New York Times, Page A1, September 11, 1996

A Refugee Escapes From Togo, Body Intact but Family Torn


   KPALIME, Togo -- Hajia Zuwera Kassindja bowed her head to the patriarch of
her dead husband's family on a recent, steamy morning, her face a cryptic
mask of sorrow. She had come to beg his forgiveness for having helped her
daughter run away to America to escape having her genitals cut off. 

   The patriarch had arranged almost two years earlier for the daughter,
Fauziya, then 17, to undergo the harrowing rite. For millennia, girls across
Africa have done the same. Mrs. Kassindja's only sister had died from her
genital wound. 

   Mrs. Kassindja herself had only recently learned that her daughter had
been given asylum in the United States after being behind bars for more than
a year. It took a precedent-setting decision in June by the highest
administrative tribunal in the U.S. immigration system to recognize that
cutting off a woman's clitoris against her will is an act of persecution. 

   The tribunal, the Board of Immigration Appeals, overturned the decision of
an immigration judge who had dismissed Miss Kassindja's story as irrational
and incredible. 

   But interviews in Togo with the aunt and patriarch who arranged for the
genital cutting, the husband-to-be who insisted upon it and the mother and
sister who helped Miss Kassindja flee, confirm that the board was right to
believe her. 

   The daughter's victory came at great cost to her mother. Mrs. Kassindja
had given almost all her $3,500 inheritance to Fauziya to run away, buying
her daughter's freedom at the expense of her own. Afterward, the unlettered
mother of seven had wandered from Togo to Benin to Nigeria and back to Togo,
dependent on the charity of relatives and friends. 

   Her daughter had told her that she was now safe, and so Mrs. Kassindja had
come to the dusty courtyard of the patriarch's house in Kpalime, (pronounced
pah-lee-MAY), a town of about 50,000 in this small West African country, to
ask him to allow her to live in his plain cement compound. 

   "Since Fauziya left, I've had no peace," Mrs. Kassindja said before making
her apology. "That is why I've come here, to make peace in the family." 

   For the occasion, she wore a sheer fuchsia scarf edged with delicate
embroidery that swathed her head and swept gracefully to her knees. A fruit
tree formed a canopy over the ceremony of contrition. 

   "What the mother did pains me a lot," the patriarch, Mouhamadou Kassindja,
said in a scolding tone, speaking in the local language of the Tchamba area
of Togo, as Mrs. Kassindja hung her head during the ceremony. "She is my
brother's wife. It is for me to take care of my brother's child since he is
no longer alive. She acted as though the child were hers. She and the child
made the laws. That is why the child did not want to follow the customs." 

   Here in Togo, Mrs. Kassindja's apology was one of the few reverberations
of her daughter's escape. The case made headlines in the United States and
brought renewed international attention to the practice of female genital
cutting, but it has gone virtually unnoticed in Togo except among
women's-rights advocates who paid attention to brief wire-service items in
newspapers or heard fleeting radio reports from France. 

   The rite is still largely a private matter handled within the confines of
family. Had Miss Kassindja stayed in her homeland and asked the government to
protect her from her father's family, her request would itself have been
unprecedented. Togolese officials say no girl here has ever done such a

   And Mrs. Kassindja's apology suggests the price of defying such an
entrenched patriarchal custom. A reticent, modest woman, she asked that no
photograph of her be published, except of her apologizing. 

   The Kassindja family, like others across the continent's midsection, is
caught between the competing claims of tradition and modernity. While the
elders say that female genital cutting must continue because it has been the
custom since antiquity, some in the younger generation question a rite that
forces girls to risk their lives and blights the marriage bed, lessening or
even deadening sexual pleasure for the woman. 

   The conflict has etched a new chapter in the saga of this deeply riven
African family. It began with the extraordinary decision of an ordinary
mother and father to resist the traditions of their people for the sake of
their daughters. And later, after the father's death, it illuminated the
redeeming power of a mother's love. 

    The Family: A Prospering Father Protected His Girls

   Hajia and Muhammad Kassindja met in the 1960s as teen-agers at the
open-air market in Kpalime, a small town of farmers and traders nestled in a
lush valley surrounded by green, palm-topped mountains. 

