Although female genital mutilation (FGM) is a familiar term, the specifics are often less understood. In some ways it’s self-explanatory, but the scope of the practice is such that it can’t be dismissed as just violence – it’s estimated 98% of women in Somalia have undergone what the Guardian describe as the ‘ritual’. It is violence permitted by its deep-seated roots in societies and cultures, the kind which Western societies have a very basic understanding of.
Part biography and part awareness campaign, A GIRL FROM MOGADISHU follows Ifrah Ahmed, trafficked to Ireland as a teenager after a traumatic childhood involving FGM and sexual assault, as she campaigns against the practice in her home country.
It’s her determination which drives the film. Ireland may be a comparatively safe place for her to live, but as a black woman who doesn’t speak a word of English on arrival and hasn’t felt weather so cold before, it’s hardly the haven she dreamed of. It wasn’t even her original destination, instead promised by her family and her trafficker that she’d head to her aunt in America. Dropped off at a refugee centre, she has to start her life all over again, learning the language and the customs. She starts off communicating via translator before moving on to a handheld device. She doesn’t understand that teasing laughter isn’t malicious, reacting with inappropriate force instead of joining in the fun.
After the initial scene-setting in Somalia, sent off by her family for her own safety, the film’s focus turns to the horror of indifference. Ifrah is motivated by how this extreme form of gendered violence is accepted as part of everyday life back home. The film is less interested in the hows and whys than it is the resistance against change.
Ifrah preaches to the converted in a Western country. Realising she has little support among her family and wider community, she is propelled by a sense of what is right and wrong, regardless of the reasoning behind the violence. The film frames her determination as its raison d’être: no one wants to hear what she has to say other than the people who already agree with her, who have nothing to do with Somali lifestyles.
The odds couldn’t be more stacked against her as she receives dismissals from friendly faces and unexplained threats. That this intimidation towards her is never explained is a slight misstep: while the threats themselves are somehow scarier because of their lack of justification, they could have been used to give some reasoning as to why FGM is so important in Somali culture. As a Western writer, it’s difficult to comprehend how anyone could defend it, yet the resistance Ifrah comes up against is immense.
That her campaign is never framed as being against tradition, religion, or patriarchy lends weight to the argument the film is more a biography than a piece of political art. However, it could be said that getting bogged down by the nitty gritty implies that it’s a topic that is up for debate, something which Ifrah would disagree with.
Taking a step back to appreciate where Ifrah began and where she ends up makes for a heck of a journey. From one of the 98% to a leading voice campaigning against FGM at local and international levels, Mary McGuckian’s film is in awe of what she’s accomplished. Ifrah is shown to be a diplomatic and patient woman, one who’s steadfast in her conviction. In focusing so much on her, it occasionally sidelines what she’s campaigning against. It’s in the quiet moments, like a routine medical check-up where Irish doctors are ill-equipped for what has happened to her, where it hits home just how horrific it all is. In documenting and raising the profile of Ifrah Ahmed, it therefore goes that it’s raising the awareness of her campaign too.
A better biography than it is a call to arms, A GIRL FROM MOGADISHU is inspiring when it focuses upon its central figure’s determination, perfectly realised by Aja Naomi King. That the film ultimately feels uplifting is a clever tactic in energising the audience to make themselves more aware of FGM. It doesn’t feel designed to kickstart a revolution, but to let you know that there are those out there trying to do just that. What you do with that information is up to you.