It was late into the night, and under the makeshift tent on the grounds of the groom’s family home the wedding party was still in full swing. The groom’s family home was buzzing with excitement as people milled around outside, and those inside made sure the house, specifically the bedroom, was ready for this important night.
The room was beautifully decorated with red velvet drapes, white bed linen and heavily scented in ‘uunsi’ and ‘atar’. It was an ordinary room before it was transformed for the newlyweds. Our teenage curiosity had a couple of us peeping through the crack in the door, eager to see what the room looked like. Despite being raised in a community where no one talked about sex openly, we knew something important was going to happen that night.
We made it back to the dancing crowd and the cheering got louder and louder as the bride and groom parties arrived. As the nomadic tradition would have it, the bride and groom entered their home together. The bride carrying a jug of milk and the groom carrying a boy; the milk represented prosperity and the boy signified the continuity of the lineage.
As they crossed the threshold of their new home, the women’s ululating filled the air with prayers calling upon the ancestral Sheikhs to look after and protect the newlywed couple, we all clapped and chanted Ameen joyfully. Only those who were escorting the bride and groom got to go into the living room with them, the rest of us, with our eagerness to catch a glimpse of the bride’s henna-painted hands and gold chains, were moved back outside. Meanwhile, the bride started making her way to the newly decorated bedroom.
The moment then came for the groom to be escorted to the bedroom where his bride was waiting…I never understood why we didn’t all just go home after the bride and groom had entered their new home.
We all stayed to dance and chant. I had just turned 13 on the night of the wedding. A typical introvert, I was rather more observant and a bit more curious than the others. I didn’t go far from the house, nor did I join the crowd in the wedding tent. I was more interested by the goings-on in the house. I vividly remember seeing elderly women going in and out of the house, whispering to one another. I knew something exciting was going on.
I moved more closely over to the house, so I could hear the whispers. I saw the bride and her attendee leaving the bedroom, she was wearing a long shawl covering her whole body. One of the elderly women came to whisper something to my grandmother, like all grannies brought up children; I was never too far from her. I heard her saying, “he couldn’t do it, they have to take her to the hospital”. I remember that there was an atmosphere of pride and jubilation between the elderly women of the house.There were now only women left at the wedding party. This was their moment; this was when they were to be defined and define others as honourable women. Just like that the bride was whisked off to the hospital for the ‘opening’, and the wedding came to a standstill. The singing and dancing all stopped, and we all scattered away back to our own homes.
We came back a few days later to attend xeedho-fur; a custom the nomads perform after the bride and groom have consummated their marriage. Xeedho is a special delicacy made out of pounded dates to smooth dough with butter gee. It’s then moulded into the shape of a bowl, the inside of which is hallow and filled with specially cut meat, fried in the best butter gee and spices.The delicacy is be placed into a bowl, and then put into baskets that are shaped like a female torso, wrapped up in a white cloth. It will be tied tightly by expert women. This is where the challenge lays for the groom’s male relatives, as they have the task of ‘opening’ the xeedho. The rules are, they should be very careful when they attempt to open the xeedho, as it represents the honour of the bride.
It took many years to understand why my grandmother and other women in our community were at the forefront of supporting ‘gudniin’ (female circumcision). Despite facing resistance from men like my father who was adamant that they should not go through with it, my grandmother stubbornly went ahead anyway. At the age of 7, I was whisked off for that special trip. As a child, one never questions the motives of their elders; we trust that they are doing the best for us. However, I’ve learned over the years that it has a lot to do with being bearers of honour, the honour of a respectable women of society. We, the young women of our community, are the guardians of honour for our mothers and grandmothers, protecting ourselves from bringing them shame on our own wedding nights.
If we, like the xeedho, are not tightly sewn, it can be a disaster for us and the entire family. They fear the gossip that comes from not seeing blood on the bedsheets.
Their worry became our burden; we became bearers of their honour.
Sadly, many continue to do this to their daughters for fear of being dishonoured. FGM continues to be practiced in our societies, with little regard to the health of young girls. Then again, since when has a girl’s life her own anyway? From the moment of her birth, she is burdened with being the bearer of her family’s honour. Her life, from that day onwards, will forever be about protecting that honour.
Lower your gaze girl.
Walk straight girl.
Don’t raise your voice girl.
Don’t laugh too loud girl.
Don’t go out girl.
Don’t eat too much girl.
Don’t stay in the sun too long girl.
Don’t answer back girl.
Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.
But carry the torch girl. Our honour lies between your legs girl.
Zeinab Sulemani is a mother of one. She teaches English as a second language in a secondary school and volunteers working with young people. She is currently, training to be a children & youth counselor and coach.