Deakin Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne
28 September 2015
For the first time in Australia we were proud to present British-Somalian Nimco Ali who walks the streets of London in her “fanny suit” – spreading the message that the practice of mutilating girls’ vaginas is child abuse and violence against women.
Nimco is an FGM survivor, who was “cut” at age 7, and has vowed that she will be the last woman in her family to undergo this horrendous practice.
More than 125 million women and girls worldwide have been “cut”, according to the World Health Organization. No FGM Australia estimates that 5640 girls aged under 15 in Australia “are at high risk of FGM”.
With thanks to our sponsors
Anne Summers in conversation with Nimco Ali
Deakin Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne
28 September 2015
Anne Summers: I’d like to welcome you all here tonight to this very important conversation event with Nimco Ali who I will introduce to you in a moment. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri and paying my respects to their elders, past and present. I’d also like to remind us that this is, was and always will be Aboriginal land.
It’s a very great pleasure for me tonight to be back in Melbourne with one of my conversation events. It’s been a while. Those of you who have been to some of my previous events will know that it’s been a while since I’ve been able to stage an event in Melbourne and I’m very, very pleased that we’ve been able to do that tonight. Some of you might remember that my very first event I did was with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and it was exactly two years ago this week on the first of October 2013 in the Melbourne Town Hall. Were some of you there? Yes? Well, it was quite a night. Then we did another event last February with Tim Flannery, but this is the third event I’ve been, I was doing Melbourne. I do apologize for not being able to more. I’ll and try and lift my game in the future.
Tonight, we’re in for a very, very special evening. Nimco Ali. She’s also my very first international guest. She’s come all the way from London. She is trained as a lawyer. She now works full time as an activist on the issue of female genital mutilation, FGM. I would like, without any further ado, to welcome to the stage Nimco Ali.
We’re going to be talking tonight about the subject of FGM and we’re going to be covering it in a variety of ways. We’re going to start off with a personal reflection because Nimco is going to share with you her personal story. Before I ask her to do that, you have something you’d like to say about …
Nimco Ali: Yeah. Thank you for coming all and thank you, Anne, for inviting me. I think the last week since I’ve been in Australia this whole idea of giving thanks back to the original owners and ancestors has been something that I found really amazing which we don’t hear about in the UK. I just like to start my conversation ultimately with giving thanks to the survivors that told their stories before me and also Efua Dorkenoo who was my mentor and passed away this time last year. If it wasn’t for women like her, I don’t think I’d be able to have the strength to be here today.
Anne Summers: Okay. I’d like to start, Nimco, by asking you to tell us when you were 7 years of age you were taken to Africa and you were subjected to cutting. Could you tell us about what that meant to you and how you felt about it?
Nimco Ali: Yeah. I had FGM when I was 7 years old.
Anne Summers: 7?
Nimco Ali: Yeah, 7. I was in Djibouti at the time and I was on a holiday, so essentially it wasn’t something that was necessarily planned or something that I knew was going to happen, but it did.
Anne Summers: You didn’t know it was going to happen?
Nimco Ali: No, I didn’t.
Anne Summers: No one told?
Nimco Ali: No. It was something that was completely random and I do remember the actual act itself. I remember seeing the cutter and everything else, but I think ultimately for me it was coming back to the UK and having my experience dismissed, which was one of the things that really stood out for me. I came back-
Anne Summers: Tell us what happened.
Nimco Ali: Yeah. I came back to the UK after having FGM, being cut. There was no conversation around it being happened or it’s going to happen or what it was or anything else, so when I came back to the UK I really wanted to kind of just get some information about what this ridiculous act was. I remember coming back to my teacher who was the same form teacher as I had the year before and asking her about this really weird thing that had happened to me. Her reply was one of the kind of fundamental things that kind of shaped my life and shaped my view. It was, “This is what happens to girls like you.” That was a complete dismissal of who I was and what I was. For me, it took a long time for me to ever share that conversation and have that story again. I had no idea what a girl like me meant. At the age of 11, I had a deinfibulation which is the reversal of type 3 FGM which is-
Anne Summers: This is because you had a kidney infection?
Nimco Ali: Yeah. I had kidney failure-
Anne Summers: One of the things that we’re going to be just referring to at least tonight is that FGM, the practice is a very, very tough one and we don’t like to use words like “barbaric” and you’ll explain to us why you don’t like that language, but there are all kinds of medical complications that can occur in addition to just a simple cutting and this is what happened to you.
Nimco Ali: Ultimately, because I had the most invasive form of FGM. There are four types of FGM by the World Health Organization, the definition, and-
Anne Summers: Can you just explain what the four types are?
Nimco Ali: Yeah. Type 1 is basically either partial or total removal of the clitoris. Type 2 is partial or total removal of the clitoris and some of the external labia. Type 3 is the most invasive and one of the things I always talk about is that every form of FGM has the impact that it does with a survivor and it’s for her to express that, so I don’t think one is worse than the other, but Type 3 is the one where basically they partially or totally remove the clitoris, the external labia and then pull whatever is left together and kind of stitch it up, which is called infibulation. The procedure I had at 11 was a deinfibulation and again that was-
Anne Summers: What’s Type 4?
Nimco Ali: Type 4 is basically any injury to the female genitalia, pricking, stretching, or anything for non-medical reasoning. I think that’s the core of FGM, it’s anything that’s done to the female genitalia for non-medical purpose.
Anne Summers: You were 11 … ?
Nimco Ali: Yeah. Then when I was 11 I had a deinfibulation and again, this was another kind of formative time in my life. It was something that happened to me. I wasn’t engaged in the conversation. I knew I was in pain. I knew I had kidney failure, but it was decided this was what was going to happen. Then I was just sent back home. For me, I would say that my FGM happened out of context. I’ve got … There was no over chastisation, I was really educated, all these other kind of positive things but this was this very symbolic thing about my gender that happened to me, so I was just sent on my way. And for me, that was my decision that I was never going to engage with a whole conversation around FGM because I’ve got the medical support that I needed and I thought, “You know what? I’m not going to have anything to do with that anymore.”
I remember at the age of 12, I picked up two books. I picked up Animal Farm and 1984, because I knew … I was having this conversation about FGM with my cohort at the time after I had my deinfibulation and I said to him, “Why don’t you get some support or why do you not think this is a horrible thing?” What I didn’t know was the fact that I was so engrossed in having the information and the conversation about FGM because that was the only thing that was happening to me, they had other things they were dealing with. I remember reading Animal Farm and assuming just like the pigs, I had a different view and everybody else would just kind of catch up. That was basically my … At the age of 13, I just disengaged in terms of a conversation around FGM. In me disengaging-
Anne Summers: When you say you disengaged, you just what, pretend it never happened? You just didn’t want to have to think about it?
Nimco Ali: No, I just thought it was over. I thought everybody else is going to catch on and it’s not in my place as a 13 year-old to be banging on the doors. The really weird thing was that everybody else was talking at me and talking about girls like me, while I’m telling me that it wasn’t happening, why most of peers were either being taken to Dubai or they were being taken to Manchester, they were being taken to London to have FGM. For a long time, during my teenage years, FGM was an active practice to the girls that I knew and it was-
Anne Summers: We’re talking about the 90s?
Nimco Ali: In the 90s.
Anne Summers: The 90s in Britain?
Nimco Ali: In the UK, yes. What was really interesting was that the legislation at the time only applied to FGM happening in the UK to British nationals or citizens. A lot of people assume, so the reason why I don’t use words “barbaric” or “backwards” is that there’s a lot of conscious decisions that are being made and I don’t want to stigmatize survivors because this is an organized crime against gender. And a lot of people that were carrying an FGM or are a lot of people that were pro FGM were very much aware of the legislation, so they were taking the girls to Dubai. They were ensuring that the girls that they were cutting there in the UK were non-citizens so therefore the legislation didn’t apply to them.
Anne Summers: We’ll come back to your story in a moment and how you became a campaigner, but just before we do that, I just wonder if you could give us a bit of a global snapshot about the prevalence of FGM and whether in your opinion the incidence has increased?
Nimco Ali: I think awareness has increased so a lot more people are coming forward. Globally, the UN says there’s about 100 to 140 million women who are living with the consequence of FGM. That seems vast, but in the UK, their numbers are not growing, so the evidence is becoming … it’s coming forward, so a lot of my peers who are not necessarily … FGM survivors are now coming forward, they’re now accessing medical services. For the first time we have a way of recording FGM. If you do come into contact with a medical professional, you will be asked whatever your gen … not your gender, you have to be a woman, but whatever your race and your nationality, you will be asked whether you’ve had FGM or not.
