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
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Westminster terror: Parliament hit by deadly attack

The Met Police is treating the events in Westminster as a "terrorist incident". 

A terrorist attack outside Parliament in Westminster has left four dead, plus the attacker, and injured at least 40 others. 

Police shot dead a man who attacked officers in front of the parliament building in London, after a grey 4x4 mowed down more than a dozen people on Westminster Bridge.

At least two people died on the bridge, and a number of others were seriously hurt, according to the BBC. The victims are understood to include a group of French teenagers. 

Journalists at the scene saw a police officer being stabbed outside Parliament, who was later confirmed to have died. His name was confirmed late on Wednesday night as Keith Palmer, 48.

The assailant was shot by other officers, and is also dead. The Met Police confirmed they are treating the events as a "terrorist incident". There was one assailant, whose identity is known to the police but has not yet been released. 

Theresa May gave a statement outside Number 10 after chairing a COBRA committee. "The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech," she said.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has tweeted his thanks for the "tremendous bravery" of the emergency services. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also released a short statement. He said: "Reports suggest the ongoing incident in Westminster this afternoon is extremely serious. Our thoughts are with the victims of this horrific attack, their families and friends. The police and security staff have taken swift action to ensure the safety of the public, MPs and staff, and we are grateful to them."

After the incident this afternoon, journalists shared footage of injured people in the street, and pictures of a car which crashed into the railings outside Big Ben. After the shots rang out, Parliament was placed under lockdown, with the main rooms including the Commons Chamber and the tearoom sealed off. The streets around Parliament were also cordoned off and Westminster Tube station was closed. 

Those caught up in the incident include visitors to Parliament, such as schoolchildren, who spent the afternoon trapped alongside politicians and political journalists. Hours after the incident, the security services began evacuating MPs and others trapped inside Parliament in small groups. 

The MP Richard Benyon tweeted: "We are locked in Chamber of House of Commons." Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner tweeted: "I'm inside Parliament and me and my staff are safe."

The MP Jo Stevens was one of the first to confirm reports that a police officer had been attacked. She tweeted: "We've just been told a police officer here has been stabbed & the assailant shot."

George Eaton, the New Statesman politics editor, was in the building. He has written about his experience here:

From the window of the parliamentary Press Gallery, I have just seen police shoot a man who charged at officers while carrying what appeared to be a knife. A large crowd was seen fleeing the man before he entered the parliamentary estate. After several officers evaded him he was swiftly shot by armed police. Ministers have been evacuated and journalists ordered to remain at their desks.   

According to The Telegraph, foreign minister Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier, tried to resucitate the police officer who later died. Meanwhile another MP, Mary Creagh, who was going into Westminster to vote, managed to persuade the Westminster tube staff to shut down the station and prevent tourists from wandering on to the scene of the attack. 

A helicopter, ambulances and paramedics soon crowded the scene. There were reports of many badly injured victims. However, one woman was pulled from the River Thames alive.

MPs trapped inside the building shared messages of sympathy for the victims on Westminster Bridge, and in defence of democracy. The Labour MP Jon Trickett has tweeted that "democracy will not be intimidated". MPs in the Chamber stood up to witness the removal of the mace, the symbol of Parliamentary democracy, which symbolises that Parliament is adjourned. 

Brendan Cox, the widower of the late, murdered MP Jo Cox, has tweeted: "Whoever has attacked our parliament for whatever motive will not succeed in dividing us. All of my thoughts with those injured."

Hillary Benn, the Labour MP, has released a video from inside Parliament conveying a message from MPs to the families of the victims.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed his sympathy. 

While many MPs praised the security services, they also seemed stunned by the surreal scenes inside Parliament, where counter-terrorism police led evacuations. 

Those trapped inside Parliament included 40 children visiting on a school trip, and a group of boxers, according to the Press Association's Laura Harding. The teachers tried to distract the children by leading them in song and giving them lessons about Parliament. 

In Scotland, the debate over whether to have a second independence referendum initially continued, despite the news, amid bolstered security. After pressure from Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the session was later suspended. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that her "thoughts are with everyone in and around Westminster". The Welsh Assembly also suspended proceedings. 

A spokesman for New Scotland Yard, the police headquarters, said: "There is an ongoing investigation led by the counter-terrorism command and we would ask anybody who has images or film of the incident to pass it onto police. We know there are a number of casualties, including police officers, but at this stage we cannot confirm numbers or the nature of these injuries."

Three students from a high school from Concarneau, Britanny, were among the people hurt on the bridge, according to French local newspaper Le Telegramme (translated by my colleague Pauline). They were walking when the car hit them, and are understood to be in a critical condition. 

The French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has also tweeted his solidarity with the UK and the victims, saying: "Solidarity with our British friends, terribly hit, our full support to the French high schoolers who are hurt, to their families and schoolmates."

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.