Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is running its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.
When I was seven, four women held me down and cut my clitoris. I felt every single cut. I was screaming so much I blacked out.” Leyla Hussein was born in Somalia, where her mother arranged her genital mutilation. The pain is still so raw that Hussein stops talking, unable to speak further. Any memory of the incident is "re-traumatising" for her, she explains, her words faltering.
Even though any recollection of her own experience is deeply painful, Hussein is now one of Britain's most high-profile anti-FGM (female genital mutilation) campaigners and it's her Muslim faith that inspires her to push for change.
One of the main things that drives her is the widely-held belief that the procedure is solely an Islamic practice. “We live an era where anything bad is seen to be something to do with Islam," Hussein says, her frustration clearly evident. "I cannot blame people for associating FGM with Islam when you turn on a TV and you see crazy men shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ and beheading people. And yet all of these things are very un-Islamic.”
She also points out that most of the women who have spoken out against FGM happen to be Muslim: “In Nigeria the biggest community that practices FGM is the Christian community. But there hasn’t been a single survivor from that Christian community that has spoken out, yet.
"If you speak to them about it, they will say, this is our Christian practice. Most of the survivors who have spoken out are Somali and Somalia is a mainly Muslim country. This is why this is associated with Islam,” she explains.
In fact, FGM is carried out within all religions, and depends largely on the traditions practiced by communities rather than their faith. Figures released by Unicef in 2013 show 55% of Christians are affected by FGM in Niger, compared to just 2% of Muslims. And according to statistics from the World Health Organisation and the Pew Research Centre, it is estimated that 80% of Muslims around the world do not practice FGM.
Hussein with her daughter, whose birth inspired her to campaign against FGM
Hussein is now co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation working to protect women who are at risk from FGM, a cultural practice which can cause severe bleeding, infections, infertility and even death. She lives in east London with her 12-year-old daughter, in a "predominantly Pakistani, Bangladeshi Muslim" neighbourhood. "A lot of them have never heard of FGM," she says. "They were quite shocked to learn that such a thing is associated with Islam.
"The idea that FGM is a Muslim issue is a myth and religious leaders should be speaking out to dispel this myth, yet the majority are silent. When any form of violence or oppression becomes an issue in a community, you will find religion is used as a means for excusing behaviours. And that’s by no means limited to the Muslim community. When oppression is involved, religion becomes a tool.”
FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but recent studies suggest 137,000 women in the UK have undergone the procedure, while the NSPCC says that 70 women a month seek treatment for the crime. Despite the growing awareness of FGM, the 35-year-old, who has blogged on the topic for HuffPost UK, has often been surprised by the reaction to her work, and not just from within her own religion: “I’ve been embraced by many big Muslim organisations. The only backlash I’ve had is from white, middle class, left wing men, who have branded me an opportunistic feminist because I’m not speaking out against male circumcision.
"After I wrote that 'I'm against all forms of cutting of children’, I thought it would be the Muslim and Jewish men who were really going to come after me. But that never happened. Instead, I was called a perpetrator of male violence. That really took me aback, I had thought these would be the last people to attack me!”
But Hussein says she has also been targeted by religious men within her own community, although she says they are motivated by cultural reasons, not religious ones. “They say, ‘You are shaming Somalis, why are you speaking out? Why are you telling people about our dirty laundry?’ My response is: “If it’s dirty, someone needs to wash it'! People assume that because I wear jeans and my hair is uncovered I’m not allowed to make comments about Islam.
"But though I don’t necessarily look like a Muslim woman, I have studied Islam. Culturally, as a Somali woman I’m supposed to be at home being submissive and not speaking out, and I think what people really struggle with is me saying: ‘I’m a proud Muslim woman but I will speak about women’s issues and oppression and sex and relationships.'
"I’ve even had atheist feminists say ‘You cannot be a Muslim if you’re going to talk about these things’ and I reply: ‘Yes, I am.’ Because if you look at the teachings of Islam, they are about celebrating sexuality. Yet no one actually reads those bits and that annoys me. In the Quran it says you are not allowed to change how God made you, so removing my genitals is totally un-Islamic.”
Leyla Hussein, pictured here in 2010 after winning the Cosmopolitan Ultimate Campaigner Women of the Year award
One Muslim organisation that has worked with Hussein is the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association UK, which has been organising awareness initiatives and publishing literature to educate people about the horrific reality of FGM for a number of years. It is the largest and oldest Muslim youth association in the UK , has roughly 7,500 members and was established over 75 years ago. The group's Farooq Aftab described the battle change society's perceptions of FGM and Islam: "We have always consistently rejected the practice of FGM. The Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are clear that to oppress, harm or cause distress to another person is forbidden. FGM has nothing to do with Islam and its association with Islam is nothing further from the truth."