Anne Summers: Really? This is mandatory in the UK now?
Nimco Ali: It is mandatory in the UK now. This is one of the key things that we wanted to have conversation about because for a long time we had this kind of theoretical number of 66,000 girls undergoing FGM. My flatmate and cousin of mine actually sat down the other day and actually between us we named 150 girls that we knew, personally related to, that had FGM. 66,000 was just a tip of the iceberg. The numbers are growing but it’s not necessarily the prevalence levels is growing. In terms of the African continent where it’s most prevalent, there is a lot of work happening but the whole conversation is we’re not necessarily hearing the positive stories. My thing is being to kind of try and champion the positive stories of change on the continent.
Anne Summers: How do you account for the fact that the some of these certain countries in Africa … I mean, it’s not just Muslim countries, look at Egypt for example where there’s a very high percent, 91% …
Nimco Ali: 91%.
Anne Summers: … of all women in Egypt have been subjected to FGM and not all of those are Muslim.
Nimco Ali: Wherever there’s gender inequality FGM is present. I think the concentration is different because a lot of people ask me why isn’t there any FGM in Saudi Arabia. I said the whole legislation, the whole state, basically abuses and mutilates on a day to day basis. I think it’s one of those instruments where they use it to suppress women so it is more common or we are more aware of its prevalence in Africa that’s due to the fact that people have been very open and very clear about that kind of conversation. I think every society where there’s no equality or where the gender balance and gender inequality is at such a low level, there will be some form of violence against women or girls.
Anne Summers: There’s also, when you go across to Turkey, some of the Kurdish countries.
Nimco Ali: Yes.
Anne Summers: Malaysia, Indonesia, seems to be on the increase in Indonesia.
Nimco Ali: No, it’s always been prevalent in Indonesia. It’s always been prevalent in Malaysia, but we’re having those conversations for the first time because in terms of looking at FGM as a form of violence against women and girls, we’re now looking at places where it’s prevalent or where it’s evident. In the UK, I was just talking about it the other day that there’s a certain borough, it’s a certain area of London and one in ten births is to a woman that’s undergoing FGM, so if there’s-
Anne Summers: One in ten births?
Nimco Ali: One in ten births is to a woman that’s undergoing FGM, so we have a high prevalence level in the UK. What we’ve also done in the UK is anybody that reports, any form of injury to the female genitalia…We’ve kind of taken out of this cultural cul de sac that’s it’s been placed in and actually we’re reported any women that have gone through any kind of female genital cutting.
Anne Summers: I think that’s one of the two … we’re talking about two situations. One is the incidents of FGM around the world and the second thing we’re talking about is the incidents of FGM within western countries such as UK and, we’ll get to it in a minute, in Australia.
Nimco Ali: Yeah.
Anne Summers: The question is whether or not they were laws in the UK and I think there are laws also in Australia that prevent girls having FGM done to them here. There’s also laws that prevent girls being taken out of the country. How effective those laws are and how effectively they’re enforced is something that you perhaps can talk about in terms of the UK. I don’t think we really know for Australia yet.
Nimco Ali: Well, that’s taking a long time. We’ve had legislation against FGM in the UK since 1985. One of the key things that people always look for was a prosecution. I think ultimately that was a failure. I always say I wasn’t going to walk into a police station as a 7 year old and say I want you to prosecute my parents under the FGM legislation section 5. Also, the fact that it happened to me in Djibouti meant that it was extra-territorial so it can’t necessarily apply. That kind of cut me out of the legislation, that did not change till 2003. If we are going to get a prosecution, ultimately, if we are going to get-
Anne Summers: There’s never been a prosecution?
Nimco Ali: There’s never been a prosecution. Well, there’s been a prosecution recently, but there’s never been a conviction. That prosecution also came about because the DPP saw … the head for the Department of Public Prosecution, was a human rights lawyer. It was really interesting. I’m actually disagreeing with somebody that has studied at law school. Within the legislation, there was no reinfibulation, so stitching a woman back up wasn’t actually explicitly expressed in the law, that it should be FGM. He went to the crowd and asked that this was in a spirit of the law and they did, in their way of trying to prove that legislation worked, they did try to get a prosecution, but it wasn’t successful.
In terms of I think … I always say there’s four Ps. It’s about like preventing and protecting girls from FGM, then providing provisions for girls that have been through FGM, so we can come forward and have those conversations and ultimately maybe lead to this elusive prosecution. There’s partnerships. Unless we all engage in every different sector which children engage with in. I’m not sure how it works here in Australia but from the age of birth all the way up to 5, all children have a health visitor so somebody that’s in contact with them checking their girls and checking how they are and checking their wellbeing. Then the school system comes into place and then it’s about education, get education involved. Then social services, then there’s the medical staff and then there’s the police in. There’s been undue criticism of the police in terms of the UK, but they can’t do anything with that information and that information hasn’t been forthcoming. I do think we probably will get a prosecution that is because the fact that we’ve worked in this kind of system.
There is a global ban on FGM and that was led by the African continent, the FGM internationally is a crime, so we should all use our legislation in order to make it easier for prosecutions to happen within the country or for protection mechanisms to happen within the country. Since last year we’ve now got this Serious Crime Bill which allows social workers, schools, anybody to take out protection order in order to prevent FGM and this has been very successful. We’ve got several protection orders against children. What has been really interesting in that is a lot of the women have actually come forward to ask for those protection orders. A lot of the places where those protection orders have been applied, have been women being also fleeing domestic violence which again shows the fact that a lot of these women are not in a position to be making these choices and to be protecting their children. We have a duty on that kind of front.
Anne Summers: I forgot when I was introducing Nimco to just mention the way that we’d run this evening and that is she and I will have this conversation for about another half an hour and then we will go to the audience for questions. I know there are people in the audience who probably know a lot more about the situation with FGM in Australia than I do. Even Nimco’s been meeting a lot of people in the week that she’s been here. Some audience members may be able to help eliminate a situation here for us when it comes to question time or comments that I’d certainly welcome that if you can do so.
Let’s just go back to your deciding to become an activist on this issue. Can you just briefly tell us how that happened? How you decided to do that and how you lit upon the kind of campaigning you do? It’s a very out there, very provocative in a way, incredibly humorous. Can you explain to us how you decided to do what you do?
Nimco Ali: I wish I could say that I woke up one day and I thought I really want to change the world and do something, but ultimately I came face to face with the result of my silence and how complacent I was in the conversation around FGM. Just after I graduated from university, I went to the Fast Stream which is kind of like a civil service kind of thing. I was asked by a teacher to go to a local academy in a city school to talk to some young girls and just kind of inspire them to go to university and fulfil their dreams and so on. I went into this classroom where there’s really like young, loud girls who were very confident and I was into-
Anne Summers: How old were these girls?
Nimco Ali: They were about 13 years old at the time and there was 14 of them. I was very intimidated by how forward they were and how kind of … they were very confident. It seemed they were very confident. I tried to talk to them about going to university and the fact that there’s several choices open to you and all these other kind of things that anything like a mentor who would do or somebody that would try to be ambassador from their background.
I remember as soon as the teacher left, one of the young girls asked me if FGM was Halal and she put it in Islamic context. I was very kind of thrown by that whole point of and thrown by that by these girls who were born in the late 90s. I’m thinking, “What do you guys know about FGM?” As I always say, I said two of the flipping things in my life. I said, “What do you guys know about FGM? Of course, it’s not Islamic. How many of you have even known FGM or had FGM?” Out of the 14, 13 of those girls had FGM. In that moment, I just-
Anne Summers: They had that done in Britain?
Nimco Ali: No, most of them had it done abroad because that’s one of the things that a lot of those few people that are pro FGM know that it was illegal in the country, so they took them abroad. It’s very easy to confuse a child that doesn’t necessarily know anything about a cultural identity to say that this act is part of your culture. I think just like any kind of groomer would want to buy kids sweets and kind of confuse them in that kind of situation. That’s the kind of things that happen. I remember just standing back and thinking how the hell could this be happening? It’s Bristol. It’s 2006 for God’s sake. I was in public health at the moment and at that time in child protection, but I also remember not wanting to really engage and talk about my own personal experience. I talked about it in a third person, some beautiful policies together and then left.
