I happened to glance upon a filmed interview, based on misinterpretations of FGM (female genital mutilation)that was performed (and written, so I later found out) with a total poker face by Psychotherapist and Lead Anti FGM/Gender Rights campaigner Leyla Hussein. The satire (with stand up comedian Bridget Christie watch it here)was based on actual questions Leyla has been asked. Whether it was her satirical envelope-pushing or her headscarf’s attitude, I knew immediately she had to be on our site. One tweet later we were in touch and Leyla came over to the HQ to be photographed by Lily Bertrand-Webb and featured in one our of first Q+A’s. . In walked a warm, generous woman who was as sharp as she was funny and full of the kind of courage that inspires greatly and shifts mindsets.
This piece was originally featured in The Guardian
My Dearest Feyrus,
I hope my words find you kicking ass as always. As you are now 13 I thought I’d write you a letter to explain how I see the world in 2016, and my fears for you and other girls. Most of all I want to celebrate the young women you are becoming.
In 2016, my saga of the angry feminist continues. I’m happy and privileged to carry that torch, though many may wonder why, including yourself. The answer is very simple: I express my anger and use my position to speak for those who can’t.
I don’t expect you to take up the mantle, but I’m impressed by the way you challenge sexism. Like the time you asked a teacher why he moved a couple of girls to the front of the class because they were being harassed by some boys. You expressed how unfair it was to move the girls, who hadn’t done anything wrong. Even though you were angry and upset, as a parent it was a proud moment to see that you saw the injustice.
I see the world through your eyes, my London-born African Muslim girl. I see the challenges based on your skin color, gender, and faith. One of the hardest things I’ve seen was you asking Muslim girls to accept you without wearing a hijab. I’ve always said I will always support the path you choose as long as you are not harming others. You are a girl who is free from FGM, as you know by now, this is something all the women in our family have endured, but we celebrate that we broke that cycle.
You are free from FGM, as you know this is something all the women in our family have endured, but we broke that cycle
You are now experimenting with your own voice and I’ve noticed you are extremely aware of your self-worth. I know at times your confidence is not well received by others just because you were born a girl. Sadly, I feel you still face challenges I faced as a young girl. You are still expected to sit quietly, look pretty, and accept daily sexist comments while the boys play football and do as they please. I want to make the world safe for you and to give you the opportunity to be the person you want to be. I made sure you were protected from one of the worst crimes committed against women. But I also know that to this date, millions of mothers like me cannot guarantee that basic safety for their daughters.
Every year, 3 million girls are at risk from FGM (the partial or total removal of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons) in Africa alone.
For girls with type 3 FGM, where the labia majora, minora and clitoris are cut and the opening sealed with stitches, simple acts like urinating and menstruating are an everyday painful occurrence. Imagine that, Feyrus; periods can be painful enough as it is.
Many of the girls subjected to FGM are being cut in preparation for child marriage. By the end of this decade, 142 million girls will have been married as children. I personally reject the word marriage when talking about children. It’s no more than legalised child rape and enslavement.
The word marriage sugar-coats the real crime.
Girls who are subjected to it suffer a multitude of physical and emotional complications such as domestic violence, fistula (this is where the vaginal wall breaks down due to forced sex), which leads to being incontinent, to then being ostracised for smelling of urine and faeces. Post-traumatic stress is very common among girls who live under such an environment and many resort to suicide or self-harm such as setting themselves on fire.
As a psychotherapist, I once worked with a woman who, as a girl had been subjected to both FGM and breast ironing. Breast ironing is where the breast tissue is burned with hot iron to flatten it, a procedure that is extremely painful and damaging. The UN estimates 3.8 million young women are at risk of breast ironing in central and west Africa. Thousands of girls from Cameroon, South Africa, Nigeria, the Republic of Guinea, Togo and Ivory Coast may also be at risk.
Only 12% of girls and women around the world have access to sanitary products.
For many, menstruation means missing out on education. These girls are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and abuse that must be broken. Maybe here in the UK, we should be grateful for the Tampon tax! Who knew it’s such a luxury keeping yourself clean while you bleed and go through painful cramps every month.
Globally, girls are faced with many challenges. Giving girls a chance means providing them with safe spaces so they can go to school without worrying about being kidnapped or shot in the head, not worrying about being raped on their way back from the cinema or groped during a concert. Girls also need spaces where they can express their true authentic selves without being judged or harmed.
Some of these spaces do exist in parts of the world. For instance I had the honour of meeting one of my heroesAgnes Pareyio, from Kenya, who runs a safe house called Tasaru, for girls who escaped FGM and forced marriage. These girls are her hope and Agnes gave them a safe space to become whoever they wish to be. I remember one of the girls telling me “Leyla, I will be a doctor and a banker.” To my dismay, I questioned “Can you do both?” She quickly replied “If I survived my flesh being butchered and being raped by my husband every day, reading books and exams won’t be such a challenge.”
Feyrus, I want you and other girls all around the world to thrive in 2016. We need to invest in you 100%. No more token actions. We want a better and safer world for our girls. I would like to end with an African proverb: “If you educate a boy, you educate an individual. If you educate a girl, you educate a community.”
So my dearest Feyrus please know that I’m very proud of you.
But in all honesty, as your mother, I still worry about your safety, just because you are a girl. That’s just my own fear and I don’t wish to impose that on you. Just remember what I’ve always told you – the world is a better place because you are in it.