It was in November 2015 when I was invited by my friend Jane to our borough's event for the United Nations 16 days of activism against gender-based violence. The event began with speeches by local politicians and the borough's Police Commander who all gave their commitment to fight gender-based violence in our part of London. It was a worthwhile event and I didn't think it could get any better until a tall, Somali woman in a colourful hijab stood up to take her position on the podium. She spoke slowly, eloquently, and with every word she grabbed the audience's complete attention. We listened, both horrified and appalled, as she shared her experience of 'being cut' on the orders of her mother at the tender age of six.
She was Hibo Wardere, a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and a campaigner against the cultural act practised in 29 countries and affecting up to 200 million women.
The following is an extract from her very personal speech:
"My mother ordered the cutter to do it to me. It felt like the worst pain in the world. An open wound rubbed with salt or hot chilli - it felt like that ...
"And then you realise your wee isn't coming out the way it used to come. It's coming out as droplets, and every drop was worse than the one before. This takes four or five minutes - and in that four or five minutes you're experiencing horrific pain."
I approached her in the tea break, a little at a loss, to express my awe at what she had just shared about herself so openly, so honestly, so candidly, and so bravely. She gave me a small smile accompanied with a slight shrug and I realised she was used to this reaction from people.
"You need to write a book, a memoir," I blurted.
"It's coming out soon," she replied.
Nearly a year later, I arrange to meet her now that her book has been released. Today she is holding court at her favourite coffee shop in Walthamstow. She stands out with her colourful clothes and that unique beauty possessed by the women of East African heritage; the high cheekbones and full pout against smooth black skin. She is at home here, this part of north-east London which welcomed her in the 1990s when she arrived in the UK as a refugee.
Earlier this year, I spent some time volunteering at a refugee camp in the Greek Island of Lesvos. The wet and freezing men, women and children who had tumbled out of flimsy boats flash through my mind. It is the prevailing image of the refugees (although not forgetting the picture of the small boy in blue shorts and a red t-shirt, face down in the sand).
I want to know about her journey. "Did you board an illegal boat? Did you trek through central Europe to get here?"
"We left Mogadishu for Kenya with hundreds of thousands of Somalis because it was so dangerous," she tells me. "I was sixteen and for two years we drifted from one place to another to avoid being captured as illegals by the Kenyan police. It was hard. After two years we had to make the decision to leave. It was no life. My extended family wanted to claim asylum in Canada, but I didn't want to go there. I wanted to come to London."
"So you came with your family?" I ask, assuming that a girl of eighteen would neither be brave enough or be allowed to travel alone by her parents.
"No." I hear the streak of independence in her voice and she raises her chin. "I came with another woman. Not family."
I can't hide my surprise. "Your mother allowed you?"
She smiles, her eyes softening at the mention of her mother. "Yes."
"I came with a fake passport. A Ugandan one. The Heathrow authorities knew it was fake and I admitted it straight away. I said 'I claim asylum'."
I expect to hear an account of poor treatment. It did not come. Instead, another smile. "I received warmth. So much warmth. As soon as I said 'I claim asylum', the policeman gave me his coat to wear because I was so cold. And then he gave me a cup of tea before I was interviewed. From that first moment when I arrived here seeking sanctuary, I have only ever known warmth from the British people. Today it's very different for refugees. It hurts me how the new refugees are treated. They are not here to claim free housing and benefits. They are not scroungers. They have fled danger and they want to live in peace. And they will all contribute to this country.
"I came here as a refugee. So did my husband. We have raised our seven children together to make a contribution to this country. My eldest son has just qualified as a doctor. He is 25. My second son is doing computer science and my daughter is studying child psychology. They are giving back to this country which welcomed their parents."
And her own contribution? She is the only FGM survivor in the country to be paid by a Local Authority to campaign against the practise. "How did it all come about?"
"I was a teaching assistant in a primary school five years ago and the head-teacher asked me to look at the case of a 10-year-old Somali girl who was being taken out of school in term time. I guessed why her parents wanted to take her to Africa. It was to cut her. The head-teacher and the teachers knew nothing about this. I was the one who informed them by talking about my own experience of being cut when I was six years old. The head-teacher recognised the practise as a form of child abuse and asked me to speak to other schools in the borough as well. That's where it started. I have spoken to thousands of pupils since and now I speak in areas outside London too; Brighton, Newham, Cambridge and Oxford. Remember it's not just the Africans who practise it. It's the Middle Eastern communities as well, especially Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan. They do it in parts of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Columbia too."
