My life with FGM: Aisha’s story

43 years ago, there was a girl born into this world under the heat of the Sudanese sun. She was born like most girls are born into this world – two arms, two legs, a healthy beating heart, and shrieking, reassuringly, when air first expanded her tiny lungs. This little girl’s mother must have frantically checked that little new born body a thousand times in those first minutes, as mothers do. I can imagine her breathing a sigh of relief when she finds her girl with all ten fingers and toes. For being a girl is enough trouble. But not as much trouble as it is for sonless households – little Aisha was born with an older brother. In those first minutes of Aisha’s life, 43 years ago, when worries fled out of respect, I imagine Aisha’s mother’s heart uttered Alhamdulilllah.

Little Aisha grew healthily into a happy toddler. But not before she and her family left the Sudanese sun behind for the Saudi Arabian sun. Life for Aisha continued on in Saudi Arabia much as it did in Sudan. The world turns, in those early years of life, somehow both achingly slow and blindingly fast. It’s a frustrating contradiction we must all bear at that age. Playtime is too short, punishment too long – there are not enough bananas and too much liver. In this precious innocence Aisha explored the world around her and grew into a precocious toddler, a daddy’s girl. She would tell you now, ‘I was happy then.’

But she might also tell you, ‘this changed when I was five years and six months old.’

Aisha is 43 now. She wears her loose flowing veil around her head. She rearranges it dozens of times a day. She has wide eyes and a smile so genuine and pure that it makes you believe she’s never seen a hard day in her life. She bustles around her kitchen making tea and fresh-squeezed juice for her friends. And she will appreciate it when I say that her hummus and falafel are next to none. But appreciation or not, it is true. If you were imagining this kind, bundle of a woman somewhere in Saudi Arabia or Sudan you’d be wrong. Life has led her elsewhere.

Perhaps one day you might find yourself in blustry Scotland and near a bus stop in Edinburgh. If you did, you could feasibly get on one of two particular buses, ride for 20 minutes, and find yourself right near her door. When you arrive you may find her hosting friends, ironing her sheets (which I still can’t get her to stop doing), praying, planning her social enterprise’s next board meeting, or you might not find her there at all. If she’s not there she is probably zooming around the city, volunteering, working out at the gym, or speaking at events.

But depending on the day, it is possible that you could also find her somewhere else entirely. If you are looking for Aisha – Aisha with the kind smile, Aisha the daddy’s girl – you must look in places altogether unexpected. There are many days in which you will find her painfully fighting her demons in cognitive behavioural therapy, or having her genitalia examined by a reconstructive surgeon, or having nightmares spurned on by post-traumatic stress disorder. You might even find her mid-panic attack or in the throes of hypomania.

Aisha is a survivor of female genital mutilation. From the age of five years and 6 months old she has been surviving. She is still surviving.

But not everything did.

If you were to ask her today what did not survive FGM she might first say: “My unborn children didn’t survive. My marriages didn’t survive.”

Although she physically survived FGM, as many victims do not, throughout her life much of herself did not.

Every day she has had to learn and re-learn again how to revive the parts of her that have had a hard time surviving FGM: her self-confidence, peace of mind, happiness, security, relationship with her mother, trust in authority figures, self-worth, self-control, ability to say no, ability to stand up for herself, mental stability, and her physical health – all of these things, at countless points in her life, did not survive FGM. She still fights every day for their survival.

Aisha was not born with this unique struggle; it was inflicted upon her by those she trusted– in a matter of minutes. Young girls around the world just like Aisha have their lives and bodies irreparably altered in those minutes. For many girls, those are their last minutes. For Aisha, those minutes straddled two lives, one of carefree happiness, and the other which contained a happiness she had to work for – a happiness she had to convince herself daily, sometimes by the second, that she was worthy of.


This is the first in a multi-part series that will chronicle Aisha’s story. It can be a sad story, that is certain. It can also be disheartening and disturbing. But if you were to ask Aisha, it is a story of hope and survival. And once she finishes telling it, I’m almost certain that she will bustle off to another meeting, or to pray, perhaps to call her beloved father, or to make fresh juice for another dear visiting friend – smiling all the while, one minute at a time.


Progress Report: Sept. 12th FGM event planning meeting

On Tuesday September 12th the 16 Days organising committee held a planning meeting for a 2-day female genital mutilation (FGM) event. This event will be held during this year’s 16 Days of action against gender-based violence (GBV). The official dates of this event are pending but, tentatively, it will be held on the 29th and 30th of November.

This initial meeting was attended by:

Elaine Galbraith (Police Scotland)

Nahla Awad (individual/Bright Choices volunteer)

Dounia Ouizem (Amina-the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre)

Bob Wright (Edinburgh Napier University)

Oonagh O’Brien (Queen Margaret University)

Bryan McNeill (UK Border Force)

Jerusalem Barnabas (Waverley Care)

Niharika Puri (Edinburgh Napier University)

Hannah Lawrence (St. Andrews University)

and conducted by Angela Voulgari (Sacro, Bright Choices)

There were also many other supporters not in attendance who we will be following up with separately to get their input on the meeting discussions.

The meeting itself was very fruitful with most attendees giving great suggestions about the nature of the FGM event – such as venue options, target audience, interactive versus tutorial style presentation, etc. Although, again, everything is still in tentative stages, there was unanimous agreement that the FGM event be interactive and cater to a diverse audience of professionals, FGM survivors, third-sector workers, general public, politicians, etc. Additionally, it was unanimously expressed that the event should further try to address the complexity of tackling FGM.

