Articles on Shifting Sands
FGM: ‘I hate that word. It’s not me. I’m not mutilated.’
Interview with Asha.
As I speak into my recorder to note ‘I’m meeting with Asha to talk about FGM’ she says with passion ‘I hate that word. It’s not me. I’ve had it done but I’m not mutilated.’ Her outburst is an indication of the forthrightness with which she approaches the topic, one that she’s been immersed in among the Cardiff Somali and Sudanese communities for some time.
Asha grew up in Cardiff in the 1970’s as part of the largest British-born Somali population in the UK. Her Dad was a seaman in the docks. She has an older sister, two older brothers and two younger sisters. And two teenage daughters.
You are adamant that FGM is not happening in Cardiff. How can you be so sure?
The community that I’m from decided to stop practising it back in the 80’s, soon after I’d had it done. But my younger sisters haven’t been cut. We discuss it all the time.
I’d say that 99.9% of our girls were taken to Somalia to have it done pre the 1980’s. It needed doing before the onset of puberty. That applied equally to Sudanese and Somali girls.
I remember being taken to Somalia with my older sister in 1978. It was a planned trip because the need was well understood within the community. Girls were all expected to have what was called ‘Halalese’ meaning ‘permissable’. Boys were circumcised in the UK.
Before families left, they visited friends and neighbours to be wished well and to say goodbye. If girls of a similar age were not being done, the parents would be asked why. Some had to delay going to save up for what was an expensive trip. The men understood the need for the practice and helped the families save. However, it wasn’t a topic that was discussed with them. My sister and I stayed for six months to recover from the infibulation.
Things changed in Cardiff after the 1980 civil war in Somalia?
Yes, there was an influx of new immigrants and men who had settled were allowed to bring their families here from Somalia. Soon young women who had been infibulated as children began to present at the hospital, pregnant. The midwives were unfamiliar with the practice and didn’t know what to do.
Rita Austin (Race Equality Council) and Efua Dorkenoo (Forward) supported the community in getting more appropriate healthcare. Gynaecologist, Dr Harry Gordon also helped train doctors in the clinical management. Some needed ‘opening’ before they could even have sex and certainly before they could be delivered of a baby.
A community campaign led to the development of a specialist service. This reduced the wait for a reversal from two years to a month. That service closed in approximately 1995 once the demand lessened.
What happened to bring this change about?
Until then, the largely Muslim community had believed that FGM was an Islamic obligation. But local religious leaders convinced them otherwise. The community then educated themselves about Islam and changed their ways to reflect more fundamental beliefs. FGM became ‘haram’ (forbidden) and some women took responsibility for persuading 10-15 others to stop practising it.
Since then, the community is unaware of girls being cut. A few suspected cases have been investigated but nothing found. A few unmarried, older woman who haven’t been ‘opened’ continue to need referral elsewhere for specialist care.
My younger sisters were not cut. The practice stopped with me. Obviously my daughters have not been cut either and until the awareness raising school campaigns started, they knew little about the practice.
The first law against FGM was introduced in 1985. Did that make a difference?
It was a coincidence that the first law against FGM was introduced around the time the community agreed to stop practising FGM. I remember my parents discussing this at home.
You are only talking about Wales. Maybe it’s happening elsewhere in Britain?
It’s highly unlikely that it’s being done anywhere in Britain. If the girls had been infibulated, they’d surely present at A&E or their GP with some of the well publicised, associated complications. When infibulated, the girl has her legs tied for weeks on end and 24 hour care is needed. There is no evidence that they undergo this.
Of course some young girls still arrive having had it done in Somalia. But the demand is lessening there also except for maybe in rural areas. I met a former cutter when I was last there, with my girls, in 2008. She’s now a community midwife. People have become more Islamic and stopped it. I was never put under pressure to have my girls done.
But what about the so called ‘cutting season’?
Asha laughs in exasperation. ‘There’s no such thing! We all find this such a strange notion.’
So, if the practice is decreasing, why is it such a high profile issue here?
