Review of Do They Hear You When You Cry?
By Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir
Delacorte Press, New York, 1998
review by Brad Pokornoy
Published in One Country Volume 10, Issue 1 / April-June 1998
At first glance, Do They Hear You When You Cry seems to be a fairly straightforward institutional horror story, about an African woman who flees to America to escape female genital mutilation at the hands of her tradition-bound family in Togo and ends up imprisoned for more than a year in the United States as an illegal immigrant.
But at the heart of Fauziya Kassindja's story is something much more: a tale of true sisterhood with regard to the relationship she developed with a young law school student, Layli Miller Bashir, who became one of Ms. Kassindja's strongest advocates and a key figure in her ultimate release and vindication.
Further, as told by Ms. Kassindja, her tale is also one of great faith. A devout Muslim, who was only 17 years old when she took the bold step of leaving her home country alone, Ms. Kassindja says repeatedly it was only her strong faith in God that enabled her to survive the culture shock and demeaning conditions that she found upon arrival in the United States.
What's more, she also unequivocally believes that God led Ms. Bashir, who is a Bahá'í, to take up her cause. In this regard, the story is amazing for the way in which it shows how two women from very different cultures - and religions - can embrace each other wholeheartedly in a spirit of love and faith.
As such, the book - which reads like a fast-paced novel and contains evocative descriptions of Ms. Kassindja's homeland, family and the other refugee women she met along the way - is inspirational. It also teaches much about how women relate to each other and are often able to put aside disparities that, for many men, would likely be a source of conflict.
The story begins after Ms. Kassindja has spent nearly 16 months in prison and feels she can no longer bear the often deplorable conditions of her incarceration and the indignity of being locked up with criminals. She decides that she must, at last, submit to the will of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and return to Togo, which would in all likelihood mean that she would have to submit to having her exterior genitals removed, something known in her culture as female circumcision and to the world at large as female genital mutilation (FGM).
Having set the stage, Ms. Kassindja then flashes back to her childhood, which was idyllic. Born into a relatively wealthy family in Kpalimé, Ms. Kassindja was the youngest of four daughters and enjoyed the love of a doting father who encouraged her at every step and, when she was a teenager, sent her to a private English-language school in neighboring Ghana.
Although it was traditional for all young women from her father's tribe, the Koussountu, to undergo FGM before marriage, Ms. Kassindja's father detested the custom and protected his older daughters from the practice up to and into their marriages. But in January 1993, while Ms. Kassindja was away at school in Ghana, her father died suddenly.
She was summoned home and, according to the custom of her tribe, fell under the guardianship of her father's older brother, who was far more traditional. Her uncle and aunt soon contracted for her marriage to an older man (who, to Ms. Kassindja's dismay, already had three wives). One Monday in October, with no previous notice, her aunt brought in an array of clothing, jewelry and other gifts. "It's all yours," her aunt announced. "It's from your husband."
"I don't have a husband," Ms. Kassindja said.
"You will soon, Fauziya. Today's the day," she said, adding: "Don't worry about the circumcision. We won't do that today. We'll wait until Wednesday for that."
In accordance with custom, that same day Ms. Kassindja was dressed in a wedding gown and a wedding photo was taken; papers were also issued indicating that she was indeed now married and the property of her new husband.
Ms. Kassindja panicked. Her mother's sister had died from complications following FGM, as had numerous other young women that she knew. As practiced in Togo, FGM entailed being held down while a nachane - a tribal woman who performs such rituals - scrapes away almost all of a woman's visible parts, usually with a dull and unsterilized knife or blade. The woman is then bound from hips to knees for 40 days of healing. The risk of infection is high. But should she survive, the woman is then pronounced fit for her husband.
With the help of her older sister, Ms. Kassindja escaped her aunt's house, crossed the border to Ghana and caught a plane to Germany. After two months there, where she felt isolated because of her inability to speak German, she became convinced that her best hope lay in going to the United States, where she also had relatives. An African friend told her she could easily fly to America on someone else's passport and then, immediately upon arriving, ask for asylum.
