Sunday 18 March 2018

'It was not right, and I don't want any other girls to go through this'

Emily Hourican meets a woman determined to fight the barbaric practice of FGM

Ifrah Ahmed, International Person of the Year, is an activist against FGM. Photo: Julian Behal
Ifrah Ahmed, International Person of the Year, is an activist against FGM. Photo: Julian Behal

Ifrah Ahmed arrived in Ireland in 2006 when she was 17. She spoke almost no English, and was alone. "I came seeking asylum," she says. "I left Somalia because of the war, it was not safe. Women were raped, there was violence."

Later, she reveals the personal extent of this violence. "We went during the war outside Mogadishu to stay safe. Lots of soldiers came and took all our things and raped me." Ifrah was 13.

She arrived here with almost nothing. Now, through her quite astonishing eloquence and conviction, she has become an international activist and inspiration.

She was instrumental in bringing about the 2012 legislation banning the practice of female genital mutilation in Ireland, and is gender adviser to the Somali government, with the intention of bringing about an end to FGM in a country where 98pc of girls are cut. She has also just been announced as Rehab International Person of the Year.

"My life has changed," she says. "I am so pleased I received this award, it shows what Ireland thinks of the work I do." Ifrah was circumcised when she eight years old. There are three different types of FGM, depending on what exactly is done, and hers was Type 3, in which the vaginal opening is sealed, by cutting and sewing over the outer labia.

The closing over of the vagina and the urethra leaves women with a very small opening through which to pass urine and menstrual fluid, which can lead to serious infections as well as problems with sexual intercourse and even more so during birth.

"I was circumcised by my grandmother's brother, he was a doctor," Ifrah says. And in a way, she was lucky - she has, she tells me, met other girls with even more traumatic stories. "I meet with girls, also refugees, they tell me their stories; one girl told me she was circumcised with broken glass."

Even so, of the 10 or so girls operated on at the same time as Ifrah, one died, from blood loss, and she herself was left - as is common - with serious gynaecological problems.

These were worsened when, after the rape, she was re-circumcised. She has since had surgery to repair some of the damage done by her two circumcisions, but still suffers; "The pain is there always," she says.

When Ifrah came to Ireland, these problems eventually led her to hospital, and the revelation that was to form the basis of her crusade - the knowledge that what had happened to her was not necessary, and did not happen to all girls.

"There was a nurse who asked where I got such injuries, what happened? I felt 'this is not right. I realised that this never happens to Irish girls, and that is what made me so angry. That anger - I still have it. I really want to make a difference. It was not right this happened to me, and I don't want any other girls to go through this."

From there, Ifrah first approached the Somali community in Ireland, "I felt that girls who had been cut, they might need education on how to be treated well when they are having babies." From there, she began to talk to doctors, schools, social workers, gardai and eventually government. She was instrumental in ensuring that FGM is illegal in this country, although, she says, that does not mean it doesn't still happen. "It is silent, a hidden practice, nobody talks."

She also tried persuading other women she met to share their own stories. "I said to them, 'OK, now we have to do something,' but none of them were willing to stand up."

When she describes the kind of abuse she regularly puts up with, it is not hard to see why.

There is the ongoing social media abuse - "they say 'why do you talk about a woman's private area, are you not ashamed?' One guy said 'nobody likes you in Somalia. You think because you are in the Western newspaper, everyone is proud of you, no Somali people are proud of you", which is hurtful (although Ifrah's response "Why should I be ashamed? I don't need permission from you or anybody. I don't need anyone to be proud of me, except me, confidence in what I do," is magnificent).

But there is also the real threat of violence.

"In Somalia, no one talks about this. It is taboo. When I started working there, everyone I met said, 'go away, go back to Ireland, don't talk about this'."

And although Ifrah often works close to where her father still lives in Somalia, she does not contact him. "I cannot see him. It would not be safe for him. I never associate with him, or any of my family. I have taken the decision to be in danger, but I don't want to be the reason my family is attacked." Her father knows only that she does humanitarian work, and is proud of her; "I don't know, if he finds out the reality of what I am doing, what he is going to say?" Of her mother, she says "I never talk about her."

Even in Ireland, still her home, she is not entirely safe. "But I think now I feel safer here than in 2009/2010. Back then, I would get phone calls, anonymous, saying I shouldn't be speaking. I was scared. Now, I feel I have a lot of wings supporting me, including the Government."

As why she puts herself at risk of verbal abuse and worse, Ifrah says: "I believe that I am making a difference. I was given a life, a chance, in Ireland, but there are young girls who have not been given this chance for a better life, who have not been able to leave, who will be subjected to female circumcision, who are at risk, and they should be free. I feel if I save one girl's life, I am going to be happy."

She is very keen to point out that FGM is not, contrary to much popular belief, a religious issue. "Show me where in the Holy Quran it says this? I am Muslim. I practise, I respect myself. Whatever religion other people have is up to them, as long as they respect me. But I don't take bullshit from anyone. Why would I?"

Instead, FGM is a cultural practice, one largely policed by women, like Ifrah's grandmother. "My grandmother, she died, may God rest her in peace. But there was something I always wanted to ask her - 'why did you do it?' - and I never did. It was not easy, I tried and she said 'you have come to question me?' It happened to her, to her mother; everyone had to be cut. I have met with women who say 'it happened to me, why should it not happen to my daughter?' A mother thinks if she does not cut her child, she will not feel the pain that she felt. It's complicated, it's very hard."

So, does she truly think she can help to change this? "It will change," she says. "The only thing is a matter of time. My hope is that by the end of this year, we will have FGM legislation in Somalia. We are working, with UNICEF, with Trocaire, for this." When Ifrah first came to Ireland, she worked as a home help for the elderly. Now, thanks to a grant from UK organisation Amplify Change, to the Ifrah Foundation, she can concentrate on her activism; as she say "if you have no money, you can't do the work."

As for the idea that it will be hard to find a relationship because of what she does, she says, "I make a decision, I don't care who I date. If he becomes Muslim, I welcome it. He doesn't have to be Somali, it doesn't matter what he is if he is a good man."

The day we meet, Ifrah is busy with a feature film based on the story of her life. A Girl From Mogadishu is produced and directed by Mary McGuckian (producer of Intervention, with Charles Dance and Andie MacDowell, and This Is The Sea). Pat Kenny and Maggie O'Kane both have cameos, as themselves. Ifrah will feature in a tiny role. "I will be in the film, but in a way that people will have to find me and say 'where is Ifrah?' It won't be easy."

Maybe not, but I think they'll find her all right. She stands right out.

Ifrah Ahmed was named International Person of the Year at the Rehab Group/ People of the Year Awards. #MeTooFGM

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