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Some Secrets Pull Little Girls Together, Some Pull Them Apart

One day in 1979 Egypt, the nature of secrets between my cousin and me changed.

Dr. Rasha Roshdy
Dr. Rasha Roshdy

When I was six years old, I got lost in a strange neighborhood for two hours. After my cousin eventually found me and brought me home, no one asked how I felt. I was blamed for running. No one talked about the reason I ran. My father grabbed me by my collar. “Did anyone touch you?” he asked. “No!” I lied. They all sighed in relief and I was instructed to go wait in my father’s car.

On November 11, 1979, we went to visit my cousin Iman for her birthday. All my father’s family members lived in one apartment building. Whenever we visited them, we all had fun. My siblings and I could visit any uncle or aunt we wanted and we moved from one apartment to another. As long as we stayed in the building and stopped by every apartment, my parents did not care where we were. We loved visiting the family and eating candy in every apartment. I always started by visiting uncle Mohammad’s and stayed there for most of the visit. His daughter Iman was my best friend. I was barely five months older than her, which made us really close.

Iman shared many secrets with me and I longed to have a secret to share with her. She was allowed to play with children in the neighborhood without adult supervision. Some of our male cousins played with the neighborhood children and that was considered enough protection. Iman shared wild stories. Not wild by current standards but crazy for an Egyptian girl in the 80s. A neighborhood boy gave her a chocolate and when she opened it she found a note in the wrapper. He loved her. I remember one time a boy offered me a stick of gum and I was too afraid to unwrap it. With Iman, we would sit together for hours, giggling. Everyone else ignored us and knew that we would show up when the dinner was served – except Aunt Suaad.

She was tall, dark and beautiful with long hair but she was never nice to us. Iman and I could not understand how she could be mean, as if meanness was reserved for ugly people. Aunt Suaad hated to see us sitting together and whispering —she would order us to go help with dinner or do laundry. She would always say that the two of us would make horrible wives. “Cursed by his mother, whoever marries either of you.” That was her regular comment she made whenever she passed by us.

But, that day my aunt passed us by without being mean to us. She did not admonish us. I told Iman, “That was strange, right?” Iman shrugged her shoulders and chanted, “It is my birthday. It is my birthday,” and we giggled.

Aunt Suaad came back with juice for us and invited us to go with her to the dressmaker. I declined the offer. I said in what looked like a robotic response, “My mother instructed me not to leave the apartment building without asking permission.”

My mother had never struck me but there was always the threat of harm looming over my head as I saw her beat my sister. Sometimes, the threat of harm can be more powerful than harm itself. My response angered my aunt. She got down and yelled in my face, “What an insolent little brat. I am the sister of your father, your aunt, remember?”

Iman and I were scared. I reached out to her and we held each other's hands. I was able to apologize in a very shaky voice. Aunt Suaad immediately changed her tone. “The dressmaker is only one street away. I will send my older son Ahmed to let your mother know.” Then, she yelled out: “Ahmed, Ahmed where are you, son?”

Ahmed came running. Of course, he could not keep his mother waiting. Aunt Suaad instructed Ahmed to tell my mom that she took us to the dressmaker. Then she added, “Not a word more.” I thought that was wrong, but of course I was not going to anger her again.

Aunt Suaad announced joyfully that we would stop by the Kushk, a small convenience store, and she was going to buy us sweets. I whispered to Iman that something was wrong. She told me to relax and that I read too many kids’ novels. I smiled at her comment. Iman was right. I loved reading, especially a series about a group of 13 girls and boys who solved crimes together. It was called “The 13 Devils.”

We walked to the Kushk and I was thrilled it had my favorite American chocolate. Aunt Suaad held our hands very firmly.

We made it to the dressmaker’s home. It was normal for women to work from home whenever possible. My aunt was not picking up a dress for herself. The dressmaker brought two white loose dresses for us and announced these were our Tahara dresses. Aunt Suaad added, “and you will get your Tahara presents.”

I looked over at Iman and she looked happy with the surprise. I had not heard that word before and did not like not knowing what she had planned for us. Aunt Suaad instructed us to wear the dresses. As we went to the bathroom to put them on, I told Iman that we needed to run. She laughed and said, “You and your 13 Devils.”

Then, our aunt said we would stop at the clinic first to get our Tahara, then she would get us lots of toys. Our aunt paid the dressmaker and we left wearing the white dresses.

At this point, I was sure something was wrong. I was trying to figure out the word Tahara. I thought the root is Taher, which means “purify.” Tahara is a noun, so it must be purification of some sort. Was she going to take us for a haircut? Were we going to lose our long hair?

I pleaded with my aunt. “Aunt Suaad, I promise I will be good. I do not need to get purified,” I said while I was experiencing a child version of a panic attack. She mocked me and replied in a firm voice, “You will be fine. I would get you presents.”

She hailed a cab and gave the address to the taxi driver. I briefly considered telling the taxi driver that I was kidnapped. But Iman, who was happy and serene, would have made me look like a fool. I had to come up with an alternative plan. I decided to run as soon as the taxi stopped, so I paid attention to the street. The taxi driver hated the traffic and took a lot of turns to avoid it. That made memorizing the roads harder. The second the taxi stopped, I opened the door and ran.

I saw my cousin Ahmed waiting for us. I heard my aunt yelling at him to get me. She told him to get me because she had to take Iman up for the Tahara appointment. I could not look back. I knew I was leaving Iman behind, but she did not agree to escape with me. I had to keep running and now having my cousin chasing me made the escape much harder.

I entered an apartment building that had no light around the stairs and I hid there. I heard Ahmed walk by and call my name. He told me not to be afraid and that he had told my mother. I was very afraid. I did not know if I could trust Ahmed.

A short man opened his apartment’s door and saw me hidden under the stairs. He was approaching me and he told me not to be scared. The choice was to trust either a complete stranger or my cousin. I was frozen.

He asked how old I was, six years old? He said, “Mashallah! You have this breast at six?” Then he touched my breast. I jumped as if I was electrocuted. I ran and ran. I could not remember how the taxi had driven me there. After two hours of being alone and lost, I saw Ahmed and ran to him. I found myself in my cousin’s arms. He asked if I was okay and he told me that he was there to rescue me.

Ahmed and I made it back to the family’s apartment building. Everyone was very worried. My aunt had returned with Iman. I was not allowed to see her that night. My parents rushed me to our home. They scolded me for getting myself lost. They punished me, I thought, by not letting me visit Iman alone.

I asked my mother what Tahara was. She reprimanded me for asking adult questions. I learned years later as an adult what had happened that day. Tahara is female genital mutilation. I will never understand how families could choose to mutilate their daughters just to ensure they would stay chaste.

After this incident, things were never the same between Iman and me. I had left her at the clinic and I felt guilty. One day, she told me she was exhausted and bleeding after the Tahara. When she saw my brother passing by, she stopped talking. I asked her what had happened and she refused to talk about it. Iman now had a secret that she could not share with me.

A stranger touched my breast. It was a light touch over my sweater, but I thought I had lost my virginity. I was too scared to tell anyone about it. I also had a secret that I could not share with Iman.


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Short storyMiddle East

Dr. Rasha Roshdy

Dr. Roshdy is a writer and poet. She was born in Cairo and is now a US citizen. She founded Amna Sanctuary, a non-profit assisting refugees and immigrants.