In Australia, there is an estimated 53,000 girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation. Worldwide, this number sits at 200 million. Khadija Gbla is one of these women.
The 30-year-old human rights activist was only nine when her mother and another woman held her down in Gambia and sliced her genitals in a ritual created to suppress women’s sexual urges.
It's a lot to take in, particularly as we're sitting in a car together, chatting animatedly before her International Women's Day speech. But it needs to be said. It's a discussion often stifled due to the brutality, the confronting nature of the procedure, but it's a conversation to be normalised, so that the practice no longer will be.
These lived experiences of Gbla, 2011’s Young South Australian of the Year, has brought her to Canberra to speak at this year’s Pamela Denoon lecture: Invisible Women, Invisible Violence. She's not here to speak about her horrific experience as a girl, but the violence she has encountered as a woman in Australia.
Born in Sierra Leone, Gbla came to Australia in 2001 as a refugee. Her road to activism started soon after at age 13.
“Once you realise there is such injustice in the world, once the wool is lifted from your eyes, it’s hard to return to ignorance. Being aware that I was a girl and being treated differently, I became very aware of sexism. And seeing what that meant for my life, I knew that it wasn’t just me. The personal is political,” said Adelaide-based Gbla.
“I knew I had a part to play. I was fired up. I was an angry 13-year-old. I had something to say. It wasn’t ok that I was treated as a second-class citizen by people who think they can put limitations on me and that I must abide by rigid gender stereotypes.”
For Gbla, this injustice began in her own home.
“Being a girl, I was told to dim my lights, speak more quietly, don’t be angry - because ladies are not angry! And don’t be too smart - who will want to marry you when you’re smart?
“And I’d think: I don't care who wants to marry me! I just want to have my say and have my input carry the same weight as if a boy or man was saying it.”
It was this commitment to calling out inequality as a young woman that she soon influenced people outside of her home, women her age who began questioning gender stereotypes and expectations.
At this moment, she knew the path of activism was for her. Indifference was no longer an option.
“Embrace the rage. Despite what society has told you. As women and girls, we are told not to be angry, it’s ugly on girls but okay for boys. And if you’re a woman of colour, the angry black woman stereotype will get you every single time,” said the Our Watch ambassador.
You needn’t look far to see that while anger might be seen as a mark of passion, confidence and an expression of individuality in men, society has a low threshold for anger coming from a woman. Women are simply not afforded these same emotional experiences.
“We’re often told to calm down, to simmer down, but it’s okay. It’s time to embrace that anger is a valid emotion.
“Knowing where your anger is coming from, what it is telling you about the world you live in, what do you want to do in it, is important. It’s the first emotion, and you need to move past it and be productive.
“Anger can fuel you, but it can be blinding. You need to move from it to a place where you’re strategising about the next step.”
She often transitions from this anger into a “zen-like” state. It’s a process she’s mastered over the years. As for other girls and women who hope to follow in her path?
“Get women who will mentor you, because the path of the activist is not for the faint-hearted. There is a cost. Each person must make the decision whether they can handle the trolls, everything that comes at you online: the hate, the racism, the misogyny.
“You need a strong conviction of why you’re fighting the fight. That’s why anger is not enough, you need to have passion and the conviction that you are on the right side of history, the side of human rights.
“At this point, it isn’t about emotion, it’s about facts. Every human being in the world deserves equality and opportunity.”