Time to end the FGM panic

Claims that female genital mutilation is endemic in the UK rest on dodgy stats and barely concealed racial prejudice.

Saleha Ali

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A new report from the UK Royal College of Midwifery, Nursing and Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) on female genital mutilation (FGM) warns that thousands of British girls are being failed by the health and justice systems. The report, Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK, argues that FGM should be treated like child abuse and must be reported to the police. As RCOG policy adviser and report co-author Janet Fyle remarks: ‘If we are applying child protection laws, we cannot pick and choose which crimes against children we pursue.’

In fact, FGM has been a serious crime in the UK since 1985. A legislative amendment introduced in 2003 recommends a prison sentence of up to 14 years for anyone who carries out FGM on a UK citizen abroad. But so far, there has not been a single conviction.

Anti-FGM campaigners argue that the reason for the lack of convictions is that political correctness and cultural sensitivity are making people uneasy about acting on their suspicions. Anti-FGM campaigners point to France as an example of how to tackle FGM. There the state carries out surveillance of high-risk families through routine medical checks. As a result, France has the highest FGM conviction rate in Europe, with 100 people found guilty since 1982.

Yet while the fact that anybody could mutilate their own daughter in this manner is shocking, France’s conviction rate of three cases per year hardly suggests an endemic problem. What we’re witnessing with the RCOG report and the subsequent media coverage is an attempt to use misleading statistics and anecdotal evidence to bolster the anti-FGM campaign.

But what of the staggering headline figure that 24,000 British girls are ‘at risk’ of FGM every year? This figure has been arrived at by projecting the prevalence of FGM in practising countries on to immigrant populations now living in the UK. Aside from the fact that FGM is on the wane globally, we are to assume that migrating to modern Britain has no impact on the supposedly backward attitudes and barbaric practices of immigrants. The ‘at risk’ population is also defined as girls born to a woman who has undergone FGM herself, with a London-based women’s organisation, Imkaan, finding that 7,000 women affected by FGM give birth in London each year. So, on the basis of little more than speculation and prejudice, RCOG and its coterie of supporters are encouraging people to assume that immigrant mothers from certain countries are ready and willing child abusers.

Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK also calls for a government-funded awareness strategy, similar to the HIV campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. There is of course little wrong with a public-awareness campaign to highlight the health risks of FGM, not to mention its illegality. But the main problem with the anti-FGM campaign is not only that it is wasteful and ineffective; it is also likely to divide communities. The anti-FGM campaign relies on inflated figures and an emphasis on individual horror stories to justify oppressive interventions into the lives of immigrant families.

The question is not whether the practice of mutilating girls is disgusting and cruel; rather, it is to ask whether the report’s proposals are justified given the dearth of evidence that FGM is actually a big problem in the UK. At the moment, the FGM discussion amounts to little more than fearmongering about supposedly backward inner-city immigrant families with their abhorrent cultural practices.

Anti-FGM groups and politicians will no doubt counter that Britain is a soft touch for those who practice FGM. Public health minister Jane Ellison says that cultural sensitivity is one of the biggest barriers to stopping FGM and safeguarding potential victims: ‘[The authorities] didn’t want to seem to be culturally insensitive, they didn’t want to tread where they didn’t feel comfortable in terms of understanding the people and the countries where some families came from. But because of that caution, bizarrely we’ve ended up protecting these vulnerable girls the least.’

The Cruel Cut, a Channel 4 documentary which aired last week, followed activist Leyla Hussein in her campaign to end FGM in the UK. Hussein sought to show just how blindly and easily the British public will submit to cultural relativism. ‘One of the most powerful and disturbing parts of the filming for me was when, to demonstrate that we are walking on cultural eggshells in Britain, I took to the streets asking people to sign a petition in favour of FGM. I was shocked that in less than 30 minutes I got 19 signatures. The fact that people thought it was okay because it’s someone’s culture was really scary.’

I’m sure if Hussein had asked people to sign exactly the opposite petition – to end FGM in the UK – she would have had similar results. In short, there is no mass movement to support FGM. The public-awareness campaign seems to be more an attempt to reclaim British values from the decadence of cultural relativism than a way to tackle any real impediment in the fight against FGM.

Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK also recommends the rolling out of mandatory reporting and the holding of frontline professionals to account against agreed standards for addressing FGM. The assumption, again, is that health workers are reluctant to screen for or report FGM cases because they see such processes as culturally insensitive. Yet, once more, there doesn’t seem to be any research or evidence to show that health workers and doctors are coming across cases of FGM and not reporting them. The claim that doctors and nurses are turning a blind eye to what is an illegal act, something that many regard as fairly extreme brutality, is an extraordinary charge. And besides, if the supposed gap between a high instance of FGM and a low conviction-rate really is the result of a failure to report by health workers and medical professionals, why is this not being discussed as a problem within the health services?

So, given the sheer lack of evidence for the prevalence of FGM in the UK, why has the campaign become increasingly obsessed with proving that FGM is rampant? It seems that the objectionable actions of a few have served up the perfect moral crusade, providing an easy answer to a profound crisis in Western identity: it enables the right and certain liberals to assert their identity and smack down cultural relativism and it gives the left a sense of purpose because it can talk about racism and double-standards – ‘if it was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl, everyone would be up in arms!’.

In seeking residence within Britain, the anti-FGM campaign brings together dominant contemporary trends: a fear of immigration and the more generalised anxiety about child abuse. The lack of evidence, the idea that professionals are not reporting incidents, is transformed into proof that FGM is not being tackled. The only end result will be more intervention, not just into the lives of immigrant communities within Britain, but also into the affairs of foreign sovereign states where FGM is still practiced. There is also no doubt that the suspicion-mongering here will lead to greater racial profiling of immigrant communities, prompting yet more surveillance of teachers, doctors, parents, and teenage girls.

Saleha Ali is a writer and researcher based in London.

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