Fatma Naib is a journalist, producer, film maker and anti-FGM advocate, formerly with Al Jazeera English. She is based in Stockholm Sweden and has worked from the Middle East for over ten years. Being a journalist she has reported from across the Middle East, Africa and Europe.
Having moved to Sweden together with her family, Fatma talks about FGM prevalence in Eritrea as well as its prevalence in Sweden, with the Eritrean diaspora. She has done stories in other countries across continents and here in the #FightingTheCut series, she shares her experiences and what she believes should be done to end the practice.
What is the prevalence of FGM in Eritrea and also for the Eritrean diaspora in Sweden and other countries?
For Eritrean diaspora there is no statistic, but we know it has declined in Sweden. As far as we know there has not been any reported cases. And the new generation that’s born here, because Eritreans have been here for over 20 years. There is a generation born here and another generation that grew up here and that generation did not go through this. Those that have been through it are those that already had it done in their countries or whatever countries they come from. So the prevalence in the diaspora is non-existent. Prevalence in Eritrea is at 89% among christians and muslims alike, according to a Demographic and Health Survey of 2002.”
“The problem with this number is that, because the country kicked out NGO’s for the past 10 years there haven’t been any presence of any UN affiliated NGOs in the country and it is difficult for journalists to be granted entry to verify these numbers. I think it has declined since FGM has been illegal in Eritrea since 2007. It’s been banned in the country and due to changes in society, people leaving the country, and from my understanding the government has been doing a lot of awareness campaigns in the villages. Like any old traditions it is very difficult for it to stop completely, but I think it has declined. We don’t have hard facts and evidence to support the claim. Due to the fact that many people have left the country, the older generation are dying and it seems that they were the ones keeping this tradition alive. One of the reason why most Eritreans in diaspora have abandoned the practice is because when people leave the country not everyone leaves with them so you grow up without your grandparents therefore the tradition is not passed along. Those who’ve immigrated to Europe and America, it is illegal there. Based on the work I have done, it is just a tradition that both Christians and Muslims do but it is not as deeply rooted as it is in other cultures. It is not a rite of passage. So once the awareness intensifies, it is easy to be abandoned. It is not as strong.”
What prompted you to become an anti-FGM advocate?
“As a journalist, in 2015 I was in Sudan doing other stories and I came across a certain story. In Sudan, FGM was banned in 1946. Despite that fact however, the prevalence there is quite high. I came across a midwifery school where they teach the midwives to become the advocates and ambassadors against FGM. Whenever they go to help a woman give birth they tell her about the dangers of FGM, the law and how bad it is, how it can affect their own daughters. The midwives tell them that it should not carry on.
I was touched by one of the midwives’ personal story. She told me she never met her mother because her mother died due to FGM complications. She told me that when she grows up she wants to be someone who would ensure it stops, that is does not happen to another woman, for another child to grow up without a mother.
In that school it is very strict, if you are found out that you performed the operation, you are punished by being taken back to study for another year. They are spreading awareness across the whole town. I saw that it is a very efficient way of doing this by informing and sharing awareness through the midwives.
So this story kind of opened up my eyes. I have known of FGM and I know it exists in my culture and I have friends and family who have had it done, but my discussion about the topic had always been minimal. This reignited my curiosity about it and I wanted to find out more about FGM. After that I went to Senegal on an FGM awareness campaign with Senegalese Germany based rapper Sister Fa. I went to the Southern part of the country with her. That tour made a long-term effect on me because I knew that Christians do it too but it was the first time when I was in an area where there were predominantly Christians and they also practiced it.
It was the first time I met children who lost their siblings due to FGM complications. I met women who’ve gone through it and others who have experienced different levels of pain and suffering, men, older women, everyone who had been affected by it. I realized that this is a big problem and it is something that you don’t hear much about. I thought it needs more attention because it is a human rights violation. It is not a women’s issue and I think one of our biggest problem is to classify it as so. These two trips is how I started my journey in covering FGM and it led to the making of Al Jazeera correspondent film on FGM, where I wanted to know why I was not cut. I came to Sweden when I was 11 so I could have easily had it done before that but I know that neither I nor my sisters had it done. I have never talked to my mother or father why it had not been done to us. This experiences made me want to find out more about myself, my own culture and other cultures as well, why they do it and why they must stop.”
What would you say, are your achievements in fighting the cut?
The film allowed the conversation to go on. Since the release of the film, I’ve been receiving many messages, not just from women, predominantly from men. That surprised me. They are messages of support. Others are invites to other countries where FGM is practiced. My father has been receiving many messages from his friends mainly saying that they are very proud of the film. One of his friends told me that you have allowed us to talk about FGM easily. I thank the director and the team for making a film that does not add to the stigma and makes people understand what actually happens. The film was able to show you that without actually showing a single cut. There is no graphic image. It allowed the conversation to go on and the taboo to be broken. For the tradition to be abandoned we have to be able to talk openly and I think the film and my work in general have done that.
You don’t need to add to the stigma. You want understanding and compassion and empathy so that we can find a solution to finally end this.
The film: The Cut https://youtu.be/TWIzaD4-_y4
What challenges exist in the fight against FGM and what solutions would you recommend?