FGM lies at a crossroads of many dearly held value systems – including religion, culture, and family. Therefore the solution to the problem of FGM- and indeed the source of the problem itself- is notoriously difficult to identify, much less tackle. And it was stressed by those present at the meeting that this FGM event should attempt to diversify people’s perceptions of FGM, the survivors of FGM, as well as the perpetrators (and perpetuators) of this practice. Because, like anything, there is no black and white concept of good and bad. None of us make decisions in a vacuum or are immune to the forces around us that were formed by the powers that be – powers that can be oppressive and reality-distorting.

Through this event, we look forward to contributing to a more multi-dimensional understanding of FGM, its consequences, and possible solutions. As we continue to gather input from all our supporters in the coming weeks and months, accordingly we will update the blog with more concrete information regarding the evolution of our FGM event.

Until then!

– 16 Days Team

(Featured photo: FGM awareness session run by the African Union Mission to Somalia at the Walalah Biylooley refugee camp, Mogadishu)


Progress report: July 27th planning meeting

On July 27th the 16 Days action plan committee (Nika, Nhabeela, Angela, and myself (Hannah)) held a meeting (at Sacro’s head office) to alert potential collaborators and partners to our intentions for 2017’s 16 days of activism between November and December. We were lucky enough to be joined by numerous influential organisations and institutions in Scotland, including, Scottish Prison Service, Widening Access, Widening Participation (Edinburgh Napier University), Edinburgh and Lothian Regional Equality Council (ELREC),  Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service, Bright Red Triangle, and Sacro itself.


After Angela spoke briefly about the conception of our idea to take part in UN Women’s 16 days of action, Hannah gave a short presentation on gender-based violence (GBV) and its prevalence in the UK and wider world as well as our general action plan and list of themes to cover during the 16 days. The presentation featured a video on a few GBV statistics as well as a short message from the Director of UN Women on the importance of combatting GBV multi-laterally and collaboratively.


Following the presentations we had a stimulating discussion with the attendees. We discussed possible activities, funding resources, and partnerships. We also received a tremendous amount of moral support. Everyone was extremely keen on being involved and helping evolve this plan which began in a small room with four people sitting around a single desk. So, at the very least this meeting has shown that we are capable of filling up a much larger room with many more people (around a much larger desk). We look forward to seeing where this journey takes us! Stay tuned!

16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence: Edinburgh’s 2017 Campaign

The seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, declared in 2006 ‘violence against women and girls is a problem of pandemic proportions. At least one out of every three women in the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime with the abuser usually someone known to her.’ Consider this along with the findings of the 2014 EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) survey which showed that ‘two-thirds of female victims of physical and/or sexual violence did not contact the police or any other service following the most serious incident of violence they had experienced’.


But perhaps even these statements don’t incite the necessary urgency – to attempt to wrap our heads around the scale of this global problem we must familiarise ourselves with at least a few more figures: more than 700 million women alive today were married as children, 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation, and two out of every three child trafficking victims are female. Yet unnervingly, gender-based violence knows no religion, age, nationality, culture, or socio-economic class. As unsettling as it is to imagine gender-based violence as an unknowable phantom with no beginning or end, cultural historian Riane Eisler has, for decades, drawn attention to something far scarier: ‘for most of recorded history […] those who had the power to prevent and/or punish this violence through religion, law, or custom, openly or tacitly approved it.’


Luckily, things are changing for many women and girls around the world. But unfortunately, for most the change is slow and unevenly distributed. This brings me to the second part of Eisler’s quote and how Changing Perceptions fits into this picture: ‘the reason violence against women and children is finally out in the open is that activists have brought it to global attention.’ And this is what we intend to do.

Changing Perceptions (Bright Red TriangleEdinburgh Napier University), together with Bright Choices (SACRO, ELREC, and MCFB), The Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal ServicePolice Scotland, and numerous other organisations and institutions around Edinburgh (and wider Scotland) are teaming together this year to spotlight gender-based violence through a 16-day campaign in Edinburgh. We are executing this within the framework and timeframe of the international campaign started by the United Nations’ called ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence’. Each year, from 25 November (International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) to 10 December (International Human Rights Day – the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) over 160 countries and 3,700 organisations take part in this campaign in some form. And Changing Perceptions, together with all our partner organisations, intend to join Scotland’s – and the world’s – active stance against gender-based violence this year.


Beginning 25 November 2017 we will host activities across Edinburgh which help spotlight, inform, and raise awareness about gender-based violence around the world. Every day for 16 days you will be able to find some sort of activity that will stimulate discussion, provoke thought or debate and hopefully affect change around the topic of gender-based violence – this may come in the form of talks, workshops, exhibitions, shows, movie screenings, etcetera. There will be something for everyone and every age group. So please stay tuned to learn more about the fantastic events we are planning for Edinburgh this year – we want everyone to be a part of it. Mark your calendars from 25 November to 10 December because it is on these days that we help break the silence about ‘the most pervasive and unaddressed human rights violation on earth.’

With that said, this blog will be more than just a platform for spreading the word about our events in Edinburgh and keeping the Scottish public updated as this campaign develops – it will also be used as a platform for discussing issues related to gender-based violence and those afflicted by it. And importantly, we intend this blog to outlive our events in November. We will continue to post here regularly as the urgency of combatting gender-based violence does not start and end within those 16 days in November. Therefore, no matter where you are in the world, if you are interested in learning more about gender-based violence (or even lending your voice to the conversation), stick around to see what we have in store.