She was circumcised when she was seven, and today Nimko Ali is a key figure in the fight against genital mutilation and other forms of gender-based violence. How did she do it?
In her endeavor to end genital mutilation around the world, Nimko Ali (38) co-founded two organizations: The NGOs “The Five Foundation” and “Daughters of Eve” aim to ensure that no girl in the world has one anymore Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has to suffer. But that’s not all: Ali, who was born in Somaliland and grew up in Manchester, works out strategies for the British government to prevent violence against women. Among other things, she achieved that topics such as forced marriage, domestic violence and genital mutilation were included in the curriculum. She also launched the Ginsburg Women’s Health Board, which advocates an equal health system for women.
Now the award-winning women’s rights activist has written a book: For “What we shouldn’t talk about – but do it now anyway“Nimko Ali conducted interviews with women from 14 countries. And we did one with her on this occasion:
BRIGITTE.de: You fight for women on all fronts – against genital mutilation, femicides or the gender gap in the health system. What is your main concern?
Nimko Ali: My main concern is humanity. I don’t think we can create a world of peace and prosperity as long as women are discriminated against – and that starts with genital mutilation, the most primitive form of violence against women.
So genital mutilation is the basis of all evil?
FGM is the rift in humanity. We will not have a peaceful world in which women are respected as long as girls are mutilated to sell into marriage. As much as some people like to focus on issues like the gender pay gap or the visibility of women – we cannot build equality on a foundation that is broken and shaky, even if these things are important. As long as there is FGM, equality is not possible.
In your book “What We Should Not Talk About – But Now Do It Anyway” you write that FGM has spread like a plague across the world. Why is this 4,000 year old practice so persistent?
FGM is not just about controlling female sexuality. FGM is used to control women and instill fear in them. Many weak men fear women who have a voice, are empowered, and are fearless. That is why the Taliban, for example, exclude girls from education. And it does something to you if the greeting into the world of women is a form of violence.
You yourself were mutilated when you were seven years old while on vacation in Somaliland. What did that trigger you?
It took away my ability to feel good in the world and in my body. I lost my innocence and realized early on that the world doesn’t necessarily respect me and that nobody is protecting me. That made me feel scared. Women are instilled with this fear in many different ways: for me it was the physical act of genital mutilation, for others it is stories that are told – about a girl who went away and never came back, for example. Women all over the world are controlled by fear of what can happen if they live the way they want. However, I have used the experience of genital mutilation in some ways to get louder and stand up for myself.
You once said, “FGM was supposed to break me and keep me silent, but it made me the loudest person in the room.”
I was often in rooms where people were unable to talk about FGM. The purpose of genital mutilation is to fill you with shame so that you never talk about this act. But I was never really ashamed. I felt more anger than shame, more hurt than fear. Injury is a pain that you can deal with, fear you have to overcome. I was able to leave the hurt and pain behind.
How did you do that?
I received more emotional care in my family than other women in the community. It might sound like a contradiction in terms, but I was loved and well looked after. My grandmother in particular raised me to some degree to be fearless. And the mutilation didn’t define me. It wasn’t something you talked about every day, in the sense of: That’s what your identity is based on. So I had a certain distance and could think about this attack on my body.
Most importantly, what must be done to end the practice?
First of all, it must be seen as an act of gender-based violence and a violation of human rights, and not just a health problem. We have recognized the pain of African women, but we do not give them the authority, the power and the money to fight for themselves. I am committed to this with my organization “The Five Foundation”. Economic justice is central: only when women have money in their pockets, only when they are paid for their work, do they have a choice and can make real decisions. But many women in Africa do not work outside the home, they are viewed as pure birthing machines. But we must also address discrimination against women around the world and look at how the West deals with continents like Africa and South America.
Is it true that you played a large part in Sudan’s banning FGM?
I was fortunate enough to enter into dialogue with politicians whose ideologies I do not necessarily share, but for whom the emancipation of African women is important. And I can say that about Mike Pompeo, the former US Secretary of State. As part of the “Abraham Accords Declaration”, he and Donald Trump worked to normalize relations between the Middle East, Africa and Israel and to set democratic processes in motion. Sudan was right at the forefront, the country wanted to return to the world stage as a civilized nation. I said you can’t be civilized as long as you allow FGM. Once Sudan had a democratically elected government, FGM was banned and women were given more and more rights. I am convinced that democracy and the ability to uphold women’s rights go hand in hand.
Reading tip: In Nimko Ali’s book “What We Shouldn’t Talk About – But Do It Anyway: A Manifesto About the Female Body” women talk about their experiences with their bodies and their sexuality (Goldmann, 14 euros).