As long ago as 1952 the UN Commission on Human Rights condemned the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and in 1985 the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act criminalised it in England and Wales. These little-reported matters should hardly come as a surprise. FGM is a barbaric act, borne out of historic customs developed in male-dominated societies obsessed with female virginity. It is cruel and brutal by almost any standards.
Yet, according to last month’s report by the Royal College of Midwives, there are over 66,000 victims in England and Wales. So, one stunning question must be asked: why has not a single person in England or Wales been successfully prosecuted since FGM was criminalised 28 years ago?
That is the key question behind the major inquiry to be chaired by Keith Vaz MP, announced by the Home Affairs Committee on 18th December. The common perception is that FGM and Islam go hand-in-hand, but many Muslims and academics argue that the practice is a cultural rather than religious one. This contention has traction. The practice is condemned even in Saudi Arabia, and outside the UK FGM shows a clearer link with poverty than with Islam. For instance, it is practised in pockets of Africa far outside the reaches of Sharia.
Then again, the practice is widespread in the Muslim-dominated Middle East, and most religions, and perhaps especially Islam, are not only a matter of theology but also of culture. Indeed, the best that some Muslim clerics will do is to condemn only some types of FGM while refusing to apologise for what they consider to be Islamic approval of one particular method, sunna circumcision.
But while there is debate about the link between Islamic communities and FGM abroad, the relationship in Britain appears much clearer. And perhaps it is the significance of that fact that must be recognised by any investigation into the reasons behind the lack of criminal prosecutions.
I am not the first person to observe that many liberal intellectuals seem incapable of viewing Islam as anything other than as victim. What it is about the world’s most totalitarian religion that has liberals scurrying to defend it is hardly within the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, there is a ready-made army with an arsenal of laptops and access to highbrow media, ready to condemn any policy of criminal prosecutions that can be accused of failing to take into account the sensibilities of Muslim communities.
And how many times have we encountered those shouting for the rights of women, but who fail to raise their voices when the oppressed happen to be Muslim? Is female subservience really to be tolerated so long as it is perpetuated in the name of a rabidly male-dominated religion? As a result, the police, the CPS and even government must tread carefully, knowing that any ingress in this arena is ripe for frenzied accusations of racism and Islamophobia.
But what on earth would right-minded people say if it was little white English girls that were being mutilated? Howls of protest would rightly echo through society and prosecutions would undoubtedly follow. Surely if the ethnicity of the victims is a factor behind the failure to prosecute in the face of mounting awareness of FGM, such inaction would be a more worthy target of allegations of racism than would a robust policy of investigation and prosecution.
Perhaps the real difficulty lies in detection. Of course, the physical signature left on victims means that detection should be straightforward, but only at the cost of a gross invasion of the privacy of the girls in question.
One can imagine how a programme of investigations could be carried out as a matter of routine in primary schools when girls reach a particular age, perhaps five or six. But how can one devise a screening system that avoids taunts of racism but that would not see entire schools needlessly checked merely to avoid those accusations in the first place?
As a practising barrister, I am frustrated when I see a lacuna in the law that facilitates unconscionable conduct. But that is nothing compared with the anger we should feel as parents and as UK citizens when we see vital laws rendered wholly ineffective and child abuse go unpunished as a result.
Those who live in our country have the right to be protected from FGM just as much as from the likes of forced marriage and honour killings. And young victims unaware that they are victims, and who don’t cry for help because they don’t realise they need it, are the ones most in need of the state’s protection.
So here’s hoping that Keith Vaz’s inquiry helps to put matters right before the damning statistics unveiled by the Royal College of Midwives are weighed down by a further 66,000 victims.