I went to London and thought that this is all going to be taken up because there’s gateways and there’s things to be done and everybody else should just put it together and just get their acts sorted. So I went to London and again I met this … I was volunteering at the time. I met this young girl who’s gone through … who had Type 3 FGM. One other interesting thing at the time is nobody was talking about the type of FGM that I had. Everything was much about we’re not doing FGM anymore, we’re not doing infibulation anymore, everything’s fine. Get over it, basically. I remember this girl actually putting this piece of artwork together and she was showcasing this artwork and everybody was-
Anne Summers: Is this a quilt?
Nimco Ali: No, no, it wasn’t a quilt. It wasn’t a quilt. It was a very graphic piece of artwork that she kind of like it was her cathartic experience in terms of talking about that. I remember her being late for this and I’d had like several coffees with her and I always told her it was going to be okay, everything is fine. Never telling her it was going to be okay because I’ve been where she has and I’m a survivor. I remember her turning up late and then everybody else saying, “You’re late. Come on, get on the stage.” This poor child was like hyperventilating. I remember just out of nowhere in this room full of people just taking her aside and saying, “There’s actually nothing wrong with you. You’re going to be fine.” She asked me in that moment, “How do you know?” I was like, “Because I’ve been where you are and it’s going to be fine.”
That was the first time I’ve ever actually told anybody that I had FGM and then within that moment I thought, f like these girls that I saw a year and a half ago had undergone FGM and they’re only about 13, and this girl’s 21 and she had FGM and she had nobody else to kind of associate herself with. In 2010, I linked up with some other survivors of FGM that were already working on their conversation and I said let’s frame this in a positive narrative and actually, ultimately go towards ending it. That’s when I first spoke out and I said, “My name is Nimco Ali and I’m a survivor of FGM.” When I was doing that, I had a, “Mitts off my muff” card and I thought humour as very good way to deflect.
Anne Summers: I’m sure some of you have seen that photograph of Nimco in my magazine with a big sign, “Mitts off my muff.”
Nimco Ali: It was a very … It was a way. I think humour is a better way to kind of deflect and not necessarily … it can be very personal and have those kind of conversations. I think it stopped me … because after I got over being angry and have been informed and I made all these decisions but ultimately when I was doing a lot of this stuff. I do make a lot of flipping remarks about it now but it was really scary. I knew the shit that was going to hit the fan, but I thought, you know what? If you can kind of laugh it off, then it wouldn’t necessarily be as painful as I knew it was for other women that tried to speak up before me.
Anne Summers: What was it that made you decide that, not just humour, but also a very provocative kind of campaigning that you’ve engaged with? Tell us about when you first wore your fanny suit.
Nimco Ali: Yeah, I think it was because there is-
Anne Summers: Explain to the audience what your fanny suit is.
Nimco Ali: We’ve got these vagina suits that we wear in order to kind of have the conversation around the female genitalia, the fact that it’s a very public conversation that people are having about our bodies but not necessarily with us. I thought we’d take it to Parliament or we take it to the streets. We started off with making these … we like to call them cunt cakes. When you’re doing this work, sometimes the puns write themselves. I remember the time when we first made them and then somebody said, “Were they homemade?” I’m like, “Yeah.” It’s like, “Has anybody here got a nut allergy?” We had this sign with these vagina cupcakes or cunt cakes. Somebody put them on and there were the little small signs saying, “May contain nuts.”
That has actually always been the way that things have gone on because FGM is one of the most ridiculous forms of violence against women and girls. People always wanted to sit around and kind of talk about it. I thought, “If I want to dress up as a vagina and I’ll come to a meeting in Parliament. If you really want to talk about a vagina, let’s have one in the room.” How these vagina suits work is your head pops out where the clitoris should be, so it’s like … it’s right in your face. It’s right in your face.
Anne Summers: There are photos.
Nimco Ali: Yeah, it is. It’s right in your face and it’s one of those things that I just really want it to make it public. I really wanted people to stop feeling embarrassed and I also really, really wanted girls that have been through FGM not to feel ashamed. I did this and I wanted them to be there as a Show and Tell Story because that was a lot of the conversations that will be and how it was the fact that, tell us about your vagina as opposed to tell us about the act. I just thought, “Why not wear a vagina suit?” I’ll come as a talking vagina because it was literally, it was never talking to me, it was always talking to my vagina which is quite interesting. It gets boring sometimes.
Anne Summers: You’ve had a lot of … you do a lot lobbying. You could have a lot of meetings with ministers even the prime … You’ve been to Number 10 and you’ve met with David Cameron. He’s been actually pretty good on FGM in the last year or so. How do these guys react when you come and talk to them about vaginas?
Nimco Ali: I think one other thing is they … I’m happy to over share but I think the lack of sensitivity is what really shocks me and the fact that I’ve … What I’ve learned from other survivors of other forms of abuse is the fact that it’s been quite similar. People have always wanted to know about my sexual experience and so on. I thought-
Anne Summers: I guess the other thing that is being … I mean, you say you stand on other people’s shoulders in doing this, but one of the things that you’ve done is to be able to successfully reframe the discussion of FGM away from being a community and therefore a private matter to being one about child abuse and violence against women. You just said it’s nothing to do with community, it’s nothing to do with religion, it’s nothing to do with colour, it’s to do with violence.
Nimco Ali: It is to do with violence. I always have my kind of own political ideas. I’ve been always like the person who’s been very political and there’s nothing more personal to me than my gender and I see that and constantly being ignored or dismissed on a day to day basis in terms of politics. I really wanted to kind of stand in solidarity with a lot of my sisters that didn’t have the voices or didn’t have those conversations.
I wanted to talk about FGM as a form of violence against women and girls. I’m not interested in ending FGM, without actually liberating women and that’s one of the key things that I wanted to have that conversation and it was also … I’ts also given a lot of white feminists permission to stand with us and I think it’s one of those things that … It’s not about trying to rescue survivors of FGM, but it’s about supporting them and it’s about standing in solidarity. In order to do that, we have to have the language and I think this whole victim, poor Nimco kind of thing was one of those things that I never wanted.
I remember last year I met my feminist heroine and she talks about how she was embarrassed about writing the first chapter of her book, [inaudible] the defacing of Eve and I said, what were you embarrassed about? What were you scared of? She said, I was scared. I said, what were you scared of? You’re this amazing goddess whose work is what basically gave me the foundation to speak up. She said, I was scared of being labelled and I was scared of the shame that would come when people would just see me for my vagina.
I remember that was a lot of the things that kind of held me back as well, so I’m thinking this really successful person that’s got like how many A levels, got three degrees and all these things, am I going to be kind of bought down to just me and my vagina. I thought, You know what? I’m proud of … this something that happened to me, something that doesn’t define me. I can either stay embarrassed or I can feel ashamed or I can get those people that have done this or the people that want to ensure that it never ends to be ashamed. I thought humour and dressing up as a vagina was a very positive way of kind of doing that.
Anne Summers: What do you say to those people, men or women, who say, “Well, this is who we are. To be a true Somali woman, you have to be cut.” What do you say to them?
Nimco Ali: I think FGM is not something that was a part of our culture or cultural identity, it’s something that was pressed upon us. I think it’s always history or to learn a new history is always a good thing. There’s another woman, [inaudible] and another amazing Somali woman called Edna Adan who talk about the real feminist like the African community and especially Somalia, the Horn of Africa of Africa where I’m from. She wrote this amazing book called Queens Without Crowns and-
Anne Summers: Queens Without Crowns?
Nimco Ali: Queens Without Crowns, about the way of the pride and the way that we walk. She talks about having to leave Somalia because of the war and then coming back from the west. The men saying to her, “You know what? Piss off with your white feminism and liberal conversations.” She did the history in order to write this book and found poetry from women about 300 years ago who have never have seen a white feminist talking about the female god because the male god that had like no sanction, there were all these kind of like domestic abuse, FGM and all these things must be from a male kind of page out of context.
If we look at our history … and that’s one of the key things that I find in the developing world or places like Pakistan or Africa is the fact that a lot of girls are being disempowered and to educated and if you don’t educate girls about the history and the power within their own continent and within their own communities, then it’s very easy for men to tell us that this is a very Western thing. That’s what’s really dangerous in terms of how we in the west kind of treat issues like FGM, let’s talk about it as violence against women and girls and let’s stay away from like you know, issues like culture and so on.
Anne Summers: One of the things that you talk about and you’re very adamant that you don’t want images of FGM to be shown. You told me that if you Google FGM, the first thing that comes up are these photographs of it being done to young girls. You’re against that.
