Female circumcision is a crime but girls are still sent abroad to be brutalised. Zarah Hassan tells Rosamund Urwin why breaking the UK African community’s silent assent is the answer
Freedom fighter: campaigner Zarah Hassan uses her own experience of FGM to raise awareness in the Somali community.
Monday, May 13, 2013
Zarah Hassan seems to have blocked out her memories of being “cut”. The 51-year-old underwent female genital mutilation (FGM), the practice of partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, as a young girl in her homeland of Somalia, but it was only years later that she realised what had happened to her. “When you go through [FGM], you are given a present, such as gold,” says Hassan, who now campaigns against the practice within the Somali community in this country. “Sometimes, you may remember the gifts rather than the circumcision.”
The mother-of-four, who came to England 24 years ago, is all too aware of the horrifying side-effects, though. “When you get your period, you feel very ill,” she explains in her soft voice, adding that many women become depressed because of the incessant pain. “And having a baby hurts so much. In 1995, when I was having my child, they had to put me in a particular clinic, with specialist doctors who understand about it.” She recalls one woman who delivered her baby before an ambulance arrived to take her to hospital: “The whole thing tore — she went through hell.”
After childbirth, Hassan says, older women often perform “re-infibulation” — sewing up the mother’s vagina again: “In some cultures, when the husband goes on a trip or away for some time, the old women do it then too.”
Hassan considers it an old tool for controlling women: “In the nomadic way of living, it was a form of power-gaining. Men wanted to show the power they have — because when [the vagina] is stitched together, a very narrow gap is left and the man shows his power when he presses there.” She pauses, her eyes watering and her voice breaking. “And most of the time, when you see this man, you feel like he is hurting you again. Again. Again. Again.”
I have met Hassan at the offices of the Christian-based charity Initiatives of Change (formerly Moral Re-Armament), which is supporting her work. One of her main hopes is to spread the word in the community that FGM is not a religious obligation, something she had believed: “Sometimes you cannot differentiate what is culture and what is religion: you might think this is the way you have to live.” It was only when one of her sisters, who had been studying in Italy, came to visit her here that she realised this was not true. Her sister asked if Hassan’s only daughter, Ayan, who had been born in Mogadishu, had been circumcised. She hadn’t. Her sister replied: “Oh, thank God, because it is bullshit. We were circumcised, but it is not in the Koran, it is just a mentality. Please don’t do it.”
Hassan and her husband Salad, who are devout Muslims, decided their daughter should not have to suffer: “Our prophet never did it. He had three daughters and said: ‘No I don’t want it for them.’ If it was religion, then it is something I would accept, but it is not, so why should I?” Not everyone in the family was happy with this decision — especially not an aunt whom Hassan had grown close to after her mother died when she was only 11: “She was furious because she wanted it. She was crying, telling me: ‘If I were your mother, you would listen to me.’”
At this point, Hassan was already doing charity and interpreting work within her community. She began researching FGM, and then campaigning against it, later working as a translator at a clinic in Brent for those who have undergone circumcision. Even when she is teaching English as a foreign language or visiting homes, she brings it up: “I never ignore it, because it is such a problem for the community. I wanted to advise the young generation. Some women would listen to you, some would refuse.”
She has found it best to target mothers because they feel pressure from their families: “Often, they tell me: ‘My mother is phoning me from back home, telling me it is good to have my daughter circumcised while she is young, under five. She is forcing me.’”
Hassan adds that grandparents wield huge power, so parents must do everything they can to resist: “We have this culture that even if you are a parent, your mother and father are your decision-makers. But if that is the case, don’t take the children out there [to stay with them]... I know some grannies who are very powerful, and they will do it with or without the parents’ consent.”
Girls are often taken back to their ancestral homelands to undergo FGM in the summer holidays, but during the civil war in Somalia, Hassan explains, children were taken to other parts of Africa or Arab countries.
The practice was criminalised in Britain in 1985, and taking children out of the country to have it performed was outlawed in 2003, but there has never been a single conviction. “The community did not see that it was a crime,” she says. “They did not know that you might lose your children. I had to organise workshops and seminars to explain this.”
Would it help if there was a prosecution here, as in France? “Raising awareness is the most important thing, rather than prosecuting. It is the mentality that we need to change, the mentality of living in the dark... We are trying to create the space to talk freely. Word of mouth is a powerful tool in the Somali community.”
It is a community Hassan has worked hard to serve. She came to London in 1989 to study on a scholarship from the British Council, but civil war forced her to apply for refugee status. At the time she was a mother-of-three, and while her children lived with her here, her husband had to stay in Africa to care for his sick father. The family was only reunited three years ago.
This was common among Somali refugees, says Hassan: “There were families who came to Europe or the US together, but 90 or 95 per cent were single mothers with the children, because in Somalia we live as extended family so [men] cannot leave parents and sisters.”
In 2011, Hassan made her first visit back to Somalia in 22 years. While there, she visited a hospital where she realised that civil war had made the situation even worse for girls who had undergone FGM. “The hospitals are very rough and very poor,” she says. “I saw three girls who were 12 or 13. They looked very disturbed. You could read the fear on their faces about what they had been through.” The doctor explained that they had been circumcised and that the tools they had been cut with were not sterile.
“One of them had tetanus. The families were not around, so they had been brought to the hospital. They were without any medication. The doctor said most [of the patients in this situation] die.”
I ask Hassan if she is proud of trying to end this practice. She nods. “Something pushed me to do this. When you look at the people and the need, that’s what made me work with them.”
Initiatives of Change UK (uk.iofc.org) supports Zarah Hassan’s work