   Back then, she sold soap, face powder, skin cream and assorted tins and
bottles from a neatly stacked wooden table in a teeming warren of stalls. He
was a truck driver who delivered goods to the market. 

   Their marriage produced five daughters and two sons. Kassindja built a
small trucking business that made the family rich by Kpalime's standards. And
Mrs. Kassindja sold household items from a stall in front of their home. 

   They lived in an eight-bedroom cement compound built around a courtyard
adorned with flowers and a pond. It was outfitted with electricity and
running water, luxuries many homes here lack. 

   Kassindja was rich enough to send his wife on a pilgrimage to Mecca, to
hire a houseboy to do chores -- and to make some very unconventional choices.

   Though it was common among the Muslims of Tchamba to take as many as four
wives, Kassindja wanted only Hajia. 

   He also shielded his daughters from genital cutting. He could recall the
screams of his sister during the rite and her suffering afterward, when she
developed a tetanus infection. And his wife often spoke of the death of her
older sister from a genital wound. The tragedy had led Hajia's parents to
spare her from the practice. 

   Though the Kassindjas were both unable to read or write, they wanted all
their children, including their daughters, to be educated. 

   Kassindja's decisions brought stinging disapproval from his own extended
family. They accused him of trying to act like a white man. His girls would
never be considered full Tchamba women until their genitals had been excised,
the elders said, and he was wasting money by sending them to high school. 

   But Kassindja kept a distance from his relatives, including his cousin,
who lived a few blocks away. "He was a rich man, so the family couldn't tell
him anything," said the cousin, Mouhamadou Kassindja, now the family

   One by one, the daughters grew up and married men of their own choosing
without being cut, until only Fauziya was left. 

   The baby girl of the family, Fauziya had her father's nose, her mother's
poise and a wry sense of humor. She was her father's favorite. He sent her to
a boarding school in neighboring Ghana so she could learn English and help
him in his business. He was proud that during vacations she studied at
Kpalime's Islamic school, where the patriarch, an imam, or religious leader,

   And he was determined to protect her from genital cutting. 

    The Tradition: Without a Father, Instantly Vulnerable

   Calamity struck the family on Jan. 16, 1993, when Kassindja died. Fauziya,
then 16, had entered the years when the Tchamba believe a girl must have her
genitals cut and be married. 

   After the funeral, Fauziya returned to school. But there was no return to
normality for her mother, whom Fauziya has not seen since. Four months and 10
days after her husband's death, in accordance with patriarchal,
Muslim-influenced Tchamba tradition, his family required Mrs. Kassindja to
leave the home where she had raised her seven children. 

   Her husband's only sibling, a widowed sister, Hadja Mamoude, then moved in
and took responsibility for Fauziya. In 1994, two years before Fauziya was to
graduate, the aunt, who is herself illiterate, ended Fauziya's education. 

   "We don't want girls to go to school too much," said the aunt during an
interview in her spare, windowless bedroom. "We don't think girls should be
too civilized." 

   At the same time, the aunt and the patriarch were arranging Fauziya's
marriage to Issakah Ibrahim, an electrician and trader in kola nuts whose
family, like the Kassindjas, was originally from the village of Kounssountou.

   Ibrahim, who said he was 28, not 45 as Fauziya believed, had three wives
-- two age 22 and one 20. He had decided he wanted Fauziya to be the fourth.
"She was well-educated, civilized and polite," he said. 

   There was one condition. All of Ibrahim's wives had had their genitals
cut, and he expected Fauziya to be no exception. Kassindja agreed. While some
in his family have had both the clitoris and genital lips cut off, Kassindja
said only Fauziya's clitoris would have been excised. 

   The patriarch accepted the businessman's gifts to seal the marriage: four
bolts of brilliantly patterned cloth, six veils, two pairs of shoes, four
head scarves, a large washbasin and about $20. 

   Mrs. Mamoude, herself the second of three wives, broke the news to
Fauziya. The aunt's eyes still get a hard look and her hands slash the air
angrily at the memory of her niece's obstinacy. "It was for me to decide what
was best for her," she said. 

   Mrs. Mamoude said that she could tell Fauziya did not want to marry or be
cut, though the young woman did not openly refuse. But Fauziya said she
pleaded all summer with her aunt not to make her marry Ibrahim. Her aunt was
angered and stopped calling her by name, Fauziya said, referring to her only
as "Hey you, who has no respect." 

