Khadija Gbla: My mother’s strange definition of empowerment

Recorded atOctober 11, 2014
Duration (min:sec)18:26
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute190.57 fast
Readability (FK)74.65 very easy
SpeakerKhadija Gbla
Descriptioncross-cultural consultant

Official TED page for this talk


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.)

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:12 Hi.
200:13 Today I'm going to share my personal journey
300:16 with female genital mutilation, FGM.
400:21 Feel free to cry, laugh, cross your legs,
500:25 or do anything your body feels like doing.
600:27 I'm not going to name the things your body does.
700:31 I was born in Sierra Leone.
800:33 Did anybody watch "Blood Diamond"?
900:36 If you have any thoughts --
1000:38 I don't have any diamonds on me, by the way.
1100:42 If you have heard of Ebola, well, that's in Sierra Leone as well.
1200:45 I don't have Ebola. You're all safe.
1300:47 Don't rush to the door.
1400:48 Be seated. You're fine. I was checked before I got here.
1500:53 My grandfather had three wives.
1600:56 Don't ask me why a man needs more than one wife.
1700:58 Men, do you need more than one wife?
1801:00 I don't think so. There you go.
1901:02 He was looking for a heart attack, that's what I say.
2001:05 Oh yeah, he was.
2101:08 When I was three, war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991.
2201:12 I remember literally going to bed one night, everything was good.
2301:16 The next day, I woke up,
2401:18 bombs were dropping everywhere,
2501:20 and people were trying to kill me and my family.
2601:22 We escaped the war and ended up in Gambia, in West Africa.
2701:27 Ebola is there as well. Stay away from it.
2801:31 While we were there as refugees,
2901:32 we didn't know what was going to become of us.
3001:36 My mom applied for refugee status.
3101:38 She's a wonderful, smart woman, that one,
3201:41 and we were lucky.
3301:42 Australia said, we will take you in.
3401:45 Good job, Aussies.
3501:48 Before we were meant to travel,
3601:51 my mom came home one day, and said,
3701:53 "We're going on a little holiday, a little trip."
3801:56 She put us in a car,
3901:57 and we drove for hours and ended up in a bush
4002:01 in a remote area in Gambia.
4102:05 In this bush, we found two huts.
4202:08 An old lady came towards us.
4302:11 She was ethnic-looking, very old.
4402:14 She had a chat with my mom, and went back.
4502:17 Then she came back and walked away from us into a second hut.
4602:22 I'm standing there thinking,
4702:23 "This is very confusing. I don't know what's going on."
4802:26 The next thing I knew,
4902:28 my mom took me into this hut.
5002:31 She took my clothes off,
5102:33 and then she pinned me down on the floor.
5202:37 I struggled and tried to get her off me, but I couldn't.
5302:40 Then the old lady came towards me with a rusty-looking knife,
5402:44 one of the sharp knives,
5502:46 orange-looking, has never seen water or sunlight before.
5602:50 I thought she was going to slaughter me,
5702:52 but she didn't.
5802:54 She slowly slid down my body
5902:57 and ended up where my vagina is.
6003:01 She took hold of what I now know to be my clitoris,
6103:06 she took that rusty knife, and started cutting away, inch by inch.
6203:14 I screamed, I cried,
6303:19 and asked my mom to get off me so this pain will stop,
6403:23 but all she did was say, "Be quiet."
6503:26 This old lady sawed away at my flesh for what felt like forever,
6603:32 and then when she was done,
6703:35 she threw that piece of flesh across the floor
6803:38 as if it was the most disgusting thing she's ever touched.
6903:43 They both got off me, and left me there bleeding,
7003:46 crying, and confused as to what just happened.
7103:53 We never talked about this again.
7203:55 Very soon, we found that we were coming to Australia,
7303:59 and this is when you had the Sydney Olympics at the time,
7404:02 and people said we were going to the end of the world,
7504:04 there was nowhere else to go after Australia.
7604:06 Yeah, that comforted us a bit.
7704:09 It took us three days to get here.
7804:11 We went to Senegal, then France, and then Singapore.
7904:16 We went to the bathroom to wash our hands.
8004:19 We spent 15 minutes opening the tap like this.
8104:23 Then somebody came in,
8204:25 slid their hand under and water came out,
8304:27 and we thought, is this what we're in for?
8404:30 Like, seriously.
8504:32 We got to Adelaide, small place,
8604:35 where literally they dumped us in Adelaide, that's what I would say.
