The Hammersmith Swordsman
In the early 1980’s, female circumcision was not something that I was well acquainted with. In truth, I don’t recall that I had heard of it at that time, though in recent years, it has received a lot of attention in the media. For those of you who are not that intimate with this practice, I will give a very basic version of what is involved. A young girl, sometimes only a baby, has parts of the outer lips of her vagina cut off, usually including her clitoris. The resulting wound is then stitched together, in a somewhat rudimentary fashion, with a small opening left, to allow the flow of bodily fluids. On her wedding night, her husband then cuts the sutures prior to having sex, thus ‘guaranteeing’ that he has wed a virgin. I think this is the process in a nutshell, please forgive me for not going into greater detail, a lot more information is available on the Internet.
This practice is most common in countries in north-east Africa, such as Sudan, Somalia, and others in the Horn of Africa, though it is carried out elsewhere, especially in western nations with a large immigrant population from those places mentioned. As well as the ‘proof’ of virginity, the removal of the clitoris is thought to stop any possibility of infidelity, by removing any pleasure that could be gained. To the cultures that continue to see it as normal, it has both traditional, and religious associations. In other countries, it is considered to be archaic, and barbaric. (And rightly so, in my personal opinion).
Late one evening, we were called to a flat, inside a large house, in the Hammersmith area of West London. A midwife, on a routine call to a pregnant female, was being denied access to the patient, and was concerned for her safety. The Social Services had become involved, and after a long drawn out attendance at the address, they had decided to involve the Police as well. As pregnancy had been mentioned, the Police summoned an ambulance, in case it should be needed. The flat was at the top of the building, and the social workers and Police were trying to gain access, by shouting through the door, and repeated loud knocking. After this had gone on for a few minutes, the door was suddenly wrenched open. To the surprise of all of us assembled in the stairwell, a tall, thin, somewhat elderly man appeared. He was wide-eyed, and dressed only in thin cotton trousers; he was bare-chested and barefoot also. His hair was unkempt and wild, and he sported a straggly beard. But what really got our attention, was the fact that he was wielding a huge sword. This was not an ornamental weapon, of the sort that might have been mounted above a fireplace, but a very real, traditional item, that looked as if it had once seen action. The blade was a good three feet in length, and the long handle, complete with wrist guard, was taped with cord. Moreover, he was brandishing it in the manner of someone who knew how to use it, and was prepared to do so.
We all made a hurried retreat to the lower floor, including the few Policemen present, who were only armed with truncheons. The man held his position at the head of the stairs, screaming at us in a foreign language, and waving the sword from side to side, with menacing strokes. The wide blade looked more than capable of taking off a limb, perhaps even severing a head, so nobody was taking any chances, and Police reinforcements were summoned, as a matter of urgency. They arrived after some delay, equipped with riot gear, helmets, and shields, though none had firearms of any kind. After a brief, further attempt to reason with the crazed man, the Police eventually charged him, using the shields to protect themselves from the swinging blows of his sword, and manged to pin him down on the stairs, and disarm him. This was done with considerable courage, as none of them had more than a shield, and a riot baton to hand. Once he had been handcuffed and secured, he was removed to a Police van, and we were all able to enter the flat.
We found a young female of African origin, aged about 18. She was on the floor, in some distress, with a high fever, and blood issuing from between her legs. On examination by the midwife, it soon became clear that she had a bad infection inside her vagina, which was still stitched up, in the fashion previously described. It seems that once pregnancy had been confirmed, she had been re-stitched, by someone from her own community, to await full term of her labour, and to make sure that she did not have sex with anyone else. The wound between her legs was very distressing to behold, grossly swollen, with thick cord sutures cutting into her flesh, some bleeding apparent, and a noxious odour issuing from the whole area. We got her down to the ambulance on a stretcher, and with the help of the midwife, the stitches were cut, to relieve pressure, and the young lady taken to a local hospital for further treatment. She was six months pregnant at the time, but was so thin, it was barely noticeable.
We found out later, that the elderly man with the sword was her husband, and she was only one of a few wives he had. His reason for taking this action, was that he did not want any westerners, especially men, to examine his wife. This was my first close encounter with both female circumcision, and an angry swordsman. Thankfully, it was also my last.