Nimko Ali: ‘Orgasms and sexual pleasure are a human right. I guard these things with my life’

There is a Somali phrase, says Nimko Ali, that sums up the paradox of her status both as a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM) and an activist seeking to eradicate it. “‘Bilaa xishood’. It means ‘Do you have no shame?’ Since the age of seven, when I started talking about my vagina after FGM, I was told that I should be ashamed. But I wouldn’t have been talking about these things if FGM hadn’t happened to me. FGM was the patriarchy’s way of trying to break me and keep me silent, but it made me the loudest person in the room.”

As the co-founder of the charity Daughters of Eve and, latterly, The Five Foundation, 36-year-old Ali has devoted herself to campaigning against FGM and gender inequality for nearly 10 years. Her aim is to end FGM by 2030. It is a practice that, according to the World Health Organisation, has affected 200 million women and girls alive today. This goal is ambitious, she says, but achievable. When we meet over coffee in Soho, central London, she has just come from a photo call at Lancaster House for the recipients of the Queen’s birthday honours, in which she has been awarded an OBE. As Ali told the gathered press, her mother would be “both proud and embarrassed … The idea that I got my award for talking about my vagina is not something that is celebrated in my community.”

Her mother may be similarly uneasy about Ali’s first book What We’re Told Not to Talk About (But We’re Going to Anyway), a series of intimate, illuminating and often devastating conversations with women on the subjects of sex, masturbation, periods, pregnancy, the menopause and more. It was initially called Rude, but Ali worried that that would suggest the contents were somehow shocking or indecent. These are conversations, she says, that take place in quiet corners between women but are rarely aired publicly due to fear of judgment. “It’s not shameful or rude,” she says. “It’s just doing what we’ve always been told not to do.”

Ali spoke to 152 women across 14 countries in the course of her research; many she encountered through her campaigning. It wasn’t hard to get them to open up since, she says, “every woman I’ve ever met has a story to tell”. In the end, 42 made it into the book, all of whom appear under pseudonyms. We meet Becky, who is homeless and whose biggest challenge lies in dealing with her periods. Male rough sleepers, she says, “don’t know the fear of finally having enough money to buy something to eat but worrying about dripping blood on the floor while you wait in line for a bag of chips”. We are introduced to Ayaan, who suffered extreme tearing during childbirth which led to a fistula, causing her family to shun her, and Amina, who struggles to face up to the realities of menopause: “I’ve seen friends crumple at a cancer diagnosis,” says Amina, “not just because they had a serious illness, it’s more seeing their health and life just disappear in front of them. That’s what I felt. My future was gone in a puff of hormones.”

I ask her which subject women found most difficult to discuss? “Sexual pleasure, definitely,” Ali replies. “Women don’t think they have the right to be happy, sexually. Especially empowered women, actually. I think orgasms and sexual pleasure are a human right. I guard these things with my life, though I have learned to become more diplomatic and nicer [to partners], and realise that men have emotions too.”

In the book’s introduction, Ali reveals her dislike of the C-word as a pejorative. “I want to reclaim it,” she tells me. “Cunts are deep and warm and incredibly magical places where humanity came from, and into which men are trying to return. They want to be hugged by it. But because they’re not always intelligent enough to express that, they want to take it by force. And when you take it by force, it becomes less warm and less hospitable.”