital affairs. Others claim that the practice is wajib (obligatory), in accordance to Islamic teachings, even though there is no mention of this in the Quran whatsoever.
I was psychologically distraught after learning that someone I loved with my whole heart would subject me to such an experience. I went through a period of social withdrawal, repulsed by sex for about six months. I felt wholly unloveable and unfuckable. I have ADHD, so these feelings were amplified, and left me constantly overstimulated to the point of mental breakdowns.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 80 percent of those who underwent FGM have anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I felt so much guilt and shame, especially because of the stigma deeply associated with FGM. Articles about it online only made me feel worse. Stories purportedly reporting the “brutal reality” of survivors claimed that sexual intercourse would just be another unending, painful experience. If I get pregnant, they say I would be at high risk of having a stillbirth or experiencing prolonged labor.
I wondered if I was doomed to a lifetime of bad sex. But further reading taught me that I can still orgasm, that those who underwent FGM can still reach the full capacity of sexual pleasure. Although some survivors do experience these negative side effects, that’s not always the case. Many, like me, are able to enjoy sex too.
But the road to enjoying sex again was long. Navigating the cisheteronormative world as a queer, brown woman is hard because my relationship with my body and identity change constantly. Sometimes I feel very feminine, sometimes I feel masculine. Sometimes I feel ugly and undeserving, and other times I believe I deserve so much more.
After months of psychotherapy, I realized that it was tough for me to relinquish control during sex — something my former partners had called me out on. At first, I thought I just enjoyed edging (which I still do), and lasting for hours during sex, but I found that my attitude was also a response to my trauma, my body’s way of protecting itself from triggering flashbacks of my experience being cut.
I’ve always liked sex but only orgasmed when I was 26, after learning to let go of control, and with the right partner who respected my space to process trauma at my own time. Letting go of toxic behaviors — like forcing myself to do things most people like just to orgasm — was a milestone. I stopped feeling mortified over the fact that I was cut. It was liberating. I now know that I’m not like most people, and that’s OK. Being vulnerable, letting down walls I’ve built for myself, and learning what works for my body, was my way of redefining my relationship with sex.
I’m tired of survivors being painted as meek damsels who can’t have mind-blowing sex, women who require saving from “advocates” in the West, whose brand of feminism rarely includes women in Asia, like me. So now I bust these myths.
Reacquainting myself with my body through deep self-reflection and allowing myself to be vulnerable reminds me that loving myself is the most important step. I have since formed connections with friends who also underwent FGM and created a support network. Being part of a community means I’m never alone in my battle.