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TEDxCanberra

Khadija Gbla: My mother’s strange definition of empowerment

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Khadija Gbla grew up caught between two definitions of what it means to be an “empowered woman.” While her Sierra Leonean mother thought that circumsizing her — and thus stifling her sexual urges — was the ultimate form of empowerment, her culture as a teenager in Australia told her that she deserved pleasure and that what happened to her was called “female genital mutilation.” In a candid and funny talk, she shares what it was like to make her way in a “clitoris-centric society,” and how she works to make sure other women don’t have to figure this out. (Warning: This talk contains hard-to-hear details.)

- Cross-cultural consultant
Khadija Gbla was born in Sierra Leone, spent her youth in Gambia, and as a teenager put down roots in Australia. She uses her cross-cultural heritage to promote understanding in both directions. Full bio

Hi.
00:12
Today I'm going to share
my personal journey
00:13
with female genital mutilation, FGM.
00:16
Feel free to cry, laugh, cross your legs,
00:21
or do anything your body feels like doing.
00:25
I'm not going to name
the things your body does.
00:27
I was born in Sierra Leone.
00:31
Did anybody watch "Blood Diamond"?
00:33
If you have any thoughts --
00:36
I don't have any diamonds
on me, by the way.
00:38
If you have heard of Ebola,
well, that's in Sierra Leone as well.
00:42
I don't have Ebola. You're all safe.
00:45
Don't rush to the door.
00:47
Be seated. You're fine.
I was checked before I got here.
00:48
My grandfather had three wives.
00:53
Don't ask me why a man
needs more than one wife.
00:56
Men, do you need more than one wife?
00:58
I don't think so. There you go.
01:00
He was looking for a heart attack,
that's what I say.
01:02
Oh yeah, he was.
01:05
When I was three, war broke out
in Sierra Leone in 1991.
01:08
I remember literally going to bed
one night, everything was good.
01:12
The next day, I woke up,
01:16
bombs were dropping everywhere,
01:18
and people were trying
to kill me and my family.
01:20
We escaped the war and ended up
in Gambia, in West Africa.
01:22
Ebola is there as well. Stay away from it.
01:27
While we were there as refugees,
01:31
we didn't know what
was going to become of us.
01:32
My mom applied for refugee status.
01:36
She's a wonderful, smart woman, that one,
01:38
and we were lucky.
01:41
Australia said, we will take you in.
01:42
Good job, Aussies.
01:45
Before we were meant to travel,
01:48
my mom came home one day, and said,
01:51
"We're going on
a little holiday, a little trip."
01:53
She put us in a car,
01:56
and we drove for hours
and ended up in a bush
01:57
in a remote area in Gambia.
02:01
In this bush, we found two huts.
02:05
An old lady came towards us.
02:08
She was ethnic-looking, very old.
02:11
She had a chat with my mom, and went back.
02:14
Then she came back and walked
away from us into a second hut.
02:17
I'm standing there thinking,
02:22
"This is very confusing.
I don't know what's going on."
02:23
The next thing I knew,
02:26
my mom took me into this hut.
02:28
She took my clothes off,
02:31
and then she pinned me down on the floor.
02:33
I struggled and tried
to get her off me, but I couldn't.
02:37
Then the old lady came towards me
with a rusty-looking knife,
02:40
one of the sharp knives,
02:44
orange-looking, has never seen
water or sunlight before.
02:46
I thought she was going to slaughter me,
02:50
but she didn't.
02:52
She slowly slid down my body
02:54
and ended up where my vagina is.
02:57
She took hold of what I now know
to be my clitoris,
03:01
she took that rusty knife,
and started cutting away, inch by inch.
03:06
I screamed, I cried,
03:14
and asked my mom to get off me
so this pain will stop,
03:19
but all she did was say, "Be quiet."
03:23
This old lady sawed away at my flesh
for what felt like forever,
03:26
and then when she was done,
03:32
she threw that piece of flesh
across the floor
03:35
as if it was the most disgusting thing
she's ever touched.
03:38
They both got off me,
and left me there bleeding,
03:43
crying, and confused
as to what just happened.
03:46
We never talked about this again.
03:53
Very soon, we found
that we were coming to Australia,
03:55
and this is when you had
the Sydney Olympics at the time,
03:59
and people said we were going
to the end of the world,
04:02
there was nowhere else
to go after Australia.
04:04
Yeah, that comforted us a bit.
04:06
It took us three days to get here.
04:09
We went to Senegal, then France,
and then Singapore.
04:11
We went to the bathroom to wash our hands.
04:16
We spent 15 minutes
opening the tap like this.
04:19
Then somebody came in,
04:23
slid their hand under and water came out,
04:25
and we thought, is this what we're in for?
04:27
Like, seriously.
04:30
