Social Affairs Correspondent
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been banned in the UK for thirty years but a new campaign, spearheaded by a young Somali teenager, 17 year old Fahma Mohamed, seeks to bring the issue much more into the forefront of peoples’ consciousness in order to prevent its alleged wide-scale continuance.
The practice, which involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical but traditional and cultural reasons, pre-dates the spread of Islam. The “operation”’ – which is a formal medical procedure in some countries eg Egypt, but little more than “a brutal cutting”’ in many other countries where it is practised – is not only immediately dangerous if it is done in rudimentary settings by traditional “cutters,” but can have devastating future consequences for the victims. For instance, when carried out by tribal cutters, as featured, for example, in a Guardian Online video about Kenyan “cutters”, girls can die of blood loss or infection. The pain and distress can be devastating. It can also leave permanent physical and psychological damage which affects women’s general and sexual health as well as their fertility.
In addition, intimate relations, for instance, can become difficult or impossible for some women; the right Islam gives women to enjoy the marital relation can be dreadfully impeded and not only is fertility affected, but child-bearing and giving birth can be life-threatening.
Its prevalence in both Muslim majority and minority countries including: Somalia (98%), Egypt (91%), Mali (89%), Ethiopia (74%), Guinea-Bissau (50%) and Nigeria (27%), (figures according to UNICEF), makes it an important Muslim and humanitarian public health issue. And not just for international campaigners. According to the British Government, more than 20,000 British girls may be at risk of having this procedure done to them – both abroad where they may be taken for so-called “cutting holidays” or in Britain.
There is concern that despite the 30 years of anti-FGM legislation, no prosecutions have been brought against traditional or medical FGM practitioners and no parents have been prosecuted for contravening the specific FGM legislation or for flouting child abuse rules which now include “allowing” abuse to take place without notifying relevant authorities. Hence the campaign is timely.
Change.Org and a broad coalition of organisations, has, with the support of Ms Mohamed – (one of a family of nine sisters, not personally afflicted by the practice, according to the media, but who has seen the devastation wrought by it within her wider circle of family and friends) – called for the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, to allow teaching staff to alert parents and children to the horrors of the practice. Campaigners have also called for better data on exactly how many victims there might be/actually are. In response to this, hospital staff are to start keeping records of patients presenting for services who have undergone FGM, something which will surely help to identify the historical extent of the problem and how/whether it is as widespread as alleged.
In a parallel universe, it is well known that a significant number of Western women voluntarily and legally submit to cosmetic surgery – including recently, in the intimate area. Amnesty International’s Marianne Mollmann points out that although an adult choice has been made – something denied to FGM survivors – Western women, it can be argued, may also be considered to have been “forced”, however subliminally, to accept they’ve “failed” to meet societal expectations of what “the body beautiful” should be like. Mollmann (http://rhrealitycheck.org/article/2012/01/10/female-genital-mutilation-breast-implantation-why-do-they-happen-and-how-do-we-st/) explores these issues suggesting a way forward for dealing with the problem which might be more effective than criminalisation alone.
Having visited communities where the practice of FGM is prevalent she describes how the “cutters” and the families they service, are all victims of deeply ingrained cultural norms to which they must conform in order to “fit in”. Whereas some Western women feel they would only find acceptance and validation if their primary and secondary sexual organs look a particular way, in Africa, girls and women are expected to behave in a particular way sexually to be accepted and “fit in” and this is achieved by the procedure.
Interestingly, Mollman describes how “cutters” are often aware of how they are perceived (as “monsters”), but, says Mollmann, they (wrongly) think they are doing “what was best” for their girls. It took an incident when Mollman held down her own daughter in the dentist’s chair while a tooth was being extracted “with both of us crying” to make her realise this truth.
“If the only reason for an intervention is that others think that’s what we “should” look like, and if the intervention is both semi-permanent and potentially damaging to our health, maybe what we “should do is reconsidered”, says Mollmann. This suggests a way of tackling these problems in a more holistic fashion which recognises women across all cultures face challenges and therefore, judgementalism will not be as effective as engagement, education and changing norms and attitudes.
Change.Org’s campaign is worthy of support if only to “increase awareness and also secure better data,” Spokesperson of Muslim Community Helpline told The Muslim News. She also added that it was important that the matter was handled sensitively.