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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Of course we could do more to stop terrorism – if we’re willing to live in a police state

 The only way to stop this sort of human monster completely is to become like them.

What are we prepared to sacrifice to keep children safe? On Monday night at Manchester arena, 22 people were senselessly slaughtered. Many of them were young girls, pouring out of a pop concert, giddy with excitement. Hours before the killer was identified or Islamic State had claimed responsibility for the attack, the political conversation had already turned to vengeance, and respected public thinkers were calling, in the name of those dead children, for further crackdowns on immigrants and perceived outsiders, for troops on the streets, for "internment camps'" with straight faces and the sincere implication that anyone who disagrees is weak-willed and possibly a terrorist sympathiser. A lot of little girls have been killed. What good are tolerance and human rights today?

Nobody can be expected to be instantly rational when dozens of kids have just been maimed and murdered. There are, however, individuals who seem more than prepared to exploit the occasion to further their own agendas. Yet again, we are told that the state is failing in its duty to protect "our" children, that pansy liberals won't let us raise the "obvious solutions" to this problem. Nobody can quite bring themselves to articulate exactly what those "obvious solutions" might be, hedging the issue instead with grave looks, raised eyebrows and stern allusions to the consequences of political correctness. The consensus is that we are living in a nation so paralysed by hand-flapping progressive talk-talkery that ordinary, right-thinking folks aren’t allowed to say what’s really on their minds. 

The truth is that nobody’s stopping anyone from saying what they think about any of this, and if you don’t believe me, take a brisk scroll through Twitter this afternoon, and keep some eyeball bleach on hand. In fact, the reason a lot of people are stopping short of saying what they think ought to be done is that they know full well that what they think ought to be done is unacceptable and shameful in any sane society. So shameful, indeed, that it takes a professional shit-stirrer to speak it aloud. 

Enter Katie Hopkins. It’s not just pro-trolls like her who have called for a "final solution" following the Manchester Arena bombing. Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson declared that we should start putting "thousands" of people in "internment camps" in the name of protecting children. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill echoed the tone, blaming "multiculturalism" for mass murder, and implying that anyone advocating calm and tolerance in the face of terrorism does not feel sufficiently angry about the murder of 22 of their fellow citizens. “It is becoming clear,” insists O'Neill, “that the top-down promotion of a hollow ‘togetherness’ in response to terrorism is about cultivating passivity.”

In fact, Britain is far from passive in the face of extremist violence. Britain already has one of the most robust counter-terrorism programs on the planet. We are among the most surveilled societies in the Western world. We have a counter-extremism program, Prevent, that places a duty in schools, universities and other public bodies to report any suspected radical or "extremist" activity, and is so exacting that it has been condemned by experts and educators across the board as an infringement of the right to free speech and thought. The authorities responsible for heading off and hunting down these psychopaths and all who sail with them are hardly slacking on the job. The problem is that there's really no way to up the game from here without going full police state. The pundits condemning the relevant institutions as shirkers today know this full well, which is why a police state is exactly what they’re asking for, with the inference that anyone who disagrees is awfully relaxed about the violent death of young girls and their parents.

So let’s not mince words. Let's be absolutely clear what’s at stake here. Let us acknowledge that yes, we could do more to stop this, if we wanted. And then let's think about whether that's really, actually, what we want.

Yes, we could do more. We could allow the state to round up and lock away anyone even remotely suspected of violent, extremist tendencies; anyone who has ever accessed a suspicious website or attended a dubious lecture. We'd have to lock those people up for a very long time, of course, because if there's one thing that nudges people from a passing interest in anti-state violence into full on fanaticism, it's active state oppression. We could ban anyone who's ever been in any way associated with extremist ideology from entering the country, including those who are fleeing violence themselves. We could institute total surveillance of everyone’s online activity. We could build those internment camps. They’d be expensive, so it’s only fair that potential degenerates and their associates be obliged to work for their keep. Of course, you wouldn't want those internment camps spread out - you'd want the inmates concentrated in one place. What could we call such camps? I’m sure we’ll think of a name.

If we did all that, and more, then yes, there's a chance that we could stop atrocities like this from happening again. Even then, there's no guarantee. The most exacting neo-stasi infrastructure can’t always stop the rogue loner with a breadknife and a brain boiling with arcane violence. It would, however, significantly lower the odds.

The question is not whether it can be done. Of course it can be done. Paranoid, bloodless, hyper-vigilant police states have been instituted in European nations before, and if any country on earth has the infrastructure to make it work right now, it's Britain, a small island with an extensive surveillance architecture, a mostly urban population, a conservative government currently seeking re-election on a tough-love platform, and no pesky constitutional rights to free speech. We can do it if we want to. Sure we can. The question is whether we should. The question is whether it's worth it. Is it worth it, to prevent the loss of one more young life, the devastation of one more family?

Don’t answer that right now. Give it a few days, at least, because right now it makes a great deal of emotional sense to say yes, yes, it’s worth it. Anything to stop something like this happening again. To save one child. To keep hundreds more from being traumatised for life just because they went to a pop concert with their friends. I suspect that today, tucked away in the collective psyche of a great many otherwise tolerant and decent people, is a furious, frightened voice yelling - sure, let’s do it. Let’s shut the borders and build the camps. It might not be nice, it might not even be right, but these evil dickheads are killing kids, so frankly, fuck the Geneva convention.

That furious, frightened instinct needs to be named so we can deal with it like adults. The anger and the fear here are real and legitimate, even though a great many bad actors are exploiting them to further racist, xenophobic agendas. It’s alright to be frightened and furious. It’s not alright to let those emotions dictate public policy. Today, with the faces of murdered little girls all over the news, is not a day to ask anyone what they’re prepared to sacrifice to make sure this never happens again.

Because the truth is that the only way to stop this sort of human monster is to become like them. The only way to be sure that no swivel-eyed extremist who hates life, and liberty and raw youthful joy so much that he's prepared to blow up a pop concert full of teenagers can never do that again is to acquiesce to the sort of state apparatus that is anathema to joy and liberty and life, the sort of state apparatus that no child should grow up with.

This is why platitudes about 'unity', about 'not letting hate win', about keeping it together and trying not to let our worst instincts take over, are not, in fact, platitudes at all. They are not banal. They are not hollow. It takes enormous strength of character, at a time like this,  not to give in to fear and rage and the rationale of revenge. The people of Manchester are showing that strength in the wake of one of the most horrific mass murders this tense and divided nation has ever seen. We owe it to them, to the victims of this attack, and to their families not to sully their memories by surrendering to the logic of intolerance.

It is at moments like this when a community proves its character.  It is at times like this that it is more, not less essential to refuse racist and fascist ideas. Tolerance is not passivity. Kindness is not weakness. It is not cowardly to stay with our anger and our grief and refuse to let those emotions sway our commitment to human dignity, or to look dreadful vengeance in the face and refuse it. It is strength. It is strength more profound and more human than fundamentalists of any faction can comprehend, and if we hang on to that strength, they will never, ever win. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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