Are black feminists too defensive about violence in our communities?

The desire to avoid the racism that characterises some debates about rape and FGM abroad can lead us to make untenable comparisons with Britain, argues Rahila Gupta.

Why are black feminists often so defensive when talking about violence in our communities? Sometimes, we are so keen to counter the racism of national debates about the subject that we make untenable comparisons.

The idea surfaced again at the launch of a new collection of essays, Moving in the Shadows: Violence in the lives of Minority Women and Children.  It was sparked off by a presentation on Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM, by Dr Makeba Roach based on an essay co-written with Dr Comfort Momoh. The fact that the authors chose to refer to the practice as FGM, rather than the less critical term "female circumcision", clearly indicated their opposition to it as a harmful cultural practice. However, as the presentation went on, we witnessed a convoluted attempt to minimise its horrors by comparing it with women opting for labiaplasty (also known as FGCS – Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery) in the west.

What Roach was attacking was the double (read: racist) standards in the way in which the two are spoken of in Western discourse: African women are seen as powerless victims, Western women as empowered consumers; African women have an "impaired ability" to choose while Western women have the right to choose cosmetic surgery; FGM destroys sexual function while labiaplasty enhances it; FGM is mutilating while cosmetic surgery is not; and FGM is seen as a cultural practice while FGCS is free of "culture".  Roach also bemoaned the fact that an African woman presenting in a GP’s surgery asking for labiaplasty could be criminalised under the FGM Act, but this would be unlikely to happen a white woman.

It is true that "culture" is the prism through which we view only the actions of minorities. But in order for Roach's general critique to hold water, several issues have been elided. The fact is that FGM is mostly carried out on girls between infancy and 15 years of age, so the issue of choice is a red herring; they are powerless victims.

To emphasise African women’s agency, Roach refers to young girls in Chad who sought out cutters to perform FGM against the wishes of their parents - but this is clutching at straws. To compare the patriarchal pressures on free choice in Western cultures with the enforced practice of FGM is dangerous in the extreme and is, in any case, undermined by the statistics. There are between 100-140 million women and children living with FGM worldwide and according to the latest estimates, 21,000 girls are at risk in the UK alone. Although there are no figures available for "designer vaginas" in the UK, researchers identified 1,000 published cases although demand is reported to be growing for this barbaric practice. And while the two different responses of a GP are theoretically possible and would be racist, the real concern so far has been that no one has been convicted under an Act which black women campaigned for. Roach offered no evidence that any black women had actually experienced different treatment.

But it is the arguments around sexual pleasure which are perhaps the most misleading. Roach suggests that the effects of FGM on sexual sensation are often over-stated, because the female orgasm is not just located in the clitoris, so trimming/removing it does not necessarily take away sexual pleasure. Whatever the anatomical realities, the fact is that FGM is intended to deny a woman sexual pleasure as a way of ensuring her virginity. And as if that was not enough of a guarantee, type 3 FGM involves stitching the vaginal orifice to a minuscule size, so that the woman is delivered to her husband on their wedding night as a "sealed package" to be cut or torn open by him. The gap is often not big enough to enable proper menstruation and women are plagued by infections and health problems. A Somali woman I interviewed for my book Enslaved described the pain of sex after FGM as "like an animal chewing your body".

Roach and Momoh oppose FGM and have a long history of working around the issue, so their insistence on an equation between black and white cultural practice is not an example of cultural relativism which adopts an uncritical stance to minority cultures. Their motivation to reframe the debate is understandable: it stems from the racism of mainstream narratives on violence against minority women.

The same discourse emerged at the time of the gang-rape in Delhi. Many black feminists were at pains to point out the prevalence of sexual violence in the West, or the fact that rapes take place in police stations and military bases here. Yes, patriarchy is global and sexual violence is one of its tools of control. But we need a more nuanced position. Rape in institutions is so endemic in India that rape legislation there has a specific category of "custodial rape". At least, in Britain there is some degree of accountability with regards to police violence. In India, a girl’s fight for survival begins in the womb – between 30 to 70 million women are missing. Many black women respond to statistics like this by saying that we cannot talk about it being better or worse, simply that it is different.

