As a woman from Eritrea, now living in the UK, I find myself deeply troubled by the current obsession with the supposed problem of female genital mutilation (FGM) among African communities in Britain.
The campaign against FGM, led by feminists and various media outlets, is taking a very simplistic approach to what is a very complex cultural problem, and it risks generating yet more prejudice against, and stereotyping of, certain immigrant communities.
For women of my background, FGM is a deeply personal and private issue in which a greater understanding of the wider cultural background to this practice is essential if we are going to have a serious discussion about bringing it to an end. The problem with ‘End FGM’ campaigning is that it lacks the capacity fully to engage communities and to challenge in any meaningful way the problem of FGM; instead, it indulges in finger-pointing and scaremongering about the practices of these communities. It fails to acknowledge the various efforts being made to halt FGM within many communities, and it calls into question people’s capacity to change without the guidance - and laws - of outsiders.
So the current efforts to encourage the UK education secretary Michael Gove to make sure British schools teach about the risks of FGM is at best a waste of schools’ time and at worst is a condescending and patronising initiative that echoes the ‘let’s save these savages from themselves’ attitude that informed the Victorians who colonised our nations in Africa a hundred-plus years ago.
Most schools already have safeguarding policies in place that would allow them to take action if they heard or discovered that a pupil was at risk of FGM. Asking them to go further and actively to spy on their pupils, to go out of their way to discover hints or clues about the occurrence of FGM, will effectively turn schools into watchtowers of immigrant communities and their behaviour. Schools already have a hard time engaging with parents from such communities, because of language barriers and other social issues; putting all such parents under suspicion will only make them feel more alienated and isolated and probably make them less likely to engage with social institutions.