Report: The importance of ethnography in FGM storytelling, SOAS, London

A group of demonstrators in the street holding placards with slogans in various languages against FGM.
Demonstration against FGM, Bristol

This event took place at SOAS, part of the University of London, last night (15th February) and was organised by the university’s “Fem Soc”. It brought together some long-standing anti-FGM campaigners along with a prominent sceptic and two women who had worked in women’s healthcare which involved caring for women who had undergone FGM. It was chaired by Mary Harper, a former BBC Africa editor who had a special interest in the Horn of Africa; the panellists were:

  • Zaynab Nur, a Somali anti-FGM campaigner
  • Nasra Ayub of Integrate UK, based in Bristol
  • Bríd Hehir of Shifting Sands (which has republished a couple of my articles on this subject) who has also written for Spiked Online 
  • Alison MacFarlane, perinatal epidemiologist and statistician
  • Dr Brenda Kelly of the Rose Clinic, Oxford; consultant obstetrician and clinical lead for women with FGM in Oxfordshire.

The event started off with the showing of a BBC report about the treatment of women in Wales who were presumed to have experienced FGM and to intend to inflict it on their daughters. One woman whose daughter had special needs was referred to social services; another with a newborn daughter was taken into foster care with her for six months because of a supposed risk of FGM and trafficking despite her having no intention of doing this. The NHS in Wales treats a child merely having ancestry from countries with a major FGM rate as evidence that a child is at risk. (More: Shifting Sands.)

The first speaker was Zaynab Nur, a Somali woman from Cardiff who had been active in campaigning against FGM in her community since the 1980s. She said that when she started out campaigning it was for her daughters’ sake as she knew that the community had to be persuaded to stop this for their sake. She said that when she started out, she did not receive any funding; she went to both the women and the religious leaders in the Somali community and relied on her connections with them. However, nowadays, Somalis are being stigmatised and government policies are having a huge impact: women are going for routine gynaecological treatment and being referred elsewhere because of having had FGM done. They report not being believed when they say they have no intention of doing it to their daughters. She also said that there are stereotypes about women who have had FGM such as that they have sexual dysfunction, which are often erroneous. She also said she was in the room when the term FGM was coined.

Nasra Ayub spoke next. She said she agreed with Zaynab Nur to a certain extent but that girls were at risk and that their safety should be at the heart of FGM activism. The conviction of the Ugandan woman earlier this month was not something to celebrate. She underlined the importance of educating the communities in question not to carry on with FGM. With regard to one of the cases in Bristol, she claimed that “one of their young people” had engaged a taxi driver in a discussion about FGM when in his cab, and the driver had told them that he had had his daughter cut which, she claimed, triggered mandatory reporting laws (which I find dubious as he was not there in a professional capacity; he was a customer getting a ride).

Next to speak was Alison MacFarlane. She had worked in the midwifery department at City University in London since the early 2000s and they were closely involved with Somali populations in inner east London as their staff and students worked in the inner east London boroughs (Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham) and the issue was a major subject for students’ dissertations. She said that early attempts at statistics about who had experienced FGM and who was at risk were based on the percentages affected in their countries of origin adjusted for age (since younger women were less likely to have had it done) and these indicated that the communities were moving away from FGM. As for estimating the numbers at risk, this was a very sensitive issue and early reports from about 2007 over-estimated those numbers. A report published in 2011 stated that it was important that midwifery services were aware of FGM and able to provide appropriate care at such times as when the women came to give birth, and that because the affected people were dispersed across the country, professionals might meet them anywhere; over-50s with FGM were likely to be experiencing gynaecological problems.

She then said that she was now aware of campaigners who had learned about FGM from Wikipedia while doing school homework and statistics which claimed that girls were “at risk” simply because their mothers had had FGM or came from a country where it was a custom. There was a lot of bias in the statistics and they ignored the fact that younger immigrant women in recent years are more likely to be educated and less likely to be inclined towards continuing with FGM.

