She was expecting for the first time a much-desired child, but when the mother-to-be hooked her knees into the stirrups, an overwhelming panic seized her – assaults that would repeat at each prenatal check-up. Sometimes, she would faint. Why?
“My psychotherapist explained that although consciously, I was unaware of a connection, my body remembered the mutilation I endured at age 7 in Somalia.”
Speaking at Harvard Law School and at the First Church Cambridge where she aired The Cruel Cut, Leyla Hussein, herself a therapist and co-founder of Daughters of Eve, described one striking long-term effect of infibulation that Somali girls endure.
If the link between the little girl and the pregnant adult remained weak, memory of the torture was strong. As Leyla narrates in the film:
“I remember waking up … early in the morning [with] the sun beaming through our bedroom window. I heard really painful screaming. I knew it was my sister because she kept calling out for my mother, where’s my mommy where’s my mommy. I heard them say, Get Leyla, get Leyla now. It’s Leyla’s turn. All of a sudden my dress was pulled up, my legs were forced apart. My knees were literally on my shoulders. Four women held me down. I was trying to kick, punch … He grabbed my clitoris and I felt him cutting through … I felt every cut, pull, stitch. I felt the whole thing and was screaming so much I just blacked out.” (1)
Years later, in only ten minutes, a counselor reconnected the dots for Leyla, showing how what was done so long ago to that small girl continues its haunting today. The realization drives her resolve. “In the UK,” she tells us, “I want to change the discourse. The umbrella of religion and culture” shouldn’t shelter FGM. “It’s abuse. A child is a child, and if it was a white child, … the government would be doing its job.”
The Cameron administration is, in fact, the activist’s addressee.
Together with the late Efua Dorkenoo OBE, Leyla called on Home Secretary Theresa May demanding of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition accountability and coordination among ministries responsible for child protection. A petition called “Stop FGM in the UK Now” targets specific weaknesses in the government’s approach. “The multi-agency guidelines are not statutory, implementation at Local Authority and NHS level is disjointed, funding is minimal, and nobody is monitoring or holding anyone to account. As FGM falls under the Violence Against Woman and Girls (VAWG) portfolio, we believe that the Home Office should take responsibility for drawing up and [implementing] a National Strategy and Action Plan to eliminate FGM in the UK. [We need] effective leadership” the petition reads, sustained by the 110,561 signatures it had as of 16 July 2014 – enough to move it forward on the parliamentary agenda. (2)
Thus, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, chaired by Rt. Hon Keith Vaz MP, makes “the case for a national action plan.” (3) Concrete suggestions encompass prosecution, safeguarding and specific alteration in the law.
With an estimated 66,000 British women affected, and 24,000 girls at risk, “cultural sensitivity [that] is preventing any real discussion around FGM” should be re-examined, Leyla says. “It’s about time this was shaken up.”
Reflections on the film …
Crafted from pliable clay in innocent pastels, the labia minora and labia majora, festooned with a clitoral bud, yield without resistance to Leyla Hussein’s garden shears. Six young Somali men who witness the destruction are not as docile. Unaware of the education that awaits them as they follow their instructor into the spacious gallery, they DO resist and yet remain, grimacing and squirming, as Leyla demonstrates what WHO means by FGM types 1, 2 and 3: scissoring the clitoris, amputating the small lips, and sewing the large ones together. In fact, one guest at the Museum of Vaginas, as Hussein calls it, suffers such distress that he leaves. “You feel sick?” she asks him gently and follows him outside, offering comfort. In fact, not one in the masculine audience remains unmoved by the explicit torture that sexist social pressure had forced on female classmates.
Viewers first meet these youth on a playing field demonstrating fancy legwork with a football. Asked how they felt about ‘female circumcision’, all approved, citing the litany of well-known myths. It calms girls down, one avers. And another welcomes it as an antidote: he doesn’t want his own intended to resemble “a supermarket,” open to all. But you can see their nausea, shock and outrage when confronting the horrible truth. “Why do our elders do this?” they ask. “What for?”
They really had not known! But now that they have been taught, several wish to be part of the movement. ‘Yes’, they answer when Leyla invites them to join. ‘We’re with you. You can count on us’.
Psychologist Leyla Hussein, whose Channel 4 show The Cruel Cut (first aired on 6 November 2013) was nominated for a BAFTA prize, showed her potent documentary at the First Church Cambridge Congregational after the Law School talk. It portrays her as an educator who understands that people of good will in the UK, once FGM becomes real to them, will support effective measures to stop it and protect its victims.
But an awareness deficit exists. Leyla’s eyes swell after she has gathered evidence of this. To test British attitudes, she requests random passers-by to approve a multi-cultural exemption for ‘female circumcision’. In half an hour, only one person refuses to sign on. Nearly two dozen others easily offer their complicity, likely wishing to be agreeable and not offend, but equally clearly without knowing precisely what they were agreeing to – the amputation of girl children’s genitalia.
To instruct the public, Leyla and sister activists from the NGO Daughters of Eve set up a vagina tent on the Thames promenade. Enticing pedestrians to enter by offering frosted clitoris cupcakes, she then explains the distressing reality as the camera once again captures audience malaise. One young woman clenches her thighs; another cannot stop shaking; a third looks queasy. And just as the young men did, many female attendees claim a readiness to work for the end of such abuse.
You can, too …
The Cruel Cut can be viewed at
With appreciation to the hosts: for the speech and clip at Harvard Law School, the Human Rights and Gender Violence Program directed by Mindy Jane Roseman, J.D., Ph.D., moderated by Caroline Pridgeon and Elizabeth Erickson; and for The Cruel Cut at the First Church Cambridge Congregational, with thanks to the Missions and Social Justice Committee of the church with Susan Redlich; International Gender Studies Centre, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford with Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen of UnCUT/VOICES Press; and Healthy Tomorrow/Sini Sanuman with Susan McLucas.
1 <http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-cruel-cut/videos/all/stop-fgm> Retrieved 3 October 2015.
2 <https://petition.parliament.uk/archived/petitions/52740> Retrieved 3 October 2015.