Culture

An Interview With Australian Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Campaigner Khadija Gbla

As Australia increasingly grapples with the ramifications of FGM, the refugee-turned-activist is working tirelessly to bring the issue to light.

Ebola isn’t the only catastrophe happening in Africa at the moment; there’s a more insidious, violent phenomenon committed daily against girls and infants in some of the world’s poorest countries. Casually referred to as “female circumcision,” female genital mutilation, or FGM for short, has been inflicted upon more than 125 million girls across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and even here — an elderly woman will be tried in the NSW Supreme Court next year in what may be the first-ever case of FGM being prosecuted in Australia.

In Adelaide, Khadija Gbla contends daily with the barbaric effects of FGM; she founded and directs No FGM Australia to advocate for survivors and those at risk of the appalling practice, work which has earned the organisation a finalist’s place in tonight’s Human Rights Awards. But recognition for her work has been a hard-fought battle.

Living As An FGM Survivor

Born in Sierra Leone, Khadija was a creative and studious kid while growing up in a warzone. Content in her own company and known for conversing with herself, Khadija’s mother hid her from visitors in fear they would declare she was possessed. “I found myself more interesting than other people,” Khadija says. Raised in a Muslim house, she devoured her Quran with devotion and lost herself in books at school. Surprised when she made it to the ripe old age of five, she guessed her demise was due any day.

In 1998, her family fled to the relative safety of The Gambia en route to Australia. “People said to us ‘you’re going to the end of the world because there’s nowhere else after Australia,” Khadija laughs. “‘This place we’re going, you can have anything you want there’ and I thought ‘oh, that sounds interesting because I thought I would be dead by now’, so I couldn’t wait for the day when the plane ticket would come”.

Three years after arriving in The Gambia, her family was set to escape to Australia under refugee status. But first they performed an horrific and outdated practice upon Khadija’s pre-pubescent body. Driven deep into the West African bushland, Khadija was shunted into a tiny hut by her mother and an “ethnic, old, scary” stranger. Terrified, Khadija didn’t dare speak. “In African culture you don’t question your parents… a slap is never far away,” she explains.

They stripped her and pinned her to the ground. “She was holding what I now know to be my clitoris because there’s no word for ‘clitoris’ in my language,” Khadija clarifies. “She took hold of a rusty knife and she started cutting away. I started screaming”. Flicking Khadija’s flesh to the floor, the women left the nine-year-old child bleeding, crying and confused. Suffering through scorching pain, Khadija spent the next week bathing in Dettol, erasing any memory of the ordeal.

Later life as a refugee teen in Australia was strained. When teachers said “AIDS comes from Africa, where Khadija is from,” her peers were merciless. Home life offered no respite, with a scathing and abusive mother, and Khadija sank into depression. PTSD fuelled unrelenting nightmares. TB ensured weekly visits to a clinic. Searing menstrual pain meant monthly morphine doses, but doctors found nothing to diagnose. The Lucky Country had no love for a girl caught between conflicting cultures, religions and languages.

Hospitals were her second home. In a women’s health clinic Khadija found a pamphlet about FGM. “That is what my vagina looks like!” she realised. Confronting her mother at age 13 she was told the procedure was empowering. Khadija recalls her mother’s explanation: “‘Your grandmother did it to me, I had to do it to you. It was for your own good.’” Her mother believed the practice would save her daughter from a life of promiscuity. “I was pissed”.

Fighting FGM In Australia

Puberty flicked a switch inside a body Khadija felt was deficient, “I feel like I’m not a woman because of what was done to me”. With the masthead of her female physicality torn from her, she figured she would never feel the pleasure of sex in what she calls the “clit-centric” Western world. Then infections and fibroids all but ensured infertility, and she realised being barren was the worst fate of an African woman.

Khadija spent her teen years and early twenties becoming a vocal activist for women. Ostracised from her family and the wider African community, she says: “I needed my pain to be worth something.” Dealing with death threats and an abusive ex-husband (a story unto itself), Khadija now fights for FGM awareness, knowing the religious or so-called ‘cultural’ practice illegally takes place behind closed doors.

She’s regularly found on the phone to child protection services, trying to prevent FGM procedures due to take place. “I know a nine year old girl who has incontinence, constant infections, pain. That gift? It doesn’t stop giving,” Khadija attests, “It says women don’t have a right to our bodies. Well I say no to that”.

In May this year, Khadija discovered she was pregnant. “He’s gonna come out of my vagina saying ‘F-G-M’,” she predicts. She says she’ll tie her baby to her back during TED talks and breastfeed him during her speeches. At age 26, she’s the founder of her own cultural consultancy, as well as No FGM Australia. She plans to start a philanthropic organisation to educate girls in Sierra Leone. Khadija needs everyone’s help to stop FGM within her lifetime.

In a gloriously multicultural country like ours, and an increasingly interconnected world, FGM isn’t simply someone else’s problem. Child abuse, sexual abuse and violence against women are everybody’s problems.

Aimee’s words have appeared in The Adelaide Review, Rip It Up, Lip Magazine and more. After playing guitar on stage with Bruce Springsteen, her life’s all downhill from here. Follow her demise@aimeeknightout.