Do They Hear You When You Cry?
by Fauziya Kassindja with Layli Miller Bashir
Delacorte Press, 1998
New York, NE
518 pages, $25 hardcoverBuy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore
At age 17, Fauziya Kassindja had a good life – loving parents who flouted village tradition by educating their daughters; two brothers and four older sisters who doted on her; a close-knit community of friends; and, by Togo standards, an upper class existence.
Then her father died.
Tribal law gave the family's assets to the closest-related male old enough to take Muhammad Kassindja's place – Fauziya's orthodox Muslim uncle. The uncle sold their home and business, exiled Fauziya's mother to Nigeria, and pulled Fauziya out of school. But the nightmare didn't really begin until Fauziya learned she was to become the fourth wife of a 45 year-old man who insisted that all of his wives undergo kakia, a rite of passage commonly known in the US as female genital mutilation, or FGM.
FGM, which is practiced in 28 African countries, ranges from cutting off the clitoris to removing the clitoris, labia minora, and some portion of the labia majora. FGM is commonly performed by a village woman who specializes in the practice using knives, razor blades, and pieces of broken glass under unsanitary conditions and with no anesthesia.
"As my sisters kept apologizing over and over for not being able to help me," says Kassindja, "I couldn't help thinking how strange it was that in a family as large as ours, there had only been one person out of nine who had any power. ... That was how things worked in our culture. Our father had questioned and rejected a number of tribal customs and traditions, but he'd never questioned ... the power of the patriarchy. Nor had I, until now."
Do They Hear You When You Cry? is Kassindja's first-person account of her questioning of "how things worked" and her ensuing flight from Togo, using money given to her by her widowed mother. Armed with a false passport and the assurances of a well-meaning friend that the American INS would be sympathetic to her circumstances, Kassindja fled to the US.
Due to a fierce, culturally ingrained modesty, Kassindja didn't tell INS officials about FGM. INS ultimately gave her the choice of being deported or going to prison until she could appear before an immigration judge, telling the impressionable 17 year-old that the prison "isn't so bad," and that her hearing would take place in four days.
Kassindja waited for her initial hearing in prison for over eight months.
She remained in prison for a total of 18 months, during which she broke down and asked to be sent back to Togo twice and had her request ignored each time.
In the meantime, she was strip-searched, shackled in chains from head to foot, put in solitary confinement for over two weeks after being misdiagnosed with tuberculosis, and housed in a maximum-security prison with violent criminals. The prison refused her numerous pleas for medical care for severe asthma and what would later turn out to be a peptic ulcer.
Thanks to the help of a cousin living in the US and a dedicated law student named Layli Miller Bashir, Kassindja obtained legal representation and prevented her eventual deportation. Bashir enlisted the help of the American University's International Human Rights Clinic, along with several FGM activists, and initiated a high-profile fight to free Kassindja and grant her asylum.
On June 13, 1996, Kassindja and her legal team won a landmark case that would set the standard for all seeking asylum in the US on the grounds of gender-based persecution.
The book is an eye-opener on many accounts. First, it illustrates the unique circumstances of women who seek asylum in the US and the cultural constraints that make it difficult for women like Kassindja to talk to INS strangers about FGM (or multiple rapes and forced impregnation – common experiences among thousands of Bosnian women.)
In addition, it underscores statistics that show how opening US doors to female refugees fleeing FGM would not open the floodgates to the "dreaded hordes" of immigrants many Americans fear. Bashir found in her studies of FGM that of the 1 million people who come to America each year, one-tenth are refugees seeking asylum, and less than a third of those are women. Unlike Fauziya, most of the females who undergo FGM are under 14, illiterate, and devastatingly poor. They simply don't have the means to leave, nor would they necessarily want to leave family for the unknown.
The book also reveals the impersonal – and often inhuman – treatment asylum seekers experience in the US. Interestingly, Kassindja cites a 1995 study that reveals that "over 97 percent of detained immigrants in the US are people of color – even though five of the top 20 countries of origin for illegal immigrants are Caucasian." This study corroborates Kassindja's own prison experience, in which an overwhelming majority of the refugees she came in contact with in the prisons were black.
For us, the question remains how the US will deal with the continuing influx of refugees fleeing war, human rights violations, environmental devastation, and resource scarcity. Whatever one's thoughts on immigration are, Do They Hear You When You Cry? is certain to make readers think long and hard about the workings of our refugee system, our economic system, and whether or not we should pull up the drawbridge before those who flee to the US from injustice.
Reviewed by Tracy Rysavy, associate editor of YES!