"The cycle of FGM can be broken"
As the BBC drama Call the Midwife tackles female genital mutilation in a groundbreaking episode on Sunday, we look back on this guest post written by Leyla Hussein in 2013.
Leyla explains how she struggled to come to terms with the betrayal of being forced to undergo FGM as a young girl - and how she managed to prevent her own daughter from being cut.
Warning: upsetting content
Co-founder, Daughters Of Eve
Posted on: Wed 06-Nov-13 12:07:44
(54 comments )
I underwent FGM at the age of seven. I was pinned down by the people I trusted, while my flesh was being cut off. To this day, I struggle to describe how that pain felt, but I know it was torture - and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I knew the moment my daughter was born that I wanted a different fate for her. I wished to create an environment where she feels safe - physically and emotionally.
I’ve been campaigning to end FGM for the past 15 years, as a co-founder of Daughters of Eve, as an anti-FGM activist, a member of the FGM Special Initiative and a trained psychotherapist. So I’m no stranger to talking about the subject.
But one of the hardest aspects of FGM is how it affects family relationships - and particularly, the mother-daughter relationship. This is hard to discuss - FGM is a cycle which moves from mother, to daughter, to granddaughter. But it's a cycle which can be broken - I've made a documentary about how I did it, which has been shown on Channel 4.
It wasn’t until the later stages of my pregnancy that I began to deal with the trauma of what had happened to me. I used to be terrified of any intimate medical examination, and a smear test was enough to set off a panic attack. During my antenatal appointments I would often black out. Then, during one of these appointments, a specialist nurse asked me the question no one else knew - or dared - to ask: ‘Were you cut?’
I said I was. She explained to me that my body was experiencing flashbacks. Until that day, I had never made the association.
The Specialist Nurse explained the legal framework around FGM; she provided me with information about available services and gave me counselling. I feel entirely indebted to her. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet her at that point in my life, I still don’t know for sure if, perhaps, I would have put my own daughter through this hell.
But from the moment I came to associate the psychological problems I was experiencing with FGM, I knew I would do everything in my power to protect my daughter from my fate. This is why the intercollegiate recommendations - launched in 2013 by a coalition of Royal Colleges, trades unions, and Equality Now - are so important; health professionals cannot now look away. Training cannot be optional when the safety of girls depends on it.
Making sure my daughter was uncut is my biggest accomplishment. For my whole family, breaking the cycle demanded great strength. My brother had to stand by us too, despite the stigma. His role as a man is always questioned: "your niece is not cut." All my family has gone on a journey with me.
From the moment I decided I would protect my daughter from FGM, I knew I had no choice but to confront my family. All of us had to break the cycle. I could never ensure my daughter’s safety unless we were all on board. Of course, the most difficult step was confronting my mother about what she had done to me. The Specialist Nurse suggested I attend counselling to find the strength to do what I had to do. However, my first experience with counselling was unsuccessful. I’ve always had a very close relationship with my mother. When I told my counsellor that my mother loved me deeply, he asked me why I thought she had decided to cut me. I was not ready to face that question, so I walked out.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I decided I wanted to become a counsellor myself, that I realised I could no longer avoid that question. My new therapist suggested I ask my mother about her own experience of FGM. At first, she was reluctant to talk. She said whenever she spoke of that day, her kidneys hurt. I persisted, and eventually, she decided to speak to me. She had gone through the same hell, twice. A neighbour had seen her ride a bicycle some days after her cutting; he said it had not been done properly. Once more, she was pinned down and mutilated.
My mother never thought my sister and I could avoid the knife. She thought the best she could do was to pay the cutter not to perform the most severe type of FGM, and to keep his mouth shut about it. Everybody in the family, including us, thought we had Type 3 FGM, when in fact we had Type 2. My mother thought that would be enough to protect us. I had to explain to her that the violation starts when the people you trust pin you down and maim you. The psychological abuse cannot be avoided.
In the course of counselling, more and more memories from that day started to surface. I now remember in detail the clothes me and my sister wore, the smell of food being prepared, and the presents – gold watches – we were given after the cutting. I also came to understand how that day had affected my relationship with my sister. As the oldest, I'd always felt protective of her - but on that day, I had failed her.
Neither of us was prepared for what was going to come. We had recently moved back to Somalia from Saudi Arabia and had never heard of FGM. I remember being puzzled by the celebrations; it wasn’t my birthday. My neighbour’s daughter was the first to tell me what was going to happen. As she explained, I heard my sister’s scream. It sounded like someone was strangling her.
My relationship with my sister was strained for years. She would always say, "you’re not my mother," whenever I’d feel the need to protect her. I had to come to terms with the guilt I felt for not having saved her, and understand that interfering with her life now, would not change the past. Our relationship only started to improve when I began to campaign against FGM. She told me that I had to accept that I was also a child and unable to help her. I now feel I have gained back my sister.
Making sure my daughter was uncut is my biggest accomplishment. For my whole family, breaking the cycle demanded great strength. My brother had to stand by us too, despite the stigma. His role as a man is always questioned: "your niece is not cut." All my family has gone on a journey with me. We’ve all had counselling because we wanted to set an example and to make sure that we could break the cycle.
My daughter says "you don’t hurt people, Mummy - that’s simple, isn’t it?" It should be, but it’s not. It required all of us to make sure she was protected.
I was lucky to have the right services around me when I became pregnant. No one can go on this journey without specialist support. That is why I continue to offer counselling for women today, even when funding is scarce or non-existent. I can’t turn women away. But such services need to be mainstreamed, and widely available for survivors around the country.
By Leyla Hussein
I was quite angry watching Cruel Cut on C4. I wondered why you were bothering Theresa May about it. Neither she nor the British government partake in the obscene and barbaric act of mutilating the vaginas of little girls.
It is done, as you know, by those in your own community so why don't you bring your argument to them. They do it, you don't think they should, show them your film and diagrams.
Years ago I saw a program which ended with a mother saying it was done to her and she will have it done to her daughter. I heard a man on LBC saying when ever there is school holidays he has to make sure not to leave his daughters side as her mother is so determined to send her off to be 'cut' as you put it. Make your self and your views known to mothers who are all for the idea and raise your objections with them.
The British Government has enough to contend with without taking on the backwardness of a nation which is quite happy to carry on regardless.
Thank you Layla, I am so grateful to you for breaking the silence. God Bless you in this very brave fight for what is right.
I'm so sorry for what you experienced Layla
Am glad for your dd that she is the first generation of girls not to be hurt.
As she says it should be a simple thing not to hurt others.
How did the world get so F'd up
joys you are aware that the backward country you're referring to is the UK, aren't you? That girls are being cut here, almost with impunity? By not bringing a single prosecution, despite the law being in place, the UK government is complicit in the mutilation.
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