16 Days of Activism - 'Stitched'

By Fahma Mohamed, Former Service User and Junior Trustee, Integrate UK on 05 December 2021 Wellbeing Of Women FGM - Female Genital Mutilation

My journey to becoming an activist was an unusual one. Integrate UK started about the time I went to secondary school and my English teacher at the time was one of the co-founders of the charity. In school, I heard about FGM, which I knew so little about, so I asked my mum what it was. When she told me, I was shocked to hear that it was still widespread in so many countries and that it happened here in the UK. The fact that I had to hear it from my White-British English teacher illustrated to me how taboo this subject was within my community as it was not talked about.

I wanted to get involved and do something about this, but it took a while for me to find my voice; I was afraid of the way my community and my peers would react. Growing up in a community where FGM is highly prevalent, I was aware of the judgment and pressures young women face in regards to dishonour when speaking out about taboo community issues. 

When I did begin to engage in End-FGM campaign work, I started small and mostly in the background. However, at the age of 14, I helped to organise and host a national conference to educate 300 delegates about FGM. The following year, I took part in a scriptwriting project and was featured in a play about gender-based violence and abuse called ‘My Normal Life’. At the age of 16, I became Juniour Trustee of the charity Integrate UK. Within this role, I felt empowered and that I could play a vital role in changing the lives of so many young people affected by honour-based abuse and FGM within my community. 

Change officially started with Integrate UK’s Change.org campaign, fighting for FGM education in UK schools and asking for teachers and frontline professionals to be trained on the issue. As the face of this campaign, I felt empowered and that our messages were finally being heard. Through the campaign, I was able to meet important change-makers, such as Ban Ki Moon, Malala Yousafzai, and even Prince William and Harry. It completely changed the trajectory of my life and now I feel it is my life’s work to campaign for gender and racial equality.   

As a result of this petition and the continued efforts of FGM survivors ad campaigners, FGM education became statutory in UK schools. Social change would not have been possible without the hard work of charities and organisations that have been working vigilantly to push the government to introduce these policies. The movement isn’t just in the UK, though I think it’s fair to say the changes introduced in 2015 (mandatory reporting and recording) and statutory training and education have had a ripple effect around the world. 

We’ve made several resources over the years, my favourites being the music video #MyClitoris which we developed in response to the article An Agonising Choice published in The Economist. I also love the NHS Support Clinic video that emphases the need to deracialise the practice and to make it clear that a woman isn’t defined by FGM. All our early videos focused on raising awareness, the need for training, improved safeguarding, and making sure young people knew how to access help. Many of these issues have thankfully been addressed. 

However, there is still work to be done. The aim of our new resource ‘Stitched’ highlights ongoing challenges: people generally see FGM as something that affects ‘African girls in headscarves’ - in particular Somali girls. This has meant that those outside this group not only felt they needed permission to join the conversation but resulted in many of them not recognising themselves as survivors of FGM. This is because FGM is referred to as something completely different in their cultures. An example of this is when young Kurdish girls joined Integrate UK and they had no idea that FGM was prevalent within their community, as the only people they’ve seen speak on the issue were Somali women. FGM should be deracialised outside of the context of affected communities; FGM supersedes race, culture, religion, or geography. Labiaplasty is by definition FGM and if it is carried out on minors, it should be criminalised in the same way. FGM is a human rights abuse, full stop. 

And then there’s the absence of men and boys in the conversations. FGM stems from honour-based abuse and ultimately derives from patriarchal structures. In many cultures, it’s the men that have the final say in the family dynamic and young people know this. It was felt that the conversation can only go so far without the aid of men and boys in eradicating FGM. Their lack of involvement and education in the cause is very dangerous as without them, the cycle of abuse and the whole concept of ‘honour’, will never be broken. We welcome men and boys - as well as being allies in our mission, we aim to liberate them from the pressure of toxic masculinity.

Yes, we can blame the patriarchy for violence against women and girls, but we need to acknowledge that men and boys are victims of the patriarchy too. No one is born to hate, it’s learned and can be unlearnt.

That is not to exclude other members of the family such as parents, grandparents, and younger siblings; free and open conversations promote a healthy sense of family identity. The more comfortable members of the family feel to express their views, the more likely they are to continue these conversations outside the home. If young children in the home are the ones facilitating these engaging conversations, it can cause a positive rippling effect and change the minds of generations.

FGM is the most fundamental form of suppression of women and girls. It happens because you are a girl. Girls are still policed, monitored, and valued according to whether or not they are considered virgins. The obsession with our vaginas has gone on long enough. 

Inequality infuriates me, and FGM is a manifestation of gender inequality - it's ridiculous that we are still having to fight for gender equality in this country! Britain is the 5th richest country in the world and yet half the population is still fighting for basic rights. This resource is a visual presentation that allows people to understand the impact of FGM and its consequences through an unexpected perspective. 

Fahma Mohamed is a former service user and Junior Trustee of Integrate UK.  As a feminist and an outspoken activist, she has played a key role over the years, organising and hosting conferences, taking the main role in My Normal Life, a play written by young activists about FGM and gender inequality, fronting the successful national campaign and petition to the Secretary of State for Education and speaking on national and international platforms.  Fahma now works as a Project Worker, mentoring younger members of the charity and facilitating workshops that empower young people to develop their own movements for social change around gender and racial equality.