    The Escape: On Brink of a Wedding, A Taxi to Freedom 

   Fauziya's mother had lost her husband, her home and the right to raise her
child. She had tried begging her husband's family to let her daughter
continue her schooling and to halt the plans for Fauziya's cutting and
marriage, but they had refused. Her only remaining resource was her

   Her husband's family had given her $3,500, which she had planned to use to
reopen her market stall. In the Tchamba custom, she had no right to control
her husband's wealth -- nor did she even know its extent. The husband's
family had kept much if not most of the money -- the aunt and patriarch said
they did not remember the amount -- for themselves and the care of Fauziya
and her younger brother, Babs. 

   Fearing for her daughter's life, Mrs. Kassindja decided to give Fauziya
$3,000 of her inheritance to run away. She journeyed to Lome, the scruffy,
provincial capital of Togo, to enlist the help of her eldest daughter,
Ayisha, then 31. Ayisha's husband warned his wife not to meddle, but she
disobeyed him. 

   Fauziya's wedding day was to be Oct. 17, 1994. Ibrahim's three wives came
to visit, coaching the bride in how to care for him. Elderly women painted
her feet with henna in a marriage ritual. Then, there was a ceremony at
Ibrahim's house with only men present. An imam offered prayers. Then the
groom sent a friend to take a marriage certificate to Miss Kassindja's house
for her to sign. 

   She refused. The aunt sent her to a storage room and told her she was to
stay there, sleeping on a mat on the floor, until a group of elder women came
to cut her. 

   Ayisha arrived at dusk the following day. The women who were to hold
Fauziya down and cut off her genitals were already at the house, Ayisha said,
talking with the aunt in a room at the back. 

   Ayisha told Fauziya that their mother wanted her to run away. The two
sisters then simply walked out the front door. They flagged down one of the
battered taxis that throng the dirt roads of Kpalime. 

   Certain that relatives would soon be chasing them, they told the driver to
take a helter-skelter route to the Ghanaian border, about 20 minutes away.
Fauziya had nothing but her identity card and the clothes on her back -- a
blue and gold dress given her by the groom. 

   The sisters crossed the border into Ghana on foot and caught another taxi
to the airport in Accra, several hours away. Once there, Ayisha found a fixer
who got Fauziya on a midnight plane to Duesseldorf, Germany, the first flight
out of the country, without a passport. 

   The sisters hugged each other and wept as they parted. Fauziya clutched
the money from her mother in her hand. She wrapped it in a tissue once she
boarded the plane. 

   Back in Kpalime, the Kassindjas were incensed. They immediately suspected
Ayisha. The next morning, four plainclothes police officers knocked on her
door in Lome. They demanded to know where her sister had gone. She told them
she did not know. 

   The visit from police led to a fierce quarrel between Ayisha and her
husband. He was furious that his wife had helped Fauziya run away. She left
home to stay with a relative in Kpalime and did not tell her husband where
she had gone. After two months, she returned. Her husband has since taken a
second wife. 

   The Arrest: A Long Trek Into Confinement  

   At the Duesseldorf airport, Miss Kassindja said she wandered aimlessly for
a couple of hours. She spoke English but no German, and knew no one to call.
She struck up a conversation with a friendly German woman who spoke a little
English. The woman offered her a place to stay. In return, Miss Kassindja
kept house for her. 

   But after two months in Germany, Miss Kassindja wanted to go to America,
where she had relatives. She bought a phony passport from a Nigerian man. On
Dec. 17, 1994, she flew to the United States. Upon landing in Newark, N.J.,
she confessed to immigration officials that her documents were false and
asked for asylum. 

   Miss Kassindja, whose name was misspelled by immigration officials -- and
in subsequent news reports -- as Kasinga, was handcuffed and taken to the
Esmor detention center in Elizabeth, N.J., which was soon to become notorious
for the capricious cruelty of its guards. 

   Miss Kassindja would tell of being shackled at times, denied sanitary
napkins and put in isolation for washing herself at dawn before her morning
prayers, breaking a rule against use of the showers before 6 a.m. 

   Meanwhile, her mother kept trying to rescue her, even from a continent
away. She contacted a nephew in the Washington area who was working night and
day as a groundskeeper and janitor to support his family back in Togo. 

