New Internationalist

Mitts off my muff

July 2014

Nimko Ali is a brave, straight-talking, Somali British woman, who is revitalizing the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM).

Shoreditch Sisters WI
Shaking off the shame around vaginas: The Shoreditch Sisters Women’s Institute display their vulva quilt in London. Shoreditch Sisters WI

What drives FGM?

I think that inflicting this painful act sends a message – ‘this is what happens to women’. It’s not just about sex – it’s about fear, limiting aspirations and stopping girls from speaking out and challenging the status quo.

It’s not dissimilar to Elliot Rodger going out on a shooting spree [in California] saying, ‘Women rejected me’, ‘I’m a man; they should be there to serve me’. No, women didn’t reject you! They had the choice to say ‘No’.

It’s the same with sexuality and FGM – men are saying: ‘A woman’s sexuality is not hers to own or define. It’s for us to say when and with whom.’

FGM is not just about the cutting, it’s everything that goes with it. FGM legitimizes the forced marriage, the rape, the so-called ‘honour’ killings – all these things. It’s another form of violence linked to the role of women and the value given to the girl child.

It’s looked at as a problem of ignorance and non-Westernization – but this makes us forget it’s about control. In places like Egypt – where prevalence is at 91 per cent – the procedure has been medicalized. They say, ‘It’s not barbaric, it happens in hospitals!’ They say, ‘This is what you can choose to do if you want to be a woman of this country.’

Why do you think women themselves perpetuate the practice?

Nimko Ali was subjected to FGM when she was on holiday in Djibouti, aged seven. For the last five years, she has worked to eradicate the practice, employing creative strategies that range from exhibiting a quilt of vulvas crocheted by the Women’s Institute (see photo above) to posing with police officers dressed as a life-size vagina. Along the way she has faced impertinent questions from senior government ministers and an attempt on her life.

Western society blames women for being at the heart of this. But it’s easy for an uneducated woman to believe that a clitoris will turn into a penis – that’s been used in Somalia and across Africa – or that if you don’t cut the clitoris and it touches your husband’s penis, then he dies.

In coastal villages in Tanzania they say that unless you have clitorises to use as fish bait, then fishermen won’t be able to feed the villages. You’re being selfish, and saying you want to keep your clitoris dooms the whole village to starve.

There are places in West Africa where miners say they need clitorises to attract gold. Women are made to feel they have to do it.

In Egypt they talk about aesthetics and cleanliness. And in rural areas they say things like: ‘They don’t do it in the West because they have perfumes and soap. If you don’t do it, you’re going to smell.’

It’s not ‘women’, it’s patriarchy, the society people live in, that is at the heart of it.

You’ve been known to compare FGM to labiaplasty [plastic surgery to alter the labia]

The World Health Organization’s definition of FGM is total or partial removal of any part of the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. And that’s what labiaplasty is.

Under British law there’s no consent to FGM, it’s Grievous Bodily Harm. But you can be coerced by porn to think your vagina is disgusting and if you pay $5,000 you can have that fixed. If your grandmother is telling you the same story then you’re being oppressed. Both women are being abused.

How do you feel about the way FGM is talked about in the West by media and politicians?

I find it easier to deal with the rightwing who say ‘This is barbaric, horrible’.

I prefer that to the anthropological way of approaching it: ‘Oh let’s sit down and talk to cutters and call it Female Genital Cutting instead.’

Meanwhile, it’s inflicted on three more generations – just so you can feel that you haven’t offended somebody. Or you persuade them to do a less severe form of torture. ‘I respect your culture because you’re different from me. But we want to help you not to be so harmful and be more evolved.’

There’s a kind of racism in both of them.

If we come at it from a human rights perspective and say this is a violation of a girl’s basic right to her integrity and her body, then that’s simple. You have to embrace these children as individuals, not members of a community. The girl in sub-Saharan Africa and the girl in South London both have the same rights.

Do you think perpetrators should be prosecuted?