Nimco Ali: Yeah.
Anne Summers: Can you explain why you think that’s … ?
Nimco Ali: At the core of the conversation around something that Efua and I always believed in was Do No Harm principle. Coming to a campaign and coming to a movement in order to move things forward and not to be kind of dismiss it or kind of do any damage and ultimately I always check my privilege. So I will never stand somewhere and just saying, “We need to take the streets of Burkina Faso and combat FGM” because I know it’s a dictatorship and those might be dangerous. When it comes to FGM, these children have not consented to the act of violence being committed against them and nor have they consented for their pictures to be taken. I am happy to risk my life. I am happy to work ten times harder than I have to which is kind of impossible but I’m happy to do that in order to get people to understand the horror or the ridiculousness of FGM as opposed to showing an image of a girl.
I remember a really famous American journalist; we wanted to commission her to do some pictures around FGM. My thing was actually going forward and having a picture of a grandmother, a mother and a granddaughter, and talking about the lineage of actually ending FGM in a generation and how women can kind of work together, so beautiful, positive stories of change. That’s what we got in the end, but it took ages to get there.
I remember her saying, “I need to really capture the act of FGM.” I’m like, “What does that mean?” She’s like, “I really need to capture the act of FGM happening.” I was like, “That’s a child and it’s a crime being committed against a child. Are you going to not only stand aside but you’re going to capture that?” I said to her, “You know what? What I’ll do is, I’ve had FGM and I’m happy for you to take pictures of my vagina if you want to capture the acts of FGM.” She said, “I’m not really comfortable with that.” I said to her, “You’re not comfortable of taking a picture of a consenting adult but you’re willing to take a picture of a child who hasn’t consented as they’re being abused.” She said, “Fair point.”
Sometimes you might have to make … Hopefully, my next kind of campaign and one of the things that I ask people that are trying campaign around FGM is don’t re-stigmatize a child or survivors by showing images of being cut and don’t contribute to the neglect and the abuse that we show them. I’m sorry that we didn’t save you from FGM and I’m definitely going to be like make sure that we don’t necessarily re-abuse you by showing those images. Hopefully, Google will be will able to take down images of children undergoing FGM because-
Anne Summers: That’s going to be your next campaign?
Nimco Ali: That is going to be my next campaign because-
Anne Summers: Asking Google to remove those images?
Nimco Ali: Asking Google to remove it and also within the UK defining images of children being shown, being cut as forms of porno. It is pornographic information. It is pornographic and horrific pieces of images. I don’t necessarily know whether people don’t necessarily get that or not. I know people-
Anne Summers: You made an interesting point to me, Nimco. You don’t need to see a woman being raped to know that rape exists. You don’t need to see somebody having a shit beating out of them to know that violence and domestic violence exists, so why do we need to have these photographs?
Nimco Ali: Exactly. We have pictures of donkeys, really skinny and saying, “No donkeys were harmed in the making of this.” I’m like, “Well, can we not harm any children anymore by campaigning against FGM. It’s one of those things I don’t necessarily think everybody that shows images of children is doing it from a place of damage, but they are doing damage. I think it’s one of those things to keep having that conversation, say it’s derogatory, it’s harmful to children and it’s also harmful to the cause itself.
Anne Summers: I’m just wondering if you could perhaps give us some thoughts. You’ve been in Australia now for nine days and you’ve met quite a lot of people while you’ve been here. The public campaign against FGM is probably just kind of getting started here. What sort of advice would you give us about how we in Australia should be taking on this issue?
Nimco Ali: I think don’t come from a very victim blaming or either a saviour kind of mindset. I think standing with survivors on solidarity is very key. One of the things is the fact that I’ve met a lot of women and a lot of men from FGM affected populations living here in Australia and they have wealth of information and wealth of knowledge. The media can be very damaging and very derogatory to people sometimes, but they can also be positive instruments of change. I think engage with the media but also set the narrative and it’s about talking about the fact that we can end FGM. I really dislike the word “eradicate” an FGM as though some kind of virus.
Anne Summers: You don’t want to use “eradicate”?
Nimco Ali: I don’t use the word eradicate because then it’s-
Anne Summers: What do you say?
Nimco Ali: End an FGM-
Anne Summers: End?
Nimco Ali: … or prevent an FGM because it’s one of those, it’s a form of violence against women and girls and it doesn’t just happen. It’s not polio, it’s not Ebola. There is actually a systematic power and control dynamic within that. It’s not going to just end with having conversations. That there is going to be a multi-level approach in order to do that. One thing is the fact that to anybody that’s out there that is scared of FGM, like fear in the FGM, might happen or FGM has happened. If they come forward, I know that there’s a lot of amazing women and a lot of amazing people that are working here at Australia that will work with you sensitively. So don’t fear and we are here to listen.
For other survivors that are out there, you have to right and you have the privilege to check people that want to speak on your behalf because nobody can tell your story. I think there’s nothing more powerful than actually listening to somebody and allowing somebody to tell their story and from a Western kind of perspective we have the platform, we have the privilege, let’s use that in order to do positive change and not necessarily move things back.
Anne Summers: What do you say then … Most of the FGM is instigated by the mothers, the mothers who want the girls to be cut. What do you say to those mothers? What do you say about their role in this? How do we break the cycle? How do we stop it?
Nimco Ali: I think FGM is always instigated by those in power and I doubt in many of the cases it’s the mother. Wherever the power lies is where the fault lies for me. A lot of that has to do with the men and the patriarchal society and I think with mothers one of the kind of conversations that I’ve had with people that I’m related to is ultimately understanding that the greatest gift that they gave me was not necessarily FGM, that’s not who made me who I am, it was the gift of education and the gift to freely be me. Also, giving back and apologizing that I’m sorry that there’s nobody there for you when you needed somebody to speak up for you, but you can actually now be the agent of change.
I really want mothers, grandmothers, all those people that believe that their silence or believe that they don’t have any power to understand that they truly are the keepers of power. There are a lot of us that will stand with them. That there is no such thing as a perfect woman, so whatever the communities want to create, that there is no such thing as a woman that can raise her kids, work 24 hours and do all these things. I think those one of the things that kind of mirage is. We need to, as women within a community and also within a wider population, have honest conversations with each other. I was really privy to the fact when you first asked me to come speak and the title of your book, the Damned Whores, I think I’m one of those “damned whores” where I do talk about my vagina, it is one of these things that people want to kind of-
Anne Summers: You definitely qualify as a damned whore.
Nimco Ali: Yeah, I am. I am a damned whore. I’m quite proud of that.
Anne Summers: Welcome, welcome to the club.
Nimco Ali: Thank you. I think as women we don’t also need to be God’s police and kind of like policing ourselves because men do that enough for us, society does that enough for us and yeah, so …
Anne Summers: I remember when I first met Nimco last year. I was invited to go to London to Women of the World Conference. I found myself on a couple of panels with Nimco and what really struck me when I first heard her speak and she spoke about having had FGM. She said that she’d had FGM, her mother had had FGM, her grandmother had FGM, her niece who I think that was 3, her 3 year old niece was not going to have it. She was determined to end the cycle, if you like, end the tradition, with this one generation. You tweeted just a few weeks ago saying that in one generation you’ve gone from 100% FGM to 0. That your 4 year old, she’s now 4 years of age, it’s not going to happen to her. This has been a success. This is how you succeed.
Nimco Ali: I do. I do always believe that the fact that I talked about a 140 million women but it’s all about the individual child. It’s about the one girl I’m breaking that cycle. For me, FGM is an historical act in our family and one of the key things that I really … I could’ve been sure that FGM wasn’t going to happen, the context of the legislation happening and all these other kind of things, but I also wanted it to end within a framework of my niece being very free and fearless, and having no boundaries in terms of her identity and that the things she didn’t do. I always say she’s an empowered little bitch, but that’s what I like to call her. She knows what she wants and she has those decisions and I think within her I see myself and I see my mother and I see all the women. I’ve kind of pushed a little bit forward every single generation in order to ensure that she’s free and fearless from all forms of gender based violence or any kind of limitations. It’s about ensuring that her wings are not clipped.
