By Emily Haynes, FORWARD Youth Intern

FGM & Artwork

Young artist Ruby Waage Townsend’s art work Piercing Silence was recently displayed at Mill Studios at De Monfort University in Leicester from May 20 to May 25. The work depicted female genital mutilation (FGM) in a symbolic and powerful way, inspiring conversation and education on this important topic.
FGM is defined as “when parts or all of the external female genitalia are removed or injured for no medical reason”. It affects over 200 million women and girls worldwide. There are four types that range from removing the clitoris or clitoral hood to removing the inner and outer lips of the vagina and sewing them together. It is practiced in countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and any country with migrants from areas that practice FGM such as the United States, United Kingdom, and many others.

The fight against this violation of human rights often employs art to enact social change, and Ruby is a great example of this method of raising awareness. In a recent interview with Seyi Afolabi, Youth Programme Officer at FORWARD, Ruby stated that, “FGM is ongoing and widely practiced, thus my work developed naturally as I am determined to use art to stop FGM for good”. Ruby’s piece involved a variety of mediums, including embroidery, canvas, and stop-motion animation. This was done so that she could inspire emotion and interest into FGM through different forms of art. For her canvas piece, she focused on the eyes of an anonymous woman and implied that the needle, which physically protrudes from the piece, would sew up her large eyes.

“[I wanted to portray that] taking away the clitoris and sewing up the genitals is as important as your eye. If it’s not graphic, it’s more approachable.”
Ruby Townsend

Ruby uses her artwork to inspire conversation and education about FGM, a topic that she thinks remains taboo in most of Western society. Once safe platforms are opened up to discuss this topic, society can engage in meaningful conversations to eradicate this practice. Ruby’s work is titled Piercing Silence in order to reflect her goal of shattering the taboo aspects of FGM and bringing this practice to an end.
“Once people are talking, it educates people that [FGM] doesn’t make your daughter any more pure, it damages her for life” she says. Ruby addresses the specific long-term emotional and psychological effects of FGM. This is represented in the destroyed and stitched flower, an object that often represents the female body. The flower has been irreparably damaged, never to be the same again, just as the fundamental parts of an affected woman’s body and mind would be changed forever as a result of FGM.
Some of the specific emotional effects include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or anger. The physical complications regarding FGM include extreme pain, blood loss, risk of infection and/or urinary and menstrual problems.

Due to the taboo and intimate nature of the practice, it is often hard for women to speak out about it. Ruby has felt a connection with them in regards to this aspect, as she finds it difficult to express herself in any way other than art. Piercing Silence depicts a woman with her mouth sewn shut in order to represent the silencing effect of FGM, which Ruby says “removes the clitoris and thus removes their voices, hopes, identity, their way of expression and sexual pleasure”.

Her art also shows a multitude of hands that represent the pressures on women in their communities to undergo this practice, which makes it difficult to challenge the practice of FGM. It exists in some places as a strong element of the culture or tradition in the community. Ruby hopes that her art invokes the need for a dialogue and general education on why FGM is illegal in the UK and how it violates a young girl or woman’s rights. FORWARD identifies a variety of myths that perpetuate the practice of FGM, including that an uncut woman will not be faithful to her partner or that a clitoris will continue to grow if it is not removed. Artwork like Ruby’s helps to refute these myths by creating conversation, awareness-raising and education.

Her work inspires emotion and emotion inspires action. The viewers of her piece are made to see the emotional vulnerability and repercussions of FGM right before their eyes. As Ruby mentions, survivors of FGM often feel a loss of identity or destruction of their natural mind and body. Art makes these emotions accessible to a viewer of any background so that he or she can interact and relate to the piece.
Ruby plans to continue using her art to influence the progression of human rights, specifically women’s rights. Along with other artists and activists, she hopes to inspire social change through her work. Impactful pieces such as Piercing Silence allow for important conversations to begin and hopefully for meaningful action to follow.

If you would like more information about FGM, visit our Information Hub with research and resources. If you would like to get involved with the youth campaign to end FGM, please contact [email protected] or call 0208 960 4000, ext. 2. You can also follow FORWARD’s youth campaign on Twitter or on Facebook.