FGM crusade: with feminists like this, who needs misogynists?

Anti-FGM campaigning is doing violence to women's rights.

Brid Hehir

Topics Politics

The bones of feminists who fought and died for women’s liberation, bodily autonomy, equality and independence from the state must have been rattling in their graves this week. Because thanks to the efforts of morally disorientated, modern feminists, whose activism has been reduced to an obsession with the body and sex and who have been campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM), the British state has just announced that it will effectively be pulling down the pants of girls ‘at risk’ of FGM and inspecting their genitals.

The government’s new anti-FGM measures attracted a lot of media attention, but very little opposition or criticism. They were considered by many to be ‘a welcome sign that the problem [of FGM] is at last being taken more seriously by the authorities’. But there is nothing welcome about this latest state drive against FGM.

A feminist crusade

Feminists have an ignoble history with regards to campaigning against what used to be known as female genital cutting or circumcision, but which is now called mutilation. They’ve taken what is a traditional social custom and practice, carried out for various reasons within certain communities, renamed it mutilation, and redefined it as an act of child abuse that must be punished by the state. With the aid of ‘tip of the iceberg’ scaremongering about FGM’s prevalence, they have also made it look as if FGM is on the increase in the West.

Although FGM has been a campaigning and awareness-raising issue for feminists for some time, up to the mid-twentieth century it was viewed as a domestic, non-state matter. But from the 1960s onwards, things began to change. Activists from the West, and some from African nations, have turned genital cutting into a gender-based, human-rights violation. They believe it underscores violence and discrimination against women and girls, and supports women’s oppression and subordination within patriarchal communities. These new arguments were not universally welcomed, however, and some African women, who had been attempting to end FGM in their own way, criticised Western feminists for their writings on the subject.

For example, the Association of African Women for Research and Development stated in 1983: ‘In trying to reach their own public, the new crusaders have fallen back on sensationalism, and have become insensitive to the dignity of the very women they want to “save”. They are totally unconscious of the latent racism which such a campaign evokes in countries where ethnocentric prejudice is deeply rooted.’

These concerns and objections were ignored. Awareness-raising and campaigning started to pay off, as anti-FGM campaigners gradually gained an audience and support from influential international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the Organisation of African Unity, along with most Western governments.

An authoritarian solution

This week, shocking measures, designed to prevent and curtail the ‘scourge’ of FGM, were announced in the UK. Justice minister Mike Penning said vulnerable girls are to be helped by new laws prohibiting FGM, ‘a harmful and traditional practice’. He said: ‘We are introducing an unprecedented package of measures to strengthen protection for victims, encourage them to report the crime to the police and get support. We also want to prosecute those who knowingly let this terrible abuse happen to children they are responsible for.’

The new measures include:

  • A requirement for passports to be surrendered in order to prevent girls from being taken abroad for FGM. Victims, potential victims or third parties – including teachers, carers, social workers, police and local authorities – who believe there is a real risk of FGM taking place will be able to apply to the court for a non-travel order against particular women and girls
  • Mandatory genital medical examinations of girls believed to be at risk
  • At-risk girls will be required to live at a named address to enable authorities to check they have not been subjected to FGM
  • Victims will receive lifelong anonymity to encourage them to give evidence in court. Plus, a lower burden of proof will be required in FGM cases than for other criminal charges

It’s not as if there is not a raft of FGM legislation already in existence. FGM was made a specific offence in Britain in 1985. Lord Kennet, encouraged by the Women’s Action Group on Female Excision and Infibulation (WAGFEI), was instrumental in this development. The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 criminalised the carrying out of, or the aiding and abetting of, acts of FGM. This act was replaced and extended by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which came into force in 2004.

The Female Genital Mutilation Act states specifically that, in defining those who are protected under UK law, ‘girl includes woman’, thus infantilising adult women and treating their capacity to consent as no different from that of a child. This telling definition seems to have been ignored by feminists and everybody else over the years. Yet this denies to women the right to bodily autonomy, the right to have their genitals altered in the absence of medical need. The law was framed to criminalise surgery, like reinfibulation, that an adult woman has freely consented to.

