Finding My Voice & Protecting Girls from FGM/C

Most people who knew me as a child knew me as a very shy and timid little girl. Yet, today I am outspoken: I can argue with you on the subjects I feel strongly about! One of those subjects is gender equality. My passion is protecting girls and young women, in my own community and beyond, from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

I work as a community facilitator with Amref Health Africa in Marsabit County, Kenya. The project is called Koota Injena, which means “come, let’s talk”. We work within four communities – the Borana, the Gabra, the Rendile, and the Samburu – to end FGM/C and early and forced marriage, and to redefine the value of girls.

My parents come from different communities. My mother comes from the Gabra community while my father is from the Borana. I have the most amazing parents who taught me the importance of embracing both these cultures and loving them deeply. Among the Borana and the Gabra, FGM/C is a deeply-rooted and culturally significant practice. The prevalence rate is around 98%, which tells you that almost every girl you meet will have suffered the cut.

“It’s only by talking openly that we will change things for good.”

The focus of Koota Injena, as the name suggests, is dialogue. In my community, like most African communities, it’s taboo for a young person to discuss cultural issues with clan elders. This is especially true for women and girls. Yet, I won’t give up. It’s only by talking openly with each other that we will change things for good.

No one can tell my story the way I can tell my story. That’s why I started speaking out. I decided, why not inspire people? Why not inspire young girls from villages deep in Marsabit County and make sure that they know the importance of education and that they know their rights.

Listening and Learning

All kinds of people cut their daughters, even political leaders, professors, and doctors. In Marsabit, we have women traveling from other countries (the UK, the Netherlands, the USA) to have their daughters cut, before returning home. Many of these people are highly educated. Yet they continue to believe that FGM/C is the right thing to do for their daughters.

That’s why I always say that it’s not just a question of education. It’s important to change mindsets and attitudes, too. I really believe that the work of changing culture can best be done by people from that culture. You have to meet people where they are. There is no one approach that works for all the different countries and communities where FGM/C is practised. We must listen and learn. And we need to make space for different perspectives and different voices.

Safe Spaces

In late 2019, I came to London for the first time and met local activists working to end FGM/C in the UK. I attended a workshop facilitated by Sarian Karim-Kamara, founder of the Keep the Drums, Lose the Knife collective, which brought together women from Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Guinea. Some were survivors of FGM/C, while some had been affected in other ways. They had friends or family members who had suffered the consequences of the cut or daughters they were trying to protect.

It was amazing to see these women, who didn’t know each other, speak so openly. They spoke not just about FGM/C, but about gender-based violence, relationships, family planning, reproductive health, and sex and pleasure. It was very emotional.

This is the same kind of safe space that we try to create in Marsabit. We have mother-daughter forums where women can talk about whatever affects them in their day-to-day lives. This is actually the most impactful part of the project: it’s the part people always ask for more of.

“You cannot force change.”

Meeting with these women reinforced to me the importance of understanding and respecting a culture before we try to change it. We all need to recognise that there are aspects of our cultures that are harmful to girls – but you cannot force change. 

Changing culture takes a lot of time. And people are not very receptive: first you’ll be insulted, you’ll be called names, and people won’t even come to your meetings. But as you keep talking with them, people will slowly come to you and they will want to speak out and tell their own stories.

If we are going to end FGM/C, we all need to take responsibility: start from your home and make sure you protect your daughters, nieces and sisters from this harmful act. We need more people to join us on the journey. Together, let’s end FGM/C!

Diram Duba is a survivor of FGM/C who works as a community facilitator with Amref Health Africa in Marsabit County, Kenya.

How ‘Grace and Frankie’ is Changing How Women View Ageing

Every so often, a film or show grabs the cultural spotlight and wrenches it onto women.

In the 90s, Sex and the City exploded on television screens (and thinkpieces) everywhere, showing four 30-something women unapologetically in charge of their careers and sex lives. Later, the more wholesome Gilmore Girls was driven by three complex and independent characters; a wealthy and indomitable matriarch; her daughter, a single mother; and her grand-daughter, a would-be journalist. Most recently, blockbusters Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Wonder Woman once again sparked the realization that viewers are thirsty for well-written female characters.