After that, Brid Hehir spoke. She said that she had been involved in FGM research for about five to seven years since being made redundant from the NHS and had been inundated with material claiming that there was a “silent epidemic” which health professionals were missing, that certain parents were known to practise it and professionals needed to “wake up”. She could not believe it as she had never met a child who had experienced FGM during her time working in the NHS, only mothers, and colleagues she spoke to had never seen a child affected either. She saw suspicion was being cast on all sorts of people, that professionals were being expected to act as spies, to betray patient confidentiality in order to collect data. She said that the data were crude and were being presented as “new cases” when in fact they were merely newly reported. She is convinced that there is little or no FGM in Britain.

Finally, there was Dr Brenda Kelly. She mentioned four laws that in her opinion were causing damage to people from the communities affected by FGM. There was an “enhanced data set” that was based on Alison MacFarlane’s work, but since 2014 the reports were no longer anonymised; more recently, the rules were changed so that women could object to their information being used in building this data, but women were rarely told they were entitled to object. The data indicates that most victims were cut before they came to the UK and a number of the newer cases were white girls who had undergone genital piercings or labiaplasties in a medical setting, with their consent. The mandatory reporting system breaks down trust between doctors and patients; if a girl was asked about FGM when she came for something like the contraceptive pill, and was then told that this data would be passed on to the police who were duty-bound to investigate, it was likely that she would never visit that doctor again and would be reticent about visiting doctors generally. (Later on in the evening, she disagreed with Brid Hehir that there were no cases in the UK; she had known of girls who were at risk but it was much less than an epidemic.)

Nasra Ayub then said that FGM victims were being treated differently from other victims of abuse, and that the emphasis was on prosecution rather than on prevention and support and the policies infantilised women of colour. Mandatory reporting makes criminals fo women who are in fact victims. She said that anti-FGM campaigns had been important and that awareness could not have been raised without them. When her mother was young, girls used to beg them to be cut for fear of being ostracised. When the campaigns began, communities told them to be quiet but they responded by being louder.

The floor was then opened up for questions. Many of the questioners were women from Somali backgrounds and said that the way in which girls were educated about FGM was stigmatising and had been leading to bullying. One example was that a French teacher gave a presentation about the subject to a class which contained several Somalis, with the assumption that they were also victims when in fact they were not. They then had to answer questions from schoolmates about a subject they knew nothing about. (This undermines parents’ efforts to protect their daughters from FGM by not telling them about it, given that they are aware that girls would ask to have it done if their friends had, or would stop speaking to them if they failed to get it done.) Another audience member, a man named Solomon who was active in the charity Forward, said that speaking to men he was aware that many were offended by the use of stigmatising language such as ‘barbaric’, which they complained was not used in regard to white men who murder their wives or whatever; it was only used of things Black people did.

Two women from the audience spoke in defence of the practice. One was a woman from Sierra Leone whose name I did not catch. She insisted on calling it female circumcision, not FGM, and said it took place strictly within the bounds of the Bondo (also called Sande) society involved. She said that stigma over the practice was resulting in domestic violence as men came to regard them as second-class women who cannot have sex or have children, neither of which were true. At 15, when she had the procedure done, she looked forward to her initiation. She had been involved in efforts to set a minimum age of 18 in Sierra Leone, but this had been undermined by western campaigners who knew little about her country or its culture and used disrespectful language. She compared female circumcision to labiaplasty which white girls can get but African girls cannot despite it being part of their culture. It was against their human rights to deny a young woman her rites of passage. In Sierra Leone, nobody could become president, including a woman, unless they had undergone circumcision. She said that Somali women’s experiences were entirely different from theirs.

The second ‘pro’ voice was a woman from the Bohra community in India who said that her research among women who had undergone “type 1” or Sunnah circumcision was that they were not traumatised and were not sexually dysfunctional. The custom is very much part of their religion and if it is banned, people would not be able to fulfil their religious duties. She said that people could not be Muslims without being circumcised. This caused a lot of consternation in the room as others said it was not required by Islam. The chair had to quiet people down and remind them that they had to show each other respect and let each other speak.

