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Celebrating Influential Women: Nimco Ali and Female Genital Mutilation

To many of us, the prospect of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in young girls seems almost unreal. However, for Nimco Ali, FGM is an unfortunate reality.

Introducing Nimco Ali

Growing up in Somalia, Nimco Ali was subjected to FGM at the mere age of 7 and was even forced to witness younger girls go through the same procedure. As a child, Ali was told that she was part of a long line of women in her family who had been 'cut'; she was told that this was important for her family and culture. However, after immigrating to Britain as a young child, Ali never felt that she was able to speak about the traumatic experiences of FGM, as this diametrically opposed her relatively privileged, secular upbringing in England. As Ali claims: “That's why I never spoke out for over 20 years, because I thought, 'I'm not a poor African girl, I don't want people to be thinking of me as this victim.’”. However, in 2006, Ali’s silence was lifted when she met with a group of female students at Bristol university who had also undergone an FGM procedure: “In that moment, my silence was complicit, because everyone (in the UK) was thinking it didn't happen in the UK, it was all to do with culture, but all these are misconceptions.”

From here, Ali (with the help of psychotherapist Leyla Hussein) founded the non-profit organization ‘Daughters of Eve’, which seeks to help protect young girls and women who are at risk of FGM. 

But what exactly do you know about FGM? Prior to reading several definitions and academic papers, I knew very little; our knowledge of FGM is incredibly lacking, despite its world-wide commonality.

What is Female Genital Mutilation?  

According to the World Health Organisation, Female Genital Mutilation includes procedures that ‘intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’. Such procedures have no medical benefit for women and often result in severe bleeding, problems with urinating, cysts, infections, shock, psychological issues, fever, complications in child birth and increases the risk of death for new-born babies (World Health Organisation, 2018). Practices involving FGM are often carried out by traditional circumcisers (who are often involved in central roles within FGM practicing communities, such as attending childbirth) in compliance with various sociocultural factors within families and communities. Such traditional circumcisers are often women themselves. However, perhaps most shockingly, it has been estimated that more than 200 million young girls and women (who are alive today) in 30 different countries within Africa, the Middle East and Asia have been cut (World Health Organisation, 2018).   

 

What is the Procedure Like? 

As stated by the World Health Organisation (2018), FGM can be categorised into 4 major types: 

  1. Clitoridectomy: The partial or total removal of the clitoris (the small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals). However, in very rare cases, the prepuce (the fold of the skin surrounding the clitoris) is only removed. 
  2. Excision: The partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva) with or without excision of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva).
  3. Infibulation: The narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy). 
  4. All Other Harmful Procedures: This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

Deinfibulation, on the other hand, is the practice of cutting open the sealed vaginal opening in a woman who has been infibulated. This is usually necessary for improving health/well-being, allowing intercourse and facilitating childbirth (World Health Organisation, 2018).

Are there benefits of FGM?

FGM has no health benefits whatsoever; FGM involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue (World Health Organisation, 2018). Instead, it only harms young girls and women both mentally and physically. FGM not only interferes with the natural processes of a female’s body, but also causes shock and trauma for the victim. The severity of the risks and effects of FGM increase as the severity of the procedure increases. The following is taken from World Health Organisation (2018): 

Immediate Effects: 

  • Severe pain
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Genital tissue swelling
  • Fever
  • Infections (e.g. tetanus)
  • Urinary problems 
  • Wound healing problems 
  • Injury to surrounding genital tissue
  • Shock 
  • Death

Long-Term Effects:

  • Urinary problems
  • Vaginal problems
  • Menstrual problems 
  • Scar tissue and keloid
  • Sexual problems (pain during intercourse, decreased satisfaction, etc.)
  • Increased risk of childbirth complications (difficult delivery, excessive bleeding, caesarean section, need to resuscitate the baby, etc.) and newborn deaths; 
  • Need for later surgeries: for example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening (type 3) needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth (deinfibulation). Sometimes genital tissue is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing both immediate and long-term risks;
  • Psychological problems (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, etc.);
  • Health complications of female genital mutilation.

Why is FGM Carried Out?

Since FGM is practiced in different regions all over the world, a mixture of different sociocultural factors within families and communities have led to an array of reasons behind FGM. In places where FGM is a social norm, many families feel an intense social pressure to conform to the practice of FGM in order to feel socially accepted. Fears of being rejected by their community and family can motivate others to promote, continue and follow the practice. In some communities, FGM is performed without question (World Health Organisation, 2018). 