Yet these, valuable as they’ve been, exclude a significant subsect of women. The youngest and most attractive women have to fight for their place in Hollywood. Older woman are practically non-existent. A ruthless combination of sexism and ageism in (and behind the scenes of) our media can leave women fearing for their careers, and their self-image, after a certain age.

Pacific Standard points out, it’s not only a lack of visibility; it’s a lack of desirability.

“In 1997, five researchers judging characters in the top 20 highest-grossing movies between 1940 and 1980 found a negative correlation between older female characters and positive character qualities like goodness, socioeconomic status, intelligence, friendliness, and physical attractiveness (physical attractiveness and goodness particularly dropped off as women aged) across all five decades.”

A double Emmy nomination for Netflix’s daring Grace and Frankie show that recognition of women over 50 is may finally be becoming mainstream.

In line with media trends, Netflix’s blockbusters often centre around the young: among its top performers are Stranger Things (which revolves around a group of twelve year olds), Orange is the New Black (whose prisoners are largely under 40 and attractive) and Master of None (Aziz Ansari’s take on an American obsession, surviving your late twenties.) Grace and Frankie is a surprising – and wholly welcome – outlier.

Jane Fonda, 79 and Lily Tomlin, 77, lead the show as the titular Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein, whose husbands reveal that they’ve been having an affair – with each other – for years.

The two characters must rebuild their lives at a time when most people assume there isn’t that much left of it. The show doesn’t shy away from the reality of age discrimination for women: a bank declines a loan for the business because they think Grace and Frankie may not be around long enough to repay it. Frankie, at the end of a trying day, throws a fit when a cashier fails to notice her because there’s a younger, attractive woman nearby. In the second season, a major plot point revolves around the idea that it’s still taboo to think of women over 50 as sexually active.

Both Grace and Frankie have to be adaptable, inventive, energetic and resilient to keep their footing during such a massive upheaval (with Fonda and Tomlin at the helm, they’re often funny too). The show touches on myriad problems beyond the women: motherhood, addiction, work, marriage, sexuality – but at its axis are the two matriarchs, who it seems have carried their families for decades, and must now figure out how to reconstruct them.

A lack of representation, or a negative one, can lead older women to feel that they’re invisible or unwanted, and Grace and Frankie is a heartening sign that Hollywood is addressing that.

Tomlin and Fonda remark that the feedback they’ve gotten for the show, across generations, is that it makes viewers less afraid of old age. As Fonda says, what she enjoys about the show is that it sends the message, you may be old, you may be in your third act, but you can still be vital and sexual and funny … that life isn’t over.

The Wonders of Wonder Woman

In an interview at the Jimmy Kimmel Live show, Gal Gadot, who plays Wonder Woman in the movies Batman v Superman: Dawn of JusticeWonder Woman, and the upcoming Justice League, shared a story about her five year old daughter. While they were playing in a park, her daughter told the parents of other kids that her mother was Wonder Woman. When the parents looked at Gadot, not recognizing her, she told them, “You know, every mother is a Wonder Woman!”

The funny part of this story is, of course, that Gadot is actually Wonder Woman in the movie. However, the sentiment behind her response of “every mother is a Wonder Woman” may be the main reason why the film Wonder Woman has gotten so much positive feedback: the fact that Wonder Woman embodies the truth that women have the power to make a positive impact – whether that’s saving the world from villains, or being a caring mother and wife.

Unlike so many female characters, Wonder Woman is a multidimensional and complex character. She’s naive about basic social norms, such as dress codes in World War I England, the fact that women are not allowed in some places, to how to dance with a man. She’s also extremely tough and physically strong, surprising men throughout the movie with her incredible fighting skills. Emotionally, she shows hate towards evil, but also an ability to see the good even in people considered evil by others. She is a total idealist, wanting to help everyone along the way, but her idealism and kindness towards others is based on her own strong convictions and belief that there is indeed good among the bad.

Despite positive reviews, the movie has received some criticism regarding its attempt to be a feminist movie, citing, for example, Gadot’s model-beauty as perpetuating a stereotype that female heroines must be physically attractive. However, I believe the movie has more positive than negative aspects, perhaps best exemplified in Gadot’s own life as a model, wife, and mother of two (she even filmed part of the movie while pregnant!), who served two years the Israel Defense Forces.

