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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Brexit has opened up big rifts among the remaining EU countries

Other non-Euro countries will miss Britain's lobbying - and Germany and France won't be too keen to make up for our lost budget contributions.

Untangling 40 years of Britain at the core of the EU has been compared to putting scrambled eggs back into their shells. On the UK side, political, legal, economic, and, not least, administrative difficulties are piling up, ranging from the Great Repeal Bill to how to process lorries at customs. But what is less appreciated is that Brexit has opened some big rifts in the EU.

This is most visible in relations between euro and non-euro countries. The UK is the EU’s second biggest economy, and after its exit the combined GDP of the non-euro member states falls from 38% of the eurozone GDP to barely 16%, or 11% of EU’s total. Unsurprisingly then, non-euro countries in Eastern Europe are worried that future integration might focus exclusively on the "euro core", leaving others in a loose periphery. This is at the core of recent discussions about a multi-speed Europe.

Previously, Britain has been central to the balance between ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, often leading opposition to centralising eurozone impulses. Most recently, this was demonstrated by David Cameron’s renegotiation, in which he secured provisional guarantees for non-euro countries. British concerns were also among the reasons why the design of the European Banking Union was calibrated with the interests of the ‘outs’ in mind. Finally, the UK insisted that the euro crisis must not detract from the development of the Single Market through initiatives such as the capital markets union. With Britain gone, this relationship becomes increasingly lop-sided.

Another context in which Brexit opens a can of worms is discussions over the EU budget. For 2015, the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget, after its rebate and EU investments, accounted for about 10% of the total. Filling in this gap will require either higher contributions by other major states or cutting the benefits of recipient states. In the former scenario, this means increasing German and French contributions by roughly 2.8 and 2 billion euros respectively. In the latter, it means lower payments to net beneficiaries of EU cohesion funds - a country like Bulgaria, for example, might take a hit of up to 0.8% of GDP.

Beyond the financial impact, Brexit poses awkward questions about the strategy for EU spending in the future. The Union’s budgets are planned over seven-year timeframes, with the next cycle due to begin in 2020. This means discussions about how to compensate for the hole left by Britain will coincide with the initial discussions on the future budget framework that will start in 2018. Once again, this is particularly worrying for those receiving EU funds, which are now likely to either be cut or made conditional on what are likely to be more political requirements.

Brexit also upends the delicate institutional balance within EU structures. A lot of the most important EU decisions are taken by qualified majority voting, even if in practice unanimity is sought most of the time. Since November 2014, this has meant the support of 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the population is required to pass decisions in the Council of the EU. Britain’s exit will destroy the blocking minority of a northern liberal German-led coalition of states, and increase the potential for blocking minorities of southern Mediterranean countries. There is also the question of what to do with the 73 British MEP mandates, which currently form almost 10% of all European Parliament seats.

Finally, there is the ‘small’ matter of foreign and defence policy. Perhaps here there are more grounds for continuity given the history of ‘outsourcing’ key decisions to NATO, whose membership remains unchanged. Furthermore, Theresa May appears to have realised that turning defence cooperation into a bargaining chip to attract Eastern European countries would backfire. Yet, with Britain gone, the EU is currently abuzz with discussions about greater military cooperation, particularly in procurement and research, suggesting that Brexit can also offer opportunities for the EU.

So, whether it is the balance between euro ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, multi-speed Europe, the EU budget, voting blocs or foreign policy, Brexit is forcing EU leaders into a load of discussions that many of them would rather avoid. This helps explain why there is clear regret among countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, at seeing such a key partner leave. It also explains why the EU has turned inwards to deal with the consequences of Brexit and why, although they need to be managed, the actual negotiations with London rank fairly low on the list of priorities in Brussels. British politicians, negotiators, and the general public would do well to take note of this.

Ivaylo Iaydjiev is a former adviser to the Bulgarian government. He is currently a DPhil student at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford

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