Placed in chains
In her naiveté, she followed that advice. When she surrendered the passport upon arrival at the Newark, NJ, international airport on 17 December 1994, however, she was promptly arrested, placed in chains and delivered to a special INS detention center designed for illegal aliens who had been "excluded" - caught, as it were, before officially arriving in the US. As such, she learned later, she had limited rights under US law. And thus began her long journey through the US immigration legal system.
From her point of view, Ms. Kassindja's ordeal now featured two main themes: the deplorable conditions of her detention and the manifestly capricious way she was treated by the court system run by the INS, which is separate from the American main court system that applies to people who are "officially" in the United States, legal or not.
Her detention was marked by poor food, inadequate medical care (Ms. Kassindja suffered from severe asthma and was later diagnosed with an ulcer), periods of isolated confinement, and numerous transfers from one institution to another, which separated her along the way from belongings, new friends and any sense of security.
Her experience with the INS court system featured inadequate access to counsel, a seemingly arbitrary system for scheduling court dates, and, at her main hearing, a judge who seemed to care more about chit-chatting with Ms. Kassindja's lawyers than probing into the facts of her case or the unique legal situation it posed.
Ms. Kassindja was ultimately rescued by a group of Americans who learned of her plight and fought hard to save her. Her principal advocate was Ms. Bashir, who was doing a summer internship with the lawyer who took Ms. Kassindja's case. A law student at American University in Washington, DC, Ms. Bashir had since her undergraduate days taken it upon herself to learn everything she could about FGM, with a special focus on its relation to international human rights law. Because of that interest, she was assigned Ms. Kassindja's case.
The pair bonded almost immediately, coming to feel a tremendous sense of friendship and sisterhood that deepened as the case progressed. Ms. Kassindja tells how, at the end of their first jailhouse meeting, held just a few hours before her all-important asylum hearing, Ms. Bashir promised to fight onward, whatever the outcome of that day's court appearance.
"We joined hearts"
"' If the judge denies us, then we'll keep fighting until we win,'" Ms. Kassindja quotes Ms. Bashir as saying. "'I'll do whatever it takes.'
"That was one of the most moving moments of my life," Ms. Kassindja continues. "We joined hearts in that moment. We were sisters now. She knew it. I knew it. I be alone again."
Sadly, the asylum hearing did not go well. Ms. Bashir took the legal position that FGM was a form of persecution and torture, to which Ms. Kassindja was subject to because of her immutable membership in a certain class of people (her tribe and gender), making her eligible for asylum under US law. But the immigration judge assigned to the case denied the asylum petition. That was in August 1995.
Devastated, Ms. Kassindja returned to detention and began to give serious thought to returning to Togo and facing whatever fate lay in store for her there. In the meantime, Ms. Bashir traveled to the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. There she began to network with other women in various NGOs with long experience in refugee law, FGM and human rights, telling them of Ms. Kassindja's plight.
As a result, a number of women, men and organizations arose to support Ms. Kassindja. Of critical importance, Ms. Bashir convinced Karen Musalo of the International Human Rights Clinic to take Ms. Kassindja's case to a higher court. Ms. Bashir also enlisted the help of Equality Now, a human rights advocacy group for women. Through contacts made by Equality Now, the defense team succeeded in winning widespread support for Ms. Kassindja both among prominent people (at one point, Ms. Kassindja received significant support from US Congresswomen Pat Schroeder, Cynthia McKinney, and Maxine Waters) and in the news media.
This combination of good legal work, the right connections and publicity led, first, to a parole for Ms. Kassindja, on 24 April 1996, and then, on 13 June 1996, to a complete reversal of the first judge's decision to deny asylum.
In making the reversal, the higher court involved in the case opened the way for other women who might be fleeing FGM to seek asylum in the United States, putting the US into the vanguard among countries that recognize this as a valid human rights issue. It is an accomplishment that Ms. Kassindja judges to be worth the pain and suffering she endured.
"Now that I know about FGM, not just as something that almost happened to me but as a worldwide problem, I know I have to speak out about it," she writes at the end of the book. "The people of my tribe are good people. But good people can do bad things. They need to think carefully about what they're doing and why, not just keep on doing it because that's how things have always been done in the past. Tradition doesn't make something right."