I always do say that you are my world but my world doesn’t revolve around you, but it’s also I’m always very keen on ensuring that she’s also a well-rounded individual, but I want every single girl to be as lucky as her. I just don’t want Sofia to be the only one that’s like free from all these things and thinking that she can be whatever she wants. I remember just after she turned 3 and somebody put in a book, it was like … I think she was 2 at the time, somebody asked Sofia, “What do you want to be?” She said, “I’m going to be a tree.” They’re like, “A tree?” I’m like, “Yeah, damn right. Why can’t she be a tree?” She’s going to be rooting in the foundations of knowing that she can do whatever she wants to do. I think, I never wanted her to lose that kind of innocence that she can do whatever she wants to do. If she’s tree, she’s going to be the first in our family to be one, but good luck to her. Whatever, yeah. Good luck.
Anne Summers: I mean, it does kind of raise the issue that she’s very lucky to have had a very strong family member like you who’s been prepared to stand up to this tradition and call an end to it. How is this going to happen across all these other families and all these other families and other societies?
Nimco Ali: That’s what I mean, it’s about having conversation with those … I’m only a product of my upbringing. I might have had FGM but it was because of everything else is because I was raised by strong amazing women that were around me. It’s about actually picking up those strands and actually using it and pushing it forward. I think in each and every one of us there is that struggle, that there is that kind of radical voice that’s about to be raised. I always say that if you raise your voice, even if it was a whisper, it’s always about taking that first step. It might not necessarily be an easy journey but I think the first step is what we really need. If you really don’t want FGM to happen, you can act and you do actively have a role to play and within each and every one of us as well. Whether we’re social workers, whether we’re teachers, whether we’re midwives, whatever it is, if we know that somebody else is not protecting a child then we have a role to play and I hope that …
It’s one of the things about mandatory reporting that we have, or asking people about FGM is, that I’m happy for somebody, so if ever I do have children, the fact is it’s going to be evident that I have FGM, that I had FGM, I’m happy for somebody to ask the conversation and say like if I do have a daughter, are you going to cut your daughter? Obviously the answer is going to be No, but it ultimately shows that somebody else cares about my daughter. I think a lot of survivors and a lot of young women don’t have somebody like me within their family are looking out to the wider kind of community. They’re looking out to their teachers, they’re looking out to their social workers, they’re looking out to their peers to be the ones that kind of speak up and protect them from FGM. I think we all have a role to play. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member, it can be anybody else within the population.
Anne Summers: You are confident that that’s happening?
Nimco Ali: It is in some places. It is in some places. I always say when the Prime Minister started talking about FGM, that was a key thing. I think one of the most interesting people that I met said, “Charles and I,” that kind of gives it away. It was Camilla Parker Bowles, she just, “Charles and I,” she mentioned, “We’re very interested in this.” It’s something the fact that it’s … Somebody said to me recently, “People are talking about FGM in polite society.” I’m like, “That’s great.” We need to keep talking more about FGM and we need to keep talking more about issues that affect girls. We need to talk about it on a global agenda.
I thought what was really interesting was that Michelle Obama and even our Secretary of State for [inaudible] was at the UN this weekend talking about getting 62 million girls back into education or 62 million girls why they’re out of education, most of these girls are out of education because of FGM. We can necessarily look at the second level of oppression, we need to look at the beginning. I think if we do and FGM, that’s going to be one of the greatest indicators of getting some kind of equality in the world.
Anne Summers: Just before we go to audience questions, I’m just going to ask you the question which I know is quite maybe a bit controversial, particularly in Melbourne and that is the question of language. The term FGM which is the one that you use and the one which the WHO uses, and I think the United Nations uses, but there are some people who don’t like the word M, they don’t like the word mutilation because they particularly don’t like to apply it to themselves. They don’t like to say, “I don’t feel like being mutilated.” They prefer the word circumcision. Nimco, what do you say about that whole kind of discussion about circumcision versus mutilation?
Nimco Ali: Basically, I don’t like FGM full stop, like the actual act. In terms of FGM, it’s again, it’s about … this is the word that was fought for by women on the continent whose experience was being very much dismissed for a long time.
Anne Summers: The women of Africa?
Nimco Ali: The women of Africa and human rights, lawyers and so on. It’s sad because the act is it is what it is. I really hate that line because I used to get my young people to stop saying that. When you say it is what is is, I’m like, fine I can use it now. FGM is what it is and it’s the consequences of the act of cutting ends up in a mutilation of the female genitalia. It can never be undone and I think it’s about the gravity of the consequences of the act.
One of the things I would say, I would never project everything onto a survivor and I would allow her to describe her experience however she wants to describe it. That’s something I very much respect, but in a political and policy kind of context, I would always use FGM. And I would use the word cutting to talk about the process. The word circumcision needs to be totally eradicated, that one can be eradicated because it’s a poisonous thing. It’s like it takes a few moments to do that from our consciousness because it’s nothing like the male circumcision. That was the key point that they made in the 1980s and when the global ban was happening recently, it was FGM. I think a lot of us in the West need to get over our sensitivity and listen to the people that are dealing with it on a day to day basis.
Last year I was privy to be a part of a scoping exercise into ten African countries. Nobody in that continent wanted to use the word circumcision. The UN does like to use the clunky FGMC, but we ended up dropping that because there was a really good doctor, Dr. [inaudible] who I love. He was saying, “Who uses C? C nothing.” I’m like, “Great. C nothing.” So we got rid of that. I just like to say C nothing is like FGM is the term to be used, but allow a survivor to describe how the way she wants to describe it, but don’t undermine the struggle that’s taken over 60 years in order to get to the place it is. If we’re sitting here having an intellectual masturbation session, as I like to call it, about terminology then we’re not really preventing FGM, protecting girls that are at risk.
Anne Summers: Okay. On that note, I think we might see if there’s any questions in the audience. We do have a microphone.
Speaker: Thank you. Just first of all, thank you for your honesty, Nimco. I don’t really know what to say. I feel a bit overwhelmed or shocked. I hope what I’m asking is not inappropriate, but I just wondered what is the justification? Why did it start in the first place and what’s the reason for it? Like is there a medical, religious, what was the genesis and why did people keep justifying doing it?
Nimco Ali: I think it started with a really hateful man. I think it’s one of those things like foot binding or anything else. It has no kind of place within society. It dates back to over 4,000 years and it’s one of the things like evidence in the Egyptian times and so on. It’s just kind of carried on because we haven’t yet gotten to place where women are equal and women are there within the decision-making mechanisms. I think if women had the choice, if women had decision-making powers, then FGM wouldn’t necessarily exist or carried on. There is no legitimate justification, but the real reason why it happens is the power dynamics. It’s very much easier to keep women occupied or keep them like out of public life if they’re suffering. It’s just one of those things.
A lot of the reasons why people don’t necessarily want to … men don’t necessarily want to end it, there’s not been necessarily that much attraction around it is that it would ultimately mean that more women will have more time to question other things that are going on around them. There is literally no justification for FGM and that’s one of the things why I think we spend too much time trying to figure it out. For me, my answer was my gender and it’s the same thing as like I don’t think that rape is a sex crime, it’s a hate crime. It’s just one of those things. It’s about power dynamics.
Anne Summers: Nevertheless, it is so incredibly widespread and has lasted through so many certainly generations, if not centuries. It’s something that’s really kind of taken off.
Nimco Ali: It existed within our kind of the consciousness of a lot people and Caucasian people within the UK where they used to be clitoredctomies for hysteria or for women that were lesbians or whatever it was. It was one of these things. It was a form of control. I think the first time it was ever … the clitoris was first discovered, was around the time of the witch trials in the UK. Then it was referred to as the devil’s hood. What was really interesting was the fact that that same terminology actually popped up in Djibouti. We were listening … there’s this documentary called Africa Rising
Anne Summers: Called what?
Nimco Ali: Africa Rising. Actually, watch Africa Rising, it shows you the amazing work that’s happening in Africa and all these great women having these kind of conversations. It was really interesting because I went and searched for where FGM came from. I remember reading this thing about where the clitoris was first written about in terms of English literature and English history. It was around the time of the witch trials where they were drowning women because they were smart. And if she drowns she wasn’t a witch, if she floats then she was, so they killed her anyway. I thought okay and that’s where the clitoris was first discovered. That kind of shows you the realities of where this kind of thing is rooted as the factor any excuse to carry out an act of violence against a woman was kind of given.
There’s also with myths … there’s also some kind of truth within there and within like the first processes of the foetus growing, the female clitoris and the male penis are literally the same organ. If you give people that bit of information, everybody assumes that the clitoris is going to grow into a penis. There are a lot of ridiculous things that people think this is why they need to do it. If you give them a piece of information around to counteract that then ultimately that kind of just does, “Oh, I did not know that.” That’s something that you can kind of change.
