A few weeks ago we stumbled across the most incredible Ted Talk about one woman's journey to empowerment after experiencing FGM. If you haven't heard of Khadija Gbla yet, let this be your sign that you simply MUST read on. Khadija will make you laugh, cry and feel empowered doing whatever your body feels like doing and we couldn't feel more grateful for her taking the time to chat with us.
A note to Khadija — we continued to be amazed by you and cannot wait to see the world become a better place because of the impact of your work.
Q&A with Khadija Gbla | Award-winning human rights activist, inspirational speaker, cultural intelligence consultant and model.
Tell us a little about you and What was your journey like to where you are today?
My name is Khadija Gbla. I am a mum, human rights activist, cross-cultural consultant, and model. I came to Australia with my family as a refugee in 2001. For the past 20 years, I have called Australia home. I am a single mother to a beautiful baby boy who just turned six. I am the lead voice and campaigner against female genital mutilation in Australia. I advocate for the 11 girls a day at risk of FGM and the 200,000 in Australia. I also raise awareness of domestic and family violence, its impact on so many women across Australia, especially those even further vulnerable like migrant and refugee women. They are made especially vulnerable by barriers such as language, adapting to a new culture, lack of system literacy, and the experience of racism further marginalises them.
I am guided by my observations of those made voiceless, those who don't have a platform, those who are made vulnerable by our systems, institutions, and society. I am always challenged to play my part, no matter how small, to challenge the status quo and advocate for the equality of all people no matter their race, gender, sexuality, ability, class etc. I believe that we as individuals are the solution to the challenges facing our families, communities, and nation. All we must do is act!
What’s your why that continues to motivate you in your work? That little niggling feeling of purpose that gets you out of bed each day...
Having experienced war, poverty, discrimination, domestic violence and one of the most brutal forms of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, I decided as a 13-year-old to dedicate my life to fighting for social justice and human rights. I was and am determined to make the world a better place for those who come after me and now more so than ever for my son.
Whether it is fighting to raise awareness about domestic violence; making sure we have policies, processes and systems in place to protect women and children so they can live a life free of violence; fighting for racial and gender equality, fighting for the 11 girls a day who are at risk of being subjected to FGM, and the 200,000 survivors of FGM in Australia who are in desperate need of holistic medical care, support and proper advocacy; as well as just fighting for human rights, for people of all race, gender, sexuality, class and ability, to ensure that we are all treated equally. That is who and what I fight for. This is my purpose! My dreams and hopes are to live in a world where people, no matter our class, race, neurotype, gender, ability, faith, have a quality of life that enables them to thrive.
How has does your experience with FGM impact your view or pleasure and empowerment?
For context, here is a brief explanation for those who are unaware of FGM.
FGM involves the removal of tissue on the female genitalia, this includes cutting, burning, stitching, incising of the vulva, labia majora and minora, clitoris, and/or vaginal opening for non-medical or cultural reasons. There are three main types of FGM practised, Type I includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris is practised, called clitoridectomy. Type II, known as excision, involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and the inner labia, with or without excision of the outer labia. Type III, known as infibulation, involves the narrowing of the vaginal opening using stitching and cutting to close the vaginal opening.
The list of health side-effects is long and spans a lifetime, including increased risk of infection and fistula, incontinence, infertility, haemorrhaging, internal bleeding, complications during pregnancy and childbirth, painful sex, difficulties during menstruation, and death. As well as physical, the psychological and emotional side effects are also lengthy, leaving girls with trauma, PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
The reason girls, women and gender diverse people are subjected to female genital mutilation is to take away their pleasure, control their sexuality and body. So, our sexual pleasure, our desire, our libido, and sexual function is the most impacted. As a young woman coming to terms with my experience with female genital mutilation, I was acutely aware of the impact it would have on my sexual health and what it would mean pleasure-wise. I had a lot of anxiety around experiencing pleasure, enjoying sex, and questioned if I was asexual. I now know I am demisexual. FGM made me feel sexually disempowered, made me attach pain and trauma to my vulva for a long time.
The more research I did about FGM, the more my anxiety increased as the data and statistics were not positive in the ways that FGM impacts survivors. Furthermore, the conversations I had with other survivors also led me to believe that I may not have a healthy sexual life, and that orgasming may not be something I ever experience, and that sexual pleasure would be non-existent. Pain seems to be the only thing I would be ‘looking forward to’, which made me depressed I must admit.
Studies have shown people who have been subjected to FGM have negative sexual experiences including negative changes in desire, arousal, and satisfaction. This reduced sexual functioning can lead to poor sexual quality of life.
This is not what I wanted for myself so at the cusp of adulthood, I decided to start my sexual healing journey and immerse myself in learning as much as possible about my body and what it is capable of. I wanted to take back my power for myself. I couldn’t control what had happened to me, but I could choose to the work of healing the trauma I experienced, and the impact that trauma had on my body psychologically, physically, and sexually.
