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Cutting Us Down To Size: Working to End Female Genital Mutilation

03/09/2013 14:23 | Updated 02 November 2013

It's an interesting thing, being a British human rights activist 'of colour', feeling at once absolutely British and completely international. Usually, this position is enriching and inspiring. I am invested in relatively local (and by local I mean within the UK, America or Western Europe) protests against everything including endemic sexual violence, sexual harassment, victim-blaming and perpetrator impunity, 'casual' misogyny, workplace discrimination against mothers and the extreme under-representation of women at all higher-than-bog-standard levels of professional and public life. I am distressed and repulsed by the extreme pornification of women and of our self-objectification, falsity, body anxiety and cruel judgement of ourselves and other women.

I am delighted by the resurgence in feminist activism over the last five years and proud to be a part of it. Debates about rape, 'domestic' violence, johns' and punters' rental and use of women for sexual purposes, low sentencing for perpetrators and the marginalisation of women have become mainstream while our critical questioning of institutions and authority is growing more acute by the day.

At the same time, however, I am sometimes embarrassed by the way global women's issues are interpreted in the Western European and American media. Causes are taken up and touted as the great issue of the day, written about from afar in a tone of heart-wrenched horror and weeping sympathy for the (unindividuated) victims, undercut by an air of cultural superiority, ignorance of nuance, blindness to other countries' own activist and resistance movements and, sometimes, plain insincerity. I lost faith in William Hague, who advocated around the issue of the use of rape in conflict, when he was spotted mouthing "Stupid woman" when MP Cathy Jamieson spoke in Parliament. Basic human respect is not conditional, William, and there is no in-between; assertive white women in politics deserve basic respect, just as much as traumatised 'global' women caught up in men's war games do. Women of the world, in war and peace alike, do not want you as our little patron if you are so casually misogynistic when sitting comfortably right in the seat of power.

Rape in conflict is an easy issue to campaign about if you are advocating for women: widespread, appalling, unambiguously horrific and besmirched with extreme taboo and stigmatisation for victims and survivors. It is also comfortingly foreign; it happens far away, in war-torn places where the infrastructure, morals and law and order have collapsed and a state has become fragile. This fits grievously closely with the Orientalist and colonialist stereotypes that the exploiting nations, including Britain, France and the Netherlands, held towards the countries they appropriated and used. Their justifications for colonial exploitation were at once a reason for correction and an invitation for enjoyment: their target countries were (they claimed) chaotic, unable to govern themselves, rich in resources but low on logic, emotionally childlike yet base, barbarian and exotic, sensually gifted but mentally weak, formless and dissolute, easy to plunder and hard to discipline, driven by tradition and custom, tribal and clannish, devoted to old, backward and illogical practices, requiring purification, structure, refinement and the moral and intellectual ascension that only a superior race, culture, religion and society could bring.

The standard tone of reporting on global women's issues still carries a shadow of these assumptions. Forced marriages, female infanticide, child marriage (a very alarming euphemism for outright child abuse and the rape of girl children), female genital mutilation: all are covered with genuine concern and yet simultaneously with an attitude that these terrible things are happening in distant and different places, by distant and different people who have not reached the levels of gender equality in the West. I mean, the UK gold standard of endemic sexual violence and harassment, 2 women a week killed by their current or ex partner, a rape conviction rate of less than 7% of the meagre 10% of rapes which are reported: like that's something to aspire to.

There is, alongside the patronage, a sense of superiority, of 'them' and 'us', the 'progressive' versus the 'backward'. Yet the real picture is much more complex and I am sometimes humiliated or simply enraged by the sheer smugness, ignorance and condescension of so many Western commentators, often those who consider themselves the most enlightened.

Still, progress can be made in changing attitudes and actions globally. In the last couple of years I've read coverage of female genital mutilation - or female genital cutting, or female circumcision if you want to take a forgiving view, which I don't - and witnessed a subtle shifting of emphasis. At first, the stress was on barbarism, unthinking tradition, primitive custom; who were these backward people butchering their daughters? Then a veil of self-consciousness descended among liberal commentators: was this a 'cultural thing' that other cultures shouldn't meddle in or judge? Was cultural relativism good or bad? Is abuse just abuse, a universal standard? And then there was an admission of ignorance. Nobody knew quite where female genital cutting had originated. Was it religious? Did it cross boundaries of class, country, language? How many girls and women had undergone it? How was it done, and who by?

Finally, there was an analysis of the reasons. Was it to do with the control of women's and girls' bodies? Was it an older generation demonstrating that they had the ability to show authority, to violate their young? Was it about traumatised women visiting the same pain on girls, using custom as an excuse, in some subconsciously re-enacted cycle of abuse? Was it about controlling women's sexuality? Was it the result of a sincere belief in doing what was right for a daughter's health and happiness? Did it spring from misogynist clichés about what must be done to make a girl tame, obedient, clean, beautiful - because (as the perverse and sadistic reasoning goes) without being cut she would be, like all women, unruly, defiant, dirty, ugly, naturally imperfect?