   He scraped together $500 to hire a lawyer, who handed the case to Layli
Miller Bashir, an American University law student working in his office that
summer. Ms. Miller Bashir, who had not yet taken a course in evidence, only
met Miss Kassindja on the morning of her asylum hearing, Aug. 25, 1995. 

   Donald V. Ferlise, an immigration judge in Philadelphia, summarily denied
Miss Kassindja's asylum claim after a hearing that day. The judge has
declined to discuss his ruling. 

   Ms. Miller Bashir then sought help from advocates for refugees. Surita
Sandosham of Equality Now, a New York-based women's human-rights group,
agreed to work her network of media and political contacts to bring attention
to the case. 

   And Karen Musalo, a law professor acting as head of American University's
International Human Rights Clinic, said she would take on the legal appeal. 

   Still -- more than a year after she arrived in the United States -- Miss
Kassindja remained behind bars, by now in prisons in York and Lehigh counties
in Pennsylvania, where she had been transferred. 

   She said she had been tear-gassed and beaten when male detainees took over
the Esmor center in June 1995, closing it down. She had since fallen into a
deep depression. Maybe, she thought, she should just give up and go home to

   Her advocates, however, began to have some success. Equality Now mobilized
its members in a letter-writing campaign directed at the Justice Department.
It contacted members of Congress, who signed letters requesting her release.
The case began getting some modest attention in the press. 

   On April 5, the Justice Department dashed their hopes for Miss Kassindja's
quick release. That day, it filed a 36-page brief in federal court strongly
defending her continued detention. The judge had not believed her story, the
lawyers noted, and Miss Kassindja's purchase of a bogus passport showed she
was a flight risk. 

   But the pressure to let her out of prison mounted after an article
detailing the sometimes harsh conditions of her confinement appeared in The
New York Times on April 15. Nine days later, 16 months after the Immigration
and Naturalization Service detained her, it reversed course and set her free,
pending the resolution of her appeal. 

   She appeared on the ABC news program "Nightline," as well as on CNN and
CBS. She was flooded with calls from book publishers and Hollywood producers.
She was toasted by women's refugee advocates at a swanky luncheon at the
United Nations. Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon, invited Miss Kassindja to
her home. 

   Miss Kassindja handled the attention with a reserved dignity reminiscent
of her mother, but it eventually became too much. She longed for anonymity.
When her lawyer, Ms. Musalo, told her that National Public Radio wanted to do
a segment for "millions of listeners," Miss Kassindja said, "Can I say no?" 

    The Government: An Official Admits: 'Law Is Not Perfect' 

   That same April, as the case began to attract public attention, the U.S.
Embassy in Lome sent members of its staff to Kpalime to interview members of
Miss Kassindja's family and the groom. They confirmed that at the time she
fled, Miss Kassindja did have grounds to believe she would be cut against her

   The diplomats also sent Justice Department officials the results of a new
study, conducted by researchers at the University of Benin and financed by
the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

   It found that while one in eight Togolese women had had their genitals
cut, the proportion rose to more than 8 in 10 women among five ethnic groups,
concentrated in the central region of the country. The highest prevalence of
all -- 98 percent -- was among the Kassindjas' people, who originated in the
Tchamba area. 

   Half the mothers interviewed who had been cut said they wished their
daughters could be spared, but the researchers did not interview fathers, who
typically make such decisions. 

   The embassy also contacted Suzanne Aho, who directs Togo's Office for the
Protection and Promotion of the Family. She, in turn, called Kassindja, the

   They met at her office in a small, stuccoed building in Lome. He sat
across from her broad desk, with the air-conditioner humming and the jalousie
windows closed against the heat. She tried -- unsuccessfully, she said -- to
convince him that Miss Kassindja should not be cut if she returned home. 

   There is no law in Togo that explicitly forbids female genital cutting,
referred to here as excision, but the constitution does insure each
individual's physical integrity, a possible basis for the government to
protect a woman from the practice. 

   "My work is to explain to the uncle that women have rights," Mrs. Aho
said. "Excision is an inhuman practice and this girl has the right to choose
whether she will be excised or not. 'You cannot force her,' I told him. He
understood, but he said it is a tradition." 

