The following post has content warnings for cissexism, “female” circumcision, state terrorism, death.
Arabic was my first language. At age two, if I could see an object, I could name it. Weaving my tongue around throaty vowels and soft consonants was as graspable to me as my mother’s index finger. I knew things that were important to me had names so I could understand them. Shai was tea; tumbac was the brown gunk Dad chewed and why he never shared his shai with me; sukkari was his diabetes. Where words were concerned, I had never met an adversary I couldn’t stare down until it told me its name.
That remained true until a few weeks ago, where I encountered a persistent, unbearable itch in my pants, and not a metaphorical one.
I needed advice, and my mother was the only person with a vagina in my home. But how could I describe that region to my mother? I knew the English words “yeast infection” and “vagina”, but I didn’t know if they would suffice. I’d met something I couldn’t name in Arabic, but not for lack of trying: I’d never received a lick of sexual education in my first language.
With a deep breath, I approached my mother as she wrapped her hair in a silk cloth.
“Mama, I think I have a yeast infection.”
I’d only seen her look that shocked and disgusted when she watched me eat a beetle as a toddler.
“Okay.” She muttered.
“What’s wrong?” I squeaked.
“I don’t know if [cis] girls can get yeast infections.” She said matter-of-factly. “[Cis] women can. [Cis] girls shouldn’t.” (I should contextualize this by saying that when it comes to sexual health, my mother speaks entirely in euphemisms. Here, cis women means sexually active cis women, who are naturally married. Cis girls means any unmarried cis women, regardless of age, who of course have never had sexual contact. My mother, a person with a vagina, who had given birth to five children with vaginas, stood before me and insisted yeast infections were STIs.)
“Can we go to the pharmacy?” I asked, on the verge of tears. If my mother thought I was sexually active, I would be thrown out.
“Go yourself.” I’d never heard her snap with so much revulsion.
The interaction left me feeling unsupported and frustrated, not with my mother, but with Sudan. I am a firm believer that there is not a more developed or less developed culture: rather, each culture must be understood in terms of its own beliefs and values. Sudan values sexual purity deeply, as most Muslim theocracies do. In 2012, Intisar Sharif Abdallah, a Sudanese woman found guilty of zina (sex outside of marriage) was sentenced to death by stoning. ‘Female’ circumcision, a procedure which occurs in childhood and is always non-consensual, is practised to deter individuals from zina. Circumcision is extremely taboo, despite that 88% of adult cis women report that they are circumcised. Any discussion of the details of the practice is unthinkable among most women, not because of gore, but because it mentions genitals.
I have always thought of Sudan as al ain – an oasis, capable of providing life and sustenance for so many to flourish, but not immune to scorpions, sandstorms, or stupefaction. The ignorance and shame surrounding sexual health in Sudan and the world is a problem. Shame often keeps us from reaching out when we need knowledge, and we often think our learning finishes when our schooling finishes. The reality is, we are never done learning. Whether it is an unknown word, an itch on our genitals, or both, life always keeps us guessing.
Author: L.E.M., 17 | she/her, he/him
I exist at the intersection of queer, Black, Muslim, and femme.