Dear Lords, Ladies and gentlemen – I’ve always wanted to say that. Oh! And young people. Thank you for being here and thank you for supporting us with what we’re doing. You don’t understand how weird it is to be standing here as a MAN – yes, not a boy, a man, from my community, talking about Female Genital Mutilation. Believe me, Somali men never talk about women’s bits, even amongst themselves. And perhaps that’s the problem. Too many people have been quiet for too long. But the point is IF FGM is to stop, and it HAS to stop, then everybody, regardless of gender or race, has to take a stand. I stand here as a brother, a cousin, a son, and a future father… hopefully. I also stand here as a friend and a human being.
Bristol, July 2012. The opening of the first National Conference on Female Genital Mutilation. The person speaking was a skinny fourteen year old boy. I’d heard him practise, at an after school session in a hot classroom, during the previous week. He had never spoken in public before and couldn’t get to the end of his introduction without breaking into nervous giggles. But now, facing a huge hall full of students, FGM survivors, journalists, programme makers, international experts, MPs (well, one MP – the heroic Jane Ellison), he spoke with passion and confidence. It was the audience who laughed nervously when he mentioned “women’s bits”, but as he got into his stride, we held our breath. We all knew that we were witnessing something extraordinary – the powerful voice of a young person set on changing the world, and he wasn’t alone.
The 2012 conference was organized by a group of young people calling themselves Integrate Bristol. I was there to research a novel, and to run a writing workshop with Sasha Hails who was writing a story about FGM for Casualty. At this point I wasn’t very clear what shape the book would take, but I knew one thing – the young people of Integrate Bristol were my starting point.
After finishing my first novel, Chocolate Cake with Hitler, in 2009, I found it very difficult to decide what to write about next. I’d written big chunks of three different possible books, and then abandoned them. One day my editor emailed me with a suggestion for a novel that had come to her from a teenage girl. The idea was for a book told through the voices of a number of girls who came from different religious backgrounds. It didn’t particularly grab me but because I’d been dithering for so long, I decided to give it one day’s research.
And one day turned out to be enough. I came across Integrate Bristol. I’d found my inspiration.
In May 2012 I started visiting Integrate Students at City Academy Bristol, the school where they have their headquarters. I went to all kinds of campaigning events. I watched their films, plays, lesson plan demonstrations and listened to fabulous songs which they had written and performed in their determined fight against FGM, but more widely against all kinds of violence against women and girls.
In the final months of writing the book, I read chunks of it to kind and patient girls who stayed after school to answer all sorts of questions about learning the Qur’an, making Somali tea and, in some cases, memories of life before they came to England. There are many amazing young people in Bristol’s Somali community. They are bridging different cultures: questioning and respecting the traditions of their parents and grandparents whilst questioning and respecting the challenges of contemporary British culture. Their thinking is nuanced and their campaigning is effective.
The students of Integrate Bristol have achieved a huge amount in terms of getting the abuse of FGM into public consciousness. Some of them have been on Newsnight, lobbied Michael Gove in person, met Ban Ki-Moon and shared a stage with Malala. But the novel that finally emerged, What Was Never Said, is not, in itself, a campaigning novel. It’s the story of a young girl growing up and overcoming adversity. It does not tell the story of any of the students I met, but rather it imagines the situation of a girl who doesn’t have the support of their campaign. And there are many. UNICEF estimates that 133 million women have undergone FGM worldwide. In Britain, mandatory recording of FGM cases started on 1 September 2014, since when the NSPCC has recorded more than 1700 survivors have been referred to specialist clinics.
As the 14 year old boy said, “IF FGM is to stop, and it HAS to stop, then everybody, regardless of gender or race, has to take a stand”.
What Was Never Said is out in the Guardian bookshop now.