The writer, ex-Muslim, polemicist and former Dutch MP Aayan Hirsi Ali is talking about why no one has been prosecuted in the UK for the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) — despite its illegality for almost 30 years.
“It was done to me at the age of five, and 10 years later, even 20 years later, I would not have testified against my parents,” she states. “It is a psychological issue. The people who are doing this are fathers, mothers, grandmothers, aunts. No little girl is going to send them to prison. How do you live with that guilt?”
Hirsi Ali has a formidable reputation. Exiled many times over, she is still the subject of an Islamic fatwa, or death edict, as a result of writing the globally controversial Dutch film Submission, whose director Theo van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic militant on an Amsterdam street in 2004. The note pinned to his chest with a knife said Hirsi Ali was next.
She has since won a hatful of European awards for promoting freedom of speech; spoken vehemently and divisively against multiculturalism, and confirmed an apparently Right-of-Centre political identity by marrying Leftie-baiting British historian Niall Ferguson, author of Civilisation and The Ascent of Money. Her svelte beauty is often noted.
Today, at 43, she lives in the US with Ferguson, whom she married in 2011, and their one-year-old son Thomas. But motherhood and a new tenure at Harvard have in no way diminished her desire to provoke. Hirsi Ali backs wholeheartedly the Standard’s campaign against FGM, and the recent pledge of £35 million by the Government to “eradicate the problem within a generation” — but says awareness-raising and throwing money at the issue is not enough.
“The UK is something of an example to the rest of Europe at the moment,” she says. “It is leading on the issue of forced marriages right now, for instance, in terms of legislation and also enforcement. There are some good things. Maybe in the Anglo-Saxon world you sleep for a long time and then wake up and decide to really act, whereas on the Continent they just love to talk about it.
“But the issue with FGM cannot be solved by condemning it — everyone knows it is horrifying, a man-made epidemic and happening right under our noses. What is needed is a mechanism to detect FGM, and that is very, very controversial.”
Last week, the Standard reported that almost 66,000 women and girls living in the UK had suffered some form of genital cutting, often carried out by untrained family members with knives or razor blades, with a further 30,000 thought to be at risk. Freedom of Information requests revealed that more than 2,100 women had visited hospitals or clinics in London as a result of genital mutilation since 2006, and that more than 700 needed further treatment or surgery. A growing problem, FGM is often carried out on UK-born girls at about the age of five or six, though some are younger; and often happens during school holidays on visits to extended family in African countries where the practice is routine — most commonly, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Gambia, Nigeria, Eritrea and Sudan.
Hirsi Ali believes the only way to stop FGM is to check at-risk girls. An annual visual examination (“there is no need to touch”) by a female paediatrician or nurse would remove from school-age children the burden of telling a teacher or friend. Such a scheme, she claims, would “take the debate to the next level”.
“A detection mechanism like this would be the biggest deterrent because when the family says ‘Our little girl Fatima or Samira is now five or six, and shouldn’t we have her done?’ they will know that they can’t because in September every year, just as the school holidays end, she will be checked.
“You then need one or two prosecutions to set an example. It is the only model I can think of that will work. As long as there is no systematic control, there is no deterrence.”
But of course such an idea will provoke howls of protest. Surely it’s a gross invasion of the girls’ privacy; victimisation of families and communities; a presumption by the state of guilt rather than innocence; humiliating and unenforceable?
Hirsi Ali says she has heard all this before. “And we have to answer to our consciences. What is worse, the cutting itself or the method of detection? The debate has to happen. MPs and the British public have to be given a choice between two options — do nothing and let them be cut and live with it or have a detection system in place that stops it.
“Education campaigns do not work. Just talking to the mothers and grandmothers about why the practice is harmful is not convincing. They just tell their daughters to grit their teeth … The core of the problem for them is, who is going to marry my daughter if I cannot verify she is a virgin?”
Later Hirsi Ali says FGM is a symptom of the “whole virginity obsession” within largely but not exclusively Muslim communities abroad, and sometimes here. Forced marriage, honour killings and child brides are similar horrors related to a “purity” required in women but not men. “Actually it should be a man’s campaign. Why do they need a virgin? Why do they need a woman whose genitals have been demolished? Is that the only way to express their manhood?”
Hirsi Ali’s past life, her very identity, are themselves matters of some dispute. Born in Somalia, the daughter of a leading figure in the Somalian revolution of the late Eighties, she fled the prospect of an arranged marriage to a man in Canada and instead sought asylum in Holland in 1992. There, she says: “I remember being processed and sent to a clinic because I was a refugee from a certain area, and being X-rayed to check for tuberculosis.”
She became an interpreter for social services, took a degree in political science and rose through the ranks of the Dutch political system; within 12 years of arriving in Europe, she was an MP in the Dutch parliament. Yet two years after Submission and the fatwa, amid questions over her original asylum application, she left Holland for a job at a Right-wing think-tank in Washington. She has since published two memoirs containing fierce criticism of Islam; a New York Times review of the second, Nomad, accused her of “feeding religious bigotry”.
Today Hirsi Ali refuses to talk about her relationship with Ferguson, who has three children with his former wife, British newspaper executive Sue Douglas — other than to say: “It’s fun. We always have fun. We wouldn’t be together if we didn’t.” Press speculation about the couple at the time of their getting together has left a bitter taste, you sense. The 24-hour security she still needs is reportedly paid for in the US by private donors — but must clearly have an effect on the spontaneity of family life.
She had her first child at 41 but says motherhood hasn’t changed the nature of her feminism at all. “The wonderful thing is to enjoy being a mother at this age. I don’t know whether I’d have enjoyed it so much had I been younger. As an older mother you are so much more aware that actually you chose to do this, and in the culture where I come from, it wouldn’t have been a choice but a fact, presented to me, when I was much younger.” Which betrays her non-Western origins more than anything, I think.
“If you’re a [Somali] girl growing up in London, you post your image on Facebook, you have friends and you talk about books and music, you are literally leading the life of the average British girl,” she continues. “And then you become a teenager and your sexuality starts to matter — and you start to become very, very conflicted. Because on the one hand you are aware of yourself as a sexual being, and of television and movies which talk about it in a Western way but on the other you think of yourself as this person who’s had something beautiful and essential taken away from you.”
The physical pain is one thing — but the psychological torment of living with FGM, says Hirsi Ali, speaking from experience, is also ruining the lives of so many girls in London.
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In 2004 Ayaan gained international attention following the murder of Theo van Gogh. Van Gogh had directed her short film Submission, a film about the oppression of women under Islam. The assassin left a death threat for her pinned to Van Gogh's chest. This tragic event, and Ayaan’s life leading up to it, are all chronicled in her best-selling book, Infidel. She is also the author of Caged Virgin, Nomad and most recently another bestseller Heretic: Why Islam Needs Reformation Now.