We got to Adelaide, small place,
04:32
where literally they dumped us
in Adelaide, that's what I would say.
04:35
They dumped us there.
04:38
We were very grateful.
04:40
We settled and we liked it.
04:42
We were like, "We're home, we're here."
04:43
Then somebody took us to Rundle Mall.
04:45
Adelaide has only one mall.
04:48
It's this small place.
04:49
And we saw a lot of Asian people.
04:53
My mom said all of a sudden, panicking,
04:55
"You brought us to the wrong place.
You must take us back to Australia."
04:57
Yeah. It had to be explained to her that
there were a lot of Asians in Australia
05:03
and we were in the right place.
05:08
So fine, it's all good.
05:10
My mom then had this brilliant idea
05:13
that I should go to a girls school
because they were less racist.
05:15
I don't know where she read
that publication. (Laughter)
05:18
Never found evidence of it to this day.
05:21
Six hundred white kids,
and I was the only black child there.
05:25
No, I was the only person
with a bit of a color on me.
05:29
Let me say that. Chocolate color.
05:32
There were no Asians, no indigenous.
05:35
All we had was some tan girls,
05:38
girls who felt the need
to be under the sun.
05:39
It wasn't the same as my chocolate,
though. Not the same.
05:41
Settling in Australia was quite hard,
05:45
but it became harder when I started
volunteering for an organization
05:48
called Women's Health Statewide,
05:51
and I joined their
female genital mutilation program
05:55
without any awareness of what
this program was actually about,
05:58
or that it related to me in any way.
06:02
I spent months educating
nurses and doctors
06:04
about what female genital mutilation was
06:07
and where it was practiced:
06:10
Africa, the Middle East, Asia,
and now, Australia and London and America,
06:11
because, as we all know,
we live in a multicultural society,
06:16
and people who come from those backgrounds
come with their culture,
06:20
and sometimes they have cultural practices
that we may not agree with,
06:24
but they continue to practice them.
06:30
One day, I was looking at the chart
06:33
of the different types
of female genital mutilation,
06:35
FGM, I will just say FGM for short.
06:38
Type I is when they cut off the hood.
06:41
Type II is when
they cut off the whole clitoris
06:44
and some of your labia majora,
or your outer lips,
06:47
and Type III is when they
cut off the whole clitoris
06:52
and then they sew you up
06:54
so you only have a little hole
to pee and have your period.
06:56
My eyes went onto Type II.
07:00
Before all of this,
I pretty much had amnesia.
07:03
I was in so much shock
and traumatized by what had happened,
07:05
I didn't remember any of it.
07:08
Yes, I was aware something bad
happened to me,
07:10
but I had no recollection
of what had happened.
07:13
I knew I had a scar down there,
07:15
but I thought everybody
had a scar down there.
07:17
This had happened to everybody else.
07:19
But when I looked at Type II,
it all came back to me.
07:21
I remembered what was done to me.
07:25
I remembered being in that hut
07:27
with that old lady and my mom
holding me down.
07:29
Words cannot express the pain I felt,
07:34
the confusion that I felt,
07:39
because now I realized that
what was done to me was a terrible thing
07:42
that in this society was called barbaric,
07:46
it was called mutilation.
07:49
My mother had said
it was called circumcision,
07:51
but here it was mutilation.
07:54
I was thinking, I'm mutilated?
I'm a mutilated person.
07:56
Oh my God.
07:59
And then the anger came.
08:01
I was a black angry woman.
(Laughter)
08:03
Oh yeah.
08:07
A little one, but angry nevertheless.
08:08
I went home and said to my mom,
08:11
"You did something."
08:15
This is not the African thing to do,
pointing at your mother,
08:17
but hey, I was ready for any consequences.
08:20
"You did something to me."
08:22
She's like, "What are you
talking about, Khadija?"
08:24
She's used to me mouthing off.
08:27
I'm like, "Those years ago,
You circumcised me.
08:28
You cut away something
that belonged to me."
08:33
She said, "Yes, I did.
08:36
I did it for your own good.
08:38
It was in your best interest.
08:43
Your grandmother did it to me,
and I did it to you.
08:45
It's made you a woman."
08:48
I'm like, "How?"
08:50
She said, "You're empowered, Khadija.
08:52
Do you get itchy down there?"
08:54
I'm like, "No, why would I
get itchy down there?"
08:56
She said, "Well,
if you were not circumcised,
08:58
you would get itchy down there.
09:01
Women who are not circumcised
get itchy all the time.
09:03
Then they sleep around with everybody.
09:06
You are not going
to sleep around with anybody."
09:09
And I thought,
09:12
her definition of empowerment
was very strange. (Laughter)
09:13
That was the end
of our first conversation.
09:20
I went back to school.
09:23
These were the days when we had
Dolly and Girlfriend magazines.
09:24
