KHARTOUM, Sudan (WOMENSENEWS)--For the past few years, I've been traveling to Sudan to either work as a journalist or as a business consultant helping develop sugar cane production or briquettes for refugees in Darfur.
That's how I recently found myself sitting on a makeshift couch at the family home of a friend whom I'd met through work contacts during one of my trips. He's my age and we hit it off from the start. We kept in touch when I was at home in Belgium.
My friend was raised in Virginia for much of his life. In his early 30s, he decided to leave his family and go back to Khartoum, where his family was from, and to make a life. He and his brother now live full-time in the house his parents still keep there.
Because his parents aren't in the house, it has turned into something of a home for "lost boys," as I call them.
Friends, all men in their 20s who have known each other through family connections their whole lives, freely come and go. They eat, they talk, they smoke the tobacco-loaded water pipe called a shisha and occasionally bring their girlfriends over for companionship that never goes beyond watching movies and smoking out of sight of the prying "adults."
I stayed at the house during a recent trip. One afternoon I joined the scene of shisha-smoking and soda drinking while the air conditioner struggled against 100-degree-plus heat. The group included a young man who was born in Sudan but lived much of his life in Doha, Qatar; another who had lived mostly in Khartoum but had traveled outside to study English in Britain and one who had never left town.
Foreign Oracle Talks Frankly
In Sudan, traditional values prevail, and intimate topics are usually restricted to single-sex discussions. But a foreign woman like myself can serve as a sort of oracle for guys here, giving them a chance to consult a woman's point of view in a way that would seem impossible with local women.
That's how the subject of female genital mutilation, or FGM, somehow came up.
My U.S.-Sudanese friend--who is engaged to be married to a terrific woman studying to be a doctor--curled his lip at the idea of dating anyone who had been mutilated.
Because in Sudan dating often leads to marriage, he said that in the past he'd always asked about FGM on the first date. Have you been cut? If the answer was yes, then he stopped things then and there.
His friend who lived in Doha agreed, but said he didn't talk to women so bluntly. He said that while FGM was something men might talk about among themselves, most would be too embarrassed to raise it with women. Because of that he assumed that many of his friends might not learn if their brides had been cut until their wedding night.
The guys who had spent most of their lives in Khartoum said they hadn't given the matter much thought since it was far-fetched to think about sex when, for unmarried young people, it's a big deal just to hold hands or kiss.
That evening, as my friend from Virginia and I were both using our laptops, the topic came up again.
He was trawling Google trying to find photos showing the genitalia of a woman who had undergone FGM. To our surprise, there were none. There were a few gruesome images of girls being held down and blood coming from between their legs, or drawings of where the cutting was done, but no actual pictures of the anatomical aftermath.
The two Khartoum natives were at our elbows, watching. One began asking me for information about FGM. "How is it done? Where do they cut?"
From there it became a bit of a biology lesson.
I have written for Women's eNews over the years about FGM, both in Sudan as well as in Europe, so I was fairly well informed. And again, because I'm not local, I suppose that's why they felt comfortable asking me about it.
So we went from Internet graphics to a biology textbook lying around the house. We talked about the cutting, but also what it's like for mutilated women. There's the gruesome wedding night when a bride gets painfully torn open. There are the deaths, the infections and complications during childbirth. There is the procedure itself, which is sometimes performed very crudely, sometimes by practitioners using pieces of broken glass.
Most upsetting to these young men was the idea that FGM prevents a woman from enjoying sex. After waiting to have sex until they were married, they were hoping it would be a great time for both partners.
Reluctance to Ask
My friend from Virginia then told a story about another friend, the cosmopolitan son of a diplomat who'd grown up around the world, spending parts of his childhood in Asia and Europe. He came home, fell in love with a young woman from a northern village and was getting ready to marry her. One day, he asked his fiancee's sister whether she had been cut. He was too embarrassed to ask her himself.
The sister said no, she wasn't.
What he didn't find out until his wedding night was that the sister relayed the question. Drawing the wrong conclusion about why he'd asked, she had rushed out to have the procedure performed in time for the wedding. She was 20 years old.
They stayed together long enough to have a son, but later divorced. My friend says the mutilation played a role in the marriage's demise.
Throughout the day we talked about the extent to which Sudanese continue FGM. It is forbidden for medical practitioners to perform it, but nonetheless common throughout the north of Sudan. We discussed whether customs in Khartoum--which sets the nation's cultural pace and where FGM is becoming less common through active awareness programs--might influence the rest of the country.
One person missing from the discussion was my Virginia friend's fiancee; the medical student. Even though she has spoken about seeing the devastating effects of FGM firsthand in hospitals, I still wondered if she might possibly have undergone the mutilation herself.
When she came over to the house, I asked her straight out. She smiled, and said of course not. Neither was her sister, her mother or her aunts. The women on her mother's side for three generations had been saved from the knife because her grandfather--the son of a famous leader during Sudan's freedom fight from Britain--had decided it was wrong.
She told me other party leaders had condemned her grandfather for this decision, but he won out in the end because of his high social rank. From then on, all of the women in his family were spared.
Meghan Sapp is European correspondent for Women's eNews. She is a freelance journalist based in Brussels, Belgium, and writes primarily on trade, development and agriculture issues.