   Kissem Tchangai-Walla, who heads the Togolese Ministry for the Promotion
of Women and for Social Services -- and who is also Mrs. Aho's boss -- said
in an interview that her small agency could not protect young women from
genital cutting. It could only try to persuade their families to stop the

   "Excision is a problem, but not a big problem," the minister said. "The
population that practices it in Togo is not very big. So we'll continue to
teach about its dangers and we'll also prepare a law so we can sanction the
women who perform it. But our first priority is not excision, it is poverty."

   If any part of the government could protect Miss Kassindja, Mrs.
Tchangai-Walla said, it would be the Ministry of Justice. 

   The justice minister, Elliott Lawson, said his office would try to help,
but he said he was not sure exactly what he could do. "The law is not perfect
about the matter," he said. He suggested that Awa Nana, president of the
Togolese appellate court, would know more about the matter. 

   Mrs. Awa Nana, who strongly opposes genital cutting, had never heard of
Miss Kassindja. She said she believed Togo's courts would protect a woman who
asked for help. "We know that excisions are performed, but no one has sought
protection," she said. 

   The Patriach: The Constraints Of Tradition 

   The wives stood in the doorways of their bedrooms, peering out into the
courtyard, the slow rhythm of their days determined by their chores: pounding
cassava in large wooden mortars, knitting caps for sale, drawing water from a
well beneath the coconut tree, scrubbing clothes in washbasins, tending to
their children. 

   For Mouhamadou Kassindja's two Kpalime wives, Adidjatou, 25, and
Salamatou, 35, this small, dirt courtyard defines the borders of their
existence. He does not allow them to leave, even to go to market. It is he
who buys the food. 

   Kassindja, 52, a Muslim religious leader, teacher and school inspector,
had already talked to Americans from the embassy and to Mrs. Aho. He agreed
to discuss the tradition of genital cutting one more time, showing the way to
his austere, cement-floored living room. A dingy cloth hung in the doorway
that led back into the house. There was nothing on the walls except a clock
in the shape of a mosque. 

   As an electric fan stirred the stale air, Kassindja, wearing a long,
cream-colored caftan, instructed one of his wives to train it on him. He said
genital cutting was done because his forefathers had done it. Women who were
not cut would be mocked. The rite was not required by Islam, he said, but
neither did the prophet Mohammed prohibit it. 

   "There are some girls who die after being excised, it is true," he said.
"But to me it's not the excision that caused the death." 

   Asked why some girls die, he spread his hands and shrugged. 

   And he added a bit of folklore. Girls who bleed modestly from their
genital wounds are known to be virgins, he said, while those who bleed
profusely are not. 

   Kassindja, who has 15 children by his four wives (two in Kpalime, one in
Lome and a fourth in Kounssountou), burst out laughing when asked how many of
his offspring are female. He did not know off the top of his head. He reeled
off their names, counting on his fingers. He has, he discovered, eight girls.
So far only three have been cut and married. 

   His youngest wife, Adidjatou, was cut 10 years ago when she married him at
age 15. Even though the agony of having her genitals sliced off with a razor
blade was far worse than the pain of childbirth, she said, she still approves
the practice. 

   "During the ceremony, they find out if you are a virgin," she said. "If
you are a virgin, the man will pay more dowry and your family will be honored
by the husband. I was glad because I was a virgin." 

   But when Kassindja briefly stepped outside for midday prayers, his
18-year-old son, Moussinou, declared that he wanted to marry a woman who had
not been cut. His views, he said, have been influenced by teachers at his
French-speaking high school. 

   And Salamatou, the 35-year-old wife, said she would have run away, just
like Fauziya, if she had been old enough. She remembered a woman sitting on
her chest when she was a little girl as others held her legs apart while her
clitoris and genital lips were cut off. 

   Glancing at her husband who had come back into the room, she said she
would bow to his wishes in the excision of their plump, shiny-eyed, baby
daughter, Fatima, who was then suckling at her breast. 

   "I have to do what my husband says," she said. "It is not for women to
give an order. I feel what happened to my body. I remember my suffering, But
I cannot prevent it for my daughter." 

   Later, in her small, cell-like bedroom, she spread Fatima's pudgy thighs
apart, then made a quick scooping motion with her hand to show that all the
delicate tissue there would be cut away. 