Towards the end, a woman (who had been in healthcare since the 70s but whose specialism I’ve forgotten) responded to comparisons with male circumcision by saying that we should ban both practices not because they are harmful, but because they are wrong. She also said that her father had been circumcised as a boy in the 1920s but did not have his sons circumcised because he believed that it did not have the benefits associated with it. She said it was dangerous to get into a discourse of “harm reduction” and that if a procedure was medicalised, doctors could do a lot more harm when a patient is anaesthetised than a cutter could. I find this argument unconvincing: the whole reason FGM is banned is not just because we do not like it but because it causes extreme pain and has the risks of infection, haemorrhage and long-term complications. The cosmetic improvements some people say it brings is not worth exposing a child to the pain and risk. Neither of these things is the case with circumcision; there have been a small number of accidents or complications and where it is known to be dangerous (e.g. in families with a history of haemophilia), it is not done. It has been linked to improved hygiene and reduced risk of spreading certain diseases, including HIV/AIDS, in some parts of the world. Even though it may have been abandoned in the UK, it is still common for American boys, regardless of their religion, to be circumcised (although it has declined somewhat).

No, it’s not — for most people — medically necessary. But that is not why we, Muslims, do it. We do it because it is Sunnah, because the Prophets since the time of Abraham (peace be upon him) have all had it done and then had it done to their sons, because it is a sign of the Believers. That may strike an atheist medic as a weak reason to carry on something that causes a bit of pain and carries a slight risk, but our logic is not always the same as theirs. And this is also why there is no justification for Muslims not to carry it on; just because you know people who have had a negative experience (with a related but different procedure), or you have yourself, does not mean your sons, if you have them, should not have it done. It is one of the things you do as a parent; they are not always pleasant, like disciplining them when they are naughty, making them go to school when they would rather play, or having them vaccinated. Many authorities in Islam regard it as compulsory unless there is a strong medical reason not to. We are told to “let the Sunnah go forth and do not let opinions get in its way” and this looks like a typical example of people doing just that. It should not matter to us what other people think.

The event, although it was a low-key event in a small lecture theatre, was a very useful event in counterweighting the hysterical and biased “single narrative” about FGM that predominates in our media. Many people do not realise that there is a difference between campaigning against FGM by persuading people to stop and criminalising communities associated with it or casting suspicion on everyone in a given ethnicity without proof, splitting families without good cause, preventing people from travelling for no reason. Many people are completely unaware that a grassroots effort to educate people about the dangers of FGM and the lack of any religious basis for it (which is important) has been underway for years and largely successful, to the extent that granddaughters of women who were subject to infibulation in the 1950s and 60s now reach their teens unaware it ever went on. Mainstream media anti-FGM campaigners do not want to hear this; they want to hear that changes are down to them, and they will only listen to those from the backgrounds affected by FGM who tell them what they want to hear and who reinforce the myths and prejudices they hold.

The issue of the poor standard of education young people receive about FGM in this country was new to me. The young women who spoke were often very angry about it. I was reminded of the feminist psychologist Jessica Eaton’s work on education about child sexual exploitation, in which videos were shown to children (also see here), some of whom had already suffered sexual abuse and were traumatised by seeing their experiences depicted in film, often with the message that they could somehow have prevented the situation. Children who refused to sit though them were deemed unco-operative; meanwhile, some professionals could not sit through them because they were upset or triggered (perhaps for the same reason as some of the children). Zaynab Nur told me personally that she was approached by a headteacher after some of her pupils walked out of an anti-FGM video that stigmatised them, but many would not be willing to listen to young people who challenge them — they are, after all, not willing to listen to adults who do either.

When Safeguarding Becomes Stigmatising, a report on the experiences of Somalis in Bristol with anti-FGM safeguarding policies, is to be released on 6th March in Bristol. You can register to attend free at EventBrite.

Possibly Related Posts:


You may also like...