A quiet activist

17 Nov, 2020
A quiet activist

Ayan Said has walked alongside migrant and refugee communities for a decade, unpacking a deeply cultural and sensitive issue, and holding space for change.

The AUT PhD student was a driving force behind the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Crimes Amendment Bill, passed in July 2020, which ensures that all forms of female circumcision are illegal in New Zealand.

As the country’s first cross-party multi-members’ bill, the historic occasion was made all the more remarkable by four female members of parliament putting aside party allegiances to join forces on a global women’s issue.

Ayan, a programme coordinator at the NZ FGM Education Programme, and Nikki Denholm, the programme’s director, began lobbying for legislation change in 2008.

Conversations with MPs took place over three years. There was a learning curve involved on both sides, given the complexity of the issue and unorthodox configuration of key players.

“We were all working together for positive change, and the dedication everyone had to the cause was amazing, but it didn’t occur overnight,” says Ayan.

International agencies have been working to eliminate FGM for 30 years, but the practice hasn’t subsided. Almost 200 million women and girls living today have undergone female circumcision.

While agencies and NGOs focus on it as a rights issue, and the language of advocacy is well understood, the social repercussions for women and girls in FGM-practicing communities are slow to change. To remain uncircumcised may still render a girl unclean, unmarriable, socially ostracised, and vulnerable to abuse.

“Any initiatives to eliminate female genital mutilation must address these powerful social factors, and consider how elimination might occur without any social damage to the women and girls involved,” says Ayan.

“Change cannot come from agencies – it has to come from within communities. Behavioural change is slow and until people are ready to change, the only thing you can do is hold space.”

To hold space means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they are on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, or trying to fix them. It is the process of witnessing and validating someone else’s experience.

The FGM Crimes Amendment Bill was a major milestone, but legislation alone is not enough, says Ayan.

Eliminating FGM requires primary prevention of the practice, with the backing of the relevant community, utilising a range of mechanisms, such as legal frameworks, education and advocacy, as well as ongoing specialised care for those women and girls already affected.

Ayan was born in Somalia, a country with the world’s highest rate of FGM at around 98 percent. Her parents were extraordinary in ‘having the courage to say no’ and shield their daughter from the practice.

It was half a world away that she became aware of the issue. In 2008, her mother, a nurse, contributed to a study into FGM in New Zealand, and together they attended a research ethics committee meeting. Ayan was 18 years old. “I had never heard of female circumcision before,” she says.

She trained as an educator at the NZ FGM Education Programme, at the same time as working towards a double degree in Public Health and Psychology at AUT.

“I began to weigh-up the health impacts of female genital mutilation, and the deeper underlying issues. Understanding how the culture you live in affects your view of femininity and sexual identity as a woman,” says Ayan.

The force and fervour of youth was tempered by years of study, research, conversations with community groups, and compassion.

“With any form of public service, you have to ask yourself, whose voice is being served and how do you amplify that voice? Are you the right person to be having those conversations? And how do you stand firm on an issue that the community isn’t ready to address? This is something that I have grappled with,” she says.

Ayan completed a Master of Public Health at AUT in 2015. Her thesis, which captures the voices of women living with FGM in Auckland, considered culturally appropriate approaches to end female circumcision and ways the health sector could better partner with affected communities.

It took a long time to unpack what FGM means to communities that practice it. The conversations were gradual and required sensitivity, and the findings informed the work of the NZ FGM Education Programme.

“Research and evidence-based practice show the need for change. It allowed us to see where our energies should be placed, and shaped how we engaged with communities,” she says.

Ayan says, more researchers from diverse backgrounds are needed.

Much of the published literature on FGM has been generated by those who do not engage in the practice. Through a Western lens, both the people and practice have been framed as a problem, ‘something broken that needs to be fixed’, giving emphasis to savagery and powerlessness, even though the key to elimination may lie in cultural and social nuances.

Campaigning for change is not always about making noise. In a move that may seem counter-intuitive, Ayan and collaborators declined media interviews, possibly dozens over the years.

“Media headlines and picket signs wouldn’t necessarily accomplish positive sustainable change. Shining a light on a community that isn’t ready for that would be disrespectful. We had been building relationships with communities for years, and wanted to protect them from further marginalisation. One negative media story could have ruined that. It always comes back to consent,” she says.

Research and the drive towards making a difference often go hand in hand. Ayan’s advice for aspiring academic-activists is to ‘find your why’.

“The beauty of postgraduate study is the opportunity to discover your purpose or calling. You need to have a passion for the subject matter, and you need to be true to yourself – not everyone is going to view it the same way, or like it,” she says.

Today, Ayan speaks knowledgably with calm confidence and ease, but her abilities were self-admittedly ‘shaped and earned’ through more than a decade working in health promotion and education, and the generosity of women.

“I am very fortunate to have had people who encouraged me to share my thoughts and ideas, who challenged me to step outside my comfort zone, to build confidence around these issues. The first time I spoke to a group, I was shaking. I knew the content, but I was so nervous to be in front of people. Now, I can talk for hours on end,” she says.

Ayan remains committed to empowering communities. Her current research, part of a PhD in Public Health, aims to create space for young internally displaced Somali women to develop ideas for reproductive health services in Puntland. Her quiet activism will continue to create big change.