Leyla Hussein is a Somali physcotherapist and social political activist, however this already commendable CV is a massive understatement of Leyla’s achievements. Born in Somalia in 1980 Leyla later moved to London where she completed her training as a physiotherapist. Leyla’s primary line of social activism is about increasing awareness of Female Genital Mutilation. Her training as a physcotherapist has enabled her to work with women and young people that have been affected by the practice and she continues to work as a counsellor to women who have experienced sexual violence or Female Genital Mutilation. She then founded the Dahlia Project in 2013 to offer support to women who have experienced Female Genital Mutilation either in the UK or abroad and to provide a safe space for victims to talk about their experiences.
Female Genital Mutilation is the cutting of some or all of the external female genitalia, in the most extreme cases, this can involve removing the inner and outer labia, the clitoris and then bringing together the skin to cover the genital area, leaving only a very small opening through which the women is expected to urinate, menstruate, have intercourse and give birth. FGM is practiced in a number of communities and in a variety of religions, yet it’s important to acknowledge that this practice is not exclusive to any one continent or religion. The practice has been recorded in wide ranging geographical locations, from Canada to the Philippines, and it is estimated that up to 24,000 women per year are at risk in the UK alone.
Leyla was asked to carry out a TED Talk bringing the issue to light and has also presented the Channel 4 documentary ‘The Cruel Cut’ in which the issue of FGM in Britain (where 66,000 women are living with the terrible consequences of this practice) is explored. What’s perhaps most uniquely engaging about this incredible woman is her use of humour in bringing about a reaction and response to the admittedly difficult subject of FGM. In fact, Leyla teamed up with comedian Bridget Christie to create a video depicting a satirical interview situation; exploring common misconceptions about FGM through comedy. Leyla also founded the Stand Up To FGM Comedy Night; further using comedy to bring people to a place of ease even whilst discussing something as horrific as the practice of FGM.
She describes how giving victims the opportunity, and consequently the permission, to laugh with one another is one of the most therapeutic ways to take ownership of their experiences. Choosing to turn something out of your control into subject for comedy and prompt laughter, somewhat demeans the action itself, it takes ownership away from the perpetrator and gives a new lease of life, and freedom, to the victim.
Leyla’s relentless work in FGM activism, her charities and physcotherapy practices to rehabilitate victims, as well as her ceaseless campaigning to garner stricter laws on the practice both in the UK and abroad, make her a worthy nominee for the ‘Women You Should’ Know hall of fame.
You can find out more about Leyla’s work on her website as well as links to her Ted Talks and The Cruel Cut documentary.