In early 2015, psychotherapist and female genital mutilation (FGM) campaigner Leyla Hussein approached photographer Jason Ashwood with the idea of a photo project that celebrated FGM survivors as beautiful, confident, and proud of their achievements, despite their suffering.
The result was The Face of Defiance, a series of portraits of and interviews with UK women who have survived FGM.
A statement accompanying The Face of Defiance describes FGM as “the practice of pricking, cutting and/or sewing together a woman’s genital organs (often referred to as being ‘cut’)”.
The statement continues: “FGM is embedded in many African communities and although the reasons for it are deeply complex, they can be summarised as broadly based on systems of chastity, control and perceptions of womanhood. Globally, over 100 million women have suffered FGM, an issue which is increasingly prevalent in Western society.”
Here are Ashwood’s portraits of the FGM survivors as they tell their stories in their own words.
Aissa Edon, midwife in London and founder of Hope Clinic, an FGM charity
“I will forever remember the pain. What started as a lovely girl’s trip became my worst nightmare. The smell, the screaming, the vision and sensation of the blood coming out of me lasts to this day. However, even in the face of adversity and trauma, I wish to spread the message of hope. Hope of a life that can go on, with the right consideration and care.
“I have been through type 1 FGM (which is classified as the least intense), but I still suffer from urinary problems. I had to have several operations in my childhood and still experience difficulties until now.
“More than that, FGM had some severe psychosexual impacts on me. I had nightmares, recurrent flashbacks during my childhood. I felt guilty for a long time, not because I have undergone FGM, but because I wasn’t able to protect my little sister from this fate. I felt incomplete as a human being and as a woman, because I felt part of me has been taken away. FGM has impacted my life forever. But it has also made me the person I am today. I acknowledge that these emotional and mental scars are part of my journey, but they are not my destination, not my end.
“My story could have stopped on that day, but despite this I believe I am a lucky woman. Eleven years ago I met a man who saved my life. He was a doctor offering clitoral reconstruction surgery. But in reality, he was so much more than that: He was enabling women, empowering them to truly be able to live their life. For me, it marked the start of a new beginning, my new journey. I was in charge and I was free to do everything and anything.
“As a result, it empowered me to share my story. To give hope to other women who gave up on life after FGM.”
Fatoumata Jatta, who works with teachers and schools to prevent FGM in affected communities
“If I’m strong it’s because of my parents and what they have taught me about being a woman. As the eldest of six children, five of which are girls, I really felt a sense from them that a woman’s place in the world is the same place as a man’s, different but equals.
“I have never doubted their love for me, but also their trust and faith in my ability to do right by myself, them, and my siblings, which is a responsibility that I’m extremely proud and protective of. This sense of security doesn’t only come from my parents, but also from the rest of my family, a large and loving group of smart, beautiful, and passionate Gambians.
“Which is why my story of being cut, surviving the practice, and living with the consequences has often felt so removed from my understanding of my own identity, and I’ve had to learn to integrate this part of me so that I can accept myself fully. Intellectually I have always understood that if my grandmother had me cut as a baby, it was because she absolutely thought it was the best thing for me, that for her it was the right thing to do. But emotionally I’ve had to understand and make sense of the feelings I was left with: confusion, anger, shame, powerlessness, loss, and grief.
“For me it has been a process of accepting many things; that being cut doesn’t make me any more of a woman, as my grandmother believed, but neither does it make me any less of one, as I believed. That people who you love and trust and who love you in return can cause you pain and hurt, and that this is a good reason to fear intimacy but not a good enough reason to shun it. That I can be angry and upset with my loved ones, and that that’s OK. That I can be both strong and vulnerable in this world. That there is nothing I can do about what has already been, but that ‘now’ is in my hands and there is always a way to empower myself and make the most of what I have.
“I’m proud that I pushed through my fears to take a stand for the end of FGM. Girls and women should not be cut – it hurts both physically and emotionally, it’s dangerous, and it’s unnecessary.”
