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By Emma-Louise Boynton
itting in front of a bare white backdrop in her Soho flat, wearing tortoiseshell glasses, Nimco Ali adjusts her silk floral headscarf as we begin our Zoom call.
“I was doing a recorded thing the other day for the Home Office,” she tells me, “and I thought: ‘I’m just going to put a headscarf on.’ I’m not making a political statement. It’s not even a fashion statement, it’s just the fact that my hair is an absolute mess.”
Somali-born, British-raised Ali, 38, has spent the past ten years campaigning around the world to bring an end to female genital mutilation (FGM) – something which has affected an estimated 200 million women and girls. Now, the self-proclaimed “Chief Fanny Defender” has been recruited by the Home Office as an independent government adviser on tackling violence against women and girls.
She first arrived in Britain aged four as a refugee, after her family was forced to flee the 1986 rebellion that had broken out in Somalia and would shortly erupt into civil war.
The “product of tribal war”, she has long sought to avoid left-versus-right politics, but she seems to have found her political home in the Conservative party of late, and now counts Boris Johnson amongst her staunchest allies. Since Ali accosted the then-Mayor of London in front of a Sainsburys in Putney in 2011 and told him about the scourge of FGM in the UK, he has been a keen supporter of her campaign, and she’s been a vocal champion of his in return. “I said it once in an interview and I got really chastised for it, because that’s what people do when they don’t know the man and they just know a parody of something,” she says. “But I think history will judge Boris as a compassionate leader… I do believe the prime minister is a feminist.”
'I think history will judge Boris as a compassionate leader... '
Ali’s work around FGM is rooted in personal experience. At the age of seven, while holidaying with her family in Djibouti, north-east Africa, she was subjected to female genital mutilation. When she was 11, she developed an infection as a result of her FGM and was rushed to hospital where she had to undergo deinfibulation (reconstructive surgery to open up the labia).
At that time, she had had no idea FGM was illegal, she says. “I just knew it was wrong.” And yet, she continues: “I had Labour MPs who were saying to me, when I was growing up – well, saying at me rather than to me – that we shouldn’t be witch-hunting the Somali community about FGM, when we know through data now that 40 per cent of all people with FGM in the UK are of Somali heritage.”
“So we could have saved countless girls that I grew up with from FGM, but the Labour party just didn’t care.” These aren’t blind spots, she says, but “intentional dismissals of experience”. Her growing disillusionment with the Labour party stems from what she perceives as the tokenistic way it represents people from minority-ethnic backgrounds, who she says are “hashtagged” as “things to refer to on a day-to-day basis” but never properly listened to.
“I was born into the Labour party… and then the older I got, the more actual agency I got, the more I felt like I was being problematic to them,” she says with a flicker of anger. “If I stayed quiet and ethnically looking the way I did, that was fine. The more I questioned, the more problems they had with that.”
As her profile has risen, Ali has been on the receiving end of much hostility – not least from her own community and, more recently, from Labour supporters, who she says were chiefly responsible for the torrent of vitriolic abuse she received when running for the Women’s Equality party in 2017. Although she was standing in a relatively safe Labour seat (Hornsey and Wood Green in north London) which she had virtually no chance of winning, the attacks were vicious. “They were the ones threatening my life,” she tells me. “What really bothers you, on a day-to-day basis,” she wonders of these online trolls, “about my existence as a black woman, who happens to believe in more freedoms for women that look like me, and really stands against the men in the communities that I’ve lived within?”
“Many of these liberal, white, young socialists haven’t lived under the men, under the community and the patriarchy that I’ve lived behind,” she continues.
Despite all this, as a “political animal” through and through, she remains pragmatic, willing to work with whoever is in power to help end FGM. “You don’t have to agree with them in order for progress to happen and for things to really change. I really learned that working with the Trump administration,” she laughs. "You don’t have to like everybody in order to work with them.
"I can really get riled up by somebody. But in politics, you have to suck it up sometimes and be able to push things forward for the greater good of other people… I am not dating them. I am not voting for them. But I’ve gotta work with them.”
Ali’s voice has long been a powerful one. In 2010, she and Leyla Hussein co-founded the anti-FGM non-profit Daughters of Eve, and by the next general election five years later, most of the major British parties had added an anti-FGM policy to their manifesto. Internationally, meanwhile, last year’s ban on FGM in Sudan is seen by many as a direct result of activism by The Five Foundation, a global partnership to end FGM worldwde by 2030, which Ali, its CEO, launched alongside the communications strategist Brendan Wynne in 2019. That same year, she was awarded an OBE for her campaign work.
I wonder if now, given her ever-rising profile, and the fact that the power to make the sort of changes she’s fighting for ultimately resides within Westminster, she is tempted to run for office again, in a seat she could actually win.
“The only party that would offer me a seat right now would be the Conservative party, and actually under Boris it would be an honour to serve the Conservative party,” she responds, “but at the same time I have to agree with everything that a manifesto says for me to support [it]. I don’t really believe in joining a political party and disagreeing with your leader, I think there needs to be loyalty.
“And at the same time, if I did stand for the Conservative party, I know I’d probably have some Jihadi John take a shot at me. I just don’t have the energy for that. I love my mum and niece too much in order for me to put myself at risk... it really sucks,” she says with palpable frustration.
“Politics and the House of Commons need a lot more people like me, but I think I’d probably get killed before I got into parliament… I know you only get a certain level of time in order to do things, and I want to be able to make use of the time I have. And I won’t go into politics in that sense because I know it just wouldn't end well, which is kind of sad.” She trails off, sounding momentarily defeated.
Instead, more positively, she has her role with the Home Office to pour her energy into. This position, she says, is about broadening the scope of what the government looks at when it legislates violence against women and girls – all violence, not just FGM – and ensuring that victims and survivors are at the heart of this new approach. As part of this, she is in the middle of conducting a nationwide public consultation, asking women to feed in their own personal experiences of violence and what they wish the government was doing to better protect them. “I want to hear from the young girl on the tube and getting cyber-flashed,” she says animatedly. “I want to be able to hear from the girl who is being groomed online without necessarily knowing that that’s harmful.”
The consultation will also hear from those working with victims and survivors, as well as the communities and organisations affected by these crimes. Since the Conservative party came into government with the Lib Dems in 2010, there have been two earlier versions of this strategy, introducing a range of measures to tackle gender-based crimes including FGM, stalking and so-called “honour”-based violence. But Ali is emphatic that new measures are needed to keep pace with evolving abuses being brought about by rapid technological change. “Dating apps, for example, are a new platform where a lot of harm is coming to women,” she says. “And those things are not being legislated against. How do we hold those people accountable?”
For this new strategy to be successful, Ali suggests, it needs to go beyond simply introducing new laws and criminalising certain behaviours. Critically, it needs to educate the wider public on what the law actually says when it comes to women’s rights and what is and is not socially acceptable. Part of the problem, as Ali sees it, is that some people simply aren’t aware of what is already stipulated by law, while the judicial system itself isn’t always prepared to uphold laws that already exist. Ideally, she tells me, measures for tackling violence against women need to be included as part of a wider public health strategy that can feed into the education system, the healthcare system and society more broadly.
“Women and girls,” she says, “we edit our lives and the way we live them in case we might get harmed. And I think that really has a corroding effect on your happiness and on the quality of life you lead and how beneficial you are to the country as a citizen… but violence against women is not the norm. These are learned behaviours that we can address.”
Lead image courtesy of: Nimco Ali
Fighting for change often means working with people you don’t like on a personal or political level – but pragmatic alliances can get the work done.
By Emma-Louise Boynton