Anne Summers: You mentioned the other night, there are some of the incredible myths that still survive in some African societies about the power of the clitoris. For example, the gold miners.
Nimco Ali: Especially where women are not educated and empowered about their gender, like their bodies and that information. I was at Burkina Faso, the miners believe that if they didn’t have a clitoris around their neck then they wouldn’t be able to find gold. I always say that in the second poorest countries it’s really good that they came up with a very economical issue around FGM. In Tanzania there’s conversations around the fact that if you don’t have the clitoris for the fisherman to go away with, they’re not going to have anything to bring back in terms of using as bait. In places like Kenya, women believe that if the clitoris touches the man’s penis then he dies. I’m like, “Men in the UK are fine.” This is the thing about sharing information, it’s the fact that we need to share that information. This is the thing about how you can be given information but it’s contextualizing it.
I remember I was at Bristol University and it’s one of the best universities in the world, if I do say so myself. Anyway, there was this Kenyan girl that was there and she was talking about how she needed to have her clitoris removed because otherwise her husband is going to die. I said to one of the guys that was in my class, I’m like, “Tom, tell her that you’ve had sex with a girl, that you saw their clitoris and you haven’t died.” She said, “Maybe it’s just African men.” Then I had to go find an African man that slept with a white woman who hasn’t died. Then it was kind of like, “Well, maybe it’s African men that only sleep with Kenyan women.”
Honestly, to try to disprove that one myth, it took such a long time. Imagine having to find a Kenyan that slept with a Kenyan woman that hasn’t had FGM. It happened in the end but it’s this whole thing, it’s something that she believes so deeply and it’s so hard to just say, obviously that’s not going to happen. It is quite powerful. The myths are quite powerful, the sanctions and the rewards in terms of FGM within a society are quite powerful. So for me to walk in and say, “Oh my God. That’s violence against women and girls,” it’s something that’s really difficult for them to take on. That’s why it’s really good to have the conversation at a level of trying to protect girls and having to level those that actually have power so they can ensure that it comes down.
Anne Summers: Okay. Yes, thank you.
Speaker: I wish to say to your brother, Nimco, you are leading the tertiary sensitivity of the female homo sapien species and led the secondary with Flo Kennedy, Germaine Greer, etc. You are doing such a wonderful courageous thing. We’re deeply indebted to what you’re doing. I have a question about the brutality of this and it being driven right to the top of male behaviour. I personally don’t believe in gender based violence or family violence. To me, it is male violence and it should be called male violence. I’m asking you, does this go right to the top of male power lust to do this stuff with the brutality of the surgery and should it be called out as male violence which is the way I see it?
Nimco Ali: I’m a radical feminist, I could say yes. I’m a heterosexual radical feminist. After all of my Muslim and Catholic guilt, that’s the only guilt I can deal with. Yeah, it is violence against women and girls. I don’t want to demonize all men and I’m not going to demonize all men. There are men on our side and there are women on the other side. It is violence against women and girls, and it is about power dynamics. It is about power and those that hold power are men. If men had a conversation about actually ensuring that … The male ego is very fragile thing and we constantly have to massage it and we’re kind of getting bored of it, but because if that’s kind of becoming the fact that we have to be in pain. It is male violence against women and girls, but I do also believe that men can be on our side and that men can stop this. I’m not one of those people that wants to just blame men for everything, but …
Nimco Ali: Yeah. I totally agree. It is violence against women and girls. I know the terminology is to use violence against women and girls and you guys use family violence here which we don’t. It’s to kind of ensure the fact that there is a way and I always say that this whole kind of hyper masculinity is dangerous to men and deadly to women. I think that’s the kind of way to have that conversation. I’m happy to say like that I was happy to meet some men here in Australia that are looking at deconstructing that, actually challenging the conversation of about what it is to be a man. I think men can be loving, men can be brothers and we really do want to welcome you on the other side. Just stop being assholes and things.
Speaker: Hello, Nimco. First of all, I want to say I’m a very proud Somali woman today to see the conversation happening in Melbourne and I’m also a very proud Australian because I hold the conversation from this other end. I work with young women on the issues of FGM. I have written a book myself and I have written about my experiences. On the subject of men, actually, my father was very much against it when it happened to me. It was done by my mother. That comes back again to the myth and the stories that women have and they want to protect their young ones from the communities. My question for Nimco is how do we empower these young women, especially to involve this conversation with young men as well?
I know that for me it has been about phases. Of course, life is always about phases, but there was this of phase of being a victim and then you come to that phase of anger and then you profoundly find that space to hold a conversation like what you’re doing tonight, this phase of empowerment. Can you share with us a little bit? Because I find that some of our women and young women in Australia, especially here in Melbourne, are very shy in this subject. I also wanted to say that I follow you around the world and watch what you’re doing. I love your work and applaud you for it. Thank you so much for coming tonight and for what you’re doing. Thank you, Anne.
Nimco Ali: Thank you. It means a lot to hear from another Somali sister. I think the thing for me is that sometimes I have been a little bit brash and I have been a little bit out there because I want to break those moulds of what a Somali woman should be and what an African woman looks like and should have those conversations. Each and every one is ready when they are ready, but it’s about having an honest conversation in a safe space. If you provide a safe space for a sister, then it’s very much open to them. I think it’s about having information as well when they really want to ask. So if you can just provide that safe space and it’s not a challenge and then that’s fine. Also sometimes questioning those that … I always love the word Why. Everytime somebody wants to say something pro FGM I always say, “Why is that?” If they can never say … they can never use … If they have to use a religious or just because, then they know they’re failing, so just keep asking that question, “Why?” when you come across really challenging people. I learned that from my niece.
Anne Summers: I think if you want to follow what Nimco does, one idea is to follow her on Twitter. Her Twitter handle is @NimkoAli. Perhaps you could explain to us why your name is spelled differently on Twitter.
Nimco Ali: With a K?
Anne Summers: Why the K, not the C?
Nimco Ali: That was meant to be my undercover name but it doesn’t really work very well when you’re dressing up as a vagina. You know what? Because there are a lot of people that want to do you harm for speaking up about your own kind of experience. This is the reason as it brings FGM back to you and the whole power dynamics is that there are a number of people that have wanted to kill … number of men, correction, that have wanted to kill me. I was fine when sisters essentially wanted to strangle me for over sharing, but they were doing it, but just like through words but not necessarily physically trying to attack me because it is really difficult for somebody to implicitly tell your story or something that is very similar to it. I thought I’d go undercover and spell my name with a K. It didn’t work, trust me. It did-
Anne Summers: Because there was also a photograph of you, right?
Nimco Ali: There is a photograph. The first …
Anne Summers: It was the first time Nimco went public with the issue, right?
Nimco Ali: The first conversation … the first kind of thing I ever did was with the Evening Standard which is … I think, again, Efua was an African goddess that’s kind of done a lot of amazing things, but I also want to kind of really give thanks to a lot of white women that have done a lot of amazing things in the UK. Jude Kelly, who’s the founder of the Women of the World at the Southbank Centre, gave me a platform for 10 minutes on a Saturday morning to talk about my experience. In the last 5 years, that kind of conversation has gone on from ministers sharing the stage with me to have a conversation to..
Sarah Sands, who’s the editor of the Evening Standard, put her trust to tell the positive stories of change around FGM. We did this whole … my first article around FGM and I said, “I’m a survivor of FGM.” I put on a hat, so we call that hat media. I put on this really yellow hat and then try to hide and then spelled my name with a K. I thought, “Nobody’s going to know about this because I know there’s really horrible people out there that want to do me some harm.” It didn’t work. People found me. I think, that’s why I spell my name with a K.
If any survivor that really wants to speak out, do you know what? There’s a lot of us out there that want to support you, but also don’t feel like you have to put yourself at risk, that you have to like necessarily share more than you want to. If there’s anybody in the media here, I think just be sensitive about the fact that it’s really brave to talk about your own experience and I know we want to have as much information because not a lot of people talk about it in Australia. Apart from you, amazing that you’re doing that, but don’t ask too much of women that have come forward because it might just be first step that they’re taking.
Anne Summers: As you said, it can be dangerous. It can actually be physically dangerous.
Nimco Ali: Yeah.
Anne Summers: That has been for Nimco, so I think we should salute her courage in standing out the way that she has. Another question?