Feyrus Hussein, FGM campaigner
“It’s more than written words or spoken words; it’s far from just an experience. It’s a psychological grief and betrayal that repeated in me from a child until this day.
“It all began at the age of 5 in my hometown of Mogadishu where it was all about peace and love. I remember our home getting decorated and people were coming over with gifts. It felt pleasant being around all these cheerful people. Me and my older sister Leyla were playing and a neighbour came and took me to another room. The room she took me in had a dinning table. Everyone was gathered around this table and a man was seated in front of the table with strange tools. The man spoke and this was the exact words that came out of his mouth: ‘Put her on the table and pin her down,’ and from that moment I started to cry and scream for my sister that I left in the other room. As I cried in fear I looked around for my mother but I couldn’t see her.
“When I realised I wasn’t going to get help I started to stare at the ceiling. I remember feeling cold, humiliated, confused, and felt the worst pain ever. I started to shut down but the sound of the tools had all my attention throughout the whole procedure.
“Today I am 33 years old with two beautiful boys, and they have helped me overcome my torment and become strong about protecting my children from getting hurt. I have boys, but when I was pregnant all I could think about was that I could never hurt my child if it’s a girl and would never want her to go through what I have been through. I had urine infections and ended up in hospital due to period pains and having nightmares about it. I believe if women stick together we can protect our daughters from FGM and educate our people about the harm FGM brings. We must show people it has nothing to do with our religion.”
Hawa Daboh Sesay, human rights activist
“I became a victim of FGM at 13 years old in Sierra Leone. My memory is that of my old auntie who came and took me to the Northern Province. In the morning they took me to the stream, where I saw lots of women dancing and singing. Before I knew it, I was thrown on the floor. I then felt a sharp pain and started bleeding. That memory cannot be erased from my mind.
“It was not until when I came to have my own children that I realised it was because of the FGM that childbirth was difficult for me. I also experienced acute health and psychological problems. The procedure is usually carried out in a bush in secret. This has left me in agony. The thought of the operation in which I nearly bled to death at aged 13 still traumatises me and it left me with lifelong physical problems and psychological trauma.
“I therefore determined to make sure my daughter does not experience the same trauma I went through. I explained to her the danger of the practice, and that following our traditions does not mean we must follow FGM practices. I have gone with my daughter to Sierra Leone many times but I ensure she is protected and does not go near the old women. She has realised the suffering I have experienced and joins me in the anti-FGM campaigns.
“It is a traditional thing to prepare for womanhood that has been going on for ages. I am calling on countries practising FGM to work for social change. We should not be followers of those traditions that go against human rights – we are the people who decide and we are the ones who make the traditions. Traditions are not sent from God – we have the right to change cultures and we should change them. I will always condemn FGM and send a challenge to those who use religion as an excuse to mutilate girls.”
Hibo Wardere, FGM campaigner and educator within school environments
“Imagine for a moment that you are 6 years old and you are woken in the early hours, bathed, and then dressed in rags, before being led down to an ominous-looking tent at the end of your garden. And there you are subjected to the cruellest cut. You never forget that experience in your lifetime. Not only do you suffer the cut, but there can be depression, divorce, and domestic violence. Every aspect of the rest of your life is touched by this barbaric cut.
“We can eradicate FGM. It silenced me for over four decades and that is the worst way of suffering. But there will be no more silence from me, no more silence. Once I broke my silence I felt like freed wind that was trapped in sealed cave. I want to be the voice of millions out there like me and my voice to be the loudest for them all through education, because I know it works. And I know most of the women who have survived this have not yet connected their daily problems to FGM. We need to make that connection for them. This is child abuse, and also we need to make survivors understand that through education.”
Hoda Ali, a nurse, campaigner, and commentator on FGM
“I was cut at age 7 in Somalia. By age 12 I experienced my first of many acute hospitalisations due to complications from FGM. Stagnant infected menses had caused pelvic inflammatory disease as I had been unable to menstruate as a result of the small hole left after FGM.
