Ifrah Ahmed came to Ireland as a refugee fleeing the Ethiopian War in Somalia.
It was 2006, and she was just 17 years old. She spoke little English, so when she underwent compulsory medical checks on arrival in Ireland, it was difficult to communicate with the doctors who insisted on a smear test.
“I was told to lie down on the bed,” Ahmed tells Hozier on the seventh episode of the Cry Power podcast, released the day before International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on Feb. 6.
”When the lady took the sample, she just screamed, saying ‘Jesus Christ!’ — she just looked completely shocked.” The nurse gathered her peers in disbelief. After inspecting Ahmed, they realised it was the first case they had seen of FGM.
FGM is a term used to describe the non-medical procedure used to remove or injure female genitalia. It affects 200 million worldwide, with another girl at risk every seven seconds.
When Ahmed went through those medical exams, she was shocked too — because in her culture, it’s ubiquitous. Although it’s technically outlawed according to the country’s constitution, there isn’t sufficient legislation to prosecute it. Somalia has the highest prevalence of FGM worldwide: 98% of women aged 17-49 have undergone the procudure.
At the time, Ahmed was living in a hostel with other refugees — a period of her life when she says she truly “felt like I was a global citizen”. After the checkup, she asked the other refugee women living in the hostel if they had encountered similar experiences. Their recollections brought back a lot of trauma for Ahmed, and she felt compelled to speak out. But in a new country with a different language, she didn’t know how. So she went back to school.
There are four types of FGM, explained by our video below. The first type is known as a “clitoridectomy”, meaning the removal of all or parts of the clitoris; while the second, called “excision”, involves removing all or part of the labia or labia majora too. Ahmed shares that she “was cut and actually sewed back” — an example of type three FGM, also known as “infibulation.” The fourth and final type refers to all other methods, including but not limited to burning, pricking, or piercing, according to the NHS.
A bill had already been tabled in Ireland’s parliament back in 2001 with the aim of banning FGM within the country. But nothing had changed and the bill was gathering dust.
That was until Ahmed stepped in. Within six years of arriving in Ireland as a refugee, she was instrumental in pushing forward the legislation that banned FGM in Ireland in 2012.
But before she would reach that incredible achievement, Ahmed had a lot of work on her hands.
First, she needed a movement. That’s why she started a youth club called United Youth of Ireland in 2010 — in her words, to “steal the hearts of young people.” From there, she established a beauty pageant called Ms Ethnic Ireland: a contest that celebrated diversity while raising awareness about FGM worldwide.
She then also founded the anti-FGM organisation Ifrah Foundation in 2010 to fuel the fight, and went to the Irish government. In 2012, Ireland passed the FGM Bill, officially banning the practice.
Ahmed shares the story of how the legislation was eventually passed in the podcast, and how she faced head on the immense challenges in front of her. “Whatever happened to me, that should never happen to young girls born and raised in Ireland,” Ahmed tells Hozier.
“From the beginning, the whole community was against me,” Ahmed says in the podcast. “Every country that practices FGM would call me a lot of bad things. I was told I was going to be killed.”
“For me even as an activist now: I moved on from being a victim to being a survivor and to becoming this spokesperson,” she adds. “But it has impacted my life because whenever I think about it I feel like it’s in my body... it’s trauma, physical and emotional.”
The Ifrah Foundation has three main goals: awareness (grappling with the issue in the media spotlight); advocacy (changing legislation around the world), and community empowerment (providing quality education around gender violence). After her astonishing triumph making FGM illegal in Ireland, Ahmed then set her sights back on the country of her birth.
With her new Irish passport in tow, she set out for Somalia in 2014. When she started, she wanted to make an immediate impact — and gave $300 to three families, so long as they swore on the Quran to not cut their three daughters.
By 2016 — within just two years of arriving back in Somalia — Ahmed had become the gender advisor to Somalia’s prime minister.
FGM is often seen by practicing communities as a ceremony of purification, to prepare daughters for marriage. But ultimately, activists say it is the attempt of a patriarchal society to control female sexuality — and a serious human rights violation, according to the UN.
“Some people say it’s religious,” Ahmed tells Hozier. “But it has nothing to do with religion. It’s a cultural practice. It’s a tradition. It’s a mentality of mothers for many generations who felt that ‘my grandmother was cut; my mother was cut; my auntie was cut; I am cut: my daughter has to go through [this too]’. It’s allowing that pain to your child.”
“It’s something that punishes women for being women at birth," Hozier agrees. “We still have practises here oftentimes in Western countries that punish women after they engage in sexuality.”
“It’s a conversation that you have to bring men into because it’s a practice perpetrated by men,” Hozier adds later in the podcast. “It’s men seeking to control women’s bodies and sexuality.”
“All men can be champions,” Ahmed says. “Until the mentality that this is a woman’s issue changes, nothing will change... Men are part of the solution.”
Bravery, leadership and community spirit are just a few reasons why Ifrah is such a remarkable person. It was an honour to sit with Ifrah Ahmed of the @IfrahFoundation and hear of her incredible achievements & story.— Hozier (@Hozier) February 4, 2020
🖤Listen to #CryPower at: https://t.co/NrUtXysIZm
A movie that tells the incredible story of Ahmed’s life as a survivor and activist — called A Girl from Mogadishu — is out now. She’s portrayed by Aja Naomi King alongside BAFTA-winning Captain Phillips actor, Barkhad Abdi.
It will be shown across hundreds of cinemas on Feb. 6 to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerence for FGM. You can volunteer to host your own screening of the film here.
“The story might be mine, but it’s a story connected to a lot of women,” she says. Ahmed has always been just one voice — but through her work empowering women with shared experience, that story has metamorphosed into a potent, inclusive, influential movement fighting FGM all over the world.
The last three episodes of Cry Power will drop weekly. Head to GlobalCitizen.org/CryPower to check out the latest episodes, take action on the vital issues discussed in the podcast, and to #PowerTheMovement to end extreme poverty.