"There has been migration from these countries to Canada and America. The practise occurs there too?"
"Of course. In Canada they are talking about it. There are some very courageous individuals who are campaigning against it. But not in America."
She shrugs. "They are scared to mention the word 'vagina' in America."
I ask her to explain the difference between the three types of FGM.
Type 1 - Clitoridectomy: removing part or all of the clitoris.
Type 2 - Excision: removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner labia (lips that surround the vagina) with or without the removal of the labia majora (larger outer lips)
Type 3 - Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting, scarping or burning the area.
I look at Hibo slightly perplexed. "Type 3 serves as a chastity belt, but what is the point of 1 and 2?"
"It stops sexual urges. It prevents you from wanting to have sex, to have pleasure."
'Wow, whoever invented these procedures must have really hated women," I half joke.
"In Somalia it is called 'Pharaohs' because it was introduced three thousand years ago by the Pharaohs. I have type 3. It was done to me so I could be presented with proof as a virgin to my husband on my wedding night. It is the husband's prize and it is his job to force himself inside."
I can't help the shudder. "And were you presented as a prize?"
"No", she laughs, that streak of independence apparent again. "When I came here I went to the doctor and asked for a deinfibulation procedure. The hospital operated on me; they opened up the stitches where the urethra was sealed. Soon after that I got married. I was twenty years old and my husband promised me we would never cut our daughters. They would never go through what I had."
"How did you deal with the backlash from your community when you decided to go public with your campaign?"
"It was bad. People were saying 'why are you attacking our beautiful culture?' I replied our culture is beautiful, but not this part. This is child abuse."
"And now? Have you made a difference to attitudes?"
"I hope so. I hold a clinic at the local hospital. I have women who self refer. They come for deinfibulation. They come to be opened up before they marry. It is safer this way than to be bulldozed by your husband on your wedding night.
"If you have FGM done to you then you will always have vaginal infections, urinary infection, kidney infections, cysts, reproductive issues and pain during sex. It's discomfort that doesn't go away, ever. Period pains are terrible. It is hard to urinate. Getting pregnant is traumatic because the baby has to be pushed out of unnaturally small space. At the clinic, we know how to deal with it all."
"And the men in your community?"
"They are muted. The 80% are muted. They don't want to know about it, hear about it or speak about it. But FGM is done for men. Girls are reared as possessions to be presented to these men. It has everything to do with them. There will not be real change till the men decide they don't want this awful thing to be done to their daughters. The men have to show parental responsibility."
"And the other 20% of men?"
"I hold meetings for men and I speak openly. And then it dawns on them why they have had problems. Why their wives have tried to resist sex. Some talk about how they got divorced because of the lack of intimate relations. They all know how difficult giving birth is for FGM sufferers and their wives have had to have C-sections. One 70 year old man said to me if he knew before how his daughters would live with the pain all their lives, then he would never have allowed them to be cut."
"Any message to wider society?"
"It is your business. This is child abuse. It is a universal fight. It is not racist to say FGM is wrong. You have to move away from culture and race. It is everybody's fight."
"Your mother? She did it to you when you were six years old. She has passed away, but if she was here would she support you now?"
Her eyes soften again. "My mum did love me, and she did this out of love. She thought this was protection for me. She thought she was protecting the family honour. She herself was a victim as well as her mother, her grandmother. Generations have undergone FGM - they didn't see anything wrong with it. They thought if you weren't cut, you're going to be talked about, you're going to be stigmatised, no-one is going to marry you. You're going to be seen as someone who sleeps around with other men. For them, it was protection for the family and protection for you.
"I think my Mum would support me. It's about education. I would educate her that it is cultural child abuse and nothing to do with religion. Girls should not be reared for men like this. I am saving girls from this horrible practise and I think she would have been proud of me."
And there is it again.
The word masked as a means to control women.
Hibo Wardere's memoir Cut is published by Simon & Schuster.
Sufiya Ahmed is the author of Secrets of the Henna Girl.Suggest a correction