It is almost exactly a year ago this week that I had the privilege of hosting several activists against FGM for an event in Oslo.
Survivors testified to the harrowing experiences of FGM, from the traumas experienced during the process, to the long-term effects, such as panic attacks triggered by gynaecological examinations, diminished sexual pleasure and complications during childbirth. With a suggested 66,000 women living with the consequences of FGM in the UK today, this provided a chilling impression of the impact of this practice upon women and girls. While the event did not shy away from confronting the suffering, it was also a celebration of women’s activism. From Leyla Hussein’s continued advocacy against FGM at a national level, Muna Hassan’s grassroots work within her own school, and Sarian Karim Karama’s campaigning at a community level, we involved activists operating at every level ̶not to mention Janet Fyle’s ground-breaking work within the RCM to develop the understanding of FGM within the context of public health. We also involved Kwame Lestrade, director of the film Calm, which was based on a true story about FGM.
These activists, and many others like them ̶most notably the late Efua Dorkenoo ̶have wrenched open the living room curtains, exposing abuses of women and girls which had previously been carried out in private. This includes those who have been defended as traditions. But traditions which lead to such extreme suffering do not deserve our respect. If we believe that women and girls should have autonomy over their bodies, from consent to sex to their experience of childbirth, then this should also preclude the slicing of young girls’ genitals with razor blades and shards of glass.
This week is not just the anniversary of an event which taught me a great deal about FGM, but also part of the UN’s 16 days of activism targeting violence against women and girls. FGM is without question a form of gender-based violence, and should be treated as such, without any excuses. We need to have the same kind of safeguarding measures as would apply to any other act of violence built into the system. We need for every professional to be aware of the problem and ready to take action. For far too long, FGM has been a form of abuse which has been neglected. The issue has been tiptoed around for fear of upsetting the sensibilities of people within communities. It has taken the development of a movement from inside those communities, led by survivors, to shine light into the private abuses occurring within the streets that they live, the countries they call home. During these 16 days of activism – and beyond - we need to acknowledge the brave voices of women activists, the importance of their work and to stand with these pioneers. This is a responsibility for us all, not just out of a duty of care or because it is part of our code of professional conduct (although that may be true) but out of a sense of solidarity with fellow human beings who are suffering needlessly.
Deeyah Khan is a critically acclaimed producer and Emmy and Peabody award-winning documentary film director and founder of media company Fuuse which includes sister-hood, a digital magazine and a series of live events spotlighting the voices of women of Muslim heritage. Her work highlights human rights, women’s voices and freedom of expression. Her multi-award winning documentary Banaz: A Love Story is about a so-called honour killing. Deeyah is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and has also received several awards for her work supporting freedom of expression, human rights and peace, including the Ossietzky prize by Norwegian PEN and the University of Oslo’s Human Rights Award. She also received the 2016 Peer Gynt Prize from the Parliament of Norway.