For years Maimuna explored ways to avoid FGM, without speaking openly about her views. She sought out other doubters, encouraged education for the young hoping this could lead to girls being more questioning, and encouraging the young women to be bold and active for their rights over issues in the village. She lead a strike of the women when the water was cut off for a month, bringing together her generation of women to stand up for themselves. However, once her mother died prematurely of cancer, Maimuna's long long-term plans to discourage FGM by developing a level of critical questioning were not going work quick enough. Having attempted to delay, Maimuna was eventually called in to meet an elder who described clearly her punishment if she did not take up her foremothers' role: to be severely beaten publicly until she gave in. The elders view is that once she'd cut once she would continue.
The only way that Maimuna could stop herself from being forced to take up her foremothers' role as practitioner was to leave the Gambia, so she fled to Britain. She knew nothing about asylum, and was just desperate to get out before she could be stopped or a date set for the next circumcision (which was done with large groups of young women around every two years). In the UK she went into hiding, in particular fearing fellow Gambians. She did not trust anyone, including her family in the UK, as she didn't know their views on FGM (no one talks about it), and didn't know if they would tell her to go back. She went homeless and lived as a ghost until a kind woman she met in a Mosque offered for her to stay with her family. Maimuna built up trust with the family, and eventually told her story, they encouraged and supported her and told her about asylum.
The British Government's Hypocrisy on FGM and the rights of women
FGM is a practice that kills many women and causes life-long pain and damage to others. While Maimuna is gone, the village elders have no one trained to do FGM, and a long list of girls are being saved from the torture of being blindfolded, and with no anesthetic, have their gentalia cut away.
Lynne Featherstone, government equalities minister, speaking about FGM in July 2012 stated:
'Female Genital Mutilation is an abhorrent crime and we are very clear that those found to practice it should feel the full force of the law. As a government, we are also working with UK and international agencies to help prevent women and girls being subjected to this horrific practice.'
According to the Home Office: "In the UK, it is estimated that up to 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of female genital mutilation." Yet Maimuna - a would-be practitioner who is preventing FGM by refusing to do it - has been denied asylum and could soon be sent by the UK back to carry out this 'abhorrent crime' and put more lives at risk.
Maimuna has done more to prevent FGM in the most effective way possible than all the Government's words and UN declarations. By her action she has strengthened all women who do not want FGM for themselves or their daughters. Her effort is making an immediate difference - but the UKBA's actions are undermining Maimuna and all women's organisations fighting the violence women suffer.
When Maimuna went to the UKBA in January 2012 to seek asylum, and told them of the torture she was expected to do back home, they immediately detained her (January 2012). They rushed her case on 'Fast Track', in a constant state of vulnerability with no knowledge or realistic chance of gathering evidence, and no language interpreter to help her tell her story. They did not treat her as the victim of torture that women who have had FGM are. There was no serious attention to the truth about FGM, how it is done, how the role of practitioner is passed down, or why FGM has such a hold on the society in which it is carried out. No medical report was shown, no witness heard with knowledge of FGM in The Gambia, apart from Maimuna herself who they derided. The Judge at appeal found time to refer to the clothes Maimuna wore in her passport photo and that she cried during her hearing as evidence against her, while rubbishing an official letter of threat sent to Maimuna by the village elders demanding Maimuna return quickly. Her claim was derided and dismissed within a month (Feb 2012).
"If I had any doubt about the fact that she is educated and reasonably sophisticated her style of dress and headgear resolves those doubts against her". Judge Warren Grant in the decision against Maimouna
In The Gambia the elders - the drivers of FGM - are far more serious about protecting and continuing the practice of FGM in a changing world than any of the officials who dealt with Maimuna are about stopping the practice. For them to be able to convince women who experienced the torture themselves to keep bringing their daughters forward, they must provide a practitioner who belongs and is accountable to the village and tribe, has trained for many years, and is trusted by the mothers. Anything less would provide a reason for mums to refuse FGM; mothers could say 'no' to the practitioner without invoking the same problems they would face saying 'no' to the practice. Losing the confidence of the mothers in their practitioner endangers the practice itself.
Maimuna is committed to keeping up the fight. She is now putting new evidence forward, and is speaking out openly about the reality of FGM, the dangers, and of the appalling 'asylum' process here. Being in detention she started to find other Gambian women who were against FGM, and for the first time she started to become confident that she is not alone in her views - that FGM is torture. Maimuna joined Movement for Justice, and has helped other women in Yarl's Wood detention centre who face terrible futures back home; these women stand at the cutting edge of the fight for women's rights and asylum rights in Britain.
Maimuna knows that if she can win protection, other women like her who are destined by tradition to be FGM practitioners but don't want to cut, will see they are not alone, and there is a possibility of escape. She is working to stop the torture of FGM. By leaving The Gambia Maimuna has already prevented FGM being carried out on a whole list of girls in her village. Those who don't want it have the time and space to breathe and find a way to avoid it.
Maimuna's absence is a problem that the elders have tried to solve through threats, and harassment of her family. Her sister's house was set on fire. If sent back to the Gambia Maimuna would have to face the elders, and no police or state body would protect a defiant woman who has gone against her elders - they wouldn't be prepared to undermine the system. The elders are the source of authority in the villages and tribes, they settle the disputes, they are the law, and if they cannot force Maimuna to give in, they could kill her.
Join Maimuna and make her fight your fight. If you know about FGM and the Gambia, and you want to help stop the violence against women and girls, get in touch today.
Invite Maimuna to speak at your college or school, or to interview for your newspaper, student paper, magazine or radio. Maimuna was raised an expert on FGM, and can speak the plain truth to those in danger of being cut.
Pass a motion of support and action in your union, student union, women's society... Whatever you can do to support this fight. And make sure you attend the Movement for Justice Public Hearing - The UKBA On Trial in early March where Maimuna will be a witness. Join MFJ in building a movement that unites us - citizens and non citizens, oppressed, poor, working class and middle class, and make women's equality a reality.