Today, activist and anti-FGM campaigner Nimco Ali OBE has been announced as an independent advisor to the government on their updated Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, which is being overseen by the Home Office and Priti Patel. Deborah Joseph speaks to them both about what this means in reality for victims of domestic violence, stalking, rape, FGM, honour killings, online bullying and more – and whether Nimco’s role as rumoured godmother to Boris and Carrie’s baby will hinder her ability to truly hold the government to account.
Nimco Ali, 37, has spent almost half of her adult life fighting for the victims of FGM (female genital mutilation). Her aim is to eradicate it completely. Aged seven, living in Manchester at the time, she was taken to Djibouti in Africa on a ‘holiday’. There she was held down at home by the ‘cutter’ who swore at her and called her a “brat” throughout, a word she still struggles with today. “She removed the hood of my clitoris,” she says, her voice wavering. “And then pulled the skin over and sewed me up, leaving only a small hole for me to pee through. I had to wee every hour to make sure the hole didn’t close over and then had to wash myself with Dettol for weeks afterwards. It was excruciating and almost led to me to die from kidney poisoning. It was the end of my innocence.”
She is still visibly shaken from the experience, but has turned her pain and lived experience into a determination that no other girl “should suffer the way I was made to suffer”. The statistics around this 4,000-year-old custom are horrifying: there are 137,000 women living with FGM in the UK alone today. There are no official stats on how many were cut before they arrived in the UK, or were taken abroad as Nimco was. But because of her campaigning, all doctors now have to report FGM. She travels the world trying to educate people. “There are still countries such as Tanzania that tell us, you can’t stop FGM because, “We need the clitorises to use as fish bait and if we don’t have them, we won’t be able to eat.”
She’s now stepping up her work having been announced today as an independent advisor to the government on their new strategy around protecting women and girls from all forms of violence. “We need a new approach to combating violence against women and girls,” Home Secretary Priti Patel tells me on Zoom, the day after I speak to Nimco. “We need to speak to a younger generation and wider communities. Nimco’s track record speaks volumes. Her work on FGM has made it so much more mainstream. She is a recognised campaigner and advocate. She will give people courage to speak out. We need specialists who understand this sector and can advocate actual change. We need to bring justice for victims and make sure they’re treated with respect. We’re not there yet and have a long way to go.”
Nimco is clear on her goals in the new role. “I want to change the law. And in order to do that I need to work with those in power who have the ability to make things happen, quickly.” She has spent almost her whole adult life working to this moment – campaigning, networking, initially wanting to be a lawyer, but working for a while as a civil servant, and a stint at AOL to fund her campaigning. It seems to me she has literally spent years approaching anyone in power she meets to ask for their help. But she appears to have landed firmly on the side of the Conservatives, now counting Boris Johnson – and his fiancée Carrie Symonds – as her personal friends.
“I first met Boris Johnson randomly when he was campaigning to be Mayor,” she says. “He was walking down Putney high street, near where my ex boyfriend lived, handing out [campaign] leaflets. I went up to him and said, ‘Will you help me eradicate FGM?’ He agreed to help.” She has been loyal to him ever since, calling him a “true feminist”.
Does she worry that the personal relationships – rumours that she is godmother to their baby Wilfred – risks undermining all her great work to date? “Look, I get hate from all sides, especially on Twitter for my personal support of Boris,” she says. “Most of the time, I just mute the comments. I am not a linear person. I am multi-layered, but people want me to just be one thing.”
She seems frustrated – maybe naively – that these high-profile personal relationships could potentially affect the view of her work. “I like Boris. I like Carrie – she’s also an activist. She’s also fun. In my personal experience, he – and the Conservative MPs and the coalition government who were in power when I first started campaigning – were much more open in the past to supporting my FGM work. I wrote to Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor, he ignored me. I tried to speak to Sadiq Khan and found him unfriendly. I spoke to and worked with Labour feminists, such as Jess Phillips, Sarah Champion, Stella Creasy, Harriet Harman – all incredible women, but they didn’t give me as much support as the Conservatives. Labour can’t deal with me as a woman of colour because I don’t behave like a victim. I think I’m not welcome within the Labour Party. I’ve been blocked on Twitter by so many Labour frontbenchers.”
Meanwhile, Nimco says she has “never found a Conservative MP who has looked at me as a victim or like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” There is the now infamous story where she approached Jeremy Hunt and asked him to help her fight FGM. His response: “Can girls like you [who’ve had it] still orgasm?” In reality, “Orgasm isn’t always a problem for women with FGM.” She wasn’t offended. She told him: “Well, it depends how good you are [in bed], Jeremy.” Nimco says, “Yes, he was clumsy in his questioning, but he later told me his own wife calls him ‘the Mr Bean of politics.’” I was just happy he was willing to engage in the conversation. He asked me what he could do to help. I think there’s a lot of humanity in admitting you’ve been an idiot. He does actually care.”
“The reality is,” she continues, “I don’t have the privilege of waiting for the most idealistic person to be in charge, someone whose policies I 100% agree with. There are girls dying. I would work with whoever was in power to affect change. If Keir Starmer was PM, I’d beg him to work with me. I like him.”
Nimco was historically a Labour supporter. Then she ran as a candidate for the Women’s Equality Party in the London constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green. “But the Conservatives have been in power since I started campaigning 10 years ago.” She is keen to remind me that violence towards women is not a party-specific issue.
