Salimata Knight, an FGM survivor, in March 2004 at an event launching the Female Genital Mutilation Act. Photo: Getty
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Why did the first prosecution for female genital mutilation take almost 30 years?

The legislation outlawing FGM was introduced in 1985, but there were no prosecutions until last week. Why?

DCI Leanne Pook of Avon and Somerset Police speaks as someone with a profound sense of right and wrong, so when she explains (during an interview conducted last year) that “there’s quite a lot of grey areas” in the law on female genital mutilation (FGM), she doesn’t mean that in a moral sense. The legislation outlawing FGM was introduced in 1985. No prosecutions followed. In 2003, recognition of the fact that many girls were being taken abroad to be mutilated led to an amendment making it illegal to perform FGM on a UK national or UK permanent resident in any territory. Again, no prosecutions followed – until last Friday, when it was announced that Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena and Hasan Mohamed (