I believe that when the body loses a part of itself, the rest of the body makes up for it in certain ways. The body will find another way to keep going, it will rewire itself to keep functioning. So, I went down this rabbit hole of research, spent as much quality time with my body as I could, and treat my vulva less as a place of trauma but a place of what is possible. I had nothing to lose, there was only the discovery of how much pleasure and sensation I was capable of in the absence of a clitoris. I learnt that the most sexual organ I have in my body is my brain. My brain is my clitoris and I love it! I also discovered all these unique and standard erogenous zones in my body, the different ways I experience pleasure and my favourite, the many ways I can achieve an orgasm. I will never forget the first spark I felt in my vulva, a sensation that told me that I wasn't dead down there as I feared, and a sign of what was possible. I cried tears of joy and expressed endless gratitude. It took lots of patience, trial and error and sheer stubbornness to build up that spark to my first orgasm. My first orgasm wasn't strong or resembled anything I have seen in movies or read about but for me, it was life-affirming and healing. Since then, it's been raining orgasms for me lol. I am obsessed with orgasms, and it is my go-to cure for everything from headache, anxiety, stress, insomnia, boredom etc. Dr. Orgasm never misses!
What does empowerment mean to you?
Empowerment for me is feeling confident, having choice, influence, safety, boundaries, freedom, and control over our lives. Going through trauma therapy was also empowering for me, it gave me the tools to create a life not led by trauma and the skills to live a life where I thrive. Being black, a woman, non-able-bodied etc empowerment for me is my ability to thrive despite the multitude of oppressions I am subjected to their impact on my personhood.
What role do you think pleasure plays in our lives? How does it contribute to overall well-being?
Pleasure can be found in everything if we are mindful. It brightens our lives, be it a sensual or sexual pleasure. I also think a covid world where we are at home more presented us with an opportunity to connect and focus on pleasure and cater to our senses and some of us ran with it as evident by the high sales of sex toys wink wink lol.
For me, it can simply be catering to my senses. It's the taste and flavours in food, listening to music, baths, scents, candles, moisturising my skin soft materials on or against my skin, dancing naked to my sexy playlist, a head massage, connecting with the erotic, etc.
Pleasure is also political. Our patriarchal society centres male pleasure, it is only interested in pleasure through the male gaze and experience. So, I see experiencing, centring, and prioritising our pleasure as defiance, a form of protest and an act of liberation.
What do you see as the biggest barrier(s) around the world for women feeling empowered and experiencing pleasure?
Stigma and shame about pleasure due to societal norms, messaging in media, religion, slut-shaming, toxic body image presented by media and internalised sexism and misogyny.
Simply put Patriarchal oppression and its impact!
How would you define sexual liberation?
As a black, non-abled woman, sexual liberation is very important to me. Sexual liberation means breaking the shackles of sexual oppression and decolonising sexual liberation. It means not being fetishised. It means not being oversexualised or infantilised by others. It means freedom from traditions and sexual defaults, feeling confident, feeling safe, having choices, being able to explore one's sexual identity and expression etc. Sexual liberation to me is also having healthy sexual boundaries, communicating them, and enforcing them, it’s about knowing your sexual needs, expressing them, and having them met. Sexual liberation is "my body, my choice" full stop no buts or ifs.
What are your thoughts about sex toys as a tool to connect to one's pleasure?
I love everything about sex toys! I love the freedom they give me to explore pleasure, sensation and what works or doesn’t work for me. Sex toys play a vital part in my sexual healing and sexual exploration journey. I love how they increase and amplify the sensations I feel. It blew my mind how the right vibration with the right intensity can penetrate through scar tissue to activate the clitoral nerves underneath and internal. It is simply magic! I am always willing to try new things and see what I learn about myself. On my current sex toy wish list is a waterproof vibrator for bath time and a suction vibrator, I want to see how the suction would feel for women like myself.
Sexual pleasure is part of my self-care routine. Self-love, self-awareness, and freedom to explore and be curious have helped me be sexually confident.
Khadija's favourite sexual affirmations...
- These are some of my favourite sexual affirmations:
- I believe that I am worthy of sexual pleasure.
- I own my sexual pleasure.
- I am in tune with my sexual energy, and it is safe for me to express it
- Pleasure is my birthright, and I will not compromise on it.
- My body is a place of sensation and sensuality
- I am whole
- It is safe for me to feel pleasure
3 ways you can support the anti-FGM movement TODAY:
Follow Khadija on Instagram, repost and share her educational content via @khadija_gbla.
If you work in an area where you interact with children and/or provide service to women and gender-diverse people, contact Khadija for specialised FGM training: www.khadijagbla.com.au.
Watch Khadija's TED Talk to learn about FGM and what it looks like in Australia: My mother’s strange definition of empowerment.
- FGM involves the removal of tissue on the female genitalia for non-medical or cultural reasons. The reason girls, women and gender diverse people are subjected to female genital mutilation is to take away their pleasure, control their sexuality and body.
- Empowerment = feeling confident, having choice, influence, safety, boundaries, freedom, and control over our lives
- Sexual liberation is "my body, my choice" full stop no buts or ifs.
- Pleasure can be found in everything if we are mindful. It brightens our lives, be it a sensual or sexual pleasure
- Sex toys play a vital part in sexual healing and sexual exploration.
- We as individuals are the solution to the challenges facing our families, communities, and nation. All we must do is act!