Originally published at Feminist Times.
For Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) survivor and campaigner Nimko Ali, the personal has always been political. At this year’s London Reclaim The Night, Nimko and her colleagues marched the streets of Central London dressed in “fanny suits” and posing with police officers – a scene of jubilant and defiant protest against the violence inflicted on their own bodies. And they have every right to be jubilant; it’s been one hell of a year for the anti-FGM movement that confident, outspoken Nimko has become a face of.
On Monday this week, a report by the Royal Colleges of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists, Nursing and Midwives called for FGM to be recognised as child abuse; Nimko and her colleagues spent the afternoon in parliament celebrating the launch of that report, and Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, tweeted his support for the report, saying: “Welcome report calling for greater FGM awareness & to treat as child abuse bit.ly/17BIUQc It is illegal and must end #tacklingFGM”
In the last twelve months, Nimko has been instrumental in making FGM a front page national news story, and tonight sees Channel 4 air a documentary by Nimko’s colleague Leyla, exposing the horror of the practice. But the normally effervescent Nimko becomes more hesitant and emotional at the Feminist Times office, looking back on the painful road that has brought her to this point.
Raised by her mother to be a strong, confident woman, Nimko was “always full of questions” as a child, and began questioning what had been done to her vagina at the age of seven. “I always knew that it wasn’t right, that there was no reason for doing it.”
In October 2010 Nimko co-founded Daughters of Eve to raise awareness of FGM in the UK. Running it part-time for the first couple of years, Nimko also spent a long time talking about her experiences in the third person, understandably cautious of becoming a walking, talking case study.
In 2012 she spoke openly about her experiences using “I” for the first time, after feeling an increasing sense of responsibility to speak out. “I tell people to ‘check your privilege’ all the time but actually I’ve got lots of privilege as well because I’ve got a position and a platform to speak out and to encourage other young women to speak out too.”
It wasn’t until February this year though that Nimko found herself thrust to the forefront of the campaign. “A 10-year-old girl had written to Equality Now saying she was scared she was going to be cut. Equality Now wanted to send the letter to the Evening Standard, and Nimko agreed to lead the campaign as a survivor.
“I didn’t think it would ever get outside London. I wore a hat but I didn’t even realise the Evening Standard went online!” Not as incognito as she’d hoped, Nimko quickly found herself the face of the anti-FGM movement – a role that came with fear, anxiety and death threats attached. “I long for the days when I could do and say what I wanted”, she says, describing her relationship with the police who advise on her safety.
It’s been a tough year for Nimko, but the abuse and sense of vulnerability have not dampened her spirits or passion for her cause. She evidently lives and breathes her campaign – raising awareness, lobbying government and supporting fellow survivors.
The NSPCC came on board on June this year, with their free 24-hour FGM helpline – a service that made a real difference to the conversations Nimko found herself having: “I don’t need to tell people it’s child abuse for 30 minutes now, because they see the NSPCC and they automatically know, so you can move that conversation forward.”
In September FGM and Daughters of Eve made the front page of the Evening Standard following an in-depth Freedom of Information (FOI) project by journalist Martin Bentham on the prevalence of FGM in the NHS. This article caught the attention of Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, who invited Nimko to come in and discuss the issue.
The following month, Nimko found herself and a friend sat drinking tea with Mr Hunt and newly appointed Public Health Minister Jane Ellison, who Nimko has previously worked with on FGM, and who has also worked closely with the Evening Standard on their reporting of the issue.
“Jane was elected in 2010 and in Battersea she has a large population of Somali women. FGM is universal within the Somali community, and she ended up setting up the APPG (all-party parliamentary group) on FGM to focus on what’s happening, along with Efua Dorkenoo OBE from Equality Now, as secretariat,” Nimko explains.
Even when she’s not drinking tea with MPs, or posing with police officers while dressed as a giant vagina, Nimko is never off-duty. “The fanny questions follow me everywhere!” She laughs. “I get it at parties – people see this outspoken person and think ‘let me ask all these [inappropriate] questions’. People always think they can do that – it brings out their childlike curiosity.” Her colleague Leyla Hussein faced similar questions about her sex life from Philip Schofield, during her interview on ITV’s This Morning today.
“It’s always the men,” Nimko adds, explaining that she’s been asked questions about FGM, clitorises, sex and orgasms by everyone from guys she meets at parties to Jeremy Hunt himself. “I don’t take offence to it – it’s funny to me, but it’s not the kind of question you can ask all survivors,” she says.
For Nimko, this focus on the physical is part of the problem, even within the NHS. “They assume that because they’ve given you external, physical treatment, you should be fine,” she says. “But it’s like any form of violence against women – it’s a psychosexual issue, and rather than asking people if they can still orgasm, or if they’ve got a clitoris or not, I think it’s about the NHS providing psychological support for women that have been through FGM.
“What’s now coming through is this clitoris reconstructive surgery, which recreates the clitoris – and I’m thinking no, no, no, we need to prevent!” Nimko firmly believes that education and awareness raising are key to tackling and ultimately preventing the practice of FGM.
“We have the legislation but you’re not going to get a child walk into a police station and say, ‘I was taken away and I had FGM, I need you to prosecute my parents with this legislation.’ That’s never going to happen.”
Michael Gove’s Department of Education has typically dragged its feet on FGM, just as they have been reluctant to champion the Home Office campaign on abuse in teenage relationship, but Nimko feels optimistic about Daughters of Eve’s relationship with Jeremy Hunt and Jane Ellison in the Department of Health, and opening up cross-departmental conversations with Theresa May and Justine Greening.
A spokesperson from the Department of Health said: “During a meeting on FGM, the physiological effects of this illegal and abhorrent practice were discussed. The meeting was both informative and helpful in furthering understanding of appalling procedure.”
Responding to the report, Jane Ellison said: “One of my priorities as Public Health Minister is to work towards eradicating female genital mutilation. I will continue to work hard to protect future generations of girls from this abhorrent practice.”
In less than a year, Nimko and her colleagues have taken FGM from an unspoken, cultural taboo, to a key part of the political and news agenda. On Monday, FGM was the Guardian’s lead, front-page story and tonight Nimko’s colleague Leyla Hussein brings it to Channel 4, with her documentary The Cruel Cut. “I have to say a massive thank you to Leyla for risking her life to save girls,” she says.
Nimko’s favourite phrase is “fanny forward” – she and Daughters of Eve absolutely embody it their daily battle to #stopFGM.
Watch The Cruel Cut tonight on Channel 4 at 10.45pm, and tweet along using the hashtag #stopFGM.
If you have been affected by FGM or are worried that a child may be at risk, contact the NSPCC’s 24 hour helpline anonymously on 0800 028 3550 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Image of Nimko (left) and Leyla (right) courtesy of Nimko Ali.