The Girl with Three Legs: A Memoirby Soraya Mire
When Soraya Miré was thirteen years old, the girls on the playground would taunt her, saying she could not play with them—not as long as she walked with three legs. Confused and hurt, she went to her mother, who mysteriously responded that the time had come for Soraya to receive her gift. Miré too soon discovers the horror of the “gift,”
When Soraya Miré was thirteen years old, the girls on the playground would taunt her, saying she could not play with them—not as long as she walked with three legs. Confused and hurt, she went to her mother, who mysteriously responded that the time had come for Soraya to receive her gift. Miré too soon discovers the horror of the “gift,” female genital mutilation (FGM), whereby a young girl’s healthy organs are chopped off not only to make her acceptable to a future husband but also to rein in her “wildness.”
In The Girl with Three Legs, Soraya Miré reveals what it means to grow up in a traditional Somali family, where girls’ and women’s basic human rights are violated on a daily basis. A victim of FGM and an arranged marriage to an abusive cousin, Miré was also witness to the instability of Somalia’s political landscape: her father was a general for the military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, and her family moved in the inner circles of Somalia’s elite. In her journey to recover from the violence done to her, Miré realizes FGM is the ultimate child abuse, a ritual of mutilation handed down from mother to daughter and protected by the word “culture.”
Miré’s tale is a dramatic chronicle of the personal challenges she overcame, a testament to the empowerment of women, and a firsthand account of the violent global oppression of women and girls. Despite the horror she experienced, her words resonate with hope, humanity, and dignity. Her life story is one of inspiration and redemption.
“In her searing memoir, Miré brings a face and a forgiving, inspiring voice to the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM).” —More
“Miré’s personal, passionate, and persuasive rejection of any cultural defense of female genital mutilation makes compelling reading . . . Her “mission of speaking out to end the abuse of girls” is well served by her heartfelt account.”
“Readers will be caught by the urgency of the contemporary cause, rooted in the anguish of one brave woman.” —Booklist
“[A] harrowing yet inspiring memoir.” —Bust
“Stunning and excruciating yet lyrical. . . . Miré feels driven to save a younger generation from the violence that changed her life. This bookI guarantee itwill change yours.” Tobe Levin, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Harvard University, and coeditor of Empathy and Rage: Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature
“I could not put this book down. . . . Miré is unstoppable. She does not spare anyone: not herself, not her family, not her culture. . . . The book is an ode to female courage and healing against high odds; it is about the high cost of that courage, which includes being ostracized, death-threatened, impoverished, and treated as a ‘crazy’ woman when she is at her sanest and most heroic.”—Phyllis Chesler, clinical psychologist, feminist icon, and bestselling author of Women and Madness, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, and Mothers on Trial
“Quite simply, amazing. Soraya Miré puts a beautiful face on the tragedy of female genital mutilation and chronicles so clearly why we all, women and men alike, need to hold hands and end the mutually destructive practice of FGM.”Marci L. Bowers, MD, gynecology, pelvic and reconstructive surgery, surgical reversion of FGM
“I recall how Soraya was attacked inside the UN by male African delegates after testifying about FGM. An arm slashed out past the hand-stitched lapels and elegant garments of other delegates, smacking Soraya’s shoulder. The man’s eyes burned with hate: How dare she testify about FGM! How dare she not!” Wilda Spalding, president, International Human Rights Consortium
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The Girl with Three Legs
By Soraya Miré
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2011 Soraya Miré
All rights reserved.
I was nine years old when my family life changed abruptly. Just six days after the assassination of Somalia's president, Abdirashid Ali Shermarke, by his own bodyguard, the army staged a coup and seized power. Somalia had gained its independence in 1960, and Shermarke was our country's second elected president, but factionalism and pending reconciliation with Ethiopia, traditionally an enemy of Somalia, had led to unrest.
General Mohamed Siad Barre led the coup d'etat, and he was now the head of state as president of the Supreme Revolutionary Council. He suspended the constitution, demolished the National Assembly, and nationalized all industries and businesses. As a general in the Somali army, my father was responsible for securing the northern regions during the coup, and under Siad Barre, Father eventually became head of the Somali National Army Forces in Hargeisa. The country would be renamed the Somali Democratic Republic. Much about the Somali people is said by the flag of Somalia, which shows a five-pointed star, each point representing an area where the most Somali people live: Somali North (colonized by Britain), Somali South (colonized by Italy), Djibouti (colonized by France), Ogaden (colonized by Ethiopia), and northern Kenya. Both the Somali North and South united after independence, and the idea of Greater Somalia was born. The goal was to free the other three regions and unite all the Somalis.
