I love that bit in The Cruel Cut, the film you did with Channel 4, where you set up an army recruiting tent for ’the war against vaginas’ and decorate it with a patchwork quilt of pussies and what you call cunting bunting.
Well, I knew if I just put up a sign saying ‘learn about FGM here’ no-one was gonna come in. But a pink vagina tent with a mohair clitoris above the entrance? Yeah!
Making it OK to smile anywhere near this subject feels oddly empowering.
If I can make fun of something that’s trying to control me then it hasn’t beaten me. Hey guys, obviously FGM doesn’t work, just look at me!
In one of the scenes I was supposed to chase Theresa May wearing a six foot vagina costume
Were you surprised Channel 4 let you do it?
Yeah but we didn’t win every fight. In one of the scenes I was supposed to chase Theresa May wearing a six foot vagina costume. But Channel 4 said ‘No, no, no’.
When FGM survivors talk among themselves, do they use humour as a survival tool?
No because we are instructed never, ever to speak about it.
But don’t you share the pain of it together in secret?
No, it’s too traumatising. Though how it is described to us is as something that’s painful for a few minutes, but which will be great for us long-term. We will be able to get the right husband because of it, and immediately afterwards we will be showered with gifts.
I was given all these gifts on that day, a gold watch, dolls, new toys
The other day I found the gold watch my mother gave me when I was cut. That was weird.
Before the war in Somalia my family had done really well for themselves and I was given loads of stuff that day: a gold watch, dolls, new toys. The only thing I didn’t get was the chocolate.
How old were you?
Seven. I remember there was a party atmosphere in the house. I thought, whose birthday is it? The girl next door came in. She said to me, 'You must be happy today Leyla'. I said, 'What do you mean?' As I was saying it I heard someone screaming and screaming. I realised it was my sister because she was calling for our Mum. Then she fell silent and I heard someone say - ‘Get Leyla’.
They caught me. People I trusted. They pinned me down. They pulled my knees up to my shoulders and pulled my legs apart. I struggled.
Lots of girls are cut by traditional cutters, old village women. I was cut by a doctor. And not just any doctor, he was this big, famous doctor like Dr Hilary over here. I kicked him in the face. That’s why I didn’t get the chocolate.
Guess that’s why I’m addicted to chocolate.
How about your sister?
I remember my sister being quite ill afterwards with infections, discharge issues. At the age of five she was in the gynae hospital.
When you are going to have FGM they make a fuss of you. You have your hair braided nicely. You have henna done. You’re like a little bride.
And literally you and your sister never talked about it afterwards?
No. You are groomed to accept this.
You mean the way sexual predators groom children?
Let’s be clear. FGM is child abuse. So why wouldn’t the process of preparing a child to accept it be described as grooming?
Yes I see. It comes dressed up with bows and presents but it’s also something you are forbidden to speak about.
When you are going to have FGM they make a fuss of you. You have your hair braided nicely. You have henna done. You’re like a little bride. Afterwards, you are sweating and crying. They wash you. They put you in the best room in the house in a beautiful new dress with all these gifts around you. Then they have these little girls who haven’t been cut yet come in. The little girls walk in and they see you with all this and they look up to you. They don’t know what happened to you 45 minutes ago.
I said, ‘Yeah of course I’ve had it’ and she said, ‘Oh good, we can play with you then’
Can you briefly explain what FGM involves?
It’s divided into four types. In Type One, the clitoris is either pricked or cut off. In Type Two, the inner lips of the vagina are also sliced away and the vagina partially closed with stitches. In Type Three, everything is removed including the outer lips. In some cultures they say you have to cut until you feel the bone. Then the flesh is stitched from top to bottom leaving a hole just big enough for a matchstick. The little girl has to urinate and eventually menstruate through this.
This more extreme type of FGM is also called infibulation. When infibulated women are married, it is difficult and sometimes impossible for their husbands to penetrate them. Their scars may have to be partially opened up. You can imagine the problems around giving birth. Type Four is different. In Type 4 a girl’s genitals are either stretched, or shrunk using an acid liquid.
When these girls grow up, do they understand what has been taken from them?
How can they when all the women in the community have had it done? The first time I heard that FGM was wrong I was 21 years old, and I’ve lived in London since the age of 12, so I can’t even imagine what it would be like for a woman living in Somalia.
In Somalia, it’s not normal if you don’t have it. 98% of Somali women have some form of FGM and 80-90% have Type Three, the most extreme.