The way out of a colonial or racist framing of the debate is to explore why violence against women in India, for example, is worse. We must go beyond the easy assumptions about the savagery of Asian men. The possible increase in urban violence, as I have argued elsewhere could be a form of vigilante action by young men feeling threatened by young women laying claim to the public space that is traditionally theirs – a consequence of the rapid transition to a neo-liberal economy since the early 1990s which in a place like Delhi brings newly empowered young women working in malls and call centres into conflict with feudal traditions.

We have to acknowledge the difference in scale and degree. If we don’t have standards of better or worse, then what are we campaigning for? How do we measure the changes that we have brought about, say in the last 30 years, in the struggle for women’s rights in the UK?  We have new legislation covering violence against women, forced marriage and FGM; greater sensitivity and awareness in social services, the health and educational sectors; better police response to domestic violence even if there are serious lapses.

These are differences of degrees – but each difference in degree saves countless lives. As Pragna Patel, one of the contributors to the anthology, said: "Let us acknowledge the differences and use them to build solidarity between black and white women."

Rahila Gupta is the author of Enslaved: The New British Slavery.

A young woman walks past an FGM campaign banner in Kenya. Photo: Getty
Getty
Show Hide image

The Brexit ministers who just realised reducing immigration is a problem for them

Turns out there's a teeny tiny hiccup with reducing immigration...

On 27 December 2015, the then-backbencher MP David Davis declared he was "voting out" in the forthcoming EU referendum. Among his reasons was the "disastrous migration crisis". 

Fast forward 14 months. Now the minister responsible for Brexit, Davis has been spotted in the Latvian capital of Riga, with a slightly different message

He admitted it was not plausible that Brits would immediately take jobs in the kind of low-paid sectors like agriculture and social care currently staffed by migrant workers. 

Immigration restrictions "will take years" to be phased in, he added. 

Davis is only the latest minister in the Brexit government to realise that immigration might be down to more than some pesky EU bureaucrats. Here's when the penny dropped for the others: 

Andrea "Seasonal Labour"  Leadsom

During the EU referendum campaign, Brexit charmer-in-chief Andrea Leadsom told The Guardian that immigration from EU countries could “overwhelm” Britain, and that her constituents complained about not hearing English spoken on the street. 

But speaking to farmers in 2017 as Environment secretary, Leadsom said she knew “how important seasonal labour from the EU is, to the everyday running of your businesses”. She said she was committed to making sure farmers “have the right people with the right skills”. 

Sajid “Bob the Builder” Javid 

The Communities secretary Sajid Javid backed the Remain campaign like his mentor George Osborne, but when he was offered a job in the Brexit government, he took it.

Javid has criticised immigrants who don’t integrate, but it seems there is one group he doesn’t have any qualms about - the construction workers who build the homes that fall under his remit.

As early as September, Javid was telling the FT he wouldn’t let any pesky UK border red tape get between him and foreign workers needed to meet his housebuilding targets.

Philip “Citizen of the World” Hammond

So if you can’t kick out builders, what about that perennially unpopular group of workers, bankers? Not so fast, says Philip Hammond.

Just three months after Brexit, he said the government would use immigration controls “in a sensible way that will facilitate the movement of highly-skilled people between financial institutions and businesses”. 

As a Chancellor who personally backed Remain, Hammond is painfully aware of the repercussions if the City decamps to the Continent. 

Greg “Brightest and Best” Clark

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy secretary backed Remain, and has kept his head down since winning the meaty new industrial brief. 

Nevertheless, he seems willing to weigh in on the immigration cap debate, at least on behalf of international students. Asked whether the post-study work visa pilot should continue, Clark said the government wanted to attract the brightest and best.

He continued:

"We have visa arrangements in place so that people can work in graduate jobs after that, and it is important that they should be able to do so."

Jeremy "The Doctor" Hunt 

The Health secretary kept his job in the turmoil of the summer, and used his conference speech to toe the party line with a pledge that the NHS would rely on less foreign medical staff in future.

The problem is, Hunt has alienated junior doctors by imposing an unpopular contract, and even those wannabe medics that do sign up will have to undergo half a decade of studying first.

Asked about where he plans to find NHS workers in Parliament, Hunt declared: “No one from either side of the Brexit debate has ever said there will be no immigration post-Brexit.” He also remained “confident” that the UK would be able to negotiate a deal that allowed the 127,000 EU citizens working for the NHS to stay. 

So it turns out we might need agriculture and construction workers, plus students, medics and even bankers after all. It's a good thing the government already has a Brexit plan sorted out...
 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.