   The Apology: Admonished, Then Absolved  

   At 8 a.m. on July 18, Mrs. Kassindja arrived at the patriarch's compound
at the agreed-upon hour to make her apology. Men representing her family sat
on a wooden bench facing members of the patriarch's family, ensconced in
tattered chairs. 

   Mrs. Kassindja herself sat apart in a hard wooden chair. All joy had
drained from her face, which was sunk into the palm of her hand. She did not
speak because she is a woman. Instead, a male cousin offered the formal
apology on her behalf. She sat motionless as the patriarch lectured her
emphatically before accepting the apology. 

   "I cannot refuse," he said. "It's finished." 

   Later that day, she joined Kassindja's wives in the small, closed world of
his courtyard. She washed her feet before praying to Allah. The scene seemed

   But a few hours later, her head pounding with an unbearable headache, she
asked to be taken to Kpalime's small hospital. There, the nurse put her on an
intravenous saline drip and gave her pills to ease the pain. 

   This nurse, Aliou Batcha, said that in less than a year at the hospital,
he has treated five girls whose parents brought them in hemorrhaging and
unconscious after being cut. 

   "They were in shock," he said. "It's very serious. If we don't take care
of them quickly, they can die." 

   The Village: A Ritual Endures: 'This Is the Law' 

   Kounssountou, the small village where the Kassindja family originated, is
north of Kpalime, off the main, two-lane highway that runs up the center of
this small country, about an hour down a rutted, red-dirt road that leads
into the heart of the Tchamba area. 

   It is a poor village of farmers who survive by growing corn, cassava and
yams. They live without electricity or running water in thatched mud huts and
small stuccoed houses. 

   Many in the generation that includes Fauziya's father and the current
Kassindja patriarch left Kounssountou for Kpalime, a rainier, more fertile
place that boasts not one but two growing seasons. 

   The Kassindja patriarch was surrounded by a throng of children dressed in
rags when he arrived in the village. The next day, he paid a call on his
relatives and the village chief. 

   Yacoubou Kassindja, a family elder, said all women must have their
genitals cut before marriage, forcibly if necessary. "Since our forefathers'
time, this is the law," he said. 

   In recent years, he said, girls in Kounssountou were being cut earlier, at
ages 4 to 7 rather than 14 or 15. "We don't want to let them grow up before
we do it because they can run away," he said. 

   The village chief, Issifou Seybou, a gaunt, barefoot old man in his 80s
with a small white beard and a turbaned head, pursed his lips and sucked
through his teeth to make the distinctive hissing noise that is used to
insult a woman who has not had her genitals cut off. "Our forefathers started
this, so we can't banish it," he said. 

   He summoned Rakia Idrissou, the elderly woman who is the village exciser.
The fingernails of her gnarled hands were painted red. Her position had been
passed down from her grandmother to her mother to her. She said that young,
weak girls are held down by four women. Stronger ones require five women, one
to sit on their chests and one for each arm and leg. 

   The girls must be kept still. If they jerk suddenly, the razor blade,
bought for a few pennies in the market, can cut too deep. 

   The Aftermath: As Ordeal Fades, Celebrity's Glare 

   Just as Miss Kassindja has brought an awareness of Togo to America, so
America has begun to seep into the life of the Kassindja family. 

   The patriarch has been shaken by the persistent queries about a tradition
he himself had never questioned. 

   "Don't say I'm a bad person," he pleaded. "This practice came from my
forefathers." He said he would summon his family elders to a council, where
he said he would argue the practice of genital cutting should end so that no
more girls run away. 

   In an interview last week, Kassindja said that 21 members of the family
gathered in Kounssountou on Aug. 21 from Ghana, Benin, Nigeria and Togo. The
patriarch said he proposed that the family either give girls a choice about
whether to be cut or end the practice altogether. 

   "If we continue doing it, others will flee and it will spoil the Kassindja
family reputation," he said. 

   But Fauziya's aunt, Mrs. Mamoude, strongly disagreed and accused him of
plotting with white people, he said. The family council disintegrated into a
shouting match. The village chief heard the ruckus and called the Kassindjas
to his hut. 

   There, the chief told Kassindja that he should have consulted him first
because the tradition of genital cutting concerned the whole village, not
just one family. The chief then declared that there would be another meeting,
in October, to consider the matter. 