I watched a documentary on youtube, The Cutting Tradition, where the word people kept using was ‘clean’. Until women are cut, we are not clean.
When I was a little girl my family lived abroad for a few years in Italy and Saudi Arabia. On my first day at school back in Somalia, one of the other girls came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you had gudnin?’ She had been introduced to me as a diaspora kid and people worried about diaspora girls. I said, ‘Yeah of course’ and she said, ‘Oh good, we can play with you then’. And I remember thinking, so this is why my mum did this for me.
As a little girl, the idea that other kids would refuse to play with me was far more horrific than the idea of FGM.
‘You are not going to do it for Fey? Not even the small one?’
So how did you come to realise that it was not a good thing?
I didn’t have the worst kind of FGM, so I didn’t have problems urinating or having sex. For me the issues became apparent when I got pregnant with Fey. Every time I was vaginally examined I would get a panic attack and then black out.
It was only when I was seen by a specialist nurse, Jennifer Bourne, that the reason came to light. Jennifer is also a trained psychotherapist. She created a safe space in which she could tell me the truth. She said, ‘Ms Hussein, your body is having flashbacks to when you were cut, that is why you are blacking out.’
Remember I was cut by a medical doctor. So every time I am in a medical setting where they have to part my legs, where I smell disinfectant, hear the clicks of the instrument for something like a smear test, it affects me. I don’t black out anymore because I’ve had therapy. But I’m never going to be OK with any vaginal exam.
How did you go from understanding the damage done to campaigning?
The initial wake-up call was thinking, ‘What if I am pressurised to do this to my daughter?’
I started with a get-together for a group of my friends. We sat around chatting and then I said, ‘Can I ask you a question?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, sure’. I said, ‘Have you been cut?’ and they were like, ‘Oh. Oh yeah, but why are you asking this?’ I said, ‘Because it’s damaging and I am not going to do it to Fey.’ They were flabbergasted: ‘You are not going to do it for Fey?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ They said, ‘Not even the small one?’
Wow, the language there makes it so clear. You say, I am not going to do it to Fey, and they reply, you are not going to do it for Fey?
That was the message. I was refusing to do something important for my daughter by refusing to have her cut.
I called out ‘Enjoy eating the pussies’ and carried on walking
Where did the idea for the vulva cupcakes come from?
Women didn’t know what a vagina looks like. I thought cupcakes would be a fun way to show them. I started out making them in my mother’s kitchen. My mother was running a woman-only mosque in her living room at the same time. Imagine!
When The Cruel Cut came out, a woman’s group in Ethiopia got in touch. They had somehow got hold of the film and said would I come talk to them - and bring some cupcakes.
I landed in Addis with this big box of cakes and went through two levels of security where I was made to open the box. The officers didn’t react. Why would they? They had never seen an intact vulva before. They thought the decorations on the cakes were flowers.
There was one final check as I was about to board a domestic flight. When the guy there saw the cakes he shouted: ‘How dare you bring these here?’ I thought, Leyla, keep calm. I said, ‘Look, these are just cakes. I am teaching a group of women about their bodies.’ He said: ‘This is obscenity. You either leave these objects behind or you don’t get on this flight.’
I handed him the box. As I cleared check-in I couldn’t resist. I called out ‘Enjoy eating the pussies’ and carried on walking.
His tea break that day must have been a riot.
Must have been the most popular guy in the canteen.
FGM is not a cultural practice. Culture is food and music, not butchering little girls’ genitals.
So … you become a prominent campaigner and also a psychotherapist with a practise that treats FGM survivors. The Cruel Cut was nominated for a BAFTA, and started a big conversation in Britain. You launched Dahlia Project, still the only counselling service for FGM survivors in Europe. And you are Strategic Advisor for UK-funded The Girl Generation, the only programme funded by any government aimed at ending FGM in African countries. How has the Somali community responded to all this activism?
I was shunned by the community. But I have also been shunned by the so-called ‘lovely campaigners’ who take a pc approach, calling FGM a ‘cultural practice’. FGM is not a cultural practice. Culture is food and music, not butchering little girls’ genitals.
How are you regarded in Somalia?
I can’t go back to Somalia. I am on al-Shabaab’s hitlist.
Even here, no-one knows where I live. My address is police-protected. You can’t find me on the census. Recently I had my panic alarm removed but I’m going to have to put it back in again because of this new film I’m in which premiered last month at Locarno Film Festival: #Female Pleasure. It is going to piss a lot of people off.
