"Women, putting differences aside with love and faith, fight a terrible tradition"
Authors: Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir
Publisher: Delacorte Press, New York, 1998
review by: Brad Pokorny
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
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
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
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
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
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."