Female genital mutilation

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Female genital mutilation

Nimko Ali is a Somali British woman. She is bringing life to the campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM).


No more shame about vaginas: The Shoreditch Sisters Women’s Institute show their vulva bed cover in London. (Shoreditch Sisters WI)

Why do we have FGM?

I think that doing painful FGM sends a message – ‘this is what happens to women’. It’s not just about sex – it’s about fear, stopping hopes and dreams and stopping girls from speaking out and challenging the control of men.

It’s similar to when Elliot Rodger went out shooting people [in California] saying, ‘Women didn’t want me’, ‘I’m a man; they should be there to serve me’. No, it’s not that women didn’t want you! They had the choice to say ‘No’.

It’s the same with sexuality and FGM – men are saying: ‘A woman’s sexuality is not hers. We must decide when she has sex and who with.’

FGM is not just the cutting, it’s everything that goes with it. FGM makes many other things seem OK: forced marriage, the rape, ‘honour’ killings. It’s another form of violence linked to the role of women and the value of the girl child.

People see it as a problem of ignorance and non-Westernization – but really it’s about control. In places like Egypt – where 91 per cent of girls have FGM – they have made it a medical process. They say, ‘It’s OK, it happens in hospitals!’ They say, ‘This is what you can choose to do if you want to be a woman of this country.’

Why do you think women continue to practice it?


Nimko Ali had FGM when she was on holiday in Djibouti, aged seven. For the last five years, she has worked to stop the practice. She has used creative ways eg. showing a bedcover of vulvas made by the Women’s Institute (see photo above); and, dressed as a very big vagina, having photos taken with police officers . But she has had problems: senior government ministers asked her disrespectful questions and someone tried to kill her.

Western society says that women are the centre of this problem. But it’s easy for an uneducated woman to believe that a clitoris will turn into a penis – they say this in Somalia and across Africa – or that if you don’t cut the clitoris and it touches your husband’s penis, he will die.

In coastal villages in Tanzania they say that you must have clitorises to use as fish bait – if you don’t, the fishermen won’t be able to feed the villages. If you want to keep your clitoris, you’re selfish, and the whole village will have no food.

There are places in West Africa where miners say they need clitorises to find gold. They make women feel they have to do it.

In Egypt they talk about beauty and being clean. And in rural areas they say things like: ‘They don’t do FGM in the West because they have perfumes and soap. If you don’t do it, you will smell.’

So the central problem is not ‘women’, it’s the control of men, the society people live in.

You have compared FGM to labiaplasty [plastic surgery to change the labia]

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

Under British law it’s not possible to agree to FGM, it’s a crime (Grievous Bodily Harm). But people can force you with pornography to think your vagina is disgusting and if you pay $5,000, the problem will go away. If your grandmother is telling you the same story then it’s negative control. This is abuse.

How do you feel about the how the media and politicians in the West talk about FGM?

The easier reaction is to the rightwing person who says ‘This is barbaric, horrible’.

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

They don’t want to offend people, so FGM continues for three more generations. Or they persuade them to do different torture which is not quite so bad. ‘I respect your culture because you’re different from me. But we want to help you not to harm people and to develop.’

There’s a kind of racism in both of these reactions.

It’s simple if we see it as human rights. We say this is breaking a girl’s basic right to have a complete body. We have to see these children as individuals, not part of a community. The girl in sub-Saharan Africa and the girl in South London both have the same rights.

Do you think people who do FGM should be prosecuted?

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

If we take the people to court, this makes it OK that you don’t agree and felt pain. If society says they’re going to charge a person for doing this, you think, ‘What happened to me was wrong’. So it gives you justice. It starts the healing.

What do you think about the US group the Raëlians’ project to bring back ‘pleasure’ to women who have had FGM in Burkina Faso?

I did not really agree with reconstruction of the clitoris. I think it could be simply about men. First they cut you because you are only a sexual object and then they say you need a clitoris back so men can give you sexual pleasure. It’s not about you! It is very heterosexual.

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

Ministers told me the pleasure hospital is not very popular. Not many people like it when other people come in and tell you about your own sexuality.

But gynaecologists still do surgery, and de-infibulation [an operation to open up vaginas that are sewn-closed].

I would never say a woman must not do this; but I think there has to be psychological support, teaching about intimacy and trust to recover from the trauma of FGM.

You make the topic of vaginas funny in your campaigns...

I think if you can make people laugh, they’ll listen. People say, ‘But FGM isn’t funny!’ and I say, ‘FGM is very funny – it's stupid to make a woman do this?’

Because I am campaigning in public, senior government ministers ask me stupid questions like 'Can you have an orgasm?' I replied, ‘It’s not about sex, it’s about women’s rights.’

For last year’s Reclaim the Night we dressed up as vaginas, and all the people walking through Central London looked at us. No-one sees vaginas. There is shame around it! We need to change this, so the people who do the abuse feel the embarrassment and shame, not women and girls.

Do you change your message when you talk to different people?

The message is always the same. I use the same language: that FGM is violent and child abuse. It has to be an honest conversation where you stop people believing the myths; and when you’re honest about sex it can be funny.

But sometimes I change the way I protect myself – people can try to hurt you – you have to be prepared.

Can we compare male circumcision to FGM?

I don’t support any violent acts on children, but it’s not the same thing. With girls it’s the start of a life of control and abuse. I also think it’s strange that Abraham had to show he loved God by doing something to his penis.

What is the most important way to stop FGM?

It’s about giving females more power, being able to say no. My niece is three, and she’s free and has no fear. She is one of the first ones not to have FGM. It took four generations in my lifetime, in my own family, to stop it. So this is very new. Each generation moves things on.

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

She spoke to Hazel Healy.

Female Genital Mutilation


It can be more or less severe: piercing or removing the clitoris, labia, and/or sewing up the vaginal opening (infibulation).

Problems include: severe bleeding and urinary problems, infections, infertility and difficulties with childbirth.

In general, FGM is happening less. But is still common in 29 countries, mostly in Africa and in parts of Asia and the Middle East, as well as communities from these countries who have moved to the West.

125 million women have had FGM.

30 million girls could be cut in the next ten years.

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

98% of girls in Somalia have FGM, the highest % in the world.

18% of FGM is done by healthcare providers.

44% increase in labiaplasty in the US in 2013.

5,315 Senegalese communities have stopped FGM since 1997.

26 countries in Africa and the Middle East have made FGM illegal.

Sources: UNICEF, WHO, surgery.org

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/2014/07/01/female-genital-mutilation/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).