   In America, Miss Kassindja has become a hot property. In August, she
signed a $600,000 book contract with Delacorte Press, a New York publisher.
She is to get slightly more than half the money, with the rest going to her
agent, a New York-based freelance writer and Ms. Miller Bashir, who worked on
her case as a law student. A movie deal is sure to follow. 

   Still lonely for her family, she lives -- materially, at least -- the
cushy life of a well-to-do American student, in an apartment complex equipped
with tennis courts and a shimmering blue swimming pool. She is making up her
interrupted high school years at a community college in the Washington area.
She plans to enter a full four-year college next year. 

   She hopes that her newfound wealth will buy not just creature comforts and
her own education, but her mother's independence. After the book advance came
through recently, and Miss Kassindja was sure the deal would not fall
through, she phoned her mother and offered to buy her a home all her own in
Kpalime and to set her up in business with a fully-stocked market stall. 

   Her mother has not yet accepted the offer, but Miss Kassindja said, in
words that echoed those of generations of immigrants who have made it in
America: "I want her to have something she's never had before. I want her to
get a big stall with a door she can close." 

September 11, 1996

Woman Betrayed by Loved Ones Mourns a Double Loss


   KPALIME, Togo -- Just around the corner from the Kassindja family compound
lives another young woman who ran away from home -- but too late to escape
having her genitals sliced off against her will. 

   The woman, Mariam Razak, was 15 when her family locked her in her room and
sent in five women to hold her down, as she struggled wildly, while a sixth
cut off her clitoris and genital lips. 

   The event left Mrs. Razak with an abiding sense that she had been betrayed
by the people she loved most: her parents and her boyfriend. She now
believes, nine years later, that the cutting and the infection it caused
deprived her not only of sexual pleasure but of the ability to bear children.

   It was love that led to Mrs. Razak's disfigurement. She and her childhood
sweetheart, Idrissou Abdel Razak, said they began having sex as teen-agers,
and then he decided they should marry. 

   Without telling Mariam, he asked his father, Idrissou Seybou, to seek her
family's permission to marry her. Mr. Seybou offered a substantial dowry, and
her parents consented. Mariam was not told. 

   "My son and I asked her parents to excise her," Mr. Seybou said. "Other
girls who were informed in advance had run away. That's why we didn't tell
her it would be done." 

   On the day of her excision, Mariam's boyfriend, a 17-year-old taxi driver,
was working in Sokode, a town north of Kpalime. He admits now that he knew
the ceremony was going to happen but did not warn Mariam. She believes they
could have found a way to trick their parents into believing she had been
excised, if he had only stood by her. 

   When he returned, he found she had been rushed to the hospital because her
wound would not stop bleeding. Once there, she developed a debilitating
infection. She remained in the hospital for three weeks. But while her body
healed, she said, her bitterness deepened. 

   And she resolved not to marry the man who had failed to protect her. She
borrowed $20 from a woman she knew and took cheap taxis to Nigeria, where she
stayed with friends. It took her parents nine months to find her and bring
her home. 

   It took Mr. Razak six more years to woo her back. He brought her gifts of
cloth, shoes and jewelry. He told her he loved her. He begged her
forgiveness. Finally, the anger that marked her round face softened. And in
1994, they married. Ever since, they have lived in his father's compound. 

   But Mariam Razak knows what she has lost. She and Mr. Razak had made love
in their youth, before she was excised, and she said sex was very satisfying.
Now, they both say, she feels nothing. She compares the permanent loss of
sexual pleasure to having a terminal illness that lasts a lifetime. 

   "When he goes to town, he buys potions to give to me before sex to make me
feel pleasure, but it's not the same," she said. 

   He agrees. 

   "Now that it's cut, something was lost in that place," he said. "She feels
nothing there. I try to make her feel pleasure, but it doesn't work very

   And their grief did not end there. They have also been unable to conceive
a child. They have gone to doctors and traditional healers, to no effect. 

   Mr. Razak promises that he will not take another wife, even if Mariam does
not get pregnant. "Since we were children, I have loved Mariam," he said.
"We'll keep searching for a treatment." 

   And if they ever have daughters, he vows he will send them out of the
country to protect them from genital cutting. 

Copyright 1996 The New York Times

(File revised 30 November 2003)