8704:38 They dumped us there.
8804:40 We were very grateful.
8904:42 We settled and we liked it.
9004:43 We were like, "We're home, we're here."
9104:45 Then somebody took us to Rundle Mall.
9204:48 Adelaide has only one mall.
9304:49 It's this small place.
9404:53 And we saw a lot of Asian people.
9504:55 My mom said all of a sudden, panicking,
9604:57 "You brought us to the wrong place. You must take us back to Australia."
9705:03 Yeah. It had to be explained to her that there were a lot of Asians in Australia
9805:08 and we were in the right place.
9905:10 So fine, it's all good.
10005:13 My mom then had this brilliant idea
10105:15 that I should go to a girls school because they were less racist.
10205:18 I don't know where she read that publication. (Laughter)
10305:21 Never found evidence of it to this day.
10405:25 Six hundred white kids, and I was the only black child there.
10505:29 No, I was the only person with a bit of a color on me.
10605:32 Let me say that. Chocolate color.
10705:35 There were no Asians, no indigenous.
10805:38 All we had was some tan girls,
10905:39 girls who felt the need to be under the sun.
11005:41 It wasn't the same as my chocolate, though. Not the same.
11105:45 Settling in Australia was quite hard,
11205:48 but it became harder when I started volunteering for an organization
11305:51 called Women's Health Statewide,
11405:55 and I joined their female genital mutilation program
11505:58 without any awareness of what this program was actually about,
11606:02 or that it related to me in any way.
11706:04 I spent months educating nurses and doctors
11806:07 about what female genital mutilation was
11906:10 and where it was practiced:
12006:11 Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and now, Australia and London and America,
12106:16 because, as we all know, we live in a multicultural society,
12206:20 and people who come from those backgrounds come with their culture,
12306:24 and sometimes they have cultural practices that we may not agree with,
12406:30 but they continue to practice them.
12506:33 One day, I was looking at the chart
12606:35 of the different types of female genital mutilation,
12706:38 FGM, I will just say FGM for short.
12806:41 Type I is when they cut off the hood.
12906:44 Type II is when they cut off the whole clitoris
13006:47 and some of your labia majora, or your outer lips,
13106:52 and Type III is when they cut off the whole clitoris
13206:54 and then they sew you up
13306:56 so you only have a little hole to pee and have your period.
13407:00 My eyes went onto Type II.
13507:03 Before all of this, I pretty much had amnesia.
13607:05 I was in so much shock and traumatized by what had happened,
13707:08 I didn't remember any of it.
13807:10 Yes, I was aware something bad happened to me,
13907:13 but I had no recollection of what had happened.
14007:15 I knew I had a scar down there,
14107:17 but I thought everybody had a scar down there.
14207:19 This had happened to everybody else.
14307:21 But when I looked at Type II, it all came back to me.
14407:25 I remembered what was done to me.
14507:27 I remembered being in that hut
14607:29 with that old lady and my mom holding me down.
14707:34 Words cannot express the pain I felt,
14807:39 the confusion that I felt,
14907:42 because now I realized that what was done to me was a terrible thing
15007:46 that in this society was called barbaric,
15107:49 it was called mutilation.
15207:51 My mother had said it was called circumcision,
15307:54 but here it was mutilation.
15407:56 I was thinking, I'm mutilated? I'm a mutilated person.
15507:59 Oh my God.
15608:01 And then the anger came.
15708:03 I was a black angry woman. (Laughter)
15808:07 Oh yeah.
15908:08 A little one, but angry nevertheless.
16008:11 I went home and said to my mom,
16108:15 "You did something."
16208:17 This is not the African thing to do, pointing at your mother,
16308:20 but hey, I was ready for any consequences.
16408:22 "You did something to me."
16508:24 She's like, "What are you talking about, Khadija?"
16608:27 She's used to me mouthing off.
16708:28 I'm like, "Those years ago, You circumcised me.
16808:33 You cut away something that belonged to me."
16908:36 She said, "Yes, I did.
17008:38 I did it for your own good.
17108:43 It was in your best interest.
17208:45 Your grandmother did it to me, and I did it to you.
17308:48 It's made you a woman."
17408:50 I'm like, "How?"
17508:52 She said, "You're empowered, Khadija.
17608:54 Do you get itchy down there?"
17708:56 I'm like, "No, why would I get itchy down there?"
17808:58 She said, "Well, if you were not circumcised,
17909:01 you would get itchy down there.
