One afternoon, I had been absorbed in my studies for an hour or two when a well dressed man carrying a briefcase walked into my study room. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, was over six feet tall, and had a beautiful physique which made me think he was a man who never stayed single for long.
I instantly began trying to figure out who he was and what he could want. He had spotted me in the far left corner of the room and was scrutinizing me as if to figure out what part of Africa I was from. An influx of African refugees had settled in Ottawa in recent years, and most Canadians were actually getting pretty good at figuring out our home country. What’s more, horror stories of Somali women having mutilated genitals had spread widely once they started having babies and receiving medical care, so were on the news.
The man walked toward me with a serious look on his face and I quickly began to feel uneasy, although I did not know why.
“Are you from Somalia?” he asked.
Relieved by a normal question, I answered, “Yes.”
He told me he was one of the professors and that he would need the room soon. As I began to shuffle around to put my things away he added, “But no rush, you still have another forty five minutes.” Just when I thought our conversation was over, he abruptly turned and walked even closer to me. “Did you see Rough Cuts last night?” he asked, a tone of curiosity in his voice. I am not sure if this program still exists in Canada, but at the time it was a highly regarded documentary series which covered many different topics, and I enjoyed watching it. In this particular episode, the subject title coincided with the program name; if my memory isn’t failing me, the episode was also called “Rough Cuts.” It was about a little girl from another part of Africa undergoing female circumcision. You could see the horror on her face as the trusted women in her life restrained her with their bodies and proceeded to butcher her. After she was circumcised, they cracked an egg over her vagina, a behavior that struck me as odd because Somali nomads don’t do that when they circumcise their girls.
All I was thinking after watching that program was that when the egg dried and got hard, it would pull on her raw skin and that would make everything ten times more painful. I just felt like it was a bad move on the part of the woman performing the ritual and could actually make the body even more prone to infection. I told him “Yes, I saw the program last night,” thinking he had some questions about female circumcision rituals in my country.
“You know…I saw the whole thing.” I did not say a word, but he went on. “Your culture practices this, too, right?”
Oh boy, I thought, feeling uneasy about where this conversation might go, and worried by the peculiar look on his face that I could not quite decipher. I wasn’t sure what to make of this guy.
After a while I said, “It is done to 95 percent of Somali girls.” I did not know the exact statistic at that time, but I figured that giving him a number would distance me from the story and make it so I didn’t have to answer more personal questions about myself. Despite the odd conversation, he still struck me as a normal person, so I assumed that would be the end of it.
“Do you mind showing me your vagina?” he continued, “I saw how the little girl’s looked, but I am curious to see what it looks like on a young woman.”
I thought I had misheard him. Was he really asking me to show him my private parts, right here in the corner of this room? Oh my God, he must be joking! I thought to myself. But one look at him, standing confidently, his self righteous gaze demanding my submission, and it dawned on me that not only was he serious, but that he clearly did not think there was anything wrong with his request. Once I realized his true intentions, honestly, my mind completely blanked out and I had a brief moment where I lost all time and space. When I came back to reality, he was still talking. All I could think was that I had better not faint because that would be a dream come true for this sick guy. I could just see him hovering over me in the corner, studying my vagina like some sort of fascinating specimen from his lab.
This thought jolted me back to reality, and I blurted out, “I can’t!”
“Why not?”,,” he insisted.
“Because I’m engaged to be married!”,,” I said, knowing this was a stupid answer the moment I left my mouth, but that’s all that came to me at the time.
My heart began to palpitate. I felt like a lion was closing in on me while I stood at the edge of a cliff, with nowhere to run. I had an inkling that I had more rights in this country than I did back in Somalia, but I didn’t know what they were or how to use them, so I fell back on my instincts and told myself, Run! He must have sensed my wish to flee, because he suddenly got very aggressive and looked determined to get what he wanted at any cost. Little did he know, I had been taught to guard my virginity with my life from a young age, and had successfully run from warthogs, ostriches, snakes and angry male camels in heat and fought of a man who was determined to rape me. An overly curious professor was no match for me. As he closed in on me, I scrambled around him, pushing chairs and tables in my wake.
The last thing I remember was bolting out of the room and hearing him call after me, “I have no other interest, I am just curious.” My fear of that man continued for a long time. Anytime I was using the university rooms, I stayed vigilant, always keeping an eye out for Professor Creep.
I am the author of upcoming memoir with Algonquin books: The Last Nomad.
Photo by Michael Woolsey