“If I am to look at it from where I am in the diaspora, even if I know the topic is not a problem for them, it is not the same for those who are coming in now. For the new comers there is the risk of them bringing the same mindset of carrying on the tradition. In the diaspora it is difficult to deal with this. It is sensitive. I don’t know of a way without violating the child’s body, privacy and without stigmatizing and racially profiling people, how to go about it is an existing challenge but you also have to weigh the fact that by doing so you would literally save somebody’s live. There is need to find a perfect formula where we can balance because I’m against stigmatizing, racially profiling and judging people, but I’m also for children’s rights to remain the way they were meant to.
I believe one way is to educate and create awareness by reaching out to the parents. It is important to make them aware of the law. It is also important for the advocates or activists to be people from the community or people who have an understanding of how it works because I have come across a lot of people who mean well but their approach is very colonial and they look at it from a top-down perspective and is very judgmental. That doesn’t work, because if you truly want to bring change, this does not and will not work. You need to create an understanding and trust. I believe it is important for the people from the community who get it to be part of the conversation because we need to have a conversation and implement the law.
For the children, you start early on without stigmatizing them. Create awareness of what the law entails. You have to make them aware that this is something that happens, and instead of singling out some children, it should be part of the curriculum for everybody to be aware that this happens, is illegal and how to report it, as well as how to protect yourself from an early age and do it to everyone without singling out African children because that is wrong.
This is a human rights violation and even if you don’t think a white British girl may not be at risk, it does not matter, awareness is knowledge, and knowledge should be available for everybody, not only to those who are likely to be affected. Introduce it and make it to be part of the curriculum at a very early age, and make children to be aware of their rights. This should start at school.
Collaborate with religious leaders. I’m not saying this practice is condoned by any religions but I believe that some groups tend to use religion as an excuse and so it is important to involve religious leaders in the conversation because by doing that you will involve such groups.”
Blog about why we should care about FGM: https://www.google.se/amp/www.aljazeera.com/amp/blogs/africa/2017/10/care-fgm-171003081645743.html
What’s next for you? What more are you planning in the fight against FGM?
“I’m still working on promoting the film and its content, in Sweden I have shown it to health workers, the police, teachers and my plan is to continue to screen it and to talk about it. I will be creating workshops to talk about the issues and to use the film as an opener. The film will be screened in Paris, in the UK and also in Brussels again and other countries too. It is available on YouTube and I would like to show it to schools because in it you don’t see any actual cutting so it is a good way to start a conversation. I want to show it to school children, health workers, the police, and midwives, anyone that has come across someone who has gone through it and start the conversation. One of the workshops that I am working on now is one that in order for us to understand one another we need to put ourselves in others’ shoes. Role play is what I’m developing at the moment and it is good to bring together people from the opposite ends of the spectrum, a health worker, an FGM survivor, where both can role play and understand how the other person feels or looks at things. Maybe then we can reach an understanding and see someone else’s point of view.”
I write about human rights in general and won’t stop writing about FGM. I will be shedding light on other countries such as Iran and elsewhere where this is practiced to try to find human stories that can highlight this topic through.”
Has reporting about FGM been as it should be? What would be your message to journalists?
“Journalists need to change the way they do reporting, especially western journalists. Try not to judge, try not to look at it from a superior point of view. Erase the word “barbaric” because even if some people disagree, I don’t believe that any parent would intentionally want to harm their children. It is unfortunate that we have these deep-rooted traditions that take generations to disappear. Journalist really need to understand and go deeper. Also try to put your feelings aside because it is not about you. Even if you feel it is barbaric, who cares? It’s not about you, it is about the person, about the topic and it is about creating an awareness and understanding and tackling the problem head on. So put aside your feelings and focus on the story. Empathy is important, empathy does not mean that you are condoning this.”
Award winning animation on FGM done by Fatma: https://youtu.be/sIwQLgHHOZQ
What are the existing gaps in ending FGM and what should be done?
“What has been missing is dealing with it from the grassroots point of view. Start from where it actually happens. Talk to people. I do believe it will be abandoned. I don’t think it will be erased by 2030, I would love for it to be erased by 2020, even by tomorrow, even today. But I am also realistic and based on what I have read, and what I have seen it will take a generation, like the older generation to be faced out, but it is not just a problem with the older generation. There are a number of educated young people who still think that this is something that we should continue with and this is a future problem so we need to invest in them while still young. 2030 is not a realistic number but we should still have a goal, and banning is not enough, we need to do more. Involve the people from those cultures and have a dialogue and talk to people, don’t tell them what to do. In doing that, the law has to be implemented because I have seen countries with laws against FGM yet the statistics are going up and no cutters are going to jail no parents are going to jail.”
FGM is a global issue that has several complex layers. So it is not right to find a single blanket solution for it. One solution that works for Kenya will not work in Eritrea because of the different cultures and reasons. What works in Sudan will not work in Senegal or in Europe either. There’s need to implement the law, and engage the communities.
Web documentary about breaking the cycle of FGM in Senegal: https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2016/breaking-cycle-fgm-senegal/phone.html
The #FightingTheCut series continues. In our next articles we’ll focus on all the anti-FGM activists in Kenya and the roles they play in ending the cut in their respective communities.