Perils of a cause célèbre

A patronising and draconian response to female genital mutilation risks victimising women who have already been abused

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who was organising a discussion on feminism. She said she wanted to talk about how the overreach of the law into women’s lives was misguided — we needed less legislation around offensive words and more protection around real harms such as rape, assault and female genital mutilation (FGM). I remember asking her what more legislation was needed around FGM? She didn’t know. It was simply one of a list of “real things” that was supposedly happening to women and girls, and needed to be stamped out by the law.

Anti-FGM campaigns are a cause célèbre among many feminists — an easy win, especially if you’re critical of other feminist campaigns. I often hear people say, “Yes, making misogyny a hate crime is ridiculous, what we should really be doing is cracking down on FGM.” It even has its own UN-sponsored day — the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Nimko Ali and other campaigners have used their own compelling personal testimony to push for government support for stricter legal measures (in Ali’s case, becoming quite close to Boris Johnson and his fiancé Carrie Symonds, as well as being named the new UK Home Office independent advisor for tackling violence against women and girls). The question is, does all this amount to a better life for women?

Zainab Nur doesn’t think so. Now in her 50s, Nur was born to migrant parents and has been a trained social worker for over 25 years, living in Cardiff. Nur tells me that the obsession with FGM in the UK has far more to do with the likes of my friends feeling better about themselves for thinking they support a “real” cause, rather than protecting women from harmful practices. Having lived and worked with women and families from various African diaspora communities in Bristol, Sheffield, Cardiff and elsewhere, Nur knows better than most what is going on in Somali and Sudanese women’s lives. But perhaps the most fascinating thing about her experience of what she calls the “anti-FGM industry”, is that she was there at the start.

“In the 1980s, I went to my first women’s meeting in South Wales, I didn’t know what to study at university and I was volunteering at a community advice centre,” Nur tells me. “I met Efua Dorkenoo — one of the leading figures in the fight against FGM — and Dr Harry Gordon, a consultant gynaecologist who pioneered the reversal of infibulation. They wanted women like me to tell them what was going on in our communities.” 

Nur explains to me that in the 1980s, a worrying number of women from African countries, particularly in the East and some parts of the West, were turning up to gynae appointments in the UK with “type three” FGM — when the labia are cut and sewn together leaving a small hole for urination and menstruation. This is called “infibulation” and Dr Gordon was one of the first surgeons who began de-infibulating women, allowing them to have full penetrative sex, give birth more easily, and recover after what often was a traumatic experience. 

Dorkenoo was a nurse who, after seeing numerous women suffering from being infibulated, became a central campaigner known as the “mother of the worldwide movement to end FGM”. She was given an OBE for her work in 1994. The meeting that Nur remembers was part of the first moves to begin an awareness-raising campaign to stop FGM practices in certain African communities and to give women the healthcare they needed if they had undergone the procedure.

It wasn’t easy. Part of the difficulty, Nur tells me, was that “we were told never to talk about circumcision outside the community, and I’ve always felt this was wrong”. She says she had been talking internally with friends and family about the practice being “not Islamic and we shouldn’t be doing this to girls”, but she had to figure out a way to “talk about something so sensitive and so private” in order to help women in the community. And so, she became involved with Dorkenoo’s Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development (Forward), which had been set up in 1983.

The idea that all women who undergo some form of FGM are traumatised victims is not true

There were problems from the start. Nur tells me how uncomfortable she was at the time about the zealotry of some of the feminists involved in the campaign. She felt that “it did have a racist connotation to it. There were a handful of women in the campaign who were very keen to use words like ‘barbaric’ and ‘mutilation’.” Nur and her friend from Kenya tried to argue against the term FGM, explaining that women who had been “cut” used the term circumcision, and would be offended and less likely to communicate with white women outside of their communities calling them mutilated.

“They told us it had to be mutilation — they felt that something stronger was needed. They practically brainwashed us into thinking that what happened to our bodies was so traumatising that we would never have a normal life like any other woman. It was like they were telling us we weren’t women, you know?”

Herein lies the problem of many feminist campaigns. Faced with the very real barbarism of the practice of infibulation, campaign work around stopping FGM took the understandable view of portraying women as victims but failed to listen to the nuances of these women’s experiences. As Nur points out — and as much of Dorkenoo’s work revealed — something as shrouded in secrecy as “cutting” in a community is not going to be fixed by a patronising or hectoring approach to the women involved.

Efua Dorkenoo

While some women suffered serious physical and mental trauma from infibulation or similar practices, Nur points out that the vast majority of women who had been “cut” had had what is known as type one circumcision — a comparatively minor procedure. This doesn’t make the practice any less objectionable, she says, but the idea that all women who had undergone some form of FGM would be traumatised victims is simply not true.

Nur and women like her didn’t win the argument against the term mutilation, but in 1985, awareness-raising about the practice resulted in the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act which made FGM a crime punishable with up to five years in prison. In 2003, this was replaced with the Female Genital Mutilation Act which upped the sentence to 14 years and made taking a girl abroad to have the procedure a criminal offence. And yet, it has taken until 2019 for the first FGM conviction to be successful (a Ugandan woman in Walthamstow). If the practice of FGM is rife enough to warrant several law changes and stringent sentencing, why isn’t it working?