#Female Pleasure? Sounds in the ballpark of pink fluffy vagina tents.
Well my favourite woman in the film is Megumi Igarashi who 3D-printed her vagina and scaled it up into a kayak that she paddled around in. She was prosecuted under Japan’s obscenity laws.
The film is basically five women from five different parts of the world saying that religion is a huge part of the problem in controlling women, especially in controlling our sexuality.
I’ve actually had women say to me ‘My vagina belongs to my husband’
Our bodies have not belonged to us.
I’ve actually heard women say to me in counselling ‘My vagina belongs to my husband’. I do this exercise with them when I say ‘Who does your nose belong to?’ They roll their eyes and say ‘Me’. I say ‘Who does your mouth belong to?’ – ‘Me’. ‘Who do your eyes belong to?’ – ‘Me’. Arms to me, neck to me, breasts to me, but when it get to genitals you can see the confusion on their faces.
The moment you are pinned down and that part of your body is taken away from you, the message is that you don’t own your sexuality. So I don’t blame the women for having that thought, because that’s the message given to them at a very young age in a brutal way.
You are very clear about naming this, insisting always that FGM is not referred to as a ‘traditional practice’.
Using the right words to describe something is crucial. When FGM is called a ‘harmful traditional practice’, it is not taken seriously.
Two years ago I was invited to speak at a police conference in Birmingham. One of them came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Ms. Hussein, I have been a police officer for 25 years and I have never heard of this.’ Can you imagine? In Birmingham, a very multi-cultural part of the UK. He said, ‘If I walked in to what you have just described without knowing about FGM I would have reported it as a serious sexual assault against a child’.
That’s what the definition of FGM should be.
I’m not interested in conversations where I have to negotiate my vagina with a community leader. It’s my body, talk to me about it
I suppose many well-intentioned white people worry about cultural imperialism?
If I touched a child’s genitals – never mind cutting them off – I would be on the sex offender’s list. No question. Why is this any different? Those who worry about cultural imperialism are saying my daughter doesn’t deserve the same justice as any other child because she comes from another culture.
This is why I don’t like the FGM law here in the UK. It assumes we need a separate law for little brown girls. And that doesn’t work. There has never been a single successful prosecution under the FGM law, and the first version was put in place back in 1985.
I don’t know if you have come across the French system? When I put my petition before parliament I asked a leading prosecutor from France to come and give evidence. The parliamentary panel asked her ‘You have had over a hundred successful convictions for FGM. What worked?’
She said, ‘It’s not magic. We treated these children equally to children who suffered other forms of child abuse and prosecuted the perpetrators under child abuse laws.’
This is political correctness gone wild
So couldn’t police officers here choose to charge perpetrators under our existing child abuse laws?
No. They have to charge using the 2003 FGM Act, which was an update to the 1985 law.
Well what about GBH then? Surely the perpetrators can be charged with that?
No. Perpetrators have to be charged under FGM.
Is this a case of political correctness gone wild?
Political correctness gone wild, and also talking to the wrong ‘experts’. Our politicians are taking their lead from community leaders who, basically, are the men trying to control the women. I’m not interested in conversations where I have to negotiate my vagina with a community leader. It’s my body – talk to me about it.
In Nairobi they have pop-up cutting houses during the European school holidays
How prevalent is FGM in Britain?
137,000 women living in Britain have been cut and around 66,000 of our girls are at risk.
The 2003 update to the FGM law made it illegal not only to cut a girl here, but also to take a girl abroad to be cut. Yet every summer there is a sea of little girls travelling from London to Dubai to have it done. Dubai is one of the top two places in the world for cutting British girls. The other is Nairobi where they now have pop-up ‘cutting houses’ during the European school holidays, designed especially to cater to British girls.
I have a daughter. In 2010 she was turning ten, that age when Somalis cut their daughters. We were in Dubai on a family holiday and so I decided to check out the situation for myself. I took Fey down to the souk and asked around. Within an hour we had been directed to four different cutting clinics. I came back to London and reported this to the police at the highest level.
Nothing was done.
People say, ‘Oh those Africans, they’re so barbaric. Look what they do to their girls’. But isn’t it also barbaric that British girls are not being protected?
To watch The Cruel Cut, search for ‘watch the cruel cut online’.
Magool is Leyla’s hub for accurate information and articles about FGM mavenroundtable.io/magool/