The dangers of racism in the anti-FGM crusade

Picture of a girl with her mouth open, apparently gasping in pain, with her legs spread (although only one of them is visible), with one woman on each side of her.The Thursday before last was apparently “Zero Tolerance of FGM day”, accompanied by widespread media coverage of various campaigns against it, a petition which apparently gained two signatures per second, interviews with anti-FGM campaigners and various editorials, particularly in the Guardian. In some of these editorials, the authors gave free rein to prejudices that liberals normally manage to keep hidden, and fail to consider whether some of the potential cures aren’t worse than the disease. As is so often the case, the white liberal gets angry when others don’t respond to appeals to become “civilised”.

The first article I came across was this one, in which the word “barbaric” is dropped very easily:

As the face of the Guardian’s new campaign to have FGM recognised as a key government priority, Mohamed, one of nine daughters in a Muslim Somali family that came to Britain when she was seven, believes Gove could do more to help curtail the barbaric practice.

Does anyone stop to consider what this word means, or where it comes from? It’s a term which has been used down the centuries to simply mean foreign, right from ancient Greece to the present day. It always meant whichever civilisation the people who used it were up against; usually Persia in the case of Greece, the Celts, Germans and North Africans in the case of the Romans. The name stuck as a name for North Africa (and today, actual North Africans do not practise FGM), though even there the historical evidence suggests that the Carthaginians and Vandals were actually highly literate civilisations and that the names have stuck because the Romans wrote history. The point is that it means not us, therefore against us and/or less than us. Why do we use this imperialist put-down to refer to cultural practices we don’t like?

In its editorial, it makes an extraordinary claim that is really devoid of any evidence:

FGM, or cutting, is a violation that is inflicted only on girls, usually as very young children. It is not a religious ritual. It predates Christianity and Islam, although in some places both religions have incorporated it as a rite of passage. What it is, universally, is a weapon of control by men over women’s sexuality in which older women collude in order to observe social norms of marriageability and honour.

No, it’s not. It’s a custom which is perpetuated for a number of reasons, the most important of which is ignorance: it’s just always been done, and people do not imagine a woman being any other way, and imagine that the parts removed will cause sexual over-stimulation or disease if left in place (a female friend mentioned recently, for example, that she had seen people online saying that the labia minora are the source of “secretions that turn rancid” and that a clitoris can grow to 3cm when aroused, neither of which have any basis). These notions have fallen away in many places because people, particularly Muslims, have been exposed to people of the same religion from other parts of the world (including the major centres of Muslim learning, such as Syria) who do not practise FGM. There has been a rise in fundamentalist, normative Islam and of online fatwa banks, which invariably say that FGM as practised in Somalia, Sudan and other parts of Africa is simply prohibited in Islam because it consists of “changing Allah’s creation” and because it causes harm and possibly risks the girl’s life.

Much as with forced marriage, the practice is a cause of family disagreement and conflict as generations differ, and sometimes fathers resist and grandmothers insist on it, and sometimes even the daughter wants to have it done because they know most grown-up women (or many older girls they know) have had it done and are excited by the ceremony that surrounds it. Increasing numbers of men do not want a wife who has been cut (at least, cut significantly or ‘closed’), because they want someone who will enjoy sex, not be hurt by it and will not be significantly injured by childbirth to the point of dying, or never being able to have another one. Again, men have come to learn that normal women enjoy sex, and are meant to. It is not as simple as saying that it is a weapon used by men and a custom in which older women merely “collude”.

FGM was banned, explicitly, in the UK in 1985 (however, the charge of occasioning grievous bodily harm [GBH] could be made against someone who subjected a girl to it before then) and taking a girl abroad for the purpose of FGM was banned in 2003. However, there has not been a single prosecution for FGM, something that causes campaigners some degree of frustration. Prosecuting cutters or those who expose girls to it is, of course, only one way of making sure FGM does not take place — it is better The reason it is difficult to prosecute, even when it happens in the UK, is because the girls affected are simply unwilling to testify against their parents, or even their extended family, because there is no other violence being perpetrated in the family, who may also be supporting them well, paying their way through college and so on. In short, these are loving and stable families and splitting them up by putting either of the parents in jail would be in nobody’s best interests, particularly if there are no remaining girls at risk from it (and even if there are, it would cause other instability in their lives besides FGM). If we make parents liable for FGM happening, regardless of whether they actually wanted it done or not (as extended families, such as grandparents, can overrule parents in some cultures), there is the danger of the girl simply not returning from that “holiday” or being sent “home”.

The paper’s website also includes a “datablog” in which an attempt is made to gauge how many girls in the UK are at risk from FGM. It briefly mentions that their statistics represent an overrepresentation of the risk of FGM, since “they assume that British traditions, culture and education have no effect on the likelihood that migrants will carry out this procedure” — as if there’s really nothing else besides an exposure to good old British traditions that would stop African immigrants, or their second- or third-generation descendants, practising FGM. Other reasons could be that they have been persuaded by authorities in their own religion to stop doing it, or just that it’s not that important to them that they would maintain it in defiance of the law, or by taking expensive trips abroad. The data seems to make no distinction between different extents of cutting, treating the removal of the clitoral hood the same as the so-called Pharaonic form that is prevalent in Somalia, Eritrea etc, when their health ramifications are worlds apart, and also not taking into account the different socio-economic backgrounds of the diasporas (as Egyptians in the UK tend to be from wealthier and better educated backgrounds than Somalis, who tend to be war refugees).

There are other examples of what appear to be statistics being massaged in the press to make it look as if FGM and complications of FGM are more prevalent in the UK than they really are. An example is this piece from the Evening Standard from last December, which claimed that in a survey of GPs in London, “57 per cent of doctors who responded said they had seen at least one woman in the past 12 months who had been mutilated”. This, however, does not mean the doctors treated them for complications of FGM, or for anything that could have been complicated by FGM, just that they were aware that at least one female patient they saw had undergone it (the report does not even say how they knew — some of them could have just made the assumption by their origin and age). It should be no surprise that more than half of GPs have ever seen a woman who has undergone it, since people originating from the countries where it takes place are spread all over London, not concentrated in a few enclaves.

I don’t defend FGM, and attempts to educate people in Africa in particular about its harms (and lack of religious merit) are to be encouraged, as well as opening channels for girls to report that they or their sisters are in danger of undergoing it, so as to prevent them being taken abroad or to facilitate the arrest of whoever may be doing it in this country. However, there is a danger of falling into racism by assuming that all girls from any country where FGM happens are at risk (they are not), by assuming that the cultures involved will not change unless given the big stick by “civilised” whites, by branding a cultural norm which is not done for anyone’s gratification “child abuse”, by throwing around words like “barbarity” as if insulting a minority community with a different culture who consider themselves perfectly civilised will bring them on side. To see several pages dedicated to this issue in a major (albeit declining) newspaper, when the evidence for it happening to any significant extent in the UK is anecdodal and the statistics hugely unreliable, does appear like an onslaught against the minority communities involved, as if this was the last acceptable way of expressing superiority over an immigrant minority from an impoverished part of the world.

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