Saturday October 10, 2020
Campaigner gives first major interview after being appointed as government adviser on issue
Nimco Ali says she wants to work across political, ethnic and gender lines in her role as an adviser. Photograph: Teri Pengilley/The Guardian
The UK needs a frank conversation about the fear of male violence that women live with every day, according to the government’s new adviser on violence against women and girls.
In her first major interview since her role was announced on Friday, the feminist campaigner Nimco Ali – who has been a key figure in the global fight to end female genital mutilation (FGM) – said she wanted to work across political, ethnic and gender lines.
“Violence against women has a massive social, economical and psychological impact on our country,” she said. “Democracy is about being free – and all I really want for women is to be free, not just from physical violence, but from the fear of it.”In her new role, Ali said she would bring more diverse – and marginalised – voices around the table and start some uncomfortable conversations, such as recognising that “good people can do evil things” and the impact of toxic masculinity.
“That’s something we have to talk about. [W]e raise men, we love men, let’s just actually have a real conversation about the fact that we fear them as well,” she said. While those conservations were not necessarily part of her role, as an adviser she would push for a commitment to preventing violence against women and girls and understanding perpetrators, she added.
“Perpetrators are not necessarily always born evil – it is social structure that [normalises] harmful views about women,” she said. “I think one of the things that Me Too taught me was that we really do need a reconciliation process between men and women.”
Priti Patel has recruited Ali – who has been outspoken in supporting the home secretary – as an independent adviser to help draw up a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls due in 2021.
In a statement the government said the strategy would help to better target perpetrators and support victims “and increase the government’s ability to tackle new and emerging forms of violence against women and girls such as upskirting and revenge porn”.
Ali was brought up supporting Labour but stood as a Women’s Equality party candidate in 2017. In recent years she has become a close friend of Boris Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, campaigned for the Conservatives and been outspoken in her support of the prime minister.
On the matter of whether she can be seen as truly independent, she said: “I don’t want to be given dictation by CCHQ or No 10. It’s about working with the home secretary and she can take my advice or leave it,” said the 37-year-old, adding that she had been heartened by the support of leftwing feminists since her role was announced. “Ultimately it doesn’t matter who you vote for, who I vote for, I really care about women, I really care about girls.”
She added: “For almost 20 years I lived with the secret of FGM, so I know how much it eats you up to not really say what you think.”
Ali, who came to Britain as a four-year-old refugee from Somalia, was subjected to FGM at the age of seven. In 2010 she co-founded the non-profit Daughters of Eve with Leyla Hussein before founding the Five Foundation, a global campaign to end FGM. She received an OBE in recognition of her work in 2019.
The campaign to end FGM would remain at the heart of her work but she called for societal recognition that it was part of a wider picture of gender-based abuse. “FGM is not dissimilar to rape, it is not dissimilar to domestic violence. We have to make this kind of connection,” she said.
The Guardian understands Ali will work two days a month at £350 a day and will not have a team working with her. Asked how much she could expect to achieve, Ali said she was not there to “take over the Home Office” and devise an entirely new strategy, but to advise, adding: “Everything starts with a ripple.”
“Who knew when I said 10 years ago that FGM was violence against women and girls that we would be in the place that we are now,” she said. “And today if I say what we really need to do is to deal with a crippling fear of violence that women have, I think that that conversation can be started. And if it’s started at the top of government, then we will listen.”