Yes, this is child abuse. It’s for a court to decide if a woman was complicit or coerced.

Prosecution legitimizes your objection and pain. For society to say we’re going to charge a person for doing this makes you think, ‘What happened to me was wrong’. So it gives you justice. It starts the healing process.

What do you make of US sect the Raëlians’ project to bring back ‘pleasure’ to survivors of FGM in Burkina Faso?

I was very sceptical about clitoral reconstruction [unearthing and reshaping the clitoris]. I worry that it’s a way for men to put their penis in the conversation. First you are cut because you are nothing but a sexual object and then it’s like – you need to get your clitoris back so men can give you sexual pleasure. It’s not about you! And all in a very heterosexual context.

But then I was in Burkina Faso last month and met a local gynaecologist who was the pioneer of the first reconstruction surgery there – the Raëlians are not the only ones doing this work. He told me it’s not just about ‘pleasure’, and he will meet women several times to see if they are mentally, physically and emotionally ready.

Inflicting this painful act sends a message – this is what happens to women

Ministers told me the pleasure hospital had fallen out of favour. Other people coming in and telling you about your own sexuality didn’t go down very well.

But gynaecologists continue to do surgery, and de-infibulation [the surgical procedure to open up sewn-closed vaginas].

I would never deny a survivor the right to do this; but I think there has to be psycho­logical support, along with teaching about intimacy and trust to recover from the trauma of FGM.

You make good use of ‘fannies’ and ‘muffs’ in your campaigning…

I think if you can get people laughing then they’ll listen. People say, ‘But FGM isn’t funny!’ and I say, ‘FGM is hilarious – how stupid is it that you would subject a woman to this?’

Putting yourself out there means I’ve even had senior government ministers asking stupid questions like if I could have an orgasm. I just replied, ‘It’s not about sex, it’s about women’s rights.’

For last year’s Reclaim the Night we dressed up as vaginas, and people walking through Central London did a double take. You don’t see vaginas anywhere. The shame around it! We need to flip it, so it’s the abusers who feel the embarrassment and shame, not women and girls.

Do you change your message depending on whom you’re talking to?

The message is always the same. I use the same language about it being violent, child abuse and so on. It has to be an honest conversation where you debunk the myths; and when you’re honest about sex it is quite humorous.

What I do change is my level of self-protection – people can be so vicious – you have to get yourself ready, so as not to get damaged.

Is male circumcision comparable to FGM?

I don’t support any violent acts on children, but it’s not the same thing. With girls it’s where a life of oppression and abuse starts. I also think it’s a bit weird that Abraham had to show his commitment to God by bringing his penis into the conversation.

What is the key to stamping out FGM?

It’s about empowerment, being in a position to say no. My niece, she’s three, and she’s free and fearless. She is one of the first ones not to be subjected to FGM. It’s taken four generations in my lifetime, in my own family, to wipe it out. It’s that new, that fresh. Each generation pushes things a bit further.

Nimko Ali is the director of Daughters of Eve, a not-for-profit organization that aims to protect women and girls from FGM.

She spoke to Hazel Healy.

Female Genital Mutilation

It can range in severity from piercing to removing the clitoris, labia, and/or sewing up the vaginal opening (infibulation).

Severe bleeding and urinary problems are among the physical impacts as well as infections, infertility and complications in childbirth.

Overall, the practice is declining, but is still prevalent in 29 countries, mostly in Africa and in parts of Asia and the Middle East, as well as diaspora communities in the West.

125 million women have suffered FGM.

30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade.

27.2 million girls in Egypt have been cut, the highest number worldwide.

98% of girls in Somalia undergo FGM, the highest rate worldwide.

18% of procedures are carried out by healthcare providers.

44% increase in labiaplasty procedures in the US in 2013.

5,315 Senegalese communities have publicly abandoned FGM since 1997.

26 countries in Africa and the Middle East have prohibited FGM.

Sources: UNICEF, WHO, surgery.org

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 474 This feature was published in the July 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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