Anti-FGM activists demean women

FGM fearmongers assume that parents are incapable of changing their attitudes.

Brid Hehir

Topics Politics

The long-predicted epidemic of female genital mutilation (FGM) has yet to materialise in Britain. But that has not stopped the continued assertion that it is only a matter of time before it does.

Nimco Ali, an anti-FGM activist, is the latest to claim that FGM is rife in the UK. Such is the perceived extent of the problem – officials estimate that 65,000 girls are at risk – that Ali is urging the UK Home Office and the Department for Education to place the girls on a new FGM protection register.

Ali is not afraid to presume parents are guilty before anything is proven. She claims that a three-year-old, who recently needed emergency genital surgery, may have undergone FGM at the hands of her ‘scumbag parents’. That trial is yet to be held. Ali is also not worried about asserting parents’ guilt after they have been proven innocent, claiming that a Londoner, who was cleared by a jury of arranging for his daughter to undergo the procedure, is likely to be guilty after all.

Why is Ali so convinced that FGM is being carried out all around us? That it is an ‘open secret’ in certain communities in London? Because she claims that if a woman has undergone FGM, she is likely either to see it as normal, or to be part of a family where FGM is culturally accepted. A mother will therefore approve of her daughter undergoing FGM. In arguing this, Ali denies parents, and mothers in particular, any independent agency.

But beyond her fevered imagination, every analysis of the data so far collected suggests that FGM is far from prevalent. According to data collated by the NHS since 2015, most patients doctors have seen who have undergone FGM did so before coming to live in the UK. The few people who are recorded as having undergone FGM in Britain are predominantly under 18, caucasian and have had genital piercings. Genital piercing has actually been illegal since the FGM Act 2003, but in the absence of actual ‘mutilation’, it is now being viewed and reported as FGM.

The problem with the anti-FGM activists’ worldview is that they are incapable of understanding that people can change their thinking and form their own judgements as to what is acceptable. Just because a mother suffered FGM as a child, it does not follow that she would automatically want her own daughter to undergo it. People do not blindly adhere to cultural traditions.

In fact, two scholars from Sweden, Sara Johnsdotter and Birgitta Essen, reviewed research in 2016 that showed that people’s attitudes and behaviour can change drastically under favourable social conditions. They cite anthropologist Ellen Gruenbaum, who argued that when ‘reformers assume that people follow “tradition” for no conscious reason, they overlook the complexity of decision-making processes within a culture’. It seems that many people, after moving to a new country and therefore freeing themselves of the pressure to conform to certain traditions, are willing to change their behaviour, and, in this case, cease FGM.

The lack of evidence to support the contention that FGM is happening here, however, does not stop activists like Ali from asserting that it does. And because Ali hails from the Somali community where, according to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 98 per cent of females have undergone FGM, she is readily believed.

Ali argues that putting girls from communities that traditionally practice FGM on the FGM protection register would stop their mothers from repeating the mistakes of their own parents. Yet it is already to these mothers’ credit that, according to actual data and research, they have changed their attitudes and behaviour. Anti-FGM activists, through their negative stereotyping and deterministic assumptions, are doing these women a massive disservice.

Brid Hehir is a writer, researcher and a retired nurse. Visit her blog, FGM/C Shifting Sands.

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Topics Politics


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