For Bríd Hehir, a retired midwife and vocal critic of anti-FGM campaigns, criminalising FGM was never going to be the answer. “The country was being told that there was an epidemic of FGM in and around the early 2010s when I retired. We were told that what was being seen was just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.”

But, Hehir says, the hype around suspected FGM bore no reality to what she or her former colleagues had experienced in practice. She says there were specialist “African Women’s Clinics” associated with hospital antenatal clinics where pregnant women who’d undergone FGM could be assessed for type or severity and be de-infibulated before delivery if necessary. But, she says, “we weren’t seeing it in children”. Hehir says that “even our child protection ‘bible’ The Child in Mind made no mention of FGM despite being co-authored by the paediatrician (Dr Deborah Hodes) who was suddenly reporting an increase in referrals to the clinic at University College London Hospital.”

Hehir says one of the main problems with the discussion is that there is no space for debate

Hehir has always had an interest in this part of medicine, spending 30 years working for the NHS in the UK as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, sexual health nurse and manager. In her early years as a nurse after training in Ireland, she spent four years working in parts of Africa, including the contested area of Ethiopia by Somalia. “I smelt a rat,” she told me, “so I decided to investigate what was being reported about cases of FGM, and started to blog about it.”

Over the last four years, Hehir’s blog Shifting Sands has been something of a thorn in the side of many anti-FGM campaigners because of her work pointing out the inadequacies and inaccuracies in reports of FGM. In December 2018, Hehir drew attention to the fact that data which claimed cases of FGM had more than doubled from 970 in 2016-17 to 1,960 in 2017-18 had been inaccurate due to a data error in relation to figures from Northamptonshire. In fact, the number of cases of FGM reported in official national statistics during that period had dropped by 30. 

So egregious was the error that a Guardian article running with the “more than doubled” headline was rescinded, with the Department for Education contacting the media to make sure that accurate information was being used in related articles. Hehir says one of the main problems with the discussion around FGM is that there is no space for debate, “I’ve even been called a cultural imperialist for wanting to have accurate data about what is really going on with women and girls in these communities.”

Women such as Hehir and Nur argue the stats around FGM are overstated, and that the scaremongering around FGM prevents a clear picture of how severe the problem of FGM is in the UK. (Last year’s NHS FGM Annual Report for England showed that “85 per cent of cases undertaken in the UK are known to be piercings. Some of the remaining 15 per cent may also be piercings but the data is not complete.”) Anti-FGM campaigners argue the practice is ongoing, and that secretive practices among certain communities make it difficult to detect. Both sides agree that the practice of cutting is nothing to be celebrated.

To strengthen the 2003 Act, the 2015 Serious Crime Act implemented further measures to counter what was being called a “silent epidemic” of FGM. This included the implementation of mandatory reporting (meaning any registered professional having confirmed FGM in a child under the age of 18 is forced to report them direct to the police, bypassing the usual safeguarding route) and the invention of FGM Protection Orders. 

One woman was referred to safeguarding simply because she herself had been cut decades ago

The heroine behind this supposedly liberal campaign was the then home secretary, Theresa May, who seemingly campaigned against FGM in between brainstorming policies to create the hostile environment. Under an FGM Protection Order, which can be placed on a family or person based on the suspicions of one individual, a child can be removed and put into foster care, passports can be seized or withheld and individuals can even be arrested.

Nur hears of cases of families — particularly in the Somali community — who had their daughters removed or arrested under suspicion of FGM offences. She tells me the story of one woman from West Africa who came to the UK when she was 12. “She had had type one female circumcision when she was six years old. She’d come to the UK in part to change her life — she’d gotten married to a guy, moved to Cardiff and was delighted to be pregnant.” This woman, Nur told me, was referred to safeguarding simply because she herself had been cut decades ago. When she gave birth, her child was removed from her, and she had to fight through the courts to regain custody. 

A woman might have experienced some form of circumcision herself, but that doesn’t mean she has any intention of carrying on the practice with her own children. But under anti-FGM law, these women are considered a threat and shouldn’t be trusted to look after their own children. Nur describes this as victim blaming. “We’d never tell a woman who had been raped that she was likely to do the same to her child, why do we automatically assume that women who have undergone FGM are a danger to their children?” 

There have been hundreds of similar cases. Nur tells me about a seven-year-old girl, brought to the UK by her father and removed from him at the airport upon arrival as he was suspected of having forced her to have FGM in their home country. The child was put into a white foster family for six months, within which time she went mute from the stress and upset of the event, and was returned to her family after an inspection of her genitals proved that no FGM had been carried out. 

Using draconian measures to treat every Somali mother or Sudanese father with suspicion is a terrible miscarriage of justice, and a sure-fire way of driving these practices further underground. The censorship of women like Nur and Hehir as unfeeling, unkind or backward leads lazy feminists like my friend to assume that African women need white British lawmakers to inspect their daughter’s genitals before they’re trusted with the same rights, freedoms and privacy as their neighbours and friends. 

Contemporary feminism has a penchant for patronising women. But when it comes to anti-FGM, the push for “more to be done to protect women” is creating dark consequences. If we want a better world for all women, free from abuse and suspicion from backwards cultural practices and prying policemen alike, we have to ask whether the no-tolerance approach to FGM could do with learning what being tolerant really means.

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