A week ago I went to a talk at Foyles bookshop, featuring anti-FGM campaigner Hibo Wardere and feminist activist Laura Bates. Leyla Hussein, psychotherapist and activist, was hosting. Below are my notes. Since Wardere and Bates used their individual experiences to express similar sentiments, I organised my highlights by theme as opposed to speaker.
Silence around Sexuality and Gender-based Violence
- Wardere describes FGM as “a muted subject” in her Somali community. Even among those who have gone through it or know about it, FGM is only mentioned in passing, or as a joke.
- Similarly, she reports that the Somali couples she knows don’t talk about sex, even if they have children together.
- At the school where Wardere worked as a teaching assistant, there was no FGM prevention. Staff was not trained in dealing with it, and most did not know it happened.
- FGM traning is not mandatory in professional healthcare training. The GPs and midwives Wardere encountered when she first gave birth didn’t know about it, or how to deal with it medically. Fortunately, there is more awareness now.
- Until she discussed FGM with a nurse, host Leyla Hussein considered her mutilation to be completely normal. She remembers saying: “Of course I had it! It’s no big deal”.
- Bates says that schools where there’s been incidents of sexual violence are reluctant to talk about it, as they don’t want people to think there’s a problem at their school.
- Schools don’t teach children about their bodies and sexuality.
- Wardere says that there was a great deal of talk about her when she began her activism, forcing her to take a step back from her community for a year or so. Now, however, she reports that even men attend her talks. The schools in her borough also show nothing but support. There has been a great shift in her experience.
Power of Communication
- When people don’t want to address FGM, Wardere tells them: “I’m going to tell you what happened to my vagina, whether you like it or not.”
- Wardere’s acknowledgement of what happened started her healing process. She says there is power in sharing your experiences with others.
- Unlocking speech holds great power. Once someone speaks up, it catches. You realise that it’s ok to talk because you’re not alone.
- Wardere: if people attack you for something you’ve said, it means you’ve struck a nerve. You’re doing something good.
- It is crucial to change the language around FGM. It is not a cultural or religious problem; it is child abuse. Changing the language reveals FGM as a child protection issue, and therefore a universal problem.
- We need to create safe spaces for women to tell their stories.
- Social media can be a good space to share your story, but it also opens the door to online abuse.
- Bates doesn’t believe in advice such as “don’t feed the trolls”, or “delete your Twitter account”in dealing with online abuse. It’s not realistic to ask people, especially young girls, not to engage online, but more importantly, people have different ways of coping, and can only do what works for them.
- Patriarchal rules are passed on from one man to another, directly or via institutions and media, in messages often rooted in violence.
- Seeing women only in relation to men has been normalised.
- Unpicking patriarchy and sexism is about de-normalising.
- Patriarchy paints feminism as taking rights away from men. It’s a knee-jerk reaction.
- Bates: how dissonant is it that women who have gone through rape have trouble acknowledging it, while in some schoolyards, the bit that’s hidden from the teachers is known as “the rape corner”?
- Patriarchal rule is all the more difficult to challenge that it’s coming from all directions. It’s a structural and institutional problem.
- Yet people are determined to deny that institutionalised sexism is real.
- Wardere: “What would governments do if it were penises being chopped off?”
- When she was a young woman, Wardere was told she had gone through FGM to please the man who would become her husband. She remembers asking: “Where is me? Where do I fit in all this?”
- In terms of addressing sexual violence, there is a great discrepancy between reality and what schools are ready to implement.
Children and Sexual Education
- All three women agree: education is a weapon.
- Wardere insists we give children the credit they deserve. They are smarter than we think.
- She also bemoans we never put their rights first. Children should march on Downing Street, demanding to be taught.
- Youths must be educated, as they are the ones that will break the sexist cycle. Their voices matter.
- Education on sex and gender must begin early, so as to nip the cycle of institutionalised sexism in the bud. By age 15 dehumanization has already crept in.
- Bates reports that in some schools, teachers have to smuggle her in so she can give feminist talks.
- Bates: You wouldn’t consider sending your child into the world if they didn’t know how to use money or how to cross the street, so why should we send children into the world without basic knowledge about their bodies and sexuality?
- Myth #1: Sex ed will result in increased teenage pregnancies. This is illogical, as children are already bombarded with sexual messages.
- Myth #2: Sexual education is something for parents to discuss with their children. There needs to be other options for children who are abused. Sexual education must be collective.
You can find out more about Leyla Hussein on her website. She tackles FGM through campaigning, and by counselling survivors. She is the co-founder of Daughters of Eve, an organisation that works to protects girls and young women at risk from FGM.