18009:03 Women who are not circumcised get itchy all the time.
18109:06 Then they sleep around with everybody.
18209:09 You are not going to sleep around with anybody."
18309:12 And I thought,
18409:13 her definition of empowerment was very strange. (Laughter)
18509:20 That was the end of our first conversation.
18609:23 I went back to school.
18709:24 These were the days when we had Dolly and Girlfriend magazines.
18809:27 There was always the sealed section. Anybody remember those sealed sections?
18909:32 The naughty bits, you know?
19009:34 Oh yeah, I love those. (Laughter)
19109:37 Anyway, there was always an article about pleasure
19209:40 and relationships and, of course, sex.
19309:43 But it always assumed that you had a clitoris, though,
19409:47 and I thought, this doesn't fit me.
19509:51 This doesn't talk about people like me.
19609:54 I don't have a clitoris.
19709:56 I watched TV and those women would moan like, "Oh! Oh!"
19810:00 I was like, these people and their damned clitoris.
19910:03 (Laughter)
20010:04 What is a woman without a clitoris supposed to do with her life?
20110:08 That's what I want to know.
20210:10 I want to do that too -- "Oh! Oh!" and all of that.
20310:14 Didn't happen.
20410:16 So I came home once again and said to my mom,
20510:19 "Dolly and Girlfriend said I deserve pleasure,
20610:23 that I should be having orgasms,
20710:25 and that white men should figure out how to find the clitoris."
20810:30 Apparently, white men have a problem finding the clitoris.
20910:33 (Laughter)
21010:35 Just saying, it wasn't me. It was Dolly that said that.
21110:40 And I thought to myself, I had an inner joke in my head
21210:43 that said, "I will marry a white man.
21310:46 He won't have that problem with me." (Laughter)
21410:50 So I said to my mom,
21510:51 "Dolly and Girlfriend said I deserve pleasure, and do you know
21610:58 what you have taken away from me, what you have denied me?
21711:02 You have invaded me in the most sacred way.
21811:05 I want pleasure.
21911:07 I want to get horny, dammit, as well."
22011:10 And she said to me, "Who is Dolly and Girlfriend?
22111:13 Are they your new friends, Khadija?"
22211:15 I was like, "No, they're not. That's a magazine, mom, a magazine."
22311:19 She didn't get it.
22411:21 We came from two different worlds.
22511:23 When she was growing up, not having a clitoris was the norm.
22611:27 It was celebrated.
22711:29 I was an African Australian girl.
22811:32 I lived in a society that was very clitoris-centric.
22911:35 It was all about the damn clitoris!
23011:40 And I didn't have one!
23111:41 That pissed me off.
23211:45 So once I went through this strange phase of anger
23311:49 and pain and confusion,
23411:50 I remember booking an appointment with my therapist.
23511:53 Yes, I'm an African who has a therapist. There you go.
23611:56 And I said to her,
23711:59 "I was 13. I was a child.
23812:02 I was settling in a new country,
23912:03 I was dealing with racism and discrimination,
24012:06 English is my third language, and then there it was."
24112:09 I said to her, "I feel like I'm not a woman
24212:12 because of what was done to me.
24312:14 I feel incomplete.
24412:17 Am I going to be asexual?"
24512:20 Because from what I knew about FGM,
24612:23 the whole aim of it was to control the sexuality of women.
24712:27 It's so that we don't have any sexual desire.
24812:30 And I said, "Am I asexual now?
24912:32 Will I just live the rest of my life not feeling like having sex,
25012:35 not enjoying sex?"
25112:38 She couldn't answer my questions,
25212:40 so they went unanswered.
25312:43 When I started having my period around the age of 14,
25412:46 I realized I didn't have normal periods because of FGM.
25512:49 My periods were heavy, they were long, and they were very painful.
25612:55 Then they told me I had fibroids.
25712:57 They're like these little balls sitting there.
25813:00 One was covering one of my ovaries.
25913:03 And there came then the big news.
26013:06 "We don't think you can have children, Khadija."
26113:09 And once again, I was an angry black woman.
26213:14 I went home and I said to my mom,
26313:17 "Your act, your action, no matter what your may defense may be" --
26413:21 because she thought she did it out love --
26513:24 "what you did out of love is harming me, and it's hurting me.
26613:29 What do you have to say for that?"
26713:32 She said, "I did what I had to do as a mother."
26813:36 I'm still waiting for an apology, by the way.
