When Muna Hassan appeared on BBC’s Newsnight program in 2012, she had a message for the then prime minister David Cameron: “Grow a pair.” She was 17 years old.
Hassan’s comment was part of a debate on female genital mutilation (FGM), and it helped push the issue to the forefront of the political agenda in the U.K.
Born in Sweden to Somali parents, Hassan moved to the U.K. when she was 8 years old and grew to become a vocal activist against the procedure that is widely practiced in many parts of the world. Also known as female circumcision, FGM involves cutting or injuring a girl’s genitals. It has no medical purpose, but many communities consider it a cultural or religious imperative. In the U.K., there were 5,700 newly reported cases of FGM reported in the year up to March 2016, according to a survey for the National Health Service. However numbers are likely to be much higher as many incidents go unreported.
To draw attention to what she sees as a violation of human rights, Hassan launched an anti-FGM campaign group with three classmates when she was 14. Now 21, Hassan helps run a youth engagement project called Integrate in Bristol in southwest England. Part of her work involves going to schools to talk to teenagers about FGM, but also combating online grooming and radicalization.
Women & Girls Hub talked to Hassan about speaking out for her peers and challenging the political system.
Women & Girls Hub: What have you discovered from talking to schoolchildren about being targeted online?
Muna Hassan: I didn’t realize how big an issue it is until we started doing these sessions. I have been to lots of schools to talk about this, and in some of my sessions children in year seven [11- and 12-year-olds] say they have been groomed online. One of the girls this age was about to meet the guy, and it was only pure luck that her mother found her phone and read the messages [so] she was stopped. That really shocked me. I didn’t think children that young were at risk.
Women & Girls Hub: How are young Muslim girls targeted by extremists?
Hassan: In the climate we’re living in, with terrorist attacks going on, there are women who are attacked on the street for wearing a hijab [head scarf]. If you’re a young Muslim woman and you are the one being abused by a stranger for something you haven’t done and you are a teenager whose hormones are already all over the place, then you look for a way to feel valued. All they have to do is go online and rant about what has happened to them, and it only takes one person to get in touch and offer them something else. They say things like, “Our parents had that sense of belonging but it’s been lost for our generation. I know a place where you’ll be treated with respect, where these things won’t happen to you.”
Women & Girls Hub: What can be done to limit that threat?
Hassan: We need to give young people space to talk about politics. We have to give people the opportunity to debate these issues, even if we don’t agree with what they are saying. If young people don’t have the opportunity to ask questions, that’s when they can turn to people online.
Women & Girls Hub: How did you become a voice for your peers?
Hassan: We started our project on FGM in school because I had never heard about it until we had a session on gender-based violence in an English class. I did what every teenager does these days and took to the internet to Google it. I was shocked. I got this awful feeling of, who do I know who has had this done to them? Who has gone through this and suffered in silence?
That was a time when FGM was not something you talk about. I got together with three other girls from the school and we started trying to raise the issue and turn it into a public debate. We got a lot of negativity, especially from male elders in our community. They contacted our head teacher and said what the school was letting us do was wrong. The head teacher was ready to shut the project down, but then the senior leadership team, who were all women, said they would resign if he did that. That’s when we knew we were ruffling some feathers.
Women & Girls Hub: How has the conversation about FGM changed since you started your campaign in school?
Hassan: When we started speaking up about the issue, it was always the politicians or other men in our community who were reluctant to deal with it. They said it happens to a certain community and we don’t want to aggravate them by talking about it. Then in 2012 we went on BBC Newsnight to talk about FGM. That’s the first time it was talked about in a proper public debate where it was seen as something that happens to women and girls in this country and not just in some far away country in Africa. After that, everyone started talking about it and all these initiatives got set up.
Women & Girls Hub: Are you hopeful the work you’re doing in the U.K. against FGM will eventually have an impact on cultures elsewhere?
Hassan: I am hopeful. In the end, we are the generation who will take a stand against this, and when we are parents it will be up to us to decide what to do. But I think it will be up to young people in those countries to take the initiative themselves. We can give people advice and we can tell them what has worked here, but it will be up to them to change things in their own system.