Smuggling vulva-decorated cupcakes into the Somali region of Ethiopia was one of those moments where I thought: “My work as an anti-FGM campaigner gets me into interesting situations sometimes.”
Three years earlier I’d made vulva cupcakes as part of a documentary about FGMthat I’d done for Channel 4. “We need you to bring them with you,” said Sagal Abdi, vice executive director of Maandeeq, when she invited me to an event in Jijiga, the capital of the region, part of 16 days of activism against gender-based violence.
Honestly, I was taken aback. I grew up in the UK as part of the Somali diaspora, and I’d assumed the people of Jijiga would not be ready for vulva cupcakes. But Abdi, also part of the diaspora, reassured me that the Ethiopian women had requested them. “Leyla, they watched the documentary and loved the concept of using art for campaigning,” she said.
Abdi filled me in on the current status of the women from Jijiga. It was the usual story of inequality, gender-based violence, lack of employment and access to healthcare. But Abdi gave me hope as she described these negative situations. By the end of that phone call I couldn’t wait to meet her. The only snag was, how would I carry vulva cupcakes from London to Jijiga?
I am always up for a challenge. I managed to carry the cupcakes, made in London, in my hand luggage all the way to Addis Ababa. I really began to think I was going to pull this off. But just as I was about to embark on my final flight to Jijiga, one of the officers told me to step aside and opened the box. When he saw the cakes staring back at him he made a sound halfway between a gasp and a giggle. “Why would you bring these here?” he asked. “Oh, you know what they are then?” I thought. He said I needed permission to carry them and he needed to investigate. My flight was taking off in 10 minutes, so I sadly had to leave the cakes behind.
On reflection, the fact that he recognised the icing decoration as vulvas was good – many men and women don’t know what women’s genitals look like. I hope he enjoyed eating those red velvet pussies.
Something extraordinary came out of that trip. On the flight to Jijiga I suddenly realised that everyone around me was speaking Somali. My family isn’t from that region but the last time I was in Somalia was 25 years ago, when I was 10 years old. The heat hit me and felt so familiar. Tears streamed down my face. I tried to hold them back but it was overwhelming.
Abdi and her colleague, Hodan, were very sweet and comforted me when they picked me up. They were disappointed about the cakes, but as Somali women we weren’t going to let that setback stop us from getting our message getting across.
On my way to my hotel I felt a sense of belonging to a city I’ve never been to before, but also the fear that I would be targeted with threats, as I am known as an outspoken advocate for women’s and girls’ rights.
The next day I presented my work on gender equality and female genital mutilation (FGM), exploring how to create safe spaces for survivors of violence free from shame. I got a positive reaction from the local women and young people, even from the politicians in attendance. They asked me to come back as often as I could. I was deeply touched to be appreciated by my own people.
I was truly impressed with Hafsa Mohamed, the founder and director of Maandeeq. She, a diaspora born and raised in North America, has galvanised grassroot support and policy influence for many years to get to this point. As she shared a joke with the president of the Ethiopian Somali region, I could see she has built a respectful relationship with local politicians. It didn’t happen overnight, she told me. She had to work hard and prove herself to the local people. She knows that in order to make a change and build a safer world for women/girls we have to work with politicians to influence policies and ensure funding and resources are directed to this area.
She told me that she and her colleagues had got into physical fights with men to ensure they provided what the local women/girls needed. “At times we need get physical to get what we need for our women,” she said. I realised I needn’t be afraid when I was with such brave women.
To have the most senior politician of this region attend and open this conference spoke volumes of Somali women’s leadership skills. Abdi M Omar, president of the Ethiopian Somali regional state, even made a statement: “We must prioritise the welfare and empowerment of women,” he said. “In the Somali region of Ethiopia, almost half of the regional parliament are women. The number of businesswomen are growing. The number of girls and women partaking in education are tremendously increasing. The number of FGM cases are decreasing. Gender equality is becoming more and more a reality.”
I had a strong sense of Somali sisterhood with Mohamed (from Jijiga), Abdi (originally from Somaliland) and Hoden (from Djibouti). We had a group hug to recognise this important moment in our lives. We women all face similar challenges and we are stronger by coming together.
There’s an assumption that diaspora who move back home are living the life of luxury. But these three women were living in a one-bedroom apartment. When I asked why they choose to live this way, their response was simple. They said they all left their privileged lives in the west, and have the option to go back, but they can’t leave the sisters who need them here.
The next steps for these amazing women is to keep building the grassroots movement for gender equality in Ethiopia. I urge you all to support these east African warriors by donating, volunteering or becoming their allies in this battle.
For me, the trip brought up feelings about how I can make the most of my skills and privilege to improve life for women and girls all over the world, particularly in the land where I was born.
On my flight out of Jijiga I got tearful again. I started thinking about how my mum and many families must have felt when they left their home without knowing when or if they are going to see it again. But I know for sure that I’m going to go back to that region. And next time, hopefully, I’ll get all the way with the vulva cupcakes.