FGM and the fallacy of symbolism
Sarah Sands is the editor of the London Evening Standard, and this article by her appeared in yesterday’s edition. She has previously been deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, edited the Sunday Telegraph, taking over from Dominic Lawson in 2005 (though she was sacked after eight months) and has also been a consultant editor at the Daily Mail and editor-in-chief of the UK Reader’s Digest. This article by her appeared in yesterday’s edition, and contains an awful lot of tenuous links and sloppy reasoning based on connecting things that offend her “liberal” values and arguing that opposing one will somehow weaken the other.
She starts off by referring to some rapper from Senegal called Sister Fa (right), whose website says she has recently been on some kind of tour to educate people about women’s and children’s rights, including eliminating FGM, in Guinea and Senegal. Sister Fa recently performed at the Evening Standard’s “Power 1000 party”, which Sands called “a gathering of London’s most influential people”. According to the paper, at this event Prince George — son of Wills and Kate, who was born only weeks ago — was “crowned the most influential person in London … because he has become the capital’s biggest global ambassador”. The previous holder of this position was the mayor, Boris Johnson, so it’s not meant to be an honourarary position. Ms Fa may have wowed this gathering, but her website indicates that she has encountered some hostility while delivering her message in Senegal, on one occasion from “thirty fanatics, all young” sent by the khalif (a local traditional leader) who was opposed to any restriction on FGM. Pictures from the event show her wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, very much out of keeping with what other women in the room were wearing, which also had a “Thug Life” slogan and a skull on it. It is really no surprise that she was not well-received in a rural area of a Muslim country.
Sister Fa argues, and I agree with her, that we must intervene because “cutting” is the start of everything. It is the moment a girl’s future is made clear to her. Her own aspirations and desires are deemed insignificant and shameful. The lifelong pain will be a reminder of this.
If women’s sexual dignity and consent is of no consequence, rape and violence are easier to justify. Forced marriage is nodded through. A schoolgirl in London, say, of Somali descent, may have the same books, enjoy the same music, as her classmates but once the “cutting” season starts, she is forever held apart.
All of this is complete nonsense. It is simply a list of a whole lot of the worst stereotypes of Muslim immigrant societies. The ones that are notorious for forced marriage are mostly not the ones from countries where FGM is prevalent. FGM is meant to make sex more difficult, particularly before marriage, so it certainly does not “make rape … easier to justify”. It is not at the moment of cutting that “a girl’s future is made clear to her”; her likely future, as a wife and mother and possibly a farmer, labourer or trader of some sort in her community or one a lot like it, would have been clear to her well before that (she may well already be aware of other opportunities for her adult life if she is growing up in the West, or even perhaps in other places). She might not actually experience “lifelong pain”; this happens to some girls who have experienced FGM but not all. She will not be “forever held apart” from other girls after “the cutting season”; she will go back to school and quite possibly university like everyone else. You can find Somali girls at any London university (there are plenty here in Kingston) and probably quite a few have experienced FGM (but many, in fact, have not).
What these countries need is answering leadership from the West. If we turn a blind eye to it, in the middle of modern cities, what hope for remote villagers in parts of Africa? Sister Fa’s message is that we have to believe in and state and re-state liberal values because they can never be taken for granted. There is no end of liberal history. Fundamentalism returns, as it is trying to do in Nairobi with the latest terror attack.
This necessarily assumes that African villagers, or any Africans, look to the West for moral leadership. They do not all care what westerners do; their memory of westerners is often of brutal exploitation and repression and they regard us now as sexually licentious and immoral (if they live near a beach this is more likely to be their view). In Muslim regions, it is better to educate the population that it in fact does not have Islamic justification, and that there is a whole Muslim world out there and most of the women have not been cut. This may well be why the practice has declined in Somalia, which has close links to both the West and the Arab world because of both proximity to the latter, and to mass emigration since the 1990s.
When the Muslim Brotherhood was in power in Egypt instances of female genital mutilation immediately rose. The FGM index is one way of measuring liberal enlightenment across the world.
No, it is not. It’s a cultural practice which is prevalent in parts of Africa. It’s not found in many other parts of the world where women face other very serious challenges, including forced marriage, exploitation and the everyday risk of violence. The reduction in FGM does not indicate a spread of liberal values; it often indicates a spread of a normative, fundamentalist type of religion, usually Islam (but it could also be born-again Christianity, depending on where it is).
There is a broader point about standing up for liberal values. The Nairobi killings show that the battle for hearts and minds is still raging.
The Nairobi killings have nothing to do with FGM and everything to do with Kenyan military involvement in Somalia and with a power struggle within the Shabaab militia which has led to some of its former leaders being purged or killed.
Those who shrug that we can manage without a foreign policy, that it is just another term for colonialism, should pay attention. The principle behind liberal interventionism, which is that events in far off countries directly relate to our lives here, is demonstrable.
Some of those al Shabaab terrorists even turn out to have London accents. There is a terrorism Twitter feed. Allegedly, there exists an al Shabaab version of Damian McBride in charge of propaganda. Defending liberal values has never been so vital. It is an epic task but we could start by educating humankind out of FGM.
I always thought liberal interventionism was about using force to bring about positive poltical and social change in the countries where we intervene, usually in a crisis. FGM does not really relate to our lives here, other than to people originating from the countries where it is the norm, and there are in any case limits to where and how we can intervene in other countries’ affairs; in the one genuine liberal intervention of the past 20 years (Bosnia), the West sat on its hands for three years while a genocide went on under its nose. All others have been cases of liberal intervention being used as a pretext for wars conducted for other reasons, such as a terrorist threat or a threat to resources.
It may be that there are Brits or Americans (most likely Somalis) among the gang that stormed the Westgate shopping centre last week, but their reasons would have been to do with the aspirations they had for Somalia as an Islamic state and the desire to remove Kenyan and Ethiopian forces from Somalia (and possibly to unify Somalis in neighbouring countries, as well as in breakaway Somali states such as Somaliland, under one Islamic government). They would also want to rid other parts of the Islamic world of western influences and especially western forces, but have chosen to concentrate on Somalia, possibly because it is their home country. The status of women would be a secondary issue and I would guess that their views on the subject vary; many of them would have female relatives who have been to university and do professional jobs. It is really impossible to generalise about this, particularly without knowing who they are and anything about their background. Their sisters may or may not have undergone FGM. Their wives may or may not. However, aid agencies report that al-Shabaab are actually against FGM.
The article reflects the tendency of western writers to see customs they do not like as symbols of something else, rather than as what they are, without even pausing to examine whether there is a correlation, let alone any causal link. We hear claims that the wearing of niqaab in the West is somehow related to things that happen in other countries, without the people concerned even having to meet; it was once claimed by Rahila Gupta (a feminist activist) that the niqaab is “a garment soaked in blood” because women are forced to wear it (and, it was alleged, killed for not doing so) in Saudi Arabia or some such place (here is a Muslim woman’s response). It is assumed that one custom we see as repressive and anti-liberal necessarily reflects the presence of others, which is a misplaced assumption. Much as the niqaab is not actually indicative of a repressive family culture, forced marriage or anything else, neither is FGM. FGM is worth opposing because it’s painful, it denies sexual pleasure and has health risks and complications for those that suffer it, and even sometimes to their children, but the activities of al-Shabaab and groups like them have nothing to do with FGM and opposing one will make no difference to the other.
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