‘A man stood in front of me… Women were going, ‘Jesus Christ, what is this all about?’ I felt everyone was ignorant’
International Day of Zero Tolerance to female genital mutilation (FGM) took place this weekend, 13 months after the first FGM conviction in Ireland. Somali-born Irish citizen Ifrah Ahmed is one of the world’s leading activists against gender-based violence and we're re-sharing her remarkable story to honour it.
A Girl from Mogadishu details her remarkable journey as she lobbies to eradicate female genital mutilation. Prior to its release in Irish Cinemas, Jennifer McShane spoke to the film’s writer/ director Mary McGuckian about the making of the film and the power of female testimony.
Sitting down with Irish director Mary McGuckian shortly after post-production on A Girl from Mogadishu was completed, she says she was instantly fascinated once she met Somali-Irish activist Ifrah Ahmed, despite the harrowing elements of her story. “Ifrah is, as we know, an awe-inspiring person who has dedicated her very young life so far to campaigning against gender-based violence and, in particular, for the abandonment of female genital mutilation (FGM). And throughout the whole process we had, everyone kept asking, how do you make a film about FGM? Because as well, this was all pre-#MeToo.”
“From the point-of-view of a drama, you approach it from, first, character and then from the point of a cinematic thesis. Ifrah herself is so compelling – charismatic, funny, beautiful – and talking to her and understanding her story, it became clear that was the thesis – she uses her personal experience and testimony as her campaign tool. “So ultimately, the film’s story is a simple one: It’s about what happens when women stand up and speak their truth,” she explains.
For Ifrah, the speaking of her truth began when she was trafficked from war-torn Somalia in 2006 and arrived as a refugee in Ireland. Aged just 17, she spoke no English and was frightened and confused. It was during what was meant to be a routine gynaecological exam that she had the revelation that was to form the basis of her crusade – the knowledge that what had happened to her at just eight years old was not necessary, and did not happen to all girls. The doctors were horrified, immediately questioning the violence that occurred. She was confused. Violence? It “just happens”.
This is a pivotal, raw and wrenching moment in the film. Actress Aja Naomi King (who is mesmerising to watch), playing Ahmed, sobs, re-traumatised as a result. “The doctors and nurses didn’t know anything about FGM,” says Ahmed of the incident. “A man stood in front of me, asking how I got injured in my private area. Women were going, ‘Jesus Christ, what is this all about?’ I felt everyone was ignorant.” And yet, this was her epiphany.
“Living in Ireland helped me realise I should protect young girls.” This resounding determination and strength of will paid off; Ifrah was instrumental in bringing about the 2012 legislation banning the practice of FGM in Ireland, and is gender adviser to the Somali government, with the intention of bringing about an end to FGM in a country where 98 per cent of girls are cut. “It’s a huge responsibility to tell a story about someone, especially when that person is only 25. There was a lot of press about her – a great deal in the public domain, but all that is the public pitch of Ifrah’s campaign – there was no biography to draw on,” says McGuckian.
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However, even at that, McGuckian knew Ifrah’s extraordinary story alone would prove a challenge to bring to the big screen. “I knew that trying to finance a film about FGM, with an Irish lead female character who is also from Africa, would be difficult.” But then McGuckian had a lightbulb moment. She asked Ahmed if she would give the director her testimony on camera. This became, in effect, the basis for the script and ultimately, an extraordinarily powerful movie. “She has never done it before, and I would never ask her to do it again,” says McGuckian. “She went beyond statistics and was able to tell her story in a way that would touch people and in doing this, she was able to feel it with them. In a way, this became part of the healing of her own trauma, which seemed a really important thing to explore.