There was always the sealed section.
Anybody remember those sealed sections?
09:27
The naughty bits, you know?
09:32
Oh yeah, I love those.
(Laughter)
09:34
Anyway, there was always
an article about pleasure
09:37
and relationships and, of course, sex.
09:40
But it always assumed
that you had a clitoris, though,
09:43
and I thought, this doesn't fit me.
09:47
This doesn't talk about people like me.
09:51
I don't have a clitoris.
09:54
I watched TV and those women
would moan like, "Oh! Oh!"
09:56
I was like, these people
and their damned clitoris.
10:00
(Laughter)
10:03
What is a woman without a clitoris
supposed to do with her life?
10:04
That's what I want to know.
10:08
I want to do that too --
"Oh! Oh!" and all of that.
10:10
Didn't happen.
10:14
So I came home once again
and said to my mom,
10:16
"Dolly and Girlfriend said
I deserve pleasure,
10:19
that I should be having orgasms,
10:23
and that white men should figure out
how to find the clitoris."
10:25
Apparently, white men
have a problem finding the clitoris.
10:30
(Laughter)
10:33
Just saying, it wasn't me.
It was Dolly that said that.
10:35
And I thought to myself,
I had an inner joke in my head
10:40
that said, "I will marry a white man.
10:43
He won't have that problem with me."
(Laughter)
10:46
So I said to my mom,
10:50
"Dolly and Girlfriend said
I deserve pleasure, and do you know
10:51
what you have taken away from me,
what you have denied me?
10:58
You have invaded me
in the most sacred way.
11:02
I want pleasure.
11:05
I want to get horny, dammit, as well."
11:07
And she said to me,
"Who is Dolly and Girlfriend?
11:10
Are they your new friends, Khadija?"
11:13
I was like, "No, they're not.
That's a magazine, mom, a magazine."
11:15
She didn't get it.
11:19
We came from two different worlds.
11:21
When she was growing up,
not having a clitoris was the norm.
11:23
It was celebrated.
11:27
I was an African Australian girl.
11:29
I lived in a society
that was very clitoris-centric.
11:32
It was all about the damn clitoris!
11:35
And I didn't have one!
11:40
That pissed me off.
11:41
So once I went through
this strange phase of anger
11:45
and pain and confusion,
11:49
I remember booking
an appointment with my therapist.
11:50
Yes, I'm an African
who has a therapist. There you go.
11:53
And I said to her,
11:56
"I was 13. I was a child.
11:59
I was settling in a new country,
12:02
I was dealing with racism
and discrimination,
12:03
English is my third language,
and then there it was."
12:06
I said to her, "I feel like
I'm not a woman
12:09
because of what was done to me.
12:12
I feel incomplete.
12:14
Am I going to be asexual?"
12:17
Because from what I knew about FGM,
12:20
the whole aim of it was to control
the sexuality of women.
12:23
It's so that we don't have
any sexual desire.
12:27
And I said, "Am I asexual now?
12:30
Will I just live the rest of my life
not feeling like having sex,
12:32
not enjoying sex?"
12:35
She couldn't answer my questions,
12:38
so they went unanswered.
12:40
When I started having my period
around the age of 14,
12:43
I realized I didn't have
normal periods because of FGM.
12:46
My periods were heavy, they were long,
and they were very painful.
12:49
Then they told me I had fibroids.
12:55
They're like these little balls
sitting there.
12:57
One was covering one of my ovaries.
13:00
And there came then the big news.
13:03
"We don't think you can
have children, Khadija."
13:06
And once again, I was
an angry black woman.
13:09
I went home and I said to my mom,
13:14
"Your act, your action,
no matter what your may defense may be" --
13:17
because she thought she did it out love --
13:21
"what you did out of love
is harming me, and it's hurting me.
13:24
What do you have to say for that?"
13:29
She said, "I did what I had to do
as a mother."
13:32
I'm still waiting
for an apology, by the way.
13:36
Then I got married.
13:40
And once again --
13:43
FGM is like the gift that keeps giving.
13:45
You figure that out very soon.
13:48
Sex was very painful.
13:50
It hurt all the time.
13:53
And of course I realized, they said,
"You can't have kids."
13:56
I thought, "Wow, is this my existence?
Is this what life is all about?"
13:59
I'm proud to tell you,
14:08
five months ago,
14:11
I was told I was pregnant.
14:12
(Applause)
14:15
I am the lucky girl.
14:24
There are so many women out there
who have gone through FGM
14:25
who have infertility.
14:28
I know a nine-year-old girl who has
incontinence, constant infections, pain.
14:30
It's that gift. It doesn't stop giving.
14:37
It affects every area of your life,
14:40
and this happened to me
because I was born a girl
14:43
in the wrong place.
14:46
That's why it happened to me.
14:48
I channel all that anger,
all that pain, into advocacy
14:50
because I needed my pain
to be worth something.
14:55
So I'm the director of an organization
called No FGM Australia.
14:58
You heard me right.
15:02
Why No FGM Australia?
