In ‘A Piece of Me,’ Sara Elgamal sheds a beautiful light on FGM survivorship
Issue 3 | Beyond International Women’s Day
Working on a video about female genital mutilation (FGM) was personal for Sara Elgamal. Almost two years ago, while living and working in London, Elgamal was approached to collaborate on a piece for the United Nations Population Fund. (The final presentation would include immersive exhibits produced by Somewherelse in Canada, the U.K., and U.S.) The film would specifically help raise awareness about FGM. The 31-year-old Egyptian-Canadian multimedia content producer and artist tells me that FGM is a common practice in Egypt and around the world, occurring even in her own family.
“I was very honest with [my UNFPA contact] that I’d love to create content but let me do my research,” Elgamal says. “I know it’s super prevalent, but I don’t know too much about it. I was actually going for the first time in two years to Egypt with my family to take a trip along the Nile. And I was going to ask my mom a lot of questions. I brought it up to her super casually: ‘What do you know about it?’ And then she told me that herself, as well as my aunts and older family, were subjected to it. It was obviously so heartbreaking and traumatic.”
From there, Elgamal says she became passionate not just because of the project’s content itself, but the way in which women who have undergone FGM are viewed. “I just imagined this really beautiful celebration of these women,” she says. “They’re very complex. They’re very dignified and they run their household. And, you know, they’re very beautiful, powerful women. They’re also super passionate. And I was thinking, you know, when I think about FGM, you’re literally taking away that passion from these women. But I wanted to show that passion can exist in so many different ways.”
Elgamal initially pitched the video to feature women in Egypt subjected to FGM, but the projected shifted to Afar, Ethiopia. A local UN team in Ethiopia knew of three women who were community leaders and passionate, outspoken activists on the issue: Abida, Khadija, and Zahra. Elgamal remained firm on keeping the premise of respectfully telling the stories of these women. And so, for 12 days, eight of them in the desert, Elgamal and her team embedded themselves in a remote community to try to understand the complexity of such a topic and the joy of their subjects. The outcome is A Piece of Me.
FGM isn’t a religious or strictly cultural practice. It has been documented in over 30 countries around the world, with an estimated 200 million women subjected to it, according to the World Health Organization. It can happen to girls as young as seven days old to seven years old. More than anything, it’s an act of patriarchal power. But, while shooting the film, Elgamal had to consult with local male leaders of the community, explaining why this production was important, ensuring cultural rites and ways of life would be preserved in the process. It’s a delicate, complicated situation to navigate, Elgamal tells me. “I had to balance being super respectful, but also wanting to fight for what I thought would actually help them in the end.”
A Piece of Me is a beautiful film. Comprised of three videos, featuring three survivors of FGM, the viewing experience is sensory, pleasant, and sunny. The women wear clothing of their choosing, all bright fabrics adorned with pieces and jewelry specific to each. To be able to shoot each woman in a way that emphasized their passions, Elgamal spent time interviewing them. “I wanted to learn about them specifically. What was their passion, what they love, you know? Do they love to walk around the river? Those types of questions to really piece together like who they are so I could share their story visually.”
So often, stories about violence against women, or violence toward anyone, from other parts of the world focus on othering subjects and showcasing them only as victims. It’s a problematic narrative that people who have been hurt can only be viewed as victims in order to be helped. Elgamal beautifully avoids that limited view in A Piece of Me. It’s both a factual account of what FGM is and what it does to women but also a celebration of those women for who they are. They are not victims to be pitied. Their lives are complicated and hard in other ways than the violence they endured. They are strong community leaders. They are, fundamentally, magnificent women.
Elgamal showed this work last year in Toronto and London with the help of the Somewherelse team. Each activation was slightly different, emphasizing and engaging with the subjects in distinct ways. “Production design for each iteration of this exhibit has been site-specific,” says Anna Wiesen, partner and creative director of Somewherelse. “In Toronto and London, the film was projected on walls with incorporation of large-scale, blowing fabrics in a separate viewing room.” In London, Elgamal tells me, the set-up was viewable from street level so passersby could still participate in the project in their own way.
But a bucket-list accomplishment occurred for Elgamal this past February: the A Piece of Me film and exhibit were presented at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. On International Day of Zero Tolerenace of Female Genital Mutilation, Elgamal and the Somewherelse team brought the stories of Abida, Khadija, and Zahra to a new audience. Wiesen says the team “produced an almost 6 million pixel three-sided LED viewing experience visible to all visitors in the UN lobby.”
Speaking with diplomats and UN workers, showing this art, this story, was a dream come true for Elgamal. “I have a background in political science from university. When I was 18 years old, this was a dream for me. Now I’m 31 and my whole life has taken so many turns and, I don’t know, my life just feels like a wild adventure. To come back to something that I thought I wanted, but in a completely different way, it’s a very full circle moment for me.”
Elgamal hopes to show the video in Nordic countries, bringing it to different markets and audiences in the hope of spreading awareness of this global issue facing women. She’d like to one day bring it to Egypt or show the women of Egypt in a similar light. The ongoing visibility of stories like the ones in A Piece of Me does help. FGM rates in the Afar region are down. People who don’t normally engage in this content are doing so here. “What I learned in Afar was that having a conversation is all that matters,” Elgamal says.
Written by Sarah MacDonald
Lead graphic by Marta Ryczko
Photo by Christian Cassiel