A couple months ago I was traveling and called for a car to bring me to the airport. My driver was a young woman from Somalia.
We started talking, and eventually the conversation steered toward current events. We shared our hurt, anger and surprise at the violence that was occurring around the world. We talked about the factors that could lead someone to do such violent and hateful acts, including cultural values, family upbringing, religion, fear, ignorance and a lack of understanding of other options.
My driver whole-heartedly agreed with this, and then she told me a story:
When she was a very young girl in Somalia, her parents, as is the custom, had her genitals cut off. (Female genital mutilation (FGM) is performed on up to 95% of girls in Somalia, as of 2015.) My driver said that since it was the custom, no one even thought to question it, and that she understands why her parents had this done to her.
Her family moved to the United States, but lived in a neighborhood that was predominately Somalian. It wasn’t until this young woman moved away to go to college that she was exposed to non-Somalian women. As she made friends with women at school, she discovered that FGM is not the norm. She had experienced many health issues as the result of the FGM, and eventually sought out medical treatment and help.
She happily told me that all of her health issues related to the FGM had disappeared, and that she now was using her new-found knowledge to help other Somalian women and girls. She started a weekly video program that targeted women in Somalia and was using it to educate them about the health risks of FGM and encourage the discontinuation of the cultural practice.
She recognized the cultural norms that had caused her such physical and emotional pain, but rather than accept them or adopt a victim mentality, she decided to share her knowledge with women to help prevent similar pain from being inflicted on other girls. She is working to break down norms that prevent good health for women. It’s not an easy task. Since FGM is so ingrained in the culture, her message might be ignored. She may get a backlash from her family, friends and others. And yet, she continues on her mission to help others.
I am in awe of this woman’s courage and soul work. She is truly inspiring.