A crime in the UK
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sometimes dubbed “female circumcision”, is inflicted upon young girls in select cultures, commonly originating inAfrica, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Today, there are 200 million survivors in over 29 countries.
In the UK, the number of survivors is 137,000. FGM is a crime under UK law, but there has only every been one conviction. The mother of a three-year-old girl will be sentenced on Friday, and faces up to 14 years in prison.
A bill is being debated in Parliament today with Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith as its sponsor. If passed, it will enable courts to intervene on behalf of girls before abuse has occurred. But during the bill’s second reading, a shout of ‘Object!’ rang through the Commons. It came from the Conservative MP for Christchurch, Sir Christopher Chope.
An unlikely ally
Chope’s ‘Object!’ is a familiar one. It barricaded a bill to pardon Alan Turing (the WWII decoder criminalised, chemically castrated and debatably killed for being gay), the 2008 Climate Change Act, and last year’s Upskirting Bill.
“He’s got a pretty grim record in terms of blocking uncontentious obvious no-brainer initiatives that Parliament should be dealing with,” said Zac Goldsmith, the MP sponsoring the anti-FGM bill, in an interview with People Who Do Things.
Christopher Chope did not respond to a request for comment, but in a comment for The Telegraph, he said his objection to teh bill is unrelated to its contents, instead based on the fact it is a Private Members Bill (PMB), meaning it faces one less layer of debate than government legislation.
“He’s a hypocrite,” said Goldsmith. “He tables endless PMBs in his own name and usually waves through bills in the name of his friends.”
In the wake of his objection to the Upskirting Bill, Chope lodged 32 PMBs of his own, addressing issues such as stamp duty, vegetable classifications and the habitats bats are kept in.
“By objecting, he’s not facilitating further debate on the issue, he’s shutting it down.”
Yet in in Goldsmith’s eyes, Chope may have done the bill an unexpected favour.
Very few PMBs make it through to law. In this case, Chope’s provocative objection cleared a space for activists like FGM survivor Nimco Ali to charge onto the media and make a powerful case for legislation. The government had no choice but to give the bill proper time, which is why it’s being debated today. And if things go smoothly, it will take a much faster route to law than it could ever have done without Chope’s help.
The pitfalls of Parliament
While that may seem satisfactory to proponents of the bill, this signals cause for concern. For every case the media latches onto, there are many more slipping through unnoticed. With assassins like Chope around, how many worthy causes never see the light of day?
“Parliament is a place of rather strange procedures and customs that I don’t think anyone fully understands,” said Goldsmith. “It’s basically lottery.”
PMBs are randomly balloted and, typically, only the top three or four have any chance of becoming law. The ordering has no basis in logic and can lead to highly idiosyncratic bills placing number one, with vitally important ones failing to break the top 20.
Specifically, unless an amendment has captured the public imagination, Goldsmith says most MPs will not even look at it.
“People rely on their whips to tell them how to vote. Often, when they do they have no idea what they’ve just voted on.”
The power of public pressure
There’s a lesson in the anti-FGM bill getting parliamentary airtime as a result of substantial public pressure. If events had been left down to parliamentary proceedings, this, along with so many other meaningful bills, would never have seen the light of day. The takeaway is clear: public expression works.
And few express themselves louder than Nimco Ali.
She is fighting a scary battle. The backlash she experiences is violent and often. “That’s really hard when you also have to deal with your family not supporting you, on top of your own personal trauma,” she told People Who Do Things.
Vocal, popular support, is crucial for her morale.
She told me people have publicly offered to kill her for £500. She once got beaten off a bus with a kick in the chest. “2012 to 2014 was just horrible— real hell. I was driven by a guilt. I didn’t have any positive expectations that we were going to end FGM, just the fear that if I stopped fighting, the worst could happen to those girls. But now I see the incredible women in Africa, whose shoulders I stand on, and realise that what I have to deal with is minor by comparison.”
A cultural practice
A common response to anti-FGM movements is that the issue should be handled with cultural sensitivity, since FGM is a cultural practice with deep historical and in some cases spiritual roots. But Ali argues there is nothing racist about condemning FGM. On the contrary, she believes tiptoeing around it reflects a double standard.
Ali says the negligible FGM conviction rate in the UK reveals a disturbing passivity towards the protection of girls from non-white, migrant communities. FGM is tackled far less aggressively than other forms of child abuse by lawmakers and law enforcement alike.
Integrate is one of the leading UK charities fighting this crime. “We label it as a cultural practice, and labelling it as a cultural practice makes it seem like something other, something that just happens ‘over there’,” said a spokesperson.
“People don’t want to offend so they don’t talk about it, which is problematic because ultimately it is child abuse.”
Scarlett Curtis, founder of The Pink Protest anti-FGM campaign group, agreed: “The whole point of cultural practices is that they change. Women not being able to vote was a cultural practice until it wasn’t. Slavery was a cultural practice until it wasn’t.”
FGM, as an issue affecting female genitalia and sexuality, is clouded by intersecting stigmas. This means parliamentary action can only go so far.
Detective Chief Inspector Leanne Cooper has fought FGM for over a decade. She tells me the bill, if it passes, will not suffice.
“There needs to be wholesale change – more knowledge, exposure and awareness of the issue. Legal reform is important but it’s only a step along the way.”
While FGM is not legal in the UK, it remains customary in many communities. A common belief among mothers committing it is that they are acting in their daughter’s interest. In all likelihood, they were circumcised themselves, along with every other woman in their immediate family.
“It isn’t enough to criminalise them,” said DCI Cooper, “they need to be given support.”
UK charities involved in the campaign are calling on health professionals to intervene, educating women who may otherwise be unaware that it is classified as mutilation and that they are themselves victims of abuse.
In identifying at-risk women, however, there is a risk of cultural or racial profiling. Ali accepts this begrudgingly, as a lesser evil to the alternative. She says many professionals – doctors and teachers – dismissed her when she was younger, betraying an unwillingness to address the unfamiliar.
Ali’s campaign is a community mission to get talking. Talk sensitively, she stresses – this is a discussion that too often objectifies or traumatises. But talk nonetheless.
Things you can do
An easy first step: watch this Channel 4 documentary explaining why its so difficult for DCI Cooper and other enforcement officers attempting to tackle FGM on the ground.
Educating yourself a good place to start, so we’ve provided educational resources below breaking down the basics.
Plan International has compiled a seven-part plan to combat FGM around the world – these are the most universally applicable:
- Challenge the discriminatory reasons FGM is practiced, such as shame surrounding female sexuality
- Educate girls about their right to decide what happens to their body
- Speak out about the risks and realities of FGM, in a way that is respectful of people’s possible trauma
- Push for discussion and legislation to improve how we tackle this crime at an institutional level – with the anti-FGM bill facing parliamentary consideration, this is a prime opportunity to contact your MP and express constituent support.
Finally, you can take part on social media, spreading the campaign the hashtags #ihavespoken and #endFGM. To make your commitment to end FGM, go to www.iwillendfgm.org.