It was an important day for Abebi’s family. Her parents had killed a ram and had invited everyone for the feast. The guest of honor was a man named Babatunde, much respected and revered in their traditional Muslim community in Ibadan, Nigeria.
But first, the women of this community led 11-year-old Abebi, barely on the cusp of puberty, into a room and laid her down. Strong fingers pried her legs open and they held her firmly, the heels of their hands pressing into her tiny, bony shoulders. There Babatunde took a razor and, without anesthesia, cut Abebi’s genital area to make her a “complete woman.”
It was the end of Abebi’s childhood.
Abebi, as always, escaped into her world of books. “I read books,” she remembers, “and found out there are women doing many things, that women can do many things.”
An eager student, quick to grasp lessons that left others bored or puzzled, Abebi knew she was different from her sisters. All her life, they had been told that female children are worthless. She knew this was not, could not, be true. But how can I stand up, she wondered, and tell them they are wrong?
Although her parents believed that sending a woman to college was a waste of money, Abebi managed to have two years of university, working as a secretary to try to pay for her education. It was during this time that she met her future husband. Tajudeen and Abebi shared similar outlooks and beliefs. Most importantly, he was adamantly opposed to FGM. His brother’s daughter had bled to death during the ritual and he would never, he told Abebi, want his daughter to suffer the same fate. Abebi felt safe trusting her future—and those of her children—to him.
They married and Abebi soon gave birth to a beautiful little girl. They named her Monifa. It was a happy, but brief, time in the young parents’ lives.
“As is the tradition in my country,” Abebi explains, “when I married my husband, I left my family—and their authority—to become part of his.” Although Tajudeen was opposed to FGM, his family was not. Moreover, the entire community, says Abebi, was under the control of the Ogboni Fraternity Cult, a secretive and powerful group, with chapters all across Nigeria and with many members in high places in the Nigerian government.
The Ogboni performed the FGM rituals in the community, believing that the girls must be cut while they are still infants. It was, Abebi learned, Ogboni members who had kidnapped Tajudeen’s niece to perform FGM on her, and then blamed the mother when the baby bled to death. Their grip on the small community was that sinister and that absolute.
On Monifa’s first birthday, Ogboni members approached Abebi and told her it was time to pick a date for the cutting ritual. Abebi was seized with mind-numbing panic, her hopes that Monifa would escape the fate of so many other little girls withering in an instant.
Abebi mumbled vaguely that she would get back to them.
“We need to do it soon,” they warned her. “The earlier it is done, the better.”
Abebi first turned to her parents for advice. “You have to do what your husband’s family wants,” they told her. “This is a good thing. Why do you want to be so different?”
Her sisters were equally unsympathetic. Their own daughters had gone through the rituals, and so why shouldn’t Monifa? “Why do you have to be so stubborn?” they demanded.
Abebi went home, nearly wild with fear. Although she still had the support of her husband, there was little he could do against his family and the community. Abebi was alone, a mother desperate to protect her child, running out of time, and running out of places to hide.
Over the course of the next year, cult members continued to harass and threaten Abebi and her daughter. Soon, harassment turned to threats of kidnapping, violence and even death. In the fall of 2014, a large group came to the house and tried to forcibly remove Monifa; Abebi still has a scar on her forehead from the night she hit her head on the gate as they were fleeing through the back door.
It was an untenable situation, growing worse each and every day. Monifa’s parents had to make a choice. They could give in, surrender, and let the cult mutilate their daughter. Or they could leave Nigeria—and the grasp of the Ogboni—forever.
America. For generations, the whole world over, it has held the promise of freedom and the hope of a new beginning. A country, Abebi says, “where no one is above the law.”
They would try to get to America.
As they started making plans, going through the visa process and depleting their small savings, Abebi found out she was pregnant again—this time, with twin girls. There was no turning back now. Whatever may come, they had to get out of Nigeria.
“I could barely protect one daughter,” Abebi says bitterly. “How could I protect three?”
They left their home in the middle of the night so no one would follow them. They arrived in New York in December 2014, and then moved on to Dallas, where the weather was more like home. A few months later, Abebi gave birth to the twins.
All was not good in the growing family, however, and it was more than just the stress of leaving family behind and moving to a foreign country. Like many victims of FGM, sexual intercourse has always been very painful for Abebi. Her lack of interest and aversion to what should be an act of love took its toll on her marriage. Tajudeen left her and their daughters some months after they arrived in the United States.
“What happened to me,” Abebi says, “it destroyed my life.” Her eyes flash fiercely, her face taking on that obstinacy that so bewildered her family. “It won’t,” she vows, “destroy the lives of my daughters.”
Maria Macias, site attorney for JFON Dallas-Ft Worth, met Abebi and her daughters about a year ago. She remembers Abebi was very quiet and subdued during that first meeting. It was difficult for her to talk about the trauma and lifelong pain she has experienced due to FGM. It was difficult for her to believe that there were people who wanted to listen to her story and wanted to help.
“Now there is such a huge difference in her,” says Maria. “She asks a lot of questions, she makes jokes, she loves to laugh. She’s also very smart.”
“I am so happy every time I speak with Maria,” Abebi exclaims. “I can’t explain…for so long I carried the burden by myself, but now…” She grins. “Maria gives me hope.”
Although she had studied FGM asylum cases in law school, this is Maria’s first real-world FGM case. “It was difficult because there’s not a whole lot of case law for Abebi’s specific situation,” Maria explains. “She does not fear FGM for herself—it already happened to her—but for her daughter.”
In November 2015, Maria filed two separate asylum applications—one for Abebi, citing additional fear of persecution and retribution from the Ogboni fraternity, and one for her daughter, Monifa. The twin girls, born here, are U.S. citizens.
Asylum cases take about two years, explains Maria, so Abebi should have a ruling in a year or so. “We are getting ready to file employment authorization,” Maria adds. “So she can at least work, and start making some money of her own.”
With her husband gone, Abebi and her three daughters are living with a friend in Dallas. It’s not an ideal situation. “I do worry about her a lot,” Maria confesses, “because she is all alone. She doesn’t pay rent, so she’s really at the mercy of this friend. I just hope it all goes well for her.”
Abebi pushes past Maria’s more prosaic concerns, her whole being focused on the bigger picture. “I’m happy because I am safe and my children are, too,” she explains. “I can wake up now and know that we are free.”
She has dreams for herself, of course. She would like to go back to college one day, or perhaps work for the U.S. military, or even become a U.S. citizen. But mostly Abebi dreams about her daughters. The twins just had their first birthday, and nobody shoved their way into the party and demanded she set up a date for their ritual cutting. Monifa is now 3 years old, and will soon be going to pre-school. She will have the education that was denied to Abebi.
“They have a future now.” Abebi says with satisfaction. “That is what I was fighting for.”
Nigerians celebrate Mother’s Day in March, but Americans honor our mothers in May—May 8th this year, to be exact. If ever a mother deserved a day off or a day out, it is definitely this one. So what will Abebi do to celebrate?
“Oh, I will take my kids out,” she replies, laughing. “And show them some love.”
Three daughters protected, defended, and saved. Three girls saved out of the estimated 3 million girls who will become victims of FGM this year. And all because one fierce, stubborn mother would not give up.
We want them to know that we won’t give up, either.