Maybe it keeps the organisations in jobs? It has become a money making thing. There’s a lot of Government funding directed at campaigns wanting to eradicate the practice. But they are making things worse by criminalising communities with new laws, removing passports, asking travellers questions about FGM at airports etc. The campaigners are stigmatising our community and our girls; the next generation.
What do the communities with whom you’re in touch think of the campaigns, some of whom are led by women originally from the Somali community in Wales?
The campaigners are not connected to us or talking to us. We feel offended by what they say. Our mothers feel sick when they hear them. The say they are telling a pack of lies.
We’re told that we’re psychologically damaged as a consequence of being abused. But we were not abused. Our parents did it out of love for their children. We continue to love our ‘abusers’ and feel proud of them for having stopped the practice. The campaigners have no respect for our community. Hundreds of ordinary people will tell you in person that this doesn’t happen. But local people will not talk to the media.
We tell all of this to campaigners and professionals. But the campaigners don’t want to listen and professionals seem to believe campaigners more than they do us. But the campaigns and the media are not doing the community justice. And are not giving them credit for stopping it.
This anti-FGM campaign is, I believe, the third attempt to raise the profile of the issue and try to get something done about it permanently. It’s having a big impact.
But how do you measure impact? Yes, everybody knows about FGM now. Professionals, public sector workers, schools, the public etc. There’s been lots of professional training too. But what about the impact of all of this on the communities who don’t practice it? We talk about this. They feel offended, especially by the Guardian campaign.
What do people think of the regular questioning of women by professionals about their FGM status and intent with regard to their daughters?
They feel humiliated and stigmatised. They come back from seeing health professionals who seem to have become obsessed with the issue and share with us what they’ve been through. This makes people wary. But some have become courageous. I can give you an example of a 35 year old pregnant woman who went to see a consultant recently.
Her son has an inherited genetic condition. She needed tests done to the foetus. The consultant’s first question was about her intention with regard to FGM if she had a daughter. She was hurt by this but felt brave enough to ask him not to stigmatise her or to ask further questions about FGM, but to deal with the presenting problem. This kind of thing really damages relationships with health professionals.
What about school campaigns?
These campaigns are also problematic. My daughters knew little about the practice until the awareness raising campaigns in schools. But some British/Somali 14-15 year olds who did, complained about the information that was being passed to them because it was inaccurate and dated.
For example, they told the school kids that girls were still being ‘done’ in Cardiff and cited data that was over 30 years old. The head-teacher intervened and the campaigners had to rethink the content of the material. Teens are now well able to speak for themselves. They know about different types of abuse and about Childline, the NSPCC etc.
What do you think of patient identifiable data being centralised by the NHS to the department of health?
Surely that is a breach of patient confidentiality? That shouldn’t happen.
What about mandatory reporting? Professionals who see or are told that an under 18 year old has undergone FGM have to report this direct to the police from Oct 31st.
Won’t this prevent some girls from attending health services for fear of the consequences? They will worry that the police will visit the family home to ask lots of personal questions. And feel responsible for causing this? This will put them under a lot of pressure.
Your community has embraced Islam so don’t do FGM. But what about less committed people/communities?
Most people from Somali and Sudan are Sunni Muslims. They follow a kind of ‘code of conduct’, a way of behaving that gains them respect and connects them with their communities. Not having their girls cut is now part of this.
Is FGM anti-women?
I’m not sure what you mean by this. This is something that women took responsibility for and did because they believed that their religion demanded it. They know differently now so don’t do it. That’s why my younger sisters weren’t cut.
Is it men’s fault?
In the old days, men wouldn’t marry uncut girls. But that’s now changed. They don’t expect or even want it. Maybe some men from rural areas still expect it, but they will be few.
What needs to happen in regard to the issue?
I think there should be a big celebratory party for our mothers and grandmothers to thank them for stopping the practice in the 1980’s. The grassroots work that they did within their communities then has helped ensure that its dying out and women now in their 30’s didn’t undergo it. That’s a huge achievement.
But they get no official recognition for this. Campaigners, some even from our community, know this but don’t even want to acknowledge it. Maybe they’re more interested in being celebrities than telling the truth to politicians?
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.