I only became aware of how much I’d been affected psychologically by female genital mutilation (FGM) when I fell pregnant. I was severely depressed and I hated being vaginally examined; it was my worst nightmare. And I remember the doctors wondering: why is she so scared? I realized later it was my body experiencing flashbacks, reminding me of what had happened to me when I was six.
The day I was cut, in Somalia, I had no idea what was about to happen. When I woke up there were so many people in the house I thought we were celebrating something. But it wasn’t my birthday. The neighbour’s daughter turned to me and said “You must be really looking forward to this”. As she spoke I heard my sister screaming. It was an out of body experience; this girl was saying I was going to be cut and I thought, that’s not right, but I was in shock. Someone said: “Go get Leyla, it’s her turn”.
I was pinned onto the table by four women. They said “it's not going to be painful, silly girl”. Apparently they gave me an injection to numb it, but I felt everything, I felt my flesh being cut off.
After you're cut you're given presents, chocolates, sweets – me and my sister actually got gold watches. You’re abused, but you're rewarded for it. It leaves you with a massive sense of confusion about people you trust. Years later when I was training to be a therapist I confronted my mother. She had believed it was the right thing to do at the time, but she also protected me. She told everyone that I had gone through Type 3 (the most severe form) rather than Type 2. By having this conversation and receiving her apology, I was freed from this confusion. I knew that I would never let my daughter go through this ordeal.
FGM is a form of identity. Women in my community worry that they won’t be considered a good Somali woman if they haven’t undergone FGM. But let’s be clear: this is a practice that controls women's sexuality, and it continues today because we still live in an environment where women are restricted.
People need to be educated. I didn’t know how much FGM had affected me psychologically until I had the right knowledge. No child is going to come out and testify against their parents. At the same time we need to exercise the law because FGM is a human rights violation and these girls deserve justice. But we need to recognize that if you arrest a mother, she might also be a victim.
Our focus now must be on prevention. The UK government needs to implement the multi agency guidelines that it has published and make them mandatory. We have this great tool but it’s collecting dust. Our schools are not talking about this; the NHS is not talking about this. Teachers should be trained to notice the little girl who can’t sit on the floor properly. Or the girl who takes 20 minutes to urinate, but no-one questions why, so she gets detention.
When I started counseling survivors of FGM, I made an assumption that all women would have the same story, but I actually don't know two similar accounts. One woman I spoke to can’t have children. She was told she had to be cut to be a perfect woman, but at that moment her right to motherhood was also cut from her. The counseling I provide is a space for these women to make sense of what happened to them, to acknowledge that they suffered a form of child abuse. I’m now hoping to train therapists so they can identify survivors of FGM and help them deal with its complications.
My 11-year-old daughter recently said to me: “I'm so grateful you never made me go through something like this”. She's my biggest accomplishment.
Leyla Hussein is an anti-FGM activist, psychotherapist, ‘Strong Voice’ of Amnesty International’s END FGM European Campaign and co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a charity dedicated to ending gender-based violence including female genital mutilation.