Batsi: Thank you, Nimco. My name is Batsi and I’m from Zimbabwe. I share in the solidarity of your amazing story. Thank you to my friend who’s actually encouraged me to come along in supporting Africa in general and representing southern part of Africa. My question, I think you’ve already touched on that and that was in relation to your personal connecting that with the political. I think you mentioned before you do like to over share a bit, and I wanted to hear about your experience from a personal level with your family relationships. You’ve talked greatly about you niece and I think that’s a great story and I’m just wondering what’s the relationship with like your mum or your dad and other extended family who, coming from an African background, extended family’s just as close as immediate family.
Nimco Ali: Yeah. It’s been a hard journey. I think one of the things that my mother necessarily never understood, and I love her for, is the fact that why if FGM was never going to happen to me again and why when I … I basically, in 2010 gave up my career in order to dress up as a vagina and talk about my vagina on national television. You can understand that that’s not a proud moment for an African mother. People were like, “I thought your daughter went to university?” She’s like, “She did.” I just thought it was one of those things that I thought it was the right thing to do and I thought I was immensely privileged and that I need to use that privilege to kind of have that conversation.
My politics has been … it has always been very personal and the fact that I’m a liberal I believe in humanity and I believe in the fact that we all have a duty of care. I couldn’t sit in a meeting where there are more girls I knew out there were being cut. I knew that girls were being failed. Also it was ultimately about getting rid of certain ghosts, as my 7 year old self and my 11 year old self and so on. I can happily say that I do have a mother that’s ultimately against FGM now and she completely understands the principle levels or the fact that it’s violence against women and girls. It’s interesting that it took David Cameron talking about clitorises to make that happen.
She thought if a man that is so far removed from the issue can have that conversation then why can’t she? I love her for the fact that she raised me the way she did. I think certain things happened and in some weird way I do believe in parallel universes and I know that there’s a universe that she was empowered from a younger age and I probably wouldn’t know and necessarily won’t be cut. I have a family and I do have a lot of friends that are really close to me but it was a really painful experience and I wish didn’t have to go through it. I wish I didn’t necessarily have to fight as hard as I had to in order to explain the decisions I made, but it was something that I was willing to sacrifice because I was standing….
My grandfather who’s basically the love of my life and the guidance was kind of the buffer that I had that he gave me the permission to speak up and to do these things, so did my grandmother. My grandmother just laughed a lot of the time when I always talk about something. I’m grateful that I had a lot of support from that kind of perspective because if I hadn’t and I always say that the fact that because I’m so outspoken, I’m so out there, that if something happened to me then somebody would find out and somebody would know. I also know that on a day to day basis there are girls that disappear, there are girls that don’t come back and it’s for them that I over share and it’s for them that I definitely make my politics very personal. For them.
Batsi: Thank you. For me, time feels very short. There are children in danger in Melbourne and I’m wondering if it’s possible to have a conversation about what’s next in Melbourne and what it would look like if it was different?
Nimco Ali: I’ll definitely come back to Melbourne. I’m happy to do that. I think, hopefully, it won’t … I was having a conversation with Paula who’s from No FGM Australia and ultimately I think there’s been things done in the UK and it’s like your political system and your legal system is very similar. I’m not sure if your political system is similar because we don’t stab our prime ministers in the back as much. It’s really weird. Still got David Cameron, who ended up getting a majority.
Anyway, that’s a different conversation to be had. I think there’s a lot of things to be learned from a UK and there’s a template that you guys can use and yes there are, sadly, there are children at risk. But if you know, please tell somebody because preventing that one case of FGM, for that one girl, that is that breaking that cycle for that generation. As I say to everybody, FGM is one of the most ridiculous things to reinvent if it’s not in your consciousness. That’s one of the reasons why it carries on so much is that fact that it’s actively there and it’s being actively practiced.
There’s not a space to have that kind of conversation then it becomes legitimized and legalized and normalized within a society then it’s really hard to unpick. So if you can save one girl, I think take that upon yourself, do that. It’s not about ending FGM globally, if everybody plays their role then that can happen, but it’s about thinking about that that’s next door and … When somebody tells you that FGM’s not happening in Australia, then please question that and ensure that they don’t necessarily pass that misinformation to other people.
Anne Summers: Nimco and I had a pretty incredible meeting in Sydney last Friday with the New South Wales health department group called No FGM Health Education program. We met all these women who are bilingual community workers and they’re from a range of countries, mostly African countries, but also Indonesia. Their job is to run these courses with women from the community to educate them about living in Australia because most of them are refugees, but also about FGM and the fact that it’s against the law and how to deal with all of that. What was pretty incredible I found about that meeting was several of those women, these bilingual community educators and workers had said that they had actually gone to the police to inform on women who are in their groups, women who couldn’t be persuaded not to take their daughters out of the country and these women who are the educators, the community workers had taken this drastic step of basically dobbing in people in their classes. That was a very, very brave thing to do. They felt so strongly about it and that’s what they did.
Nimco Ali: I think I agree. I’d be immensely grateful as a 7 year old if I’d known I was going to have FGM and I told somebody and somebody told the police. I’d say thank you now. It’s one of those things it’s the fact that FGM would’ve ended in my family a generation earlier. I think it’s one of those things is that we all have a privilege to do something and we should use that because-
Anne Summers: We definitely have the law on our side. The law has a penalty … I’m not sure if it’s a national law or a state law, but certainly in South Wales the penalty has been increased to 21 years. There was a question here in the front? No? Sorry.
Therese: Hi, Nimco. My name is Therese. thank you so much for being a public face for this. I’m an Egyptian Australian and my mother was castrated. I call it castration because I know the adverse effects that it had on her mentally and she was a Christian and she was raised in Egypt. I’m really curious around how you reconcile the fact that you really didn’t believe in what was happening to you but you came from a family where it occurred?
Nimco Ali: I think, again, it was finding my feminist voice and I think I remember I already used that word castration. I remember when somebody said that to me once like, “When you were castrated?” I was like … It might literally be the kind of the right terminology like physically but it’s just one of those … Anyway, that’s another … It was actually understanding the power dynamics and how much power that they had within her kind of remit. I think my mother didn’t have necessarily the power to say no but she thought she was doing what was … It’s this whole kind of thing like if you can’t end the FGM then try to make it as nice as possible. I think that’s what a lot of women when you have the reaction, when you get young girls reacting towards it. It was like, “But I did the best that I could.” It’s one of those things that is the fact that I realized that for me it wasn’t necessarily very beneficial having the conversation from an angry perspective to my mother. With my mother it was very much having this conversation in a position from the fact that I’m sorry that you didn’t have somebody that was there for you and the same for my grandmother.
I think it’s about, again, just checking your privilege and see how much things have moved forward. The fact that I can stand tall now and have the decisions, and have the power to say no for my niece or any children that I might have and also for me to be allowed to redefine what it is to be a woman. I think for me I don’t think the most painful thing around my experience of FGM was actually the act, but it was more of a the context and the experience of living with the whole dismissal of my own experience. So I think it’s really great, the fact that now women want to talk about it, women want to share or understand that you can talk about your own experience and talk about the pain and the struggle that you went through. It took a long time, but then I also had to check myself in terms of how I was having the conversation because I didn’t think it was very helpful for me to be really angry and flipping switches which wasn’t necessarily a positive conversation to be having.
I do love my mum and I do respect at the age 29 she got divorced and she raised 6 kids on her own and she’s been an amazing kind of feminism role model to me but she doesn’t necessarily call herself a feminist. I think that is the kind of little … the generational kind of thing. I think she didn’t want somebody that was a little bit more vocal than she was. But I don’t think she wished for this vocal. I think she might be rethinking about how strong that she kind of raised me to be. I think she learned from her experiences and kind of just tried to change things that I’ve learned from my experiences in being raised in that kind of context and kind of try to push things forward a little bit more as well.
Speaker: My name is [inaudible]. I’m one of those people who work in the field. Thank you, Nimco for this open conversation. Well, you know, there has been a lot of work for the last few years in Australia, mainly raising the awareness of the community not to continue with the practice and hopefully the awareness is increasing. My question is when all this is political and social issue, especially my interest is in the young woman. From your experience in the UK, do you have a place for them where they kind of come in and be supported? Not only in medical fields but in the social aspect of it.
We have seen some of it and they come across as having they don’t want to know anything, they are so traumatized. They have survived it but they are traumatized and they don’t want to know what’s happening down below the waist. Some of them also they don’t want to be different to the other communities and they don’t want to know it. How do we support this woman? You’re great and others have come out and campaign. Is there a way of addressing this? The campaign is great. We need to increase and we did raise it]. Is there a place in the UK from your experience? How do you support these people? Thank you.