I was not aware of all the political maneuverings and implications at the time. All I knew was that, suddenly, men with machine guns guarded our polished gate. Our pink brick wall was painted white, and the wooden windows got uglier, painted green. The army elites decided to act bourgeois, living inside painted houses, many — unlike my father — forgetting about the poor. President Siad Barre became a regular guest in our house along with his army entourage. Father's blood pressure would rise as he tried to rotate the living room's availability between them and Mother's "interior designers" — Xaawo, the head cook, and Abdulqaadir, Father's personal chef and assistant.
It was not clear why Mother would ask Xaawo to decide on which wall to hang the family pictures or how to arrange a room. She was as stubborn as Mother. Sometimes after pushing her over the edge, Xaawo would let her vent, then say, "I'm sorry for upsetting you."
Friday is the day God ordered the Muslims to rest, to pray, and, in my case, to take a walk in the hot sand on the Jasira Beach, only minutes from our house and one of the most beautiful beaches in Mogadishu, famous for its gorgeous water and warm sand. Families went to Jasira to eat at the restaurants, play soccer, or just swim for hours. I would go there with friends or family members whenever I could get away without Mother catching me. Even on Fridays, Mother's marching orders kept coming in, and I would picture her as if she were wearing Father's general uniform as she barked out her instructions.
At the crack of dawn, I would wake up to the sound of a metal stick slamming against my window. It was one of the army guards who, following Mother's instructions, used his gun-cleaning stick to rouse me out of bed to join my siblings in moving the furniture out of the living room. Mother obsessed about cleaning and loved to rearrange furniture. If I didn't get up and follow Mother's orders, I would face punishment, often being denied my quiet reading time, listening to the BBC news with brother Malik, or seeing friends.
So I would join my brothers and sisters on Mother's work crew, and the commotion would begin. I'd watch as army trucks would speed into the courtyard and workers rushed to unload rice, olive oil, sugar, and flour. They would stack the supplies in the storage room, in which we were not allowed. In case Mogadishu was attacked, we were safe with a storage room full of supplies that would last a long time. Soon my family also built a place to hold a clean water supply.
Despite our good fortune, my siblings and I wanted the wonderful, forbidden Friday siesta. Father, however, would not ask Mother to let us rest on Friday; he saw how my siblings and I took comfort in living the abundant life and worried that we might take everything for granted. We had always lived well, but after the coup our standard improved; the house got bigger, and suddenly guards and more workers showed up. Father was a man who always felt the need to speak for those less fortunate, a man of great thoughtfulness, and a humble soul who believed in the equality of all. He rarely showed anger, except when Mother threw her extravagant parties and made us wear the elegant dresses. Father wanted us to remain humble about ourselves and grateful for the privileges.
But we lived a sheltered life in a fantasy world surrounded by white brick walls. Most of us expressed the joy of attending Mother's parties and loved the clothes cousin Khalifa — the adult daughter of Mother's sister — sent us from Belgium.
* * *
Every day, Father rang the bell and my nine brothers and sisters and I would run into the living room to listen to a life lesson. He talked to us about his values and ideals, hoping to instill compassion and offset the materialistic aspects of our lives. He wanted my siblings and me to recognize how lucky we were.
One day, he felt it was time for us to witness how most of the people lived and to interact with those less fortunate. He packed us into two cars, and we drove to the nearest town. We passed through a neighborhood where people suffered in poverty. For the first time in my life, I saw children my age running around naked. With bright eyes, they wore beautiful smiles and, like all children at play, appeared happy as they ran around in the dirt. I was ashamed and embarrassed by my own outfit — a white short dress and matching underwear from cousin Khalifa.
All I could do was rest my forehead on the car window and sob. Brother Asis squeezed my hand and leaned over, placing his head on my shoulder.
The drivers stopped the cars, and Father encouraged us to get out and talk with the people. We looked at one another; as usual, Mother had groomed us as if we were celebrating the end of the sacred month of Ramadan or going to perform the Salatu'l eid, the traditional times to wear your best outfit.
