From Searchlight by Sonia Gable
On the occasion of International Women’s Day today, I wholeheartedly welcome the launch by Marina Yannakoudakis MEP of a campaign to tackle the global scandal of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Mrs Yannakoudakis, a Conservative MEP for London, has joined with other campaigners, including the editor of the London Evening Standard Sarah Sands, to put forward three clear and essential demands:
• A more robust approach to bringing adults behind FGM to justice.
• Better international recording and reporting of FGM to reveal the true scale of the scandal.
• International “aid conditionality” – to use development funding as a moral lever on countries where FGM is allowed or even condoned.
Mrs Yannakoudakis says mutilation is a form of child abuse, pure and simple, and must be treated as such. It has been a criminal offence in the UK since 1985, yet there has not yet been a single prosecution.
Last month she held the European Parliament’s first high-profile hearing on FGM, pulling together experts from across Europe to discuss best approaches to measuring and tackling the practice.
She said: “This is an appalling crime against children – one that is veiled in superstition and secrecy and hidden from public view. It happens to young girls who in many ways are at the margins of society, often isolated by a closed culture and lack of integration.
“I believe misplaced sensitivities over religion, race and heritage are behind that fact that in Britain there has been not one prosecution. If this appalling abuse were happening on such a scale to young, white, middle class girls I believe there would be no shortage of court cases or convictions.”
Mrs Yannakoudakis is right in highlighting “misplaced sensitivities over religion, race and heritage”. For a very long time, many antiracists have shied away from tackling gender inequality in other cultures, believing that criticism of minority cultural practices or beliefs would conflict with their antiracism: that antiracism trumps feminism. Likewise with FGM.
Such views are misguided. First we should note that FGM is not condoned by any major religion. It is certainly not part of Islam, contrary to the claims of Islamophobes, although it has been adopted by many Muslim communities. The origins of FGM, which is practised in at least 28 African countries, parts of the Middle East, and immigrant communities from those countries in several other parts of the world, are shrouded in the mists of time but it predates Islam by several hundred years. It is likely that it evolved in primitive communities that wished to establish control over the sexual behaviour of women. Although it is widely performed at the age of 12-14 as a rite of passage to adulthood, it is increasingly carried out at younger ages.
Schools have a role to play in educating families, increasing awareness and creating a climate in which FGM is rejected as abhorrent and ultimately unacceptable. They may be reluctant to do so. Schools are rightly much concerned with safeguarding children, for example from bullying, but when I raised FGM with a primary school head teacher, the response was that this was a secondary school issue. Well no, research shows that it is carried out at younger ages too. When I pointed this out, the head referred to cultural sensitivities.
The point is not whether we are entitled to criticise the practices of a minority culture or whether the rights of women and girls should be subordinate to cultural or religious precepts. The issue is one of humanity and freedom. Everyone has an equal right to dignity and respect for their life, and to not be assaulted and abused. And abuse is what it is: none of the “justifications” for FGM – and several are put forward by its supporters such as that it is good for women’s health – have even the slightest validity. FGM, sometimes euphemistically called female circumcision as if it were as innocuous as the circumcision of baby boys, damages the ability of women to enjoy the gift of sex and give birth to children: a central element of life and identity for most women.
Mrs Yannakoudakis said:
For too long this has been a secret suffering and a hidden scandal. Broader society has been kept in the dark or has chosen to look the other way. This must stop now.
Let’s ensure it does.