On Saturday evening I moderated a panel discussion about female genital mutilation/cutting, commonly known as FGM/C. It was part of the Capital Irish Film Festival organized by Solas Nua an Irish Arts organization. The film we discussed was ‘A Girl from Mogadishu’ created by Irish film director Mary McGuckian, about the FGM/C campaigner Ifrah Ahmed. It tells the story of Ifrah’s traumatic experience of FGM/C when she was a child in Somalia, and how at age 15 she was forced to marry a 50 year old man. The film depicts her struggle to leave a violent, war-torn Somalia, being trafficked to Ireland and making her way through the asylum-seeking process. She eventually becomes an Irish citizen and a passionate campaigner to end FGM/C. A practice that is not easy to end due to its deep cultural roots in the belief of ‘making girls marriageable’ by ensuring their virginity and purity. Suffice to say, FGM/C has many physical, sexual and psychological impacts including urinary tract infections, post-traumatic stress disorder, death, and later in life when the girl or woman is pregnant there is a higher risk of childbirth complications and maternal mortality. It is a practice steeped in discriminatory attitudes about gender that normalize the control of a girl/woman’s sexual behaviour by removing part or all of her clitoris, labia and in some cases narrowing her vaginal tract by stitching it closed leaving just enough space for her to urinate and menstruate. It is incredible to think of the courage it took Ifrah Ahmed to speak out against FGM/C and in so doing, stand against her cultural upbringing and placing herself at personal risk. But she found her voice, told her story, and continues to stand up for girls and women everywhere who are at risk of FGM/C. A testament to her courage, tenacity and power.
After the film I was standing in a bar sipping a glass of wine and chatting with friends. Not surprisingly, the conversation turned to vaginas, and how little we talk about ‘that part of a woman’s body’ either privately or publicly. Remembering a minor surgery I’d had a few years ago I recounted my story about the male surgeon’s behaviour towards me and my vagina. Lying in a hospital bed the day after the operation, with my legs propped up on pillows and my vagina packed with swabs of cotton wool, the surgeon (let’s call him Tom) breezily enters my room with half a dozen trainee doctors, mostly men. They surround my bed, ask me how I’m feeling, look at my chart, and then as they leave, Tom looks over his shoulder at me and says loudly, ‘No men for three months!’
I was so shocked and offended I was tempted to yank out my catheter and fling it at him! ‘No men for three months’! So, has he seen my title ‘Ms’ on my medical chart and made a series of assumptions that:- A. I am single, B. I am heterosexual and C. there are multiple men in my life? Would he have spoken to a ‘Mrs’ like that? Or might he have whispered gently in her ear, in almost conspiratorial tones, ‘no sex with your husband for three months dear, OK’? Why were ‘men’ important in a discussion about my post-operative vagina? Could he not see that I was stuffed like a Christmas Turkey, bleeding, in pain, unable to move, using a catheter to pee through, and that the very last thing on my mind at that moment was jumping into bed with said ‘men’!
At my six-month check-up, I sat opposite ‘Tom’ in his office. He still reeked of the same arrogance and bristling superiority I remembered from our previous encounter. He looked down at my chart and asked ‘how are things down there?’ O.k. he didn’t call it ‘down there’ but you get the gist, it was all tick box efficiency and no eye contact. I told him I had a series of urinary tract infections and therefore ‘things down there’ did not seem to be OK. I also asked him if the operation had interfered with my G-Spot. Specifically, did I still have a G-spot? As in, I had no sensation in that part of my vagina anymore. At this question there was a gleam in his eye as he tried to wipe the smirk of his face, ‘We don’t know that women have a G-spot, biologically speaking’, he corrected me. ‘Perhaps’, I said, ‘but I no longer have any sensation where I once did, in my G-spot zone, so maybe, as it is my body after-all, and it definitely feels different, some harm was done? With that he snapped on a pair of latex gloves. He did it, the glove snapping, as if he was a cowboy in an old-style Western movie, pulling a gun from a holster on either side of his hips and then shooting them into the air. As he waved his newly-gloved hands about there was a glint of power in his eyes that communicated ‘how dare you question my surgical skills!’ Then he said ‘Shall I conduct an internal examination?’ ‘Yes please’ I replied briskly. Several minutes later, examination over, he declared his surgical-work to be perfect, excellent in fact, with absolutely no problems at all. ‘O silly me’, I thought, ‘and there was I thinking I knew how my own body felt, but sure if you tell me all is well, then I guess I will just have to hop off with myself and stop wasting your time’! Exit one disgruntled woman clutching a prescription for antibiotics.
A few months later while listening to the radio I heard an announcement that the HSE (the Health Service Executive in Ireland) was no longer conducting the surgery I had, and this was due to an issue with lack of consent. The full list of potential side effects of the operation had not been clearly spelt out to patients in advance and hundreds of women had subsequently complained of chronic pain, chronic urinary tract infections, and painful sex, amongst other health issues. I had been right all along. I didn’t imagine my own symptoms. Yet, I had been treated as a foolish woman who dared to challenge the health system. This history of women being silenced about their bodies is not new and much as been written about it recently, luckily for me my symptoms abated, but what about all the women who were not so lucky?
This is why it is so important to hear women’s stories, to challenge the systems that silence us and to know that we are not alone. While women in Ireland have much more voice today than our mother’s generation, we still do not see women’s multi-faceted experiences represented in the culture and the media to the same extent as men’s. And globally within the film industry only five women have ever been nominated for an Academy Award for directing and only one woman has ever won one, Kathryn Bigelow for Hurt Locker. Women's storytelling needs to be supported financially and culturally so that everyone can see, understand and confront the multiple discriminations we face. Historically, experiences like Ifrah’s have been silenced and yet 200 million women and girls alive on the planet today have undergone FGM/C with three million girls at risk. This is an issue that needs urgent action. If you are interested in supporting this cause check out the Ifrah Foundation or one of the other organisations listed at the end of this blog.
On Saturday, just before we left the theatre, Pat Reilly, the organiser of the event, shared the good news with us that Ifrah recently gave birth to her first child. There was a huge round of applause. Later, as I reflected on the evening I marvelled at the power of one woman to build a movement and create change internationally. A woman who took what had happened to her and rather than becoming a victim of that oppression, had transformed it by speaking out against injustice, and standing up for her own human rights and those of women and girls everywhere. Not only had Ifrah influenced the creation of new laws and policies but she had tapped into her courage and resolve to transform and transcend her oppressive circumstances, and now she has created a beautiful new life. :)
*There is good work being done at the grassroots level by women’s organisations with key influencers, religious leaders, community elders and teachers but they need more financial support and resources to ensure the implementation of international laws and policies aimed at eradicating FGM such as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW General Recommendation No. 14, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/67/146 in 2012 banning FGM/C, and the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 5.3) have a target to abandon the practice by 2030.
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‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter’ - Martin Luther King Jr.