Anti-FGM crusade brings out the busybodies

Picture of Jenny TongeThe crusade against FGM is out of control - Spectator Blogs

Brendan O’Neill wrote the above article on the incident reported recently in the British press, in which Baroness Jenny Tonge took a flight to Addis Ababa that was full of what appeared to her to be British-Somali families, including a lot of women and girls, and immediately formed the suspicion that they, or at least some of them, were going for the purpose of undergoing FGM. She said she “chickened out” of actually talking to them and asking, but informed the police on return who are apparently going to “check the passenger list”. (I checked Tonge’s FB page and it is either private or has been removed.) O’Neill mentions a few of the other problems that arise from the “crusade” against FGM:

There is a new raft of anti-FGM measures that could have a seriously detrimental impact on community relations. As of this month, anyone — literally anyone — can apply for an FGM Protection Order to prevent people from travelling abroad if there’s any reason to think they might be going for FGM. Are your Somalian neighbours planning a six-week trip abroad? Do they have daughters? Are their daughters a bit moody? Quick, get an FGM Protection Order.

Starting in Autumn, all teachers and health workers will be legally required to report cases of FGM to the authorities. According to the NSPCC, signs of FGM can include girls ‘spending longer than normal in the bathroom’ or talking about being ‘taken “home” to visit family’. Is this for real? Every girl going though puberty takes long trips to the loo. And loads of children of immigrants spend their summers abroad (as I did). To become suspicious of girls who start to feel embarrassed around the age of 12 and who talk about going on holiday to Africa is to be suspicious of virtually every pubescent African girl in Britain.

Tonge said her suspicion was raised because there were more girls than boys and “all just about pubescent”. Mutilation of girls at or around puberty happens in some parts of Africa but in Somalia it happens around six or seven. The idea that in this day and age, a large group of ‘pubescent’ (i.e. aged around 12) girls might be seen travelling to a place where they suspect they might have their bits cut off without anaesthetic, and none of them appear to be unhappy, is a bit unlikely. Africans do talk amongst themselves about FGM and girls that age may well know what it involves, especially if they know girls who have been through it. As for why there were more girls than boys, perhaps the families decided that because of the political situation it might be better not to take the boys. A whole Muslim family travelling to a country where there is still al-Qa’ida activity (and who knows where they might travel to afterwards) might arouse a lot more suspicion than just the women and girls going.

O’Neill also mentions the persistent suggestion that girls be subject to intimate examinations on leaving and entering the country if they come from a background where FGM is common. What these people do not consider is that if they are determined to carry out the procedure, they will find ways to circumvent the inspection (e.g. by flying back into Dublin and crossing back into the UK overland), and if they did not intend mutilation when they left but were unable to prevent it (and it is common for parents to resist FGM but for aunts or grandparents to insist on it), they might just not bring the girls back but keep them living with relatives in Kenya, Dubai or another surrounding country — or even Somalia, if they come from a part where there is no longer war. Being subjected to FGM does not actually prevent a girl going on to higher education and a career; living in a country where access to education is very limited, especially for girls, and where early marriage is expected, might do that.

Such inspections also undermine efforts to teach children how to protect themselves from abuse, namely that they know that their bodies are their own and their private parts are private. Anyone in authority who wishes to “take a look” after such an encounter only need compare themselves to the person at the airport, even though they may be of the other sex, particularly if the girl is too young to know what they were being inspected for. And there’s always the risk that the inspections will be traumatic in themselves, particularly if a girl has already been a victim of sexual abuse (or has had it drilled into her never to show her body to anyone), and there is no guarantee that every inspection will be done sensitively, particularly if there are dozens of girls to inspect before a plane can leave for Addis Ababa. And if a girl comes from a family where FGM is not practised, this intrusion from an ignorant official with a supicious mind will be entirely unnecessary (and they will use their ignorance as an excuse to carry out unnecessary inspections).

There is an obsession with FGM in this country and any findings on the matter are reported as sensationally as people can manage. For example, back in February it was reported that 500 “new cases” of FGM were reported at hospitals in England and that “campaigners” had warned that this was the “tip of the iceberg”. However, the new cases consisted of doctors becoming aware of women who had undergone FGM, not of girls undergoing FGM, yet this detail was buried in the stories. In David Cameron’s speech in Birmingham last Monday, he claimed that “too often we have lacked the confidence to enforce our values, for fear of causing offence”, specifically mentioning FGM and forced marriage, alleging that “there were nearly 4,000 cases of FGM reported in our country last year alone”, which appears to refer to a statistic that nearly 4,000 women were treated for effects of FGM in the UK since 2009; there is no evidence of how many of these cases were inflicted in the UK. The fact that not a single case has ever been successfully prosecuted should be instructive, given that it’s well-known that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported, yet there have always been reports, and convictions.

This persistent exaggeration and sensationalising of FGM and its supposed prevalence in this country is used to fuel another debate, namely about integration and the supposed refusal of Muslim minorities in particular to “fit in”. The truth is that it’s widespread in Africa, not just in Muslim countries, and when a London radio station held a phone-in on the issue a few years ago, the majority of callers were Nigerians, not Somalis, yet we never hear Nigeria mentioned as a place where FGM is common. The fact is that it is being debated among the communities which traditionally practised it, that many families have abandoned it, that some groups did not traditionally practise it, that many adult women from the communities involved have not had it done, and that it is declining for reasons that are not entirely to do with western influence, including exposure to Muslim cultures where FGM is unheard-of — yet these campaigners, and all the well-connected ignorant busybodies like Jenny Tonge, remain convinced that only they know what is in girls’ best interests when they often know very little about the cultures involved, and appear to believe they do not need to.

Image credit: “Baroness Tonge Liverpool” by Keith Edkins - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Amro

    The biggest irony is the FGM is non-existent amongst the biggest Muslim communities - Pakistanis and Bengalis - in the UK.

    This tells you that this furore is less about women’s welfare, more about attacking Muslims.

  • When people tried to kick up a fuss about ethnic minorities aborting baby girls early last year, they also focussed on Muslims even though their countries of origin have normal boy:girl ratios, while the ratio in parts of India (areas in the north-west mostly inhabited by Hindus and Sikhs) have as many as 15 boys to 10 girls. Plus, abortion is widely accepted (and legal) in India while it’s clearly against Islam and banned in nearly all Muslim countries. But as for FGM, the majority whole areas of Africa practise it, and these include Muslim and non-Muslim regions.

  • Amro

    I remember that story. I think China and India came out on top but as per usual, it was used to smear Muslims.

  • BridH

    Hi Matthew/Yusuf. I like your questioning approach to the FGM/C issue and I’d like, with your permission, to post your related pieces on my (new) website http://www.shiftingsands.org.uk. Duly credited and with a link back of course. Thanks, Brid

  • Ortega

    It’s absolutely a smear to target muslims. I have immediate relatives who grew up in Southeast Asia where the majority of muslims do practice it, but they’d never even heard of the practice before the last 10 years and in the West. It was never considered an important issue before 9/11.