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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Jeremy Corbyn's speech on terrorism will do him more good than harm

The Labour leader's criticism of police cuts and western foreign policy will resonate with voters.

The election campaign, if there was any doubt, has resumed. In his speech responding to the Manchester attack, Jeremy Corbyn did not limit himself to expressions of sympathy and solidarity. He squarely targeted Theresa May on her home turf: policing and security.

The Conservatives' repeated warning is that Corbyn is a "threat" to his country. But the Labour leader countered that only he could keep it "safe". Austerity, he declared, "has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap." May, having been warned by the Police Federation while home secretary of the danger of cuts, is undoubtedly vulnerable on this front. Under Labour, Corbyn vowed, "there will be more police on the streets" (despite Diane Abbott's erroneous arithmetic), while the security services would receive whatever resources they need.

Corbyn swiftly progressed to foreign policy, the great passion of his political life. Though it is facile to reduce terrorism to a "blowback" against western interventionism (as if jihadists were Pavlovian dogs, rather than moral agents), it is blinkered to dismiss any connection. As Corbyn noted: "Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home" (the Tory-led Foreign Affairs Select Committee is among those who agree).That the former Stop the War chair has long taken this view absolves him of the charge of crude political opportunism.

Corbyn was also more careful than his pre-briefed remarks suggested to caveat his criticisms. He emphasised: "Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform.

"And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre."

But he maintained his central charge: western intervention has made the world more dangerous, not less. "We must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working," he said. "We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism."

Though Corbyn's arguments have appalled Conservatives (and some in Labour), they are ones that will likely find favour among the public. Polls have consistently shown that most voters oppose western adventurism and believe it has endangered the UK. Corbyn's words will resonate among both the anti-interventionist left and the isolationist right (this is, after all, a country which has just voted to retreat from even its closest neighbours).

The speech, given at 1 Great George Street (in the room where Ed Miliband gave his resignation address), was marred by Corbyn's refusal to take questions. But it was unarguably well-delivered. "Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror," he warned in a pre-emptive strike against the Conservatives.

Corbyn's decision to give an overtly political speech four days after the Manchester attack is being widely described as a "gamble" or even a profound error. But the election will now rightly focus more closely on the issue of security - nothing should be beyond democratic debate.

Many of Corbyn's life-long stances, such as unilateral disarmament, do not find favour with the electorate. But there was little in his speech today that the average voter would contest. The Conservatives will hope to turn the heightened security debate to their advantage, ruthlessly quoting Corbyn against himself. But on this front, as on others, the Labour leader is proving a tougher opponent than they anticipated.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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