26913:40 Then I got married.
27013:43 And once again --
27113:45 FGM is like the gift that keeps giving.
27213:48 You figure that out very soon.
27313:50 Sex was very painful.
27413:53 It hurt all the time.
27513:56 And of course I realized, they said, "You can't have kids."
27613:59 I thought, "Wow, is this my existence? Is this what life is all about?"
27714:08 I'm proud to tell you,
27814:11 five months ago,
27914:12 I was told I was pregnant.
28014:15 (Applause)
28114:24 I am the lucky girl.
28214:25 There are so many women out there who have gone through FGM
28314:28 who have infertility.
28414:30 I know a nine-year-old girl who has incontinence, constant infections, pain.
28514:37 It's that gift. It doesn't stop giving.
28614:40 It affects every area of your life,
28714:43 and this happened to me because I was born a girl
28814:46 in the wrong place.
28914:48 That's why it happened to me.
29014:50 I channel all that anger, all that pain, into advocacy
29114:55 because I needed my pain to be worth something.
29214:58 So I'm the director of an organization called No FGM Australia.
29315:02 You heard me right.
29415:04 Why No FGM Australia?
29515:05 FGM is in Australia.
29615:08 Two days ago, I had to call Child Protective Services,
29715:12 because somewhere in Australia,
29815:15 there's a four-year old
29915:17 there's a four-year-old whose mom is planning on performing FGM on her.
30015:22 That child is in kindy. I'll let that sink in: four years old.
30115:31 A couple of months ago, I met a lady who is married to a Malaysian man.
30215:35 Her husband came home one day and said he was going to take their daughters
30315:39 back to Malaysia to cut off their clitoris.
30415:41 And she said, "Why?" He said they were dirty.
30515:45 And she said, "Well, you married me."
30615:47 He said, "Oh, this is my cultural belief."
30715:51 They then went into a whole discussion where she said to him,
30815:54 "Over my dead body will you do that to my daughters."
30915:57 But imagine if this woman wasn't aware of what FGM was,
31016:01 if they never had that conversation?
31116:03 Her children would have been flown over to Malaysia
31216:06 and they would have come back changed for the rest of their lives.
31316:09 Do you know the millions of dollars
31416:11 it would take us to deal with an issue like that?
31516:13 [Three children per day] in Australia
31616:16 are at risk of having FGM performed on them.
31716:19 This is an Australian problem, people.
31816:22 It's not an African problem. It's not a Middle Eastern problem.
31916:25 It's not white, it's not black, it has no color, it's everybody's problem.
32016:30 FGM is child abuse.
32116:33 It's violence against women.
32216:35 It's saying that women don't have a right to sexual pleasure.
32316:39 It says we don't have a right to our bodies.
32416:42 Well, I say no to that, and you know what? Bullshit.
32516:46 That's what I have to say to that.
32616:48 (Applause)
32716:54 I am proud to say that I'm doing my part in ending FGM.
32817:00 What are you going to do?
32917:02 There may be a child in your classroom who is at risk of FGM.
33017:07 There may be a patient who comes to your hospital
33117:10 who is at risk of FGM.
33217:12 But this is the reality,
33317:14 that even in our beloved Australia,
33417:16 the most wonderful place in the world,
33517:18 children are being abused because of a culture.
33617:22 Culture should not be a defense for child abuse.
33717:25 I want ever single one of you to see FGM as an issue for you.
33817:30 Make it personal.
33917:32 It could be your daughter, your sister, your cousin.
34017:35 I can't fight FGM alone.
34117:38 I could try, but I can't.
34217:40 So my appeal to you is, please join me.
34317:43 Sign my petition on
34417:45 and type in Khadija, my name, and it'll come up, and sign it.
34517:49 The aim of that is to get support for FGM victims in Australia
34617:53 and to protect little girls growing up here
34717:55 to not have this evil done to them,
34817:58 because every child has a right to pleasure.
34918:02 Every child has a right to their bodies being left intact,
35018:05 and dammit, ever child has a right to a clitoris.
35118:10 So please join me in ending this act.
35218:14 My favorite quote is,
35318:16 "All it takes for evil to prevail
35418:18 is for a few good men and women to do nothing."
35518:21 Are you going to let this evil of female genital mutilation
35618:26 to prevail in Australia?
35718:28 I don't think so,
35818:30 so please join me in ensuring that it ends in my generation.
35918:34 Thank you.
36018:36 (Applause)