June Butler reviews A Girl from Mogadishu, Mary McGuckian’s portrayal of Ifrah Ahmed’s campaign to end female genital mutilation after fleeing war-torn Somalia in 2006.

Somalia is one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. For roughly a century, the area has been poverty stricken but in more recent times, issues in the country have relieved somewhat as a result of new found stability in the region and increased foreign aid. Female Genital Mutilation is a state-wide crime perpetrated against young girls usually between the ages of 5 to 11. It is so pervasive, that 98% of all girls and women in Somalia, are believed to have endured this horror.

The worldwide pandemic Covid19, forced the problem further into the shadows with enforced isolation and perpetrators of the act being able to segregate their victims usually in their own homes. Families, usually matriarchs, believed that as they had suffered the crime, so too should their daughters. Religious and cultural norms upheld deeply held beliefs that this act was normal and should be accepted.  

Based on the true story of Ifrah Ahmed, A Girl From Mogadishu narrates the story of Ahmed’s escape from war-torn Somalia in making the perilous journey from East Africa across Europe, eventually arriving in Dublin as a refugee on a wintry day in 2006. As a child, Ahmed underwent the trauma of Female Genital Mutilation and survived the inhuman act when many young girls did not.

The shocking details of the practice came to light when Ahmed underwent a medical examination after coming to Ireland. Ahmed is now a vocal supporter of women’s rights, actively speaking out to condemn the brutal act, and is a prominent campaigner against FGM. She has worked as gender advisor alongside the prime minister of Somalia, with Unicef, Amnesty International, and the Irish Refugee Council.  

A Girl From Mogadishu opens with hazy images of a young girl playing in a camp. Skittish laughter rings out and the children caper to sounds of giggling happiness. A young girl, Ifrah Ahmed (Malaika Herrador), is gifted a beautiful gold chain by her mother. It becomes apparent that the jewellery is in part a placatory signifier to counter the brutality that is due to commence. The actual act of FGM is not witnessed but it is alluded to in these early scenes.

Ifrah goes on to marry at the age of 15 to a far older suitor but after multiple acts of violence from her husband, leaves him and flees to her grandmother. She is told by her father and brothers that her grandmother will beat her when she finds out that Ifrah has abandoned her husband. They part ways from Ifrah in order to engage in a shootout with unknown factions.

At this juncture, it is evident that women have scant rights in this controlling, male-dominated society. With her grandmother nowhere to be found, Ifrah initially goes into hiding until her relative returns. She encounters callous indifference – all perpetrated by men. Women in Somalia provide solace and humanity but some men enact casual violence against females to the extent where it is accepted as standard practice.

Aja Naomi King tenderly portrays the character of Ifrah Ahmed as a young woman caught in the crosshairs of an unforgiving ethos where one gender ruthlessly exerts limitless autonomy over another, often to the extreme detriment of the maltreated party. After arriving alone at her grandmother’s home and in the absence of male relatives to protect her, Ahmed is attacked and violated by three renegade soldiers. Her grandmother returns to the home and maintains that Ifrah’s only option is to travel to the home of her aunt in America stating that after the violation, no one will want her and in the circumstances, Ahmed is unable to return to her husband.

A taciturn people trafficker Hassan (Barkhad Abdi), (Abduwali Muse in Captain Phillips 2013), transports the bewildered Ahmed by plane to Dublin and swiftly abandons his charge at an asylum centre in the capital. Martha Canga Antonio is Amala, another Somalia refugee living in the centre who takes Ifrah under her wing and tries to teach her English. A kindly social worker, Pauline McGlynn proves worthy of her metier as she assists Ahmed in adjusting to a new life.  

Aja Naomi King as Ifrah Ahmed exerts a gritty degree of forceful determination in becoming a tireless campaigner against FGM. The latter portion of the film concentrates more on Ahmed’s impassioned rhetoric in her constant struggle to highlight a crime that is being continuously committed against women and done so in the name of misogyny and tyranny. The long-term effects on the young girls is felt for a lifetime both physically and mentally. Amala, Ifrah’s ally and friend in the refugee centre, provides a supporting role to Ahmed’s efforts in speaking up and resisting the abusive control that FGM represents.

The acting skills of Pauline McGlynn are marginally underused in this film, however, her role is nonetheless key to the narrative and she delivers a sterling performance as the social worker who first realises something is amiss. 

FGM is a crime perpetrated by men against women and used as a mechanism to control. It mainly occurs in countries where overarching patriarchal influence is in place and in areas of the greatest poverty. 

A Girl from Mogadishu is a film with a message that needs to be shouted from the rooftops. Director Mary McGuckian has bravely raised the issue of FGM and treated it with sensitivity and empathy. Ifrah Ahmed has broken the ultimate silence by courageously highlighting the crime and bringing it to the attention of world leaders. It is thanks to her vocal defiance that this shameful act of oppression against women can finally cease to exist. 

A Girl from Mogadishu is released in Irish cinemas on 4th December 2020.


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