Book Review: A Woman of Firsts by Edna Adan Ismail

Quote of the book

“Don’t ever underestimate the capacity of a human being who is determined to do something.”

5 key points

  • Edna Adan Ismail became a politician and a campaigner for abolishing female genital mutilation (FGM), whilst still practising midwifery to this day at more than 80 years of age
  • This book is an autobiography of her journey as the daughter of a doctor, to becoming the first midwife of Somaliland and campaigning for women’s healthcare
  • Edna Adan Ismail went on to become the First Lady of Somaliland, the country’s first female cabinet minister, and a global campaigner, all whilst overcoming incessant barriers
  • She experienced FGM herself as a child and shares this experience with the reader
  • She eventually builds a hospital in Hargeisa, a dream of hers for so long, where she continues to train the next generation of midwives


“A Woman of Firsts: The midwife who built a hospital and changed the world” by Edna Adan Ismail is an autobiography of Edna’s life as midwife in Somaliland and her advocacy for abolishing female genital mutilation. Edna invites the reader to enter her life and share her experiences. She writes frankly, giving the reader an honest account of her life as though the reader is following her journey with her.

It is powerful and inspiring to hear a strong female voice, in not only the medical profession, but also as one who has broken boundaries and been the first to do many things in a society which fought against her. This is an underrated book full of inspiration, female empowerment, and overcoming barriers, suitable for all readers.

The book starts with stories of her childhood, being in awe at her father who was a medical doctor. She describes her own experiences of FGM which she faced at 8 years of age. She cites her father as inspiration for her pursuit of nursing and becoming a midwife. She wanted to care for her patients in the same selfless manner that she saw her father caring for his patients. She gained a scholarship to study nursing in London, sharing her stories of dancing in the 50s, before leaving behind her comfortable life in London to return to her homeland and serve the women there.

She shares stories of her marriages and trying to find someone who would support her whilst she cared for her patients first, with men leaving her when she had erratic working patterns or wanted to care for her patients. She went on to build a hospital in Hargeisa, a dream of hers, where she continues to practise midwifery to this day, at more than 80 years of age. She also trains the future generation of midwives here, yet, despite how far she has come, she describes herself as “simply a midwife”.

What is clear throughout the autobiography is that Edna never forgot her roots. She shares her own experiences of FGM as a young girl with the reader, remembers and reflects the challenges that she endured to get to where she is. Her journey is one of resilience, going through FGM, gender expectations, being imprisoned, and war, to make it to London, become Somaliland’s first midwife, becoming First Lady, Somaliland’s first female cabinet minister and a global campaigner for female healthcare. She writes frankly, being critical of her mother who let her undergo FGM at a young age.

This book would be very suited to someone who wants to read a book about female empowerment, or is interested in medical memoirs, FGM, or international aid. Overall, this book has two particular strong points. Firstly, her story is inspiring as a strong-willed woman who relentlessly pursues what she wants, fighting against societal norms and the many barriers in her way. Secondly, it is a story of caring for others with compassion and kindness, a true story of humanity.

If you are interested in issues around Female Genital Mutilation, another really interesting resource is “A Girl from Mogadishu“, a documentary about the strong Ifrah Ahmed from Somalia who also experienced FGM and also became an international activist against its practice. Whilst both this book and this documentary are separate stories from different women, and are both powerful works in their own rights, the two work well together for someone interested in the issues of FGM and in understanding the context of Somalia and Somaliland.

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Get the book | Official website | Goodreads

Published by sharemylibrary

Non-fiction book reviews, summaries, and recommendations

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