By Radhika Sanghani
03 Jun 2015
Hibo Wardere was six years old when she was taken from her bed in Somalia and dragged into a makeshift hut by her mum. Three women were there waiting for her.
“I didn’t think anything bad was going to happen but then they restrained me,” says Wardere, now 45. “As a child you start to recognise something weird’s about to happen and you don’t know what it is. What happened next was the stuff of a nightmare.”
Wardere was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). Those women were a ‘cutter’ and her helpers who restrain screaming girls.
“They yanked my dress up and I just saw something terrible was going to happen,” says Wardere. “I was whimpering nervously for my mum.”
The cutter started examining her vagina and clitoris. “It was like she was buying a fish in the market and seeing if it’s fresh and flipping it around,” she explains. And then she pulled out a razor. That’s when she started cutting off parts of Wardere’s genitalia.
“There were no words for what happened. I remember screaming so hard. Screams like that don’t exist in the world. The pain was the worst. You can’t breathe through it. You feel you’re going to drown any minute.
“However much I begged for mercy no one was going to listen to me – my mum was completely blocking me out. I knew from then that I was on my own. I let the pain take over because there was nothing else I could do.
“My mum told me to shut up and not be a coward. I fell asleep thinking this is a nightmare. From that moment you change towards people you love, towards how you perceive the world.”
Wardere was subjected to type three FGM where the clitoris and vaginal lips are removed along with vaginal tissue, and then sewn up. Her waist was mummified for 12 days, and to this day she still experiences severe pains and can not orgasm.
She’s telling her story now as FGM consultant for Waltham Forest Council to raise awareness about the crime still taking place in England. It is so powerful that it inspired one local artist Emma Scutt to paint Wardere as part of a triptych of FGM survivors.
“I’d heard about FGM before and thought I knew what it was - but I learned much more when I first heard Hibo Wardere talk very openly and graphically about the practice,” explains Scutt. “Her speech was powerful and moving, and made me laugh and cry. I was so moved by what she had to say that I felt compelled to help in some way, and thought that as an artist this could be my way of alerting and educating people about FGM.”
She decided to create ‘Stories from FGM Survivors’ which feature Wardere, along with FGM campaigners Leyla Hussein and Alimatu Dimonekene. It’s now being displayed in a Walthamstow church as part of the E17 Art Trail. The idea is to raise awareness about FGM – 66,000 women and girl are currently living with its consequences in the UK .
For Wardere, FGM changed her life irrevocably – particularly her relationship with her mum, who had undergone FGM herself as a child, and believed it was an unbreakable tradition.
“I didn’t think of her as my mum anymore. But I asked her every day – why was this done. When I was 15, she finally told me, it’s a family tradition. She told me, one day you’ll realise it was a proud moment. I said, I hope I’ll never live like you.”
It’s only now that she has accepted that her mum did: “You can’t blame her for that. She didn’t know any better. They never talked about it. They see it as a proud moment in life and keeping family honour. It’s so people know they’re a virgin.”
At the age of 18, Wardere eventually moved to England. It changed her perspective and made her realise there was a world where FGM was not the norm – it was a crime.
“I had this feeling of freedom when I arrived,” she says. “That I’m going to marry the man I want and have the life I want. I went to a doctor who opened me up so I could experience weeing like a normal person. It was the first major changing step in my life.”
The doctor was only able to help Wardere urinate normally – she was subjected to so much damage as child that she will never have healthy genitalia again. But she never told her mum that she’d had part of the FGM reversed.
“If my mum knew what I‘d done, she’d be quite flabbergasted,” says Wardere. “Her face dropped when I said I wouldn’t ever cut my girls.”
Wardere has seven children – she had birthing complications for all of them because of the FGM – but has vowed to keep her three daughters safe. Her husband supports her.
“When he proposed, I said OK but I don’t want my girls to be cut. He said, I’m glad you said that. He said his sister nearly died from getting cut. He always encouraged me to talk about it.”
Wardere’s certainly doing just that. In her biography she writes the moving words: “The only way I can compare FGM after it's been done is like when an earthquake happens and follows the tsunami. For me the tsunami was my emotions which I was drowning in and no one to help me swim through it.
“Imagine telling your husband that you cannot feel anything when you are making love, because that has been taken away from you. You don't have a connection to your own part of your body because they ripped your clitoris. Imagine been told that you can't have children because of damage they have done to your reproductive organs.
“You also suffer with constant infections, more than the normal woman because they have cut off completely your vaginal lips that protect from germs entering you. It's like your eye lids being ripped off and you suffer with dryness too. Imagine even after 10 years of being with your partner you still experience pain when you are love-making.
“This beautiful country that I call my home today - I cannot imagine this practice taking place in this country, and yet it is. The Government isn't doing enough.”