Shoreditch Sisters WI campaign against FGM

Vulva montage - Dorrie Lane @ Vulva University
Vulva montage - Dorrie Lane @ Vulva University

Words: Nicci Talbot

I heard about the Embroideries Campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) on Woman’s Hour recently. It was set up by Tara Scott, campaigns officer at the Shoreditch Sisters WI with the aim of using traditional crafts to raise awareness about FGM. Members have made vulva patches, which will be stitched together to make a giant quilt to go on display at Coco de Mer erotic boutique.

‘We have a selection of 8×8 inch squares in different hues of wine, red, cream and pink. There are a variety of depictions of vulvas. We’ve got some knitted ones, some mohair. One is velvet with metallic red and gold with nice big flaps and a pearl clitoris. It’s very luxurious,’ she told Radio 4 Woman’s Hour.

It’s great to see traditional so-called ‘quiet’ crafts like embroidery being employed for a passionate cause. Tara says that she was inspired to do it after reading Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Embroideries.

‘The issue of female genital mutilation comes up and they refer to it quite flippantly and casually as ‘embroidery,’ she said. ‘It just came to me like that. We’ve got to do a competition where we embroider vulvas. We’re going to put them all together in a quilt and have a launch party for it on 1st September. The aim is to start conversations and break down taboos that surround talking about issues that are to do with genitalia, and hopefully try to move forward with changing and abolishing this practice.’

Tara went to a screening of The Cutting Tradition, a 2009 documentary, which gives an insight into the social, cultural, religious and economic issues surrounding the practice. Some of the women at the screening had experienced FGM and were supportive of the campaign.

If you want to contribute send your 8×8 inch patch with a cover sheet stating your name, address, how you heard about the campaign and why you’d like to join to:

5a Grandsen Avenue
E8 3QA

Or why not make your own lady quilt and find a suitable arts/erotic venue to display it?

The aim of the campaign is to celebrate the vulva as a work of art and to challenge FGM and current trends re labiaplasty. Jamie McCartney did this with his Great Wall of Vagina exhibition in Brighton.


It’s known as ‘female circumcision’ or ‘female genital cutting’ and defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as ‘all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’ According to Forward, the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development it’s estimated that 100-140 million African women have experienced it worldwide. A further 3 million girls are at risk in Africa alone. Immigrant groups are living in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Canada so it’s more prevalent here than we realise.

Older women with no medical training often carry out the procedure using basic equipment (knives, scissors, scalpels) without anaesthetic or antiseptic treatment. Iodine or herbs are used to tighten the vagina and stop bleeding. It’s being done on younger girls aged 4-10 so is less linked to puberty rights. It makes me feel sick when I think about my 4-year-old daughter.

It is a controversial and complicated issue says Forward ‘accompanied very often by a ceremony, which brings with it personal pride and a sense of becoming a woman, for example among the Kamba, Meru and Luya tribes of Kenya.’ According to studies on the effect of FGM on self-perception, it’s thought that women who have undergone FGM establish an identity, which shapes their role in society. ‘It is therefore a form of social conditioning, which actually prescribes gender identity and normalizes pain for women.’ The practice is then passed on to future generations.

The female vulva is a work of art and no two are the same so I do think the trend for nip and tuck to ‘tidy things up’ is ridiculous given that young girls around the world have no say in the matter. We don’t have figures to show how widespread the practice is amongst immigrant groups in the UK but Forward estimates that as many as 6,500 girls are at risk every year. Short-term health consequences include extreme pain and shock, blood loss and haemorrhage, infection and death (amongst children). Long-term consequences include vulval abscesses due to infected cysts, painful sex, psychological problems, pregnancy problems, and retention of menstrual blood.


Vulva University (the above vulva montage is courtesy of Dorrie Lane at Vulva University, an online resource for sex & relationship education. Dorrie sells wonderful vulva puppets, which I’ll post on shortly).

Radio 4 Woman’s Hour: The Shoreditch Sisters’ Embroideries Campaign (broadcast Monday 18th July 2011)

Forward UK

The Orchid Project

Daughters of Eve

SafeHands for Mothers’ documentary film The Cutting Tradition, Insights into Female Genital Mutilation, narrated by Meryl Streep, won the Best Documentary Award from the Victoria Independent Film Festival, Australia.

WHO: International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) takes place in February each year.

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