Sunday, 3 February 2013

Do They Hear You When You Cry: Layli Miller Bashir/Fauziya Kassindja (Togo)

Like the bestsellers Princess and Not Without My Daughter, Do They Hear You When You Cry? tells the dramatic, compulsively readable story of a woman fighting to free herself from the injustices of her culture.

Fauziya Kassindja's harrowing story begins in Togo, Africa, where she enjoyed a sheltered childhood, shielded by her progressive father from the tribal practice of polygamy and genital mutilation. But when her father died in 1993, Fauziya's life changed dramatically. At the age of seventeen, she was forced to marry a man she barely knew who already had three wives, and prepare for the tribal ritual practice of genital mutilation - a practice that is performed without painkillers or antibiotics. But hours before the ritual was to take place, Fauziya's sister helped her escape to Germany, and from there she travelled to the United States seeking asylum - and freedom. Instead she was stripped, shackled and imprisoned for sixteen months by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Enter Layli Miller Bashir, a twenty-three-year-old law student who took on Fauziya's case. When the two women met, Layli found a broken, emaciated girl with whom she forged an extraordinary friendship. Putting her heart into Fauziya's case, Layli enlisted help from the American University International Human Rights Clinic. The clinic's acting director Karen Musalo, an expert in refugee law, assembled a team to fight on Fauziya's behalf. Ultimately, in a landmark decision that has given hope to many seeking asylum on the grounds of gender-based persecution, Fauziya was granted asylum on 13 June 1996.

Here, for the first time, is Fauziya's dramatic personal story, told in her own words, vividly detailing her life as a young woman in Togo and her nightmarish day-to-day existence in American prisons. It is a story of faith and freedom, courage and inspiration - one that you will not easily forget.

This is an incredible book, certainly the best that I have read in a long, long while. It tells the true story of a young Togolese woman (Fauziya) who was forced to flee her own country for the US and claim political asylum in order to avoid a forced polygamous marriage and female circumcison. Her case made legal history and set a precedant in the US as the first woman to be granted asylum on these grounds.

The first few chapters are a bit drawn out, but provide much needed background information about her family life and particularly her relationship with her father. This is necessary to help the reader get her story into perspective. Her father was a somewhat progressive man by Togolese standards, who rebelled against many of his tribes (Togo in common with many African countries is steeped in tribal traditions) traditions, most notably female circumcison. Fauziya's sisters all managed to avoid this practise by marrying men from differing tribes with different customs, but when her father died unexpectedly shortly after Fauziya's 17th birthday, she became the legal guardian of her aunt and uncle, who were not so progressive. Her mother, whom the aunt and uncle had never approved of, was turned out of the house, and so was unable to protect her either. They allowed her to stay at school for a while, but then the bombshell hit, she was to marry a man almost three times her age, who already had three wives, and at the same time be "cut" (cirumcised).

I was already familiar with the different ways in this procedure can be carried out, having read at least one book about an African midwife, but the descriptions of how it is done are neverthless pretty graphic and not for the faint hearted. Fauziya was to be mutilated in the worst possible way, with all her external genitals cut without anaethetic or proper medical instruments leaving no more than a small hole for urine and menstrual blood. Women who have this procedure done frequently die, as indeed did her maternal aunt (not that she knew this at the time) from medical complications such as blood loss, shock and tetanus. It has been outlawed in most Western countries, including Britain, but of course is still carried out under the radar. The book estimates that something like 2 million girls are subject to this mutilation every single year, or 5 girls a second. This shocking statistic certainly made me think.

Literally hours before the procedure was to take place, with the help of her extremely brave older sister, Fauziya fled across the border to Ghana and then Germany, where she stayed for two months in the company of a German woman named Rudiya. It was then that she met Charlie, another African on a train. It was Charlie who suggested that she go to the US, where she had real family, both a cousin and an Uncle, as she spoke the language and the US was known for its justice system. Little did she know what she was heading into, for when she arrived instead of the warm welcome and sympathetic treatment that she was expecting, she was stripped, shackled and taken to a series of detention centres where she was to remain for the next 16 months.

Her treatment during this time was truly appalling, being subject to threats from predatory women (don't forget this was a young Muslim girl from a traditional African culture), repeatedly strip searched, and worst of all, imprisoned in a smoking area which the officers knew aggravated her asthnma. Even when she started coughing up blood, they refused to let her see a Doctor. It later transpired that she had a peptic ulcer which could have burst at any time, with all manner of complications. Her mental health, not surprising hit rock bottom, and her weight plummetted, being unable to keep anything down due to the ulcer and also partly because she did not know whether the meat she was given was safe for a Muslim to eat.

As in all good stories, Fauziya did eventually get her freedom, largely thanks to extensive media coverage of her case, and her expert legal team, and with support from her cousin, who risked his own freedom in order that she could have hers.

I could say so much more about this remarkable book, but have already said far too much that would only ruin it more for those who do wish to read. Suffice to say that everyone should read this story, a story that needs to be told and that the world needs to hear. I would strongly recommend this book to everyone. I would give this six stars if I was able to.

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