This Thursday, April 8th, I had the pleasure of watching an interview with Dr Leyla Hussein coordinated by the Lafayette Club of St. Andrews. The interview was a lovely opportunity to hear a bit more about Dr Hussein’s professional history as well as her beliefs concerning topics of her work such as sexual abuse in women and diversity.
As most of you know, Dr Hussein is the current Rector at the University of St Andrews, having just been elected this past year. Her election as Rector was a monumental moment for the University, as Dr Hussein is the third woman and first black woman ever elected in the University’s 600-year timeframe. Along with her job as the Rector, Dr Hussein is also a psychotherapist who specializes in supporting survivors of sexual abuse, specifically having to do with Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM. She is an international lecturer on the subject and also founded the Dahlia Project, which is the UK’s first specialist therapeutic service concerning FGM services, focusing specifically on providing personalized care for survivors of this condition. During this interview, Dr Hussein was given the opportunity to discuss her work as a psychotherapist and her inspiration for the foundation of the Dahlia Project, as well as her future plans for the University as the newly appointed Rector.
The interview covered many topics, the first being how Dr Hussein was able to get into her psychotherapy work through her activism concerning FGM. Dr. Hussein spoke about her past volunteer experience with clinics that helped women with FGM and how this personally affected her mental health as a survivor. The inspiration for the Dahlia Project was found in her observation that she constantly had to explain what FGM was to her therapists and the mental toll this took on her. The thought process behind Dahlia, then, was that a survivor could go to therapy with the understanding that every member of the organization is aware of FGM and has the tools to discuss it beneficially.
An important topic in the interview was Dr Hussein’s stress on the overarching prominence of FGM in present-day, and how it does not inspire international concern despite it being a pandemic similar to Covid-19. Stats such as every 11 seconds a girl is experiencing FGM don’t seem to be noticed or have any effect. Dr. Hussein stated that in order for there to be changed on this front, we must all recognize our biases when it comes to noticing problems that happened mostly to young black women, who are universally ignored when they complain of pain. An important aspect of this is getting men to understand the true effects of FGM and the necessity to rewrite the image of the women’s body through women’s eyes. In Dr. Hussein’s opinion, activism is all about giving accurate information about topics that are not often discussed, and which are usually construed as shocking. A women’s body should not be an abrasive topic to discuss, especially because of the degree to which abuse happens.
Finally, Dr Hussein moved on to talk about her expectations for change at the University of St Andrews now that she is the Rector. Her main goal is to create change with issues such as lack of diversity and a safer space for minorities at the school to express their opinions. Though there will need to be some uncomfortable conversations to enact the kind of change she aspires to, Dr Hussein believes it is a positive sign that students today voted for the first black female Rector. If the students are willing to change, then Dr. Hussein will provide them with a space to do this.
Overall, the interview was a wonderful insight into some history of Dr Hussein’s start as a psychotherapist and the beginnings of the Dahlia Project, as well as her thoughts on current issues concerning FGM and diversity at the University. I would encourage everyone to watch the recording of the interview that is posted on the Lafayette Club Youtube channel.