Nimco Ali: The psychological kind of support for young women is just starting but there is an amazing organization called Integrate Bristol …
Integrate Bristol and they work specifically with young people. This is one of the things is the fact that for a long time the medical provisions that were around were all about the physical and not the psychological. Again, that’s something that developing at the moment so young women can go forward and actually ask for psychological support around that issue. This is one of the things that in Australia when you start doing the cross government work and that whole kind of conversation of looking at the needs of women, it’s about looking at it from every single aspect. It’s not necessarily adding things on later so you can kind of look at it from the education, to the physical to the psychological.
I think the psychological needs of women is a very key thing. What was really interesting was that last year before the … I think a lot of people assume that African women don’t have a psychological need. I remember talking to one radio person. She’s like, “Tell me about the physical horror of FGM.” I was like, “Actually, the psychological issues are a lot more difficult.” She just wanted to know about the physical acts of FGM, but it does have a long term psychological consequences. I would always stress, especially when you’re living in a culture where it’s not the norm, like everybody’s questioning that. I think we need to always support girls psychologically and emotionally. That’s why one of the main reasons again about not using images about the triggering. If anybody here is a survivor, if anything has triggered … I know, again, just had a conversation with Paula so I’m just keep directing everything to No FGM Australia but I’m sure there’s services that they can kind of connect you with.
Anne Summers: Thank you. I think there’s just one more question. There’s two more. I don’t probably have to be …
Speaker: Thank you. My name is [inaudible]. Thank you, Nimco. Actually, we need 10 like Nimco to change more stuff the low is happening here and Africa too. In my perspective is for the men, especially the young men. We’re working very, very, very hard to let them understand the women is always … she’s a victim. Especially the one we know, my sister and my daughter. I just can’t believe just ago I went back to Africa, to Sudan. My neighbour, I saw a lot of music was going on. When I asked what that music, a lot of dignitaries sitting the same back here and watching one of the victims sitting there, a woman doctor coming mutilate the young girl, the child. When that happened straight away, everybody was happening and I don’t know how can I say it … just sign of happiness. All the mothers sitting there, “I wish my daughter to do it the same like this one next time. Just after one year.” The other women say the same thing.
Those women, they need a lot of active person to talk to them, to tell them, to educate them. Unfortunately, here in Australia all of them, they’re coming here. When they come here, the men get from the women to get married from that circumcised one, “Oh please don’t take the uncircumcised.” The same like Nimco said, if the uncircumcised one, she may go out from home. She may leave you. We starting only about a year to educate that young men through the support activities or the other activities, please the women always the victim. Understand that, not victimize. Nimco, how we can advise us? How we can work with the men, what we have to do? They don’t want to listen about these female problems. What’s your advice?
Nimco Ali: I’m understanding that you say men still want women that have been cut?
Speaker: From the mothers, yeah, mothers want them cut They tell them don’t touch the uncircumcised one. Uncircumcised one, it’s dangerous for your home. They are talking to the other …
Nimco Ali: I think we had this conversation last night and it’s very interesting that … It’s a psychosomatic thing is the fact is that everybody … Weirdly, it’s a peer pressure thing. The fact that if you have an FGM and you’re being celebrated and then everybody else wants it because they want to be the same. I think in terms of young men, I think we also have to look at within your cultural narrative how you educate men and how you educate women. I think the kind of the different vessels that you create. If you just think boys can be anything they want but girls can only be the whore or the Madonna, then that’s not fair. I think you have to look at where FGM sits within that kind of context. I think there’s only two narratives, again, open to girls within certain populations or even in the West as well. Either you are the whore or you are the Madonna. The fact that we’re not, as women, we can be what we want to be and allow a choice.
I always say when men always talk about FGM, they say my daughter, my wife, my mother, women are evidence without you. It’s one of those things is how do you see women? Do you see them as your fellow citizens or do you see them as somebody that’s only evident through you? The narrative of how we talk about women is again very key. You’re not going to be able to teach boys to respect women if you’re only going to be talking about FGM, but you’re still going to tell them to chase a girl that’s unchaste, virgin and all these other kind of things. Again, it’s about empowering girls and allowing them to be active citizens. Equality is the only way we’re going to address that.
Anne Summers: Final question.
Speaker: Thank you, Nimco, first of all for your generosity in speaking to us today. I just wondered in view of the fact that no men has really been prosecuted with this crime yet, what about men in the Muslim communities or other communities that carry this thing out? Are there any men in those communities that you found support from?
Nimco Ali: There have been like … A lot of men are supportive like the gentleman here that was just speaking, the fact that he’s anti FGM and it’s about how to challenge those things. In terms of prosecutions, there have been several prosecutions on the continent because they very much understand that. There’s also been prosecutions in France but I don’t necessarily think I want-
Anne Summers: There’s been some in Sydney too.
Nimco Ali: There’s been some in Sydney, yeah. There’s cases going on. I think some of the men … like the head of the International Federation of Gynaecology is a Sudanese man who’s from a country where FGM is 98% and he’s been very supportive about ending it. There’s amazing men in … there’s an organization where the definition for FGM came from, it’s called the Inter African Committee on Harmful and Traditional Practices and there’s a lot of men on those boards. I think there’s been a lot of leaders that have kind of been very supportive around the issue of ending FGM. I think it takes both of us to kind of go forward in that kind of way.
Tom: Thank you, Nimco. My name is Tom. I’m from Kenya, so in your myth I might be a survivor. Now, there are three things that are cognizant, they really have a lot of influence in the African setting, how to decide or influence the way people do things, the religious leaders, community leaders and the school system. Now, we have always seen that there’s a lot of very minimal discussion in terms of the religious leaders and the community leaders. It becomes worse when the community leaders are religious leaders. What is your experience in engaging the religious leaders especially the Islamic religion, which I think you are part of, or what do you think would be the best way to approach it from that particular area, angle? Thank you.
Nimco Ali: I always go from a gender, human rights kind of perspective. I don’t necessarily go for them because it’s not Islamic, it’s not Christianity, it’s not any of these things. So to try to use something that’s not even based in as a way of ending it. is not really helpful. I also find it quite problematic that a lot of religious leaders are not very egalitarian. They might want to be against FGM but they’re not against other stuff. I don’t necessarily engage … It’s not in any of the texts. It’s not anything to do with religion, so I don’t use it from that kind of perspective. I think, again, it’s the whole thing about if the community leaders are men, then that is the problem, so it’s about power dynamic. I think, to say it’s not Islamic makes it the fact that there must have been some Islamic ruling somewhere, to say it’s not Christianity is not, so I don’t necessarily engage with religious leaders.
Anne Summers: Before I thank Nimco, I just like to thank a few other people who have made tonight possible. Jan Owen from the Foundation for Young Australians who took responsibility for bringing Nimco from Sydney to Melbourne, as well as me, with which we’re grateful. I want to thank Jenna Price and Destroy the Joint who paid Nimco’s fare from the UK. Paula Ferrari from No FGM Oz. Paula’s here tonight. It’s a relatively new NGO wanting to fight FGM. Jade Ginnane who was on the door and has been running around with the microphone. Thank you, Jade. Thank you, Nicole Ginnane, for helping out as well. Thanks also to Jody McInerney and Stephanie Amir for their wonderful work in helping us sell tickets for tonight. Finally, I think when I met Nimco at Sydney Airport at 5:00 last Sunday morning, I saw this shell shocked person who didn’t realize that planes flew that far.
Nimco Ali: That long.
Anne Summers: That long. Didn’t realize what she signed up for and making the long trek to Australia. I really want to thank her not only for doing that, it’s an incredibly arduous trip. We Aussies are used to it but the first time we ever do it, it’s pretty amazing.
More than that, I think what Nimco has done in the 10 days that she’s been in Australia, in Sydney and in Melbourne, to events she’s done with me but also the many meetings she’s had with groups is to really help us start ahead to bring this subject out into the open, to really shine a light on it, to start having a public conversations that will lead us to do what they’ve done in the UK and that is to fight it openly and hopefully make this the last generation of Australian girls that undergo FGM. I’d really like to thank Nimco very much for her over sharing. Without her courage and willingness to speak frankly to us, I don’t think we’ve developed the understanding we have from what you’ve said. Thank you, Nimco, very, very much for what you’ve done.
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