It's all these reasons and more, yet at their heart are age old prejudices about the filthiness, cunning and waywardness of women; the belief, which has been ripe since the Ancient Greeks, that women's physical form and mental proclivities are so naturally inclined to corruption that they must be curbed, forcibly diminished, altered. We are socially, culturally and literally cut down to size. Although the practitioners harming the girls are women, who were themselves harmed as girls by other women, their justifications, their disavowals and their assertions are solidly patriarchal. On the issue of gender, global campaigning organisation The Orchid Project, which is dedicated to ending the practice, gives a wry analysis:

Female genital cutting is required in order to make a good marriage match, because it is thought to indicate purity and virginity. In this sense, men support the practice by only marrying women who have undergone FGC. In order to reach collective abandonment of the practice, men must be willing to marry a woman regardless of whether or not she has been cut. Although FGC puts women at a marked disadvantage in society, the practice is primarily perpetuated by women and passed down from mother to daughter. Men may have a very limited awareness of FGC and its consequences. The practice is very much considered a 'woman's issue' and men tend not to get overly involved outside of the marriage process.

The work of The Orchid Project has been invaluable in showing, with great clarity, the reasons, history and arguments surrounding female genital cutting. For anyone learning about this issue, The Orchid Project is the first and best place to go. They point out that female genital cutting is not a religious issue, that it spans many countries and that it has serious physical and mental consequences for the women and girls who have undergone it. They are also clear-eyed about what it will take for the practice to stop:

Female genital cutting is a [what is known as] social norm. This means that it is held in place by the entire community. One individual acting alone cannot shift a social norm - the entire community must work together collectively.

Another heroine in this movement, for me, is the activist Nimko Ali who founded the Daughters of Eve to lobby decision-makers, raise consciousness and give a voice to victims. I fully support both the aims and the feminist analysis of the organisation, which, they say,

...works to advance and protect the physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health rights of young people from female genital mutilation practising communities.

We recognise female genital mutilation (FGM) as a form of gender-based violence, which ....reflects and reinforces inequities between men and women and compromises the health, dignity, security and autonomy of its victims.

Daughters of Eve have produced a fantastic film - including a very cute vulva cake image - which I urge everyone to watch. They also point followers to an excellent, detailed and sometimes disturbing documentary, The Cutting Tradition, narrated by Meryl Streep, which further exposes and debates the practice and reveals its consequences. You can watch the 47 minute film here, it was commissioned by the International Federation of Obstetricians & Gynecologists and filmed in Ethiopia, Egypt, Djibouti, Burkina Faso and the UK.

Meanwhile, the committed and admirable campaigner Waris Dirie must be credited for speaking about this issue with great eloquence, directness and urgency, for years before the message got through to people and FGM was taken up by the mainstream as a human rights cause. For me, she is really where it all began and her Desert Flower Foundation does invaluable work.

And now here's also the amazing, the cool, the hip Sister Fa - Senegalese rapper, campaigner, icon and frontwoman of the Sarabah documentary. The documentary, made by Maria Luisa Gambale, Glora Bremer and Steven Lawrence, follows Sister Fa as she fights to stop the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) in her home country:

Sister Fa has continually smashed barriers in the male-dominated hip-hop world. But as this intimate film reveals, her strength of character was forged in a journey of hardship and transformation. Now... Sister Fa is ready to speak out about her own experience as a survivor of FGC. Sister Fa and her band travel to rural Senegal, where she launches a music-packed education campaign that culminates in an emotional visit to her home village.

Sister Fa is currently involved with her consciousness-raising Education Without Cutting tour, which couples her fiery personality and strong presentation with her campaigning work against FGM, in favour of girls' right to education and against child marriage. However, she has encountered violent and direct physical resistance, in some places, by those who want to keep FGM as a cultural practice. The report chillingly states how a mob, "all young", reacted with extreme aggression to her campaigning.

Still, women's voices are rising. We are now at a stage of increasing global consciousness, campaigning and action. The activists are knowledgeable and experienced, speaking out both in defiance of the silencing willed by perpetrators and FGM advocates (sometimes by force, as in Sister Fa's case) and the misassumptions and clichés of commentators. The move to end female genital cutting has resulted in debates, promises for targeted action and clear condemnation by international bodies including the UN and the WHO.

The deep, holistic change that The Orchid Project advocates is happening from the ground up. While reading Womankind Worldwide's Summer 2013 newsletter I was fascinated by their report on ending FGM in Ethiopia, written by Ellen Stuart. The newsletter referred to the December 2012 UN resolution banning FGM and pointed out that "an estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM." Yet it also highlighted one case study in which attitudes and practices were changed by the power of communication, conversation and community.

Womankind Worldwide credited activist Bogaletch Gebre, co-founder of charity KMG Ethiopia, for instigating conversations with perpetrators of female genital mutilation. Due to this consciousness-raising initiative, in the Kembatta area there has been a decrease in FGM from 97% to less than 3% - sparing more than 175,000 girls from suffering the practice. Through the inclusion of the women doing the cutting and other community members in meetings, they both question the practice and develop girls' own confidence in resisting it. There is additional support and training from law enforcement agents and health workers. In such a way, deep beliefs and longstanding practices can be addressed and changed with diplomacy and strength. The practitioner of FGM who is mentioned in the Womankind Worldwide piece sees herself as a circumciser and it must be added, as Daughters of Eve points out, that "parents genuinely think that they are doing the right thing for their daughters. In communities where all women have FGM and all girls are expected to have it, FGM can seem normal." Womankind Worldwide corroborate this in their report, ending on a cautiously optimistic note:

In February [2013], the UN said data showed that fewer girls in Africa and the Middle East are being subjected to FGM and that it is possible to end the practice. But attitudes must change to achieve this....