End the female circumcision panic

The real outcome of the debate on female genital mutilation is ever-greater state regulation of relationships.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics

‘Infibulation involves removing the clitoris, labia and narrowing the vaginal passage’, said the reporter for the BBC’s Newsnight in the hushed voice of someone really concerned and doing their best to be impartial. Cut to a close-up of a young girl’s face and her impassioned appeals to UK prime minister David Cameron to ‘do something’. It’s a hackneyed televisual cliché that led my 10-year-old son to exit the room in a huff, asking ‘Why is the news going on about women’s private parts? Who cares?’ Clearly his ’emotional empathy skills’ are a little underdeveloped.

Actually, my son had a point. Why was a news commentator telling us this? Who exactly cares – and what are they caring about? Despite the emotive nature of the topic, it is important to take a critical look at the discussion around female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C).

While the practice of FGM/C continues in some parts of the world, it is in decline – even in countries where it has been most prevalent, according to a UNICEF report from 2005. For example, a survey undertaken in Eritrea found that the proportion of daughters in a family who had been circumcised varied greatly depending upon the mother’s age. Among mothers aged 45 to 49 years old, the rate of daughters being circumcised was 82.3 per cent; for mothers aged 15 to 19, the rate was 23.2 per cent.

What about figures for the practice in Britain? The BBC report suggested ‘every year around 20,000 young women in the UK and France are “at risk” from female genital mutilation’, while noting that there have been no convictions for the practice in the UK, despite it being illegal.

So is there an actual news event? There is scant evidence of a major problem, just a familiar ‘tip of the iceberg’ statement and a demand that we should all be seriously worried about this.

But there is a far more to this than some dubious journalism. That’s because the discussion about FGM/C has some authoritarian implications. The following quote from the UNICEF report is revealing: ‘Education in this case is seen as a source of empowerment for women because it can facilitate their abilities to “gather and assimilate information, manipulate and control the modern world, and interact effectively with modern institutions”.’

It is familiar language; it sounds so enlightened and yet it is anything but. In other parts of the report, the authors acknowledge that many women support the practice of FGM/C because of a complex of traditional beliefs and customs, religion and a more pragmatic evaluation of things like marrying well. They do not support FGM/C or agree to undergo it because they are unable to ‘assimilate information’. Moreover, if controlling the modern world means to ‘interact effectively with modern institutions’, then these so-called victims of FGM/C don’t really have much power at all; control, and the measure of its ‘effectiveness’, is out of their hands from the start.

Education cannot be a ‘source of empowerment’ for people anywhere in the world – only individuals themselves can decide how, when and over what issues they wish to try to exert control. Knowledge can, of course, help in fostering greater understanding and more considered judgements, but not if it is pre-packaged into a straitjacket of ’empowering education’. Neither children in Britain nor adults in Africa need an education that aims to empower. What is needed is an education that educates.

The thinking behind such hyperbolic moral-outrage stories in Britain has authoritarian implications, not just for the families involved but for anyone connected with them. I used to teach in an inner-city secondary school with a high proportion of pupils from various countries, including those deemed ‘ethnic high-risk’ families from Ethiopia and Somalia. As I listened to the TV documentary explain how schools were turning a blind eye to the problem and were too concerned about appearing racist, I wondered: ‘What would I do if a girl came to me revealing her anxiety about possibly being circumcised?’ Would I go straight to some appointed female-genital mutilation/cutting officer, social services or the police? Would I report the pupil’s tale, fill in and file the appropriate form, and join in a collective sighing in the staffroom at the thought of such anti-women barbaric practices?

I might, if I felt it was right, or I might not. The important point is that the trajectory of what is being advocated in stories of this kind actually normalises the denial of my right to choose. The outcome advocated is invariably some form of monitoring or code of practice. There will be disagreement as to how much and who should do it; and it may not actually even result in another law. But nonetheless, by acquiescing to the discussion on the terms set, we concede that to be considered a caring or moral person means accepting someone else’s definition of a moral problem and our attitude towards it.

In fact, there is more than one way to approach this problem. If I was placed in that situation, I might start by talking confidentially with the girl in question. I may then decide to try to talk with her parents. After that, I don’t know. I’m not avoiding responsibility here; I just realise that at this point, whatever I decided to do would be shaped by my particular discussions and relationship with the individuals involved. I may or may not decide to seek advice or opinions from other people I trust.

To try to create a generic plan of what to do in such a situation, or to create another law based upon this particular practice, is unlikely to stop anyone determined to do it. It would, however, make it increasingly difficult for us to try to establish communication or relationships with people upon which we would be better able to make our own judgement.

I am not condoning the practice of female genital mutilation – the thought of it makes me wince and gulp hard. But just because a minority of people act irrationally and objectionably doesn’t mean we have to respond in kind.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics


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