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Leave the girls alone

Aja Naomi King plays Ifrah Ahmed in Mary McGuckian’s film, A Girl From Mogadishu.

Ahead of the London premiere of A Girl From Mogadishu, which depicts the life of Somali-Irish social activist Ifrah Ahmed. A survivor of Female Genital Mutilation, Ifrah campaigns to eliminate this practice from the country of her birth. David Hennessy spoke to the film’s director Mary McGuckian and Executive Director of The Ifrah Foundation Leonie Kerrins.

A Girl From Mogadishu that tells the story of Irish- Somali activist Ifrah Ahmed is to screen at the Regent Street Cinema on Sunday 2 February as part of Irish Film London’s St. Brigid’s Day festivities.

Ifrah Ahmed did not speak a word of English when, having never heard of the country in her life, she was dumped in Ireland at the age of seventeen. Fleeing war torn Somalia in 2006, she was expecting to be taken to America but was trafficked to Ireland by a family member and told to seek asylum there.

It was during a routine examination on her entry into the country that doctors discovered Ifrah had been mutilated.

Female genital mutilation is the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. It can be found in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It is carried out by people who are not medically trained and sometimes victims’ family members.

This is what happened to Ifrah: The cutting took place when she was aged eight and under the supervision of her grandmother, the woman who raised her.

In addition to the lack of medical training, the hygiene can also be poor so there is risk of infection.

200 million women alive today have undergone FGM/C. 300 million girls are at risk annually. 98% of women in Somalia have been cut.

There are also great risks for the victims in later life with sex and childbirth especially difficult.

It was only when Ifrah came to Ireland that she found out that it was not normal or necessary. Her own harrowing experiences compelled her to make it her mission to speak out.

However, before she could speak out, she first had to learn English. But once she did she would become a voice and stop being a victim.

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Now an Irish citizen, Ifrah became the first outspoken advocate for the elimination of FGM and has spoken in front of the United Nations on the subject.

However, not everyone wanted to hear what Ifrah had to say. She had to stand up to threats from her own family and country who did not want a barbaric part of their culture discussed in front of the whole world.

Ifrah fled war in Somalia and was told to seek asylum in Ireland.

The film’s director Mary McGuckian told The Irish World A Girl From Mogadishu is an important film: “We’re hopeful that we can lift the level of conversation around the issue. It really is a film fundamentally about voice and the power of testimony.”

Mary first met Ifrah quite randomly at a film industry event: “I said, ‘Where are you from?’

“She said, ‘Drumcondra’. I said, ‘What? Were you always from Drumcondra?’

“And then she starts telling me a bit about her story. I felt, ‘There is a film here’.

“I was in America about a month after I met Ifrah pitching something completely different and they said, ‘Have you got anything else?’

“’Well, a story that’s really grabbed me..’ and then I tell the story and they said, ‘Fantastic, can I read the script?’ I hadn’t written it yet.

“Films like this are still not easy to get off the ground. In fact, they are a rarity.”

For days, Ifrah told Mary and two cameras her story from beginning to end. This testimony formed the basis of the film: “It was an awful lot of incredibly personal stuff: Sexual violence in conflict and trafficking and FGM so it was a huge moral responsibility on that front. People are taking it on board.

“It is heartening that people are prepared to come and see it and get a sense of an issue.”

98% of women in Somalia have undergone female genital mutilation. The Ifrah Foundation are working to eradicate the practice by 2030.

Mary explains getting films made about female characters are always a challenge. Add the difficult subject matter to that and industry people told her she was out of her mind: “I realised that people were captivated by the story very quickly. It’s one thing to be captivated by it, it’s totally another to undertake the funds and produce an African-Irish female lead character. It’s never happened.

“There were people who said, ‘Jesus, Mary, please don’t make the FGM film, you must be crazy’.

“One person, one very well known male film maker, said, ‘Don’t make the FGM film’. I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘It will be a career killer’. And I thought, ‘It doesn’t really bother me’. Why does it not bother me? Female film makers don’t have careers to kill.”

A lot of those trying to end the practice are from Ireland. In addition to Ifrah’s foundation, there is also the Global Media Campaign to end FGM which was founded by Irish journalist Maggie O’Kane. Trocaire and Concern are also involved.

“An extraordinary thing happened over the last few years which is a lot to do with Ifrah. Unofficially Ireland have had more impact on the global campaign to end FGM than any other country. It’s extraordinary the extent of which there’s an impact internationally coming out of Ireland on this issue.”

