Nimco Ali on female genital mutilation: 'It happened because I was a woman'

Nimco Ali: ""It didn't happen because I was black. It didn't happen because I was a Muslim. It happened because I was a ...

Nimco Ali: ""It didn't happen because I was black. It didn't happen because I was a Muslim. It happened because I was a woman."

Nimco Ali says she has "four different shades of fanny".

Or, to be more precise, at least four different colours of her "fanny suit". It's a full-body vagina suit and it is what she wears as part of her worldwide campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM). The four shades? So she can be EveryVagina, to illustrate that FGM can - and does - happen to women everywhere.

Ali, 32, is a survivor of female genital mutilation, which took place while on holiday with her family. She was just seven. There were serious complications and she ended up in hospital.

Now 25 years later, she is one of Britain's most effective campaigners against FGM.


But she wants to make one thing very clear – she says FGM is not about culture, nor is it about religion.

"It didn't happen because I was black. It didn't happen because I was a Muslim. It happened because I was a woman," says Ali.

She is one of the keynote speakers at the Damned Whores and God's Police 40 years on conference, to commemorate the publication of that landmark Australian feminist classic by Anne Summers; and she is also speaking in Sydney and Melbourne over the next week. 

Ali's visit could not be more timely. For the first time in Australia, a court is hearing the case of the alleged female genital mutilation of two young sisters. That case is still being heard.

This case aside, Elizabeth Elliott, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Sydney, says she is in absolutely no doubt that there are many girls with female genital mutilation living in Australia. She said a recent survey revealed that one in ten Australian paediatricians had seen girls who had undergone FGM and some had even been asked if they would perform it.

"Clinicians who genuinely suspect a girl is at risk can notify child protection authorities... we must increase awareness about FGM - the groups at risk and the fact that this procedure is associated with severe medical and psychological consequences.

"It's a breach of human rights. No girl should be subject to FGM," she said.

The estimate is that in Australia, over 80,000 women and girls are estimated to have experienced female genital cutting, to varying degrees. Ali doesn't subscribe to the idea that one form of cutting is worse than another. It's all mutilation.

During Ali's conference keynote, one young audience member asks her how old girls are when FGM happens. "As early as birth," she replies. That's partly because those who are trying to continue the procedure are trying to evade detection and prevention measures. Why does FGM continue? Ali says there are four reasons: gender inequality, sanctions, rewards and decision-making, an entire ecosphere of ways to keep women in their place.

She also likens the current practice of labiaplasty to female genital mutilation – and that's become part of the 'Mitts Off My Muff' campaign and her 'March Against Labiaplasties'. She says there is a push to create problems around our genitals where there are none: "Don't create symptoms."

Ali is proud to be a survivor who can tell her story but she also recognises that by sharing her own experience, she is exposing the lives of others who may not be as brave.

"A lot of survivors want to strangle me for being so public," she says. But they also express gratitude in private because if Ali doesn't tell their story no-one else will.

And survivor stories are vital, says Felicity Gerry, an activist barrister who works in Darwin and in London. She and Ali met a few years ago while Gerry was working on The Sexual Offences Handbook in the UK. She ensured there was a dedicated chapter to female genital mutilation and as a result, spent a lot of time travelling and meeting those who wanted to know more, including the Association of Women Barristers.

But she did more than just talk. Gerry was determined to make sure that everyone would understand the brutal nature of FGM, and she wanted to achieve more than just representing one case at a time. She wrote newspaper columns, she did radio, she did television.

"I was only fixing one person's problem at a time, but if you write about it, you can fix it for everyone." Education, campaigning, changing the law.

"That can change the world," she says.

She ignores those who say that this only happens to minorities, that it's not a key issue. Gerry says it may be invisible, it may be hard to gather evidence, but it is violence against women. As she gathers this evidence, it's occasionally like a whodunnit. Who did it? Where did it happen?

"It's hard to gather evidence in cases involving women and children behind closed doors."

Gerry has stern words for those who think it doesn't happen here.

"It happens in Australia without the shadow of a doubt. I've talked to enough midwives in Australia to know that there is a problem with FGM, without the shadow of a doubt."

And Nimco Ali continues her campaigning for recognition, prevention, education - around the world. Which leads to some ridiculous questions from both women and men. God knows how she can remain so calm, but she is fabulously direct.

Some of that directness is pointed at the extraordinary questions people ask of her. Including, by one man: "Can you still have an orgasm?"

Ali's answer to him: "Depends how good you are."


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