Women can be intelligent and athletic, sexy and caring, all at the same time. Gadot’s own life is proof of all that women are capable of, and the complexities that make us as human as men.

It’s also worth mentioning that the movie was directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins – the first woman to direct a movie that had a budget of more than 100 million US dollars.

In October 2016, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman’s first appearance in comics, the United Nations appointed her as UN honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, a controversial decision that ultimately led to the end of Wonder Woman’s role representing the UN.

On this controversy, Gadot stated: “There are so many horrible things that are going on in the world, and this is what you’re protesting, seriously?” […] When people argue that Wonder Woman should ‘cover up,’ I don’t quite get it. They say, ‘If she’s smart and strong, she can’t also be sexy.’ That’s not fair. Why can’t she be all of the above?

I would be cautious to call Wonder Woman a “feminist” movie—she is, after all, a fictional character, portrayed by a white model-actress. But I would still praise it for the positive and hopeful message it gives about humanity as a whole— that we shouldn’t give up on the good humans are capable of just because at times humans can be evil. The main message I left the movie with is this: regardless of gender, race, social status, talents and abilities, we are capable of making the world a better place – and that can include sexy and physically strong women too.

Why 'Being a Man' May be the Worst Thing our Men Can Do

When focusing on gender roles as constructed by our society, too often the focus is on women. Within feminism, so much attention is paid to how we treat women that we often overlook our social norms’ toxic effect on our young boys.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the film-maker behind Miss Representation, the highly influential documentary which explored the media representation of women, has turned her sights on the other sex in the upcoming The Mask You Live In. During the making of Miss Representation, she was constantly asked about the male point of view. At the time she was also pregnant with her son, which made her even more attuned to the culture of hyper-masculinity in which we live.

Image from the trailer for "The Mask You Live In"
Image from the trailer for “The Mask You Live In”

The  trailer for The Mask You Live In  (which phonetically sounds like ‘masculine’, as pointed out by Siebel Newsom) is stirring. Too often we assume that men are more callous, more unfeeling, less susceptible to pain, anger or insecurity than women because we live in a culture that propagates the idea that the less affected a man is by what is surrounding him, the more of a man he is.

This stereotype leads to an atmosphere that does not equip young men with the tools they need to navigate the highs and lows of adulthood. Men have been proven more likely to commit suicide, fail of out school, turn to alcohol or drugs or be diagnosed with a behavioral disorder. A large part of this stems from the undue pressure put on men to suppress their emotions; the phrases ‘be a man’, ‘man up’, ‘crying like a girl’, or ‘grow some balls’ are all thrown around repeatedly. Even as women, we’ve heard them constantly throughout our lives, levied against our classmates, our friends and our family members.

Attached though we may be to the idea of a rugged, rough man who betrays no emotion, this stereotype is as unrealistic and as harmful to young boys as the brainless, submissive sex kitten is to young girls. As psychologist Michael Thompson says,

We have to give boys permission to experience a wide range of feelings. Masculinity is not never feeling scared; it’s feeling scared, and then to know you can also surmount it.

The other side of the coin of hypermasculinity is breeding misogyny. If men are defined by their careers, their roles, their inability to empathize, this will naturally lead to a disrespect and animosity towards women who try to establish themselves in traditionally-male roles. Our current and deeply flawed mentality cannot be corrected solely by insisting on treating women right, but also on fair and equal consideration for men.

In our everyday lives, we see examples of this: the parts of our male friends and family members that we cherish most – their ability to empathize with us, to be honest, to confront emotion, to show respect and consideration – being disdained by the society we live in. In our society, it is acceptable for a man to take a drunken girl home instead of escorting her to a taxi. It is more attractive for them to be football players than writers or scientists. How many sexual partners they have enhances their reputation. If they admit to feeling emotion or stress or fear, they are immediately labelled wimps. The very qualities we complain about in our relationships with men are the very characteristics we propagate in our society.

Siebel Newsom is attempting to start a global conversation – on Kickstarter, the project has already exceeded its $80,000 goal by over $10,000. To learn more and to view the trailer for the film, you can visit their fundraising page here.

Additional Resources:

Instituto Promundo‘s Men and Gender Equality Project
Working With Men

*Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Martin_Vmorris, listed under Creative Commons share alike license.