The UK can’t take FGM lying down

In Opinion on January 9, 2013 at 3:41 PM

Last week, Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), announced significant changes to the enforcement of child protection legislation relating to those who mutilate girls and babies, notably in a repressive faith-based context.

About time too. For the same investigative work from The Independent on Sunday revealed that – despite fears of tens of thousands of cases of female genital mutilation (FGM); illegal, unappealing and almost by definition unasked for – there have been precisely zero prosecutions of complicit parents in the UK (there have been over 100 such prosecutions in France since 1988).

The research suggests that governmental organisations are being deficient in their monitoring of the issue. This has led Keir Starmer to, quite reasonably, claim it will take around 25 years for current legislation to lead to successful prosecution, as current law requires girls to come forward themselves. This situation is very problematic, for there’s a rather troublesome catch 22 at work: the parental conditions that lead to FGM are often the same ones that prevent such a big disclosure from a child of their parent, which could lead to their separation.

This is not to really point the finger at respective UK governments for the problems, though. Granted, officials could have taken a more proactive approach. But if anything it’s actually an unfortunate side effect of factors nearly everyone all in liberal, democratic society would applaud – a state which values the life and privacy of families enough to (broadly) allow them self-determination in their own home, and a state which extends those freedom to all, regardless of colour or creed. But, whether it has already or not, there is certainly scope for such policy to lead to gooey relativism, serving to undermine those selfsame family members’ freedoms rather than support them.

No, the blood should be on the hands of the parents and facilitators (indeed sometimes literally is), certainly in the more extreme cases of genital mutilation. This is not an outright attack on religion per se (or at least not necessarily – the charge is as much yours as mine). As in truth, nowadays I generally leave religion alone, and it, in turn, has the courtesy to reciprocate the comfortable indifference – at least beyond the screaming headlines from parts of country and wider world where such apathy is unfortunately not so much a choice. As a case in point, though I disagree with the general religious stance on gay marriage (not good; be straight, please), I couldn’t really give two hoots over the recent controversy. Gays can be gay, and religion can be religion – that is, ‘upstanding and traditional’ or ‘bigoted and hate-filled’ (delete as applicable). Similarly with the whole women bishops controversy. I’m broadly for female equality, but if anything the furore left me more baffled by the ‘liberal secular left’. The Church can’t exactly be accused of false advertising on these matters, and surely religious rejection is, if anything, a badge of honour for the social activist’s cause?!

But there’s a profound difference between these matters and FGM. In the former, are adults who have freely chosen their sexuality and how to define their gender; in the latter, kids, even babies, who have most decidedly not. Gay people and women can in Britain can freely associate with religion, but the physical effects of FGM cannot be chosen – or at least not without much coercion – and often require significant mental and physical pain to overcome. Frankly, I know this may offend some – though may be not in this particular audience – but offence in itself in nothing but a weaselly whine as Stephen Fry so eloquently put it, and rest assured the practice of FGM offends against the fundamental principles of people’s liberty and intellectual freedom. As I hope I’ve described above I’m not – or at least not really – trying to change religion. (Not to say FGM is exclusively a traditional religious issue. Practised as it is mainly in Saharan African countries and to a lesser extent in Arabian Asia – and their immigrant communities – it does have a strong correlation with the Muslim world; but there are a whole host of tribal, parental, superstitious and cultural factors at least not directly related to traditional religion at work. Indeed, many leading Muslims have publicly denounced it). But this is kind of the point; I don’t even think the practice is consistent with the consensus feeling in traditional religion.

To wit, the idea of faith is, surely, choosing to believe (often in the face of arguably better evidence). And many religious people I know, personally or through the media, would agree religion is – or at least should be – a choice. Indeed, this is the idea of the fundamental profession of faith, the shahadah – the core tenet of Islam, the religion/culture in which much FGM occurs. (I asked a Muslim friend about this idea of choice and he seemed to broadly agree, in saying, essentially, Muslims are born with an innate idea of God – and are thus, in a sense, ‘Muslims’ themselves – but may choose to leave this.) Admittedly, identity in Judaism – where circumcision is common – is more bound up in ideas of inheritance than choice – someone technically being a Jew if their mother is, irrespective of personal belief. But in practice, there seems to be less pressure on Jews than Muslims to adhere to their faith in anything more than technicality. See the contrast between views from the Muslim world on censorship and the great number of Jews in the media who feel free to mock their heritage, as in the great tradition of Jewish-American comedy including Sarah Silverman and Woody Allen, or those that positively renounce it, such as Stephen Fry and the late Christopher Hitchens.

If one holds the above – that religion should be a choice, and one that shouldn’t be imposed on one’s children, or at least no more ardently and forcibly than one’s politics – it is plain nonsense to believe one should be allowed to, often indelibly, change their genitalia – biologically and symbolically one of if not the most important parts of the anatomy – to suit one’s own ends, before – often well before – any sensible person would consider the child mature and experienced to make such an important decision themselves. This physical description is not to mention all the vicarious guilt and shame over sex often conferred by the act, often resulting in profound emotional distress.

I should that add my objections mainly refer to FGM. Male circumcision – as often practised within Judaism and, to a lesser extent, Islam – does not instinctively appal the same way, I think partly – and illogically – because it is more established, but mostly because the medical outlook on it ranges from ‘modest benefits outweighing slight risks’ to ‘no benefits and significant risks’ (what a ringing endorsement!). But thinking about it, the idea of taking such a big decision for someone else, somewhat or wholly without their informed consent, is comparable, and should therefore be treated similarly, on moral terms at least.

To pre-empt some – admittedly somewhat straw man – criticisms, yes, circumcision and FGM are faith-based tradition for many, and preventing it impairs on parents’ freedom. I don’t deny these facts, but I will say they are, in themselves, nothing arguments. Just because something is tradition or custom does not render it good; until relative recently (in history) widespread slavery was tradition (on which, incidentally, the Bible, was either neutral, divided or indifferent towards or even explicitly endorsed). And, yes, it negates parental freedom, but so does preventing domestic violence against children in the home…and gun laws… shoplifting laws… paedophilia laws. And to the other counter-accusation – that of racial/cultural offence, often tied into the above – I will simply say: at least opponents of FGM and circumcision cannot be reasonably accused of double standards (unless giving one’s kid a bad haircut is in the same league). And if you don’t want feel accused or offended, simple – don’t practice or condone genital mutilation.

We neuter dogs and cats. And, lovely as our feline and canines friends are, does it not somewhat bring us down to their level of servility if we fundamentally deny or restrict humans their sexuality?

Joel Durston

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