And no, she insists she’s not “afraid to hold anyone – including Boris and Priti – accountable.” Nimco says, “Yes, we’ve had FGM added to the Children’s Act, but not enough has changed in the past seven years in terms of prosecuting people. I’m going to make sure I change that now.” She’ll be working closely with Priti: “You know, I had misconceptions about her before I met her, too, from things I had read. But she genuinely cares about women’s causes, about FGM.”
So what does Priti hope to achieve with her new tackling violence against women and girls strategy that wasn’t achieved by the old strategy?
“One area that I’m focused on as an MP, not just as a Minister, is on the victims. I feel strongly about this. I chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group around defining crime. Defining crime right now needs to be more uniform. We’re not there yet.” In what way? “What’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to [abuse towards women] is black and white – there should be no differentials in how this is interpreted. Nimco and I have both found that in some communities, some behaviours towards women are more acceptable than in others, and actually, this isn’t acceptable. “
Nimco is more specific: “Honour killings are given a different name. Why? This is just the murder of women and girls. Why is there a cultural sensitivity put around this? Murder is murder.”
I ask Priti how she’d respond to her critics, who may claim she hasn’t historically voted in favour of women’s rights and may question her authenticity on this subject now: after all, she voted against the legalisation of same sex marriage in 2013 and didn’t vote on whether to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland in 2019. “I’ve nearly spent 10 years working and supporting victims. I always believe in the rights of individuals to share their lived experiences and to be respected.” Would she vote in favour of gay marriage now? “Yes, absolutely.” At the time, I’m told, she didn’t vote for it because she had technical issues with the way it was drafted – in her opinion, it didn’t offer full equality with heterosexual couples that she thought it should. She didn’t vote on the abortion law because she wasn’t present that day in the House of Commons.
“People’s perceptions of me are what they are,” she acquiesces. “But, quite frankly, people are against people like me making a difference because I don’t conform to various stereotypes of what an Asian politician or an Asian woman should stand for in politics. And I get that constantly, look at the left, the Labour Party, and the left media as well. They are full of that nonsense. They don’t know me and they write the biggest amount of bullishit about me that I’ve ever heard. I think that’s unacceptable.”
“I will use my time as I have in other roles that I’ve had. I did so much work on FGM in DFID [Department for International Development], in African countries and in India, to prevent violence against children, women and girls. Of course, it’s all too convenient for the left to block that out, isn’t it? Because they want to get a perception of me across. That’s fine.” Though she was memorably forced to resign from her role as the Secretary of State for the Department for International Development (now the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office), following revelations of unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials. She is defiant. “I won’t be defined by my left wing critics.”
So does she consider herself a feminist, I wonder, and if so, what does it mean to her? “To me, feminism means empowerment. I’ve always believed in the freedom to succeed. It’s taken me to come into politics and to hold office… I worked in the private sector before (she previously worked at public relations consultancy firm Weber Shandwick and made it to chief exec and chairman at board level at large companies), where I have never encountered the types of barriers and attitudes that I’ve experienced in political life.”
Her personal experiences have shown her “the need to do much more to speak about empowerment: giving support to women and girls to give them courage and conviction.” Yes, but does she actually call herself a feminist, though? “I would call myself a feminist,” she says. “But in my own definition of rights and responsibility. And a conviction of how to help and support others.” And Nimco, self-named ‘Chief Fanny-Defender’? How would she define feminism? “It means the fight for equality and the fight for justice. Not wanting to take over, but just for us to have the same opportunities as men. Young girls are so brave and sassy when they’re young, and we beat it out of them because we’re scared of a woman with a voice. And when you’re a woman of colour that becomes even worse. It’s exhausting how much harder you have to work because you’re a woman and because you’re a woman of colour.”
Does Priti agree? She famously stood in Parliament in June this year and shared her experiences of racism growing up in response to her critics who had accused her of gaslighting and not understanding victims of racism. Does she still think the extra judgement around her is greater because of her colour? Like when The Guardian once depicted her as a cow with a ring through its nose. “Absolutely. I still constantly get asked, ‘Where are you from?’ Right down to the pokiness of, ‘What village is your family from in Gujarat?’ Why does that make a bloody difference? Whose business is that? I’ve found it worse in Parliament, which is a terrible reflection of partisan politics. My party is one of the most open political parties – it’s gone through such a journey I would argue, over the past 20 years, in terms of reflecting modern society. But the left want to continue to pigeonhole and stereotype me because they see me as an ethnic woman, rather than as a British woman born and brought up in the UK.”
And yet, here they are, two women, who identify as feminists, women of colour – running and shaping the Conservative government’s strategy on violence against women. Priti admits she’s seen first-hand some of the issues around women and domestic violence. “One of my good friends was in a physically abusive relationship,” she tells me. “And I’ve seen friend’s children being bullied online, trolled, and the terrible effect that has on them (Priti herself has a 12-year-old son). I want the social media platforms to be held accountable for the content they serve.”
What does Priti hope her legacy will be? “Reducing the numbers of harm to women and girls. Full stop. I want to make sure the perpetrators of domestic ab use feel the full force of justice. We need to see help and support for the victims but also when men are violent to women, put them into prison.”
“But ultimately,” she concedes. “If my work makes a positive difference to even one person’s life, then that’s a good thing.”