But today was not the time to focus on Ibrahim wanting to sacrifice his son and how quickly God responded and gave a lamb as the sacrifice. This was the first time my siblings and I had visited the town where Bantu people lived. We had heard a lot about them being the minority ethnics who come from Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania. They speak Somali but love their ancestral language of Zigua. Bantu people appreciate nature and work in the fields.
My siblings and I watched as women stopped cleaning and looked at us from a distance as Father got out of the car and walked toward them. Slowly, people gathered around Father as he talked to them. We came forward and listened as people complained about the missing rain and why God was not hearing their prayers. Father talked with them about their concerns as he walked around greeting everyone. After he had heard their stories, taken notes, and said his good-byes, my siblings and I followed him back to the cars, and we silently drove on.
That day was most dramatic, a life-altering experience that I will never forget. Change began to show up in my family home. Instead of each of us ordering whatever meal struck our fancy each day, my siblings settled for canjeera (pancakes) for breakfast and pasta with lamb for lunch. I couldn't change my diet, since I ate only vegetables and fruits, and those only once a day. But none of us wanted to compromise when it came to those delicious afternoon English teas and snacks.
Soon after our trip to town, Father agreed to my idea to open our gate and share the rice, flour, sugar, oil, and water with the needy people.
* * *
During this time, Mother grew increasingly irritable, seeming annoyed just to see the warmth in Father's face. She complained about our house becoming like an army camp. But we had always lived this way; the difference was that we now had more house workers who wore uniforms, like white hats, shirts, and gray pants with black dots, like chefs in the United States. Xaawo wore traditional outfits.
It was the habit of my six-year-old sister, Shams, twelve-year-old brother, Asis, three-year-old sister, Raha, and me to hide behind Mother's door to watch her secretly and listen to her complaints.
Knowing how to melt Father's heart when she wanted something, Mother would make her grand gesture by dropping her shining long dark hair on her back and slowly reaching for her brush. Father would gasp for air. My mother, who sometimes kept her hair covered with one of her many short wigs, which sat on a rack in the far corner, was aware of the power of her beautiful hair.
"I'm not going to put up with your political gangs taking over my living room," Mother said, shaking out her hair.
Adaax, who had been asleep in the crib, began crying. Father walked over and picked him up. Mother brushed her hair as she described how her Persian rug was suffering under the heavy boots of the army men marching into the living room. In our culture, shoes were not allowed inside the home.
"I'm not going to post a sign on the wall telling them what they should already know and ruin the paint," Mother said.
"Shoes will be removed — I promise," Father said.
Mother tied her hair back, making a big bun, and turned to Father. "Does he think I'm going to poison him?" Mother asked.
"Who?" Father said.
"The president," Mother replied.
Father shot her a look that we did not understand, but we noticed a change in the expression on Mother's face.
"Then why is he bringing the food tester?" Mother asked.
"Because he can," Father said. "He is the president!"
President Siad Barre and the constant guests feasted on Xaawo's delicious cooking. But before each meal, a slender man headed for the kitchen and tasted the food before Abdulqaadir served it to President Siad Barre. If the man did not drop dead, then everything was deemed good, and Abdulqaadir took the tray to the living room, where they ate.
As if not hearing Father promising that his guests would remove their shoes, Mother got up, opened the closet door, and removed the black shawl. "I don't want those boots ruining my rugs...."
Without saying a word, Father walked out. Mother wrapped the shawl around her and stared into the mirror, admiring her smooth, honey-toned, glowing skin. Soon after, Mother began keeping herself busy by plunging deeply into the family affairs.
* * *
Mother's focus on my baby brother and household issues often allowed me personal time with my father, a time that I cherished. Brother Adaax had just turned one, and Mother didn't allow us to crowd around him or breathe on his face. He was constantly drinking milk from her breast and then falling asleep on her chest. One night, quietly, I opened the door and walked into Mother's bedroom. She was reading a book in bed while Adaax slept next to her. Seeing she was occupied, I glanced at Father's open bedroom door and noticed the lights were still on. As in most Somali households, our parents had separate rooms.
"Go massage Father's legs," she said absentmindedly, not even looking up at me.
"OK." I smiled to myself. This was a family ritual for which each child hoped to be chosen.
Mother continued reading as I slowly walked into Father's bedroom. He had fallen asleep wearing his reading glasses, and I saw a red file resting on his chest. I removed his glasses and noticed the Italian word urgente written on the file. I was not supposed to read anything without permission, but as usual, my curiosity got the better of me. I glanced at the doorway to Mother's room; all was quiet.