“After many surgical procedures in Somalia, Djibouti, and Italy, I first started menstruating age 17. Medical complications from FGM continued to impact on my life through infections, adhesions, subfertility, IVF, and miscarriage. Due my difficulty to conceive caused by the damage inflicted during FGM I underwent IVF. However, I later received medical advice that risks to my internal organs were too great and that IVF could no longer be pursued.
“I have truly suffered in so many ways from undergoing FGM and there are many, many others like me. My pain has inspired me to help others manage what they have suffered and I have decided to dedicate my professional life to raising awareness of FGM and focus on ensuring girls are treated with dignity and compassion when they encounter healthcare professionals.
“My mother was a victim and my grandmother before her. But FGM has now ended within my family and although I cannot have children, I have helped protect my nieces. They are the first generation free from FGM. I empower my nieces by telling them, ‘Love yourself the way you want to be loved by others and tell yourself all the things you wish someone else would whisper in your ear. Stand up for yourself and those around you and be the voice for the voiceless.’”
Jay Kamara-Frederick, marketing professional and anti FGM campaigner
“Why and how I have come to be this strong woman? I believe strongly that our lives are a sum total of the choices we have made and so first, I chose to live.
“A day or so after I had been cut, what felt like a few seconds had passed as I closed my eyes and shut my mind away from the noise and the pain was actually a day of uncertainty for those watching over me. My eyes opened slowly and connected with my mother’s eyes, which looked worried, her face drawn. But as our eyes locked she asked the question, ‘Do you want to live?’ and then said, ‘If you want to live you’d better fight.’ As I closed my eyes, my mind drifting not completely understanding the events, I chose to live, then prayed the Lord my soul to keep. Thereafter, I woke still as a 15-year-old girl but with a new normal.
“Several years later as the flashbacks started, I had decided I had to survive. Now as I have embraced my story and its purpose I choose to thrive for the rest of my life. For as the captain of my ship it is my duty and responsibility to navigate through every storm, high wave, and calm sea the best I can and not to abandon my ship until it comes to its natural end.
“Pain is a part of life. My faith has taught me not to question the why but to understand that this part is a piece of the bigger picture of my life. It’s a moment that has been, albeit the memory is imprinted forever. Like the birth of a pearl, I believe that something good will come out of this pain. I have grown into my strength because I don’t want my pain to be wasted. If that happened it would have all been for nothing.”
Sarian Karim Kamara, community development worker, community facilitator, activist, and FGM campaigner
“I was cut through the Bondo Society in Freetown Sierra Leone at age 11 together with my sisters. Some people think that FGM is just a cultural practice, that it is normal or acceptable for some communities. But it is not acceptable, because it causes so much physical and psychological harm and has no benefit at all. It also damages relationships, but people don’t discuss this.
“I was only 11 years old and I’m 36 now. I’ve had five children and the pain I went through on that day cannot begin to compare to any of my labour pains. It’s indescribable. None of my children will go through FGM – I have broken that cycle in my family and for generations to come, none of my girls will be cut.”
Leyla Hussein, psychotherapist and FGM campaigner
“I only realised how deeply FGM had affected me when I became pregnant. My pregnancy was extremely traumatic and I was severely depressed. Every time I had a medical appointment I would feel ill to the point of passing out. I felt anxious whenever anyone touched me and had panic attacks whenever I was checked by medical staff. That’s why I became a therapist, to help women who have gone through FGM by talking about the psychological effects. I couldn’t escape the feeling of shame that came down like a cloud over me. It was only then that I learned I had experienced flashbacks during my pregnancy.
“It was that day I decided my daughter would never go through this. Many people fail to understand that from the moment a child is grabbed and pinned down to a table, she has been violated and traumatised by someone she trusts, and she will carry the emotional scars for the rest of her life.
“Therapy saved my life and gave me the chance to find my voice and power; now it’s my mission to create more safe spaces for women and girls to finally realise FGM is abuse, full stop.”
Matt Tucker is the UK picture editor for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Matthew Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org.