Monday, 11 November 2013

Why we need more open dialogue about FGM in the UK (warning - graphic/disturbing image)

Yesterday evening I finally found time to watch Leyla Hussein's C4 documentary on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the UK.  I feel guilty about that "finally" because I should have seen it sooner, but in my defense I simply didn't know until I watched just how important it was that I - and everybody else - should watch it.

I believe I'm better informed about FGM than many Brits, certainly more so than most Brits who do not belong to one of the communities in which the practice is common.  I'd read the news articles (here and here too, and many more), and the websites campaigning against the practice.  If asked, I could have told you what FGM is, including the three recognised sub-types, and even quoted facts and figures about its prevalence.  I could have told you that it causes scarring (both physical and emotional), infections, difficulties with sex and in childbirth, infertility and occasionally even death.  I knew FGM is often - even usually - carried out without anaesthesia and without basic hygienic procedures.  I knew I was against FGM, knew it was a barbaric and totally unnecessary form of torture inflicted upon small girls with the aim of suppressing their sexuality in later life.  In short, I thought I knew what I was talking about.

Not a bit of it.  It turns out there is a WORLD of difference between knowing, intellectually, that FGM involves removal of the clitoris and clitoral hood, sometimes removal of the inner and/or outer labia, and sometimes the sewing up of the wound to leave only a small hole for urination, menstruation, sex and childbirth.  Actually seeing it done (in oversized model form), and seeing - briefly - the results is totally different.

I don't know about you, but I struggle to look at that - and that's been taken a long time after the woman pictured was mutilated, probably years.  I can't even begin to imagine the agony.

In her documentary, Hussein investigated the attitudes of the British public by setting up a fake petition in defense of FGM as a cultural practice, and was understandably distraught when almost everybody she asked on a high street signed it.  I would have been devastated too.

But although it's certainly true that there is some cultural relativism at play here, along with that fear of being thought racist that actually causes well-meaning people to be racist, there is another reason, I think, that so many people happily signed up to defend people's right to inflict this torture and mutilation on their daughters.  We just don't understand it, don't know enough about it.  However well-informed we may be on the cold facts about FGM, most of us I think lack the imagination to really understand what it really is, and what it does to people.  In fact, that was made clear in the documentary by the seismic shift in the attitudes of some young men Hussein talked to about it; before her demonstration they were ambivalent about FGM or even in favour of it; understanding exactly what it meant horrified them, and to a man they turned against the practice.  I know I didn't appreciate the horror until I saw images like the above; I know I probably still don't, because I will never have to live with it.

Now, there is a fine line to be trodden here.  Do I think people who are not at risk of being mutilated need to have a better understanding of what it really involves, and what it means?  Absolutely.  Do I want to risk turning it into a freakshow, potentially stripping FGM victims of their dignity or causing them to feel ashamed of something that was done to them, before they were old enough to bear responsibility for it?  Absolutely, categorically not.  I don't know where that line lies, but I do think we all need to have a more empathetic grasp of what FGM is and what it means; all the statistics in the world, I think, can't bring it home to those of us who've never had to deal with it in our own lives.

Hussein has set up a petition to the UK government which needs 100,000 signatures to be considered for debate in the Commons.  Please, please sign it; thousands of girls are at risk in the UK, right now, and the UK has never had a single prosecution for FGM despite the fact that it has been a crime here since 1985.  If you've any doubts at all about the need to stop this practice, watch the documentary; this is abuse and torture that leads to lifelong suffering.  It can't be allowed to continue within reach of our arms.