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OPINION - It is disgraceful that we still attack brave women who share their stories of abuse

Nimco Ali  (Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd)
Nimco Ali (Daniel Hambury/@stellapicsltd)

The shocking reports about Russell Brand have left my jaw on the floor — because I can’t believe the way in which we are treating his accusers. Brand denies the allegations made against him and insists all his relationships have been consensual, but the women who have bravely stepped forward have had their integrity questioned. I know all too well why this shouldn’t happen. Close to 200,000 women wrote to the Home Office during our consultation on the violence against women and girls strategy. For most it was the first time they had told anyone what had happened to them.

I knew that around this country and the world, women and girls are silently carrying experience of sexual violence. But I had no idea until I took up my role at the Home Office how deep the crisis went. Nor did I realise how the subsequent portrayal of people brave enough to go to the media enables this deafening silence. During the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s murder, I remember telling a journalist about a personal experience I had because I felt like I needed to share my story. Countless women were brave enough to share theirs with me and had done so in the hope of changing how we deal with violence against women and girls. I felt I should do the same.

As I told my story I remember saying I don’t want this to be published, I kept saying that over and over again — not because I was ashamed to share the story but I was scared of the world’s reaction. It was the same when I first spoke about my FGM.

Nearly 200,000 women wrote in about themselves to a Home Office consultation concerning sexual violence

I was vilified and to this day men in my community seem to think that my fight against it is about shaming them. In fact it is about justice for the millions of women we let down and to protect the next generation of girls from FGM.

I still get chills when I recall seeing my face on the front of a national newspaper under the headline, “We need to do more on honour crimes”. Firstly there is nothing “honourable” about FGM. The use of the word was disgusting and secondly, I was never told my face would be near the story about FGM stats I had worked on in 2014.

But there I was on TV where they were showing the next day’s newspapers. The conversation that led to that front page was similar to the one I was having with the journalist in my home.

It was one where I was sharing a story because I wanted to give voice to women and girls and did not want them to feel alone. Yet my story also reached people who did not believe it nor how FGM almost killed me when I was seven and then 11. These people are like those currently questioning women who have shared their story of sexual abuse and grooming. They know these women have the right to speak and are doing the right thing in sharing their stories, but they also fear that with women telling their stories, we will lose the shame that stops us from talking about our experiences. They fear the floodgates will open, meaning that women across this country will start speaking up just like many did when they wrote to the Home Office.

I am not ready to share my story but I am grateful to those who last week came forward and told theirs.

We all know someone who was sexually assaulted or we are the one ourselves and the stories we all carry around are valid. They ought to be taken seriously by people who believe that perpetrators even when in plain sight should be able to get away with things because they are famous, funny or powerful men.

Thank you to those who share their stories and to those not ready, you are not alone.

Men in a huddle: NFL is still a mystery to me

NFL, aka American football, is coming back to London, but why? Next month the American game — which is more like rugby but called football — will once more take over stadiums in London and oddly it is set to be a sell-out. I say oddly because I am not sure how many people in London understand the game let alone enjoy it. I have an American friend who will sit there for hours on a Sunday during their “football” season and just watch this odd game of men in a huddle.

That’s my summing up of NFL, which I have only really ever seen when I tune in for the (always amazing) half-time show at the Super Bowl. I do hope those who have bought tickets to the games in London, which will feature players like Bud Dupree of the Atlanta Falcons, have fun.

Perhaps they can explain to the rest of us what the hell it’s all about?

Nimco Ali is a columnist