Another reason for the wide-spread practice of FGM is that it is often considered a necessary part of raising a young girl in order to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. Such beliefs walk hand-in-hand with the notion that FGM is an important part of sexual behaviour; FGM is a harsh way to ensure pre-marital virginity and marital fidelity in young women. For example, in some communities, it is believed that FGM decreases a woman’s sexual libido and thus helps her to resist sexual acts. This is because when a girl undergoes type 3 FGM, she experiences deep pain and fear of opening up the covered or narrowed vaginal opening. Moreover, if she does choose to have intercourse, then evidence of this is left behind; the once narrow opening is now much wider. The fear that family or the community may see such evidence discourages any form of sexual activity (World Health Organisation, 2018).

Some cultures also believe that ‘having the cut’ is a sign of marriageability and can also be associated with cultural ideas of femininity and modesty (i.e. girls are clean and beautiful after removal of body parts that are considered unclean, unfeminine or male). 

Shockingly, there are no religious or scriptural evidence in support of FGM, although some practitioners often believe the practice has religious support.

‘Daughters of Eve’ and Ali’s Story 

I am sure the majority of people reading this article – myself included – have been brought up within a western, secular society. Therefore, the above information on female genital mutilation reads as incredibly shocking; it feels abnormal. It's strange to think that such a practice could be a problem for young women in countries such as Canada and the UK. Yet, this is the exact problem that Nimco Ali is trying to shed light on: "The main thing was to get the public services, the government, those with duty of care, to understand that these are British girls [referring to the Bristol students], like anyone else, and that in letting them down, it's a complete and unacceptable failure." Therefore, Ali and Hussein set up Daughters of Eve to not only help FGM survivors, but also to force British authorities to reframe FGM as part of a wider crisis of violence against women (as opposed to a private tradition). 

When Ali moved to London in 2010, she met activists and organisations working around the issue of FGM, but couldn’t see what they were trying to achieve. This motivated Ali to develop her own non-profit organisation that seeks to educate people on FGM, and raise awareness of what she considers to be ‘organised crime’: “I want to place the responsibility in the hands of the state. I’ve seen community work being done for years, and it doesn’t work. It’s not up to communities to police themselves.” 

It wasn’t until early 2011 that Ali was able to admit that she was an FGM survivor; “A lot of people were shocked. But I didn’t want to be treated with sympathy: I wanted to talk about survivors, not victims, and I wanted to prevent it.” From here, Ali – through her work with Daughters of Eve – successfully campaigned the UK government to redefine FGM as an act of violence, and later child abuse. Ali had suffered the consequences of FGM, but was able to stand up and fight her ground: “It was a way of saying to these girls, “You’re British and we care about you as much as anyone else.” My vagina is British; it doesn’t have a different passport.”

Despite her courageous and inspiring actions, Ali received some negative responses to her empowering campaign. Ali has admitted that after her picture appeared in a newspaper for the first time, she had received death threats. Ali claims that “I stayed in bed for two days, wondering, “Is it worth it?” But then I felt guilty. If a girl goes through infibulation and then disappears, we never find out. If something happens to me, at least someone will know.” Even though Ali was in a life threatening situation, she was still putting other victims of FGM before herself; her passion for her campaign is so overwhelming and this can be seen throughout her triumphs. Furthermore, upon having a meeting with Jeremy Hunt (the UK's Health Secretary at the time), Ali was questioned about her ability to orgasm: "His first direct question was "What I really want to know Nimco, is, can girls like you have an orgasm?"." Not only is this a humiliating address, but also seems to fail to recognize the severity of the issue of FGM.

 

Why Ali is an Unsung Inspiration

During one interview, Ali spoke about how a stranger approached her on the underground and had asked her if she was Nimco ‘the girl who talks about FGM?’. Ali had admitted that she was first afraid that she was about to get spat on, but instead the stranger simply wanted to thank her. Ali writes “I don’t think of myself as a leader, but as part of a chain. If it wasn’t for all the amazing women who came before me, I wouldn’t be able to do any of it.”

I must admit, that before writing this article, I had very little knowledge on FGM, or even that it was an issue within my home country – England. Nimco Ali is an example of just how strong and intelligent women can be; she has taught me so much in such a short amount of time, I am another person to add to the success of her campaign. Despite her own experience of FGM (which I could never even comprehend), Ali was still able to stand up and show the world her voice. 

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If you are interested in Ali’s Campaign, visit the Daughters of Eve website here.

You can also check out her twitter page here

Images obtained from

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