With the new act, the scope for prosecuting has been extended to include outlawing the taking of a girl abroad for FGM. The maximum penalty for breaking the law was also increased in 2004, from five years to 14 years in prison. Now, the government, in the Serious Crime Bill, is creating a new offence of failing to protect a girl from FGM.

Anyone with parental responsibility for a girl who is mutilated under the age of 16, and who has been in frequent contact with her, will be potentially liable if they knew, or ought to have known, that there was a significant risk of FGM being carried out. The bill also extends the extra-territorial offences in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, so that they cover habitual as well as permanent UK residents involved in offences of FGM committed abroad – thus closing a loophole that had left some girls who were living in the UK but were not permanent residents vulnerable.

Who and how many are ‘at risk’?

We are constantly told that many women and girls in Britain are at risk from FGM. In truth, there is scant evidence that FGM is being carried out on any significant scale, if at all, in Britain.

Until recently, it was estimated that 66,000 women and girls were likely to have undergone FGM in England and Wales – and this was widely regarded as a ‘tip of the iceberg’ estimate. That figure has just been revised upwards by researchers from Equality Now and City University, to take into account changes in immigration from FGM-practising countries. The number of girls and women aged between 15 and 49 in England and Wales who have undergone FGM is now estimated to be 103,000. In addition, it’s assumed there are approximately 24,000 women over the age of 50 who have had FGM, having been born in FGM-practising countries, and nearly 10,000 girls aged under 14 who were born in FGM-practising countries and who have undergone, or are likely to undergo, FGM.

Combining the figures for the three age groups, Equality Now and City University researchers argue that approximately 137,000 women and girls with FGM, born in countries where FGM is practised, were permanent residents in England and Wales in 2011. And it is suggested that these figures might still be underestimated. But how were these figures reached? By looking at the countries in which FGM traditionally occurs, estimating its prevalence there and then projecting these estimates on to the relevant immigrant communities in England and Wales. This means that the researchers assume that the behaviour of immigrants is fixed in regard to FGM and will not change. That assumption seems to be based more on prejudice than hard facts but it seems to have provided the basis for this week’s proposals.

There has been plenty of political support for the anti-FGM crusade. Mandatory genital examinations were publicly advocated by Labour MP Diane Abbott, and backed by other MPs in a parliamentary debate in March 2014, as a way of securing prosecutions. And at a recent parliamentary inquiry into FGM, representatives from France, whose FGM prevention work and management is considered a field-leader, summarised their approach as follows: Children up to the age of six have regular medical check-ups, including genital examinations; receipt of social security is dependent on participation; ‘at risk’ girls have medical examinations every year and whenever they return from abroad; acts of omission are also criminalised; and failure to assist a person in danger of FGM can result in a heavy fine or imprisonment.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), a leading child-protection charity constantly on the lookout for new forms of child abuse, has also been proactive in encouraging the public to believe that FGM is rife in modern Britain; it even runs a specific FGM ‘helpline’. Having voiced concerns that girls are being cut at a younger age in a bid to avoid detection, the NSPCC has proactively supported nursery staff in the London Borough of Islington to pioneer training in spotting signs of FGM.

An indictment of contemporary feminism

It might surprise feminists and campaigners to learn that Jay Kamara-Frederick, who had been sexually abused before having FGM aged 15, disagrees vehemently with calling FGM abuse: ‘I have a problem with that because I don’t believe that a child who undergoes FGM comes from a family that is abusing them. Most come from a loving home. When you’ve been abused yourself you know what abuse looks like.’ She also refuses to let herself be defined as mutilated, saying ‘I am not FGM’.

It’s a real indictment of today’s feminists that they are actively calling on and colluding with the state in restricting people’s freedom of movement, removing passports, supporting racist finger-pointing to identify ‘at risk’ children, girls and young women, and supporting mandatory examination of girls’ genitals. In the form of safe houses, they are also encouraging the state to ‘protect’ young girls from the people who love them the most: their families and communities. They’d presumably be happier if immigrants from the developing world became as self-obsessed with their bodies, sex and the clitoris as the feminists here have become.

Brid Hehir is a fundraiser and a retired nurse. Her Battle in Print, The Emperor’s New Clothes. The dangers of the anti FGM campaign, can be accessed here.

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Topics Politics


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