With shaking hands, I picked up the file and ran my eyes down the pages. The message to my father had something to do with the Supreme Revolutionary Council's leader, the army commander. It talked about the changes the new regime was making and asked all military generals to comment on the constitution sospeso, the suspended constitution. I put the file and the glasses on the nightstand and watched Father sleep. I got up and walked out of the room.
Later that night we heard shouting coming from our parents' quarters. I jumped up and rushed toward their bedrooms, followed by Asis, Shams, and Raha.
We stopped at the door to Mother's room just as Father said, "I'm being transferred to Hargeisa."
Shocked, Mother stared at Father for a long moment. Mogadishu was our home; it was all we knew. Hargeisa was the second-largest city in Somalia, more than eight hundred kilometers from Mogadishu, known for its cool tropical weather, rainy seasons, beautiful mountains, and wild animals.
"I'm going to be the commanding officer at the base —"
"And you expect us to be living in planes?" Mother screamed.
Frightened, we burst into the room and shouted in unison, "No plane rides!"
Mother shouted over our wailing, "I will not relocate!"
Adaax began to cry like never before. Mother rushed to pick him up. She cuddled him until he relaxed.
"Do we have to go into the plane?" Shams asked.
I had never flown before but was claustrophobic and terribly afraid of being locked inside the plane for hours. None of us wanted to fly. But Father assured us that everything would be smooth and we'd come to enjoy it. I refused and reminded him about my fear of tight spaces.
"You'll have air on your face," Father said. "The plane is not small." He paused and smiled at me. "Do you remember telling me about your dream of becoming a pilot like Uncle Hussein?"
He was right; despite my claustrophobia, my wildest dream was to become a fighter pilot. I had once visited my uncle Hussein at the base, startling him when I ran in shouting, "I want to go up in the clouds!"
But Uncle Hussein had walked out of the room, and, surprised, I chased after him repeating, "I want to go up to the clouds!"
"Never!" he shouted and didn't look back.CHAPTER 2
But, of course, Father had to go where he was sent. We visited him in Hargeisa whenever school was out, but our main family home remained in Mogadishu, and Father returned often to visit us as well.
In the early seventies, Mogadishu was a place where fresh flowers bloomed and people listened to local music and ate late-night desserts at the city's fancy restaurants. There was still much hope, although anxiety was beginning to spread over the government's implementation of scientific socialism. Muslims feared that they would have no control over their lives, that the new regime would control everything. People were afraid to speak openly about clanship because the leaders of a northern clan had been imprisoned. Tribalism was denounced, and the focus was on community rather than family lineage. Some gossiped about the National Security Courts, where armed forces members became head prosecutors. With the military taking over the court, people were fearful that justice would be lost.
My family and others who were wealthy were eager to build villas at the never-ending beauty of Jasira Beach, but Aunt Ubax stopped the nonsense in our family. She argued with Father about politics, not understanding why the government needed to set up the peacekeepers, who replaced traditional leaders and represented the government. Aunt Ubax was floored when she heard about people losing their hard-earned money; she could not understand why everything was becoming nationalized government property.
Then we all heard the doors slamming shut, the euphemism for imprisonment in Qansax Dheere, where former leaders, poets, and civilians were being herded. Aunt Ubax was not the only one opposed to my father and government officials calling themselves the nation's saviors.
During that time, I would hear the president's voice blasting from Radio Mogadishu, calling himself the Aabaha Aqoonta, the Father of Knowledge. My siblings and I listened to the BBC Somali service with our ears glued to the radio. The president was becoming larger than life — a godlike figure. Father would voice his anger with Barre when the president came to our house, and they found ways to calm each other down. But army officials who spoke out publicly or agreed with those who opposed Barre's regime went to prison, and Father did not want to bring harm to our family.
Excerpted from The Girl with Three Legs by Soraya Miré. Copyright © 2011 Soraya Miré. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
The recipient of the UN's Humanitarian Award, Soraya Miré is a human rights activist, a filmmaker, and a spokesperson against female genital mutilation. She wrote, directed, and produced the film Fire Eyes, the definitive film on FGM. Miré appeared in The Vagina Monologues in London, on Broadway, in Madison Square Garden, and in Los Angeles; she has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and other programs; and articles about her have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Essence.
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