15:04
FGM is in Australia.
15:05
Two days ago, I had to call
Child Protective Services,
15:08
because somewhere in Australia,
15:12
there's a four-year old
15:15
there's a four-year-old whose mom
is planning on performing FGM on her.
15:17
That child is in kindy.
I'll let that sink in: four years old.
15:22
A couple of months ago, I met a lady
who is married to a Malaysian man.
15:31
Her husband came home one day and said
he was going to take their daughters
15:35
back to Malaysia
to cut off their clitoris.
15:39
And she said, "Why?"
He said they were dirty.
15:41
And she said, "Well, you married me."
15:45
He said, "Oh, this is my cultural belief."
15:47
They then went into a whole discussion
where she said to him,
15:51
"Over my dead body
will you do that to my daughters."
15:54
But imagine if this woman
wasn't aware of what FGM was,
15:57
if they never had that conversation?
16:01
Her children would have been
flown over to Malaysia
16:03
and they would have come back
changed for the rest of their lives.
16:06
Do you know the millions of dollars
16:09
it would take us to deal
with an issue like that?
16:11
[Three children per day] in Australia
16:13
are at risk of having FGM
performed on them.
16:16
This is an Australian problem, people.
16:19
It's not an African problem.
It's not a Middle Eastern problem.
16:22
It's not white, it's not black,
it has no color, it's everybody's problem.
16:25
FGM is child abuse.
16:30
It's violence against women.
16:33
It's saying that women don't have
a right to sexual pleasure.
16:35
It says we don't have
a right to our bodies.
16:39
Well, I say no to that,
and you know what? Bullshit.
16:42
That's what I have to say to that.
16:46
(Applause)
16:48
I am proud to say that
I'm doing my part in ending FGM.
16:54
What are you going to do?
17:00
There may be a child in your classroom
who is at risk of FGM.
17:02
There may be a patient
who comes to your hospital
17:07
who is at risk of FGM.
17:10
But this is the reality,
17:12
that even in our beloved Australia,
17:14
the most wonderful place in the world,
17:16
children are being abused
because of a culture.
17:18
Culture should not be
a defense for child abuse.
17:22
I want ever single one of you
to see FGM as an issue for you.
17:25
Make it personal.
17:30
It could be your daughter,
your sister, your cousin.
17:32
I can't fight FGM alone.
17:35
I could try, but I can't.
17:38
So my appeal to you is, please join me.
17:40
Sign my petition on Change.org
17:43
and type in Khadija, my name,
and it'll come up, and sign it.
17:45
The aim of that is to get support
for FGM victims in Australia
17:49
and to protect little girls
growing up here
17:53
to not have this evil done to them,
17:55
because every child
has a right to pleasure.
17:58
Every child has a right
to their bodies being left intact,
18:02
and dammit, ever child
has a right to a clitoris.
18:05
So please join me in ending this act.
18:10
My favorite quote is,
18:14
"All it takes for evil to prevail
18:16
is for a few good men
and women to do nothing."
18:18
Are you going to let this evil
of female genital mutilation
18:21
to prevail in Australia?
18:26
I don't think so,
18:28
so please join me in ensuring
that it ends in my generation.
18:30
Thank you.
18:34
(Applause)
18:36

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About the speaker:

Khadija Gbla - Cross-cultural consultant
Khadija Gbla was born in Sierra Leone, spent her youth in Gambia, and as a teenager put down roots in Australia. She uses her cross-cultural heritage to promote understanding in both directions.

Why you should listen

Khadija Gbla was just 3-years-old when the war broke out in her country, Sierra Leone. While her family initially escaped to Gambia, 10 years later they attained refugee status and resettled in Adelaide, Australia. The transition was complex—Khadija experienced racism, illness and depression—but threw herself into her education. She discovered that she had a unique talent: the ability to translate across two very different cultures.

Khadija first used this talent as a peer educator for South Australia’s Women’s Heath Statewide program, where she talked to health professionals about female genital mutilation — helping them understand what it is, where it happens, and the cultural beliefs that surround it. She’s since used her multicultural voice to offer advice on policy through South Australian Government Minister’s Youth Council, to organize camps and activities for newly-arrived refugees and to raise awareness about both sexual and mental health issues among her peers. She has represented Australia in the international arena at the Harvard National Model United Nations, Commonwealth Youth Forum and Australian and Africa Dialogue, and speaks regularly at a wide variety of events to make sure that her perspective is heard.

More profile about the speaker
Khadija Gbla | Speaker | TED.com