Jasvinder Sanghera, 46, fled an imminent forced marriage to a stranger in England and became a high-profile activist, telling her story countless times and seeking to protect other female South Asian immigrants from similar fates. Fauziya Kassindja, 35, fled the threat of genital mutilation in Togo and won a landmark U.S. asylum case that brought world attention to the plight of African girls, yet she has shunned the limelight, preferring to forget her painful past and focus on family and business.
“People say I did something brave, but the girls who go through this ordeal are the ones with real courage,” Kassindja said in an interview at the hotel fundraiser for the Tahirih Justice Center. She was referring to “kakia,” the ritual of crude circumcision that girls in her native country were traditionally forced to endure. Female relatives held down the screaming teenagers and sliced off their genitals with a knife, believing this would make them “clean” for their husbands.
At 19, Kassindja was expected to marry a much older man and undergo the rite before the wedding. But she was determined to resist and enlisted sympathetic relatives to help her run away. She eventually reached the United States, where she was detained as an illegal immigrant for 16 months. Then, in an unprecedented legal decision, she became the first person to receive U.S. political asylum for fear of “gender-based” abuse, particularly female circumcision.
Kassindja remained in the United States, where she graduated from college and became a citizen. She married an old friend from Ghana and bore triplets. She runs a successful grocery store on Staten Island that specializes in imported African foods, and she often travels to Ghana to purchase ingredients.
Kassindja’s case helped raise international awareness and condemnation of female genital mutilation, or FGM, as it is often called by human rights groups. The practice was banned in some countries, and in 2009, U.S. immigration courts widened asylum protection to female immigrants who feared other abuses, including forced marriages and protracted domestic violence.
But according to surveys by international rights groups, FGM is still widely performed in more than two dozen countries. More than 90 percent of Muslim girls in Somalia, Egypt, Djibouti, Sierra Leone and Guinea undergo the procedure, as do a great majority in Sudan, Mali, Gambia and Eritrea. FGM, aimed at reducing women’s sexual pleasure and urge to stray from marriage, can lead to medical problems including painful urination and sex, complicated childbirth, infection and septic shock.