Ifrah set up The Ifrah Foundation in Dublin in 2010 to advocate against FGM. With the help of Labour TD Joe Costello, she got the practice banned in Ireland in 2012.

The Ifrah Foundation work to eliminate FGM by raising awareness, advocating to government and working with communities in Somalia and educating them.

Ifrah set up the Ifrah Foundation in 2010.

Leonie Kerrins, the foundation’s executive director tells us the film is opening up conversations on the issue which is exactly what is needed: “It’s drawing attention to the issue again. It’s allowing us to engage with people who might be a bit more difficult for us to engage with.

“A lot of people assume it is an Islamic practice but it is not, it is not in any way stated in any scripture or in any Islam teachings that FGM is necessary.

“There are countries like Nigeria which are Christian where it is also practiced and where they’re told it’s a Christian necessity and a Christian tradition.

“Religion, we know, is used as an excuse for all sorts of abuse.

“Other people will say it’s a health necessity like circumcision for men is considered to be a good, healthy, clean thing to do. That is very easily broken down. The health consequences of FGM are very damaging.

“It leads to all kinds of difficulties. Evacuation of urine becomes difficult and people end up with all kinds of infections which can lead to permanent kidney issues.

“It can lead to all sorts of difficulties in terms of sexual intercourse and in pregnancy. It increases the risk of maternal death during childbirth. Somalia does have a particularly high level of childbirth death that is linked to FGM.

“There is no health reason for it. There are other things people say: ‘It prevents women being promiscuous’. Those kind of arguments are also broken down along a human rights-based argument.

Ifrah with Emer Costello, the Labour politician is played by Orla Brady in the film.

“Somalia has 98% prevalence so that’s practically universal. Every single woman has undergone it.

“It’s the patriarchy that is trying to keep it going and uphold it. There’s no other reason for it other than to control women and women’s bodies.

“The culture (in Somalia) has been to try and shame those who have not undergone it, say they are not marriageable because they are not clean and that they are prone to promiscuity.  That’s a big part of our work, deconstructing those myths and getting people to talk about it and to understand it doesn’t have a strong basis in medicine or religion or even those social arguments that are put forward.”

The first time Ifrah legally boarded an international flight, she was going back to Somalia to break the silence on an issue that was just not talked about.

“She resolved when she got her Irish citizenship to go back and work in Somalia. She felt compelled to give back and do what she could to change the situation there. It(Somalia)’s a society where women don’t get a lot of any time, they definitely don’t get a lot of air time so she was one of the first women to speak out on air about her experiences which opens the door and lessens the taboo.”

In 2014 Ifrah took up the invitation of President Mohamud to eradicate FGM in the country of her birth. In 2016 she convinced Prime Minister to become the millionth signature on her petition to band FGM there.

She also confronted her grandmother to ask her why she held her down at the age of eight so Ifrah’s uncle could cut her with a rusty razor. When her grandmother answered that what had been done could not be undone. Ifrah just wanted to take other girls out of harm’s way.

In 2018, a 10-year-old girl bled to death after having her genitals mutilated. Suddenly parents started taking daughters they had cut to hospitals, where Ifrah facilitated their medical care. 20 girls were saved from bleeding. Seven were not as lucky.

Ifrah and her foundation now steer the campaign to eradicate it from Somalia by 2030.

100,000 women in the UK as well as 5,000 in Ireland have been affected: “While it is a huge issue in Somalia and in other developing countries, it is happening and people are living with the consequences here in Ireland and the UK. There are women worldwide who are living with the consequences.

“In this era when people are talking about post #metoo, now is the time to tackle it.”

The London premiere of A Girl From Mogadishu screens at Regent Street Cinema at 7.30pm as part of Irish Film London’s St. Brigid’s Day celebrations. Activist Leyla Hussein OBE and Bonnie Greer OBE will be there to take part in a question and answer session. https://www.irishfilmfestivallondon.com/

6 February is the International Day for Zero Tolerance on Female Genital Mutilation. Anyone who would like to host a screening on the film on that day is encouraged to as part of the campaign.  agirlfrommogadishu-themovie.com/

For more information on The Ifrah Foundation, go to ifrahfoundation.org/.

For more information on the Global Campaign to end FGM, go to globalmediacampaign.org/.

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