Perhaps understandably, Hussein appears to have little faith in anti-FGM legislation in Britain, which has as yet failed to deliver a single successful prosecution, though changes are on the horizon: "When they first introduced that legislation, there was no professional training to back it up. Neither was it ever part of child protection training and it still isn’t. Furthermore there’s a big loophole in this particular policy because the child is expected to give evidence against their own parents.
“And what child in the world is ever going to do that? That’s never going to happen. So many times there has been an argument for a prosecution for a case, but the child backs out and the case is thrown out of the window. It has to be taken out of the child’s hands. The government is reviewing the legislation, that is one of the announcements that they made at the Girls Summit in July."
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The key, Hussein insists, is education. As well as pushing for religious leaders to do more, she wants to raise awareness amongst the public, as well as the those working within the law: “In the UK we need to look at the attitudes of professionals before we blame communities for not tackling the matter. I want to know why my GP never asked me about this. Why did my practice nurse, who pushed a speculum into my vagina, never ask why it was so tight? Why did the midwife I was registered with when I was pregnant never once bring it up, even though she could clearly see I had been mutilated?
“For a long time when someone got stabbed it got reported, but when a woman’s genitals were cut away, no one reported it. Thankfully new policies state all health professionals have to record when an FGM survivor walks through the door. They are being forced to record something that is damaging to women.”
Indeed it was these questions, coupled with becoming a mother herself, that inspired Hussein to campaign so passionately against FGM: “My motivation is my daughter. I realised there was no support for her. I thought, ‘If I was under pressure, where would I go?' I don’t want any other child to go through what I went through. My trying to protect my daughter became a 12-year campaign. FGM is an experience you will never forget. It’s something I am still learning to live with. It’s not something you can go and fix. With the women I work with, I don’t tell them we’re going to fix it, I tell them we’re going to learn how to live with it.”
Hussein is also not shy to blame a culture of patriarchy for the failure to eradicate FGM: “Because men who want to control women would choose to take that particular part of the body is very interesting.”
The campaigner recalls a recent trip to Kenya where she spoke to a campaigner who told her: “FGM is a man made practice to control women. Why did they choose our genitals and not our hands and not our legs? Because they needed our hands to cook and clean for them. And they needed our legs for us to go out and work and make money. So they knew exactly what they were doing when they went for that part of our bodies.”
Hailing from an influential Somali family, Hussein says she had the "privilege" of being cut by a doctor.
"But people never picture that," she adds. "They think it happens among uneducated people behind a bush in a tiny village. For me, the reason I was cut, the reason my mother was cut, was because we were told it was a religious practice.”
But it took Hussein’s mother to fully embrace her religion and study the Quran to realise FGM has nothing to do with Islam: “Picking up the Quran and reading it is good advice for any Muslim woman out there. I love the teachings of Islam, and there are a lot of myths about how Islam sees women. You will find it’s not what we see on TV, it’s very different.”
Hussein and her sister discussing their experiences of FGM with their mother and brother from the Channel 4 documentary The Cruel Cut
Hussein’s father’s family did not practice the procedure, so it was carried out under her mother’s orders while her father was away. "It took years for my dad to forgive my mum, it was something he was angry about for a very long time. But I came to terms with this, especially with my mother, through therapy. That’s why I ended up training as a therapist and I run a therapy group for FGM survivors, which is something my generation was never offered. When I was angry with my mother, my counsellor said to me ‘Have you ever heard her story?’ And that really made a difference. I had forgotten that my mother was a victim too.
“There’s a lot of grooming involved. You can easily groom the mind of a human being within 72 hours. I can’t imagine how much grooming a woman in her 30s would have endured for her to believe this system and for her to do it to us [Hussein and her sister].
"I come from a family where my mother and grandmother were referred to as feminists – there were women who broke many rules in their families. My grandmother was married off as a child but she but she made sure her children did not experience the same.
“I have been out with my grandmother in Somalia marching for human rights, but FGM wasn’t something they were ready to tackle, so my generation is the one which has tackled it. My daughter has not been cut so we have broken that cycle in my family now.”
The Cruel Cut, a documentary Hussein made last year with Channel 4, has just been nominated for both Amnesty and BAFTA awards and the e-petition which followed has amassed over 100,000 signatories lending their name to the fight against FGM.
As part of the Huffington Post Beyond Belief series we want to know how your religion goes beyond just a faith in a God or Gods, or a cultural association. How do you incorporate or use faith in modern life? Tweet us with the hashtag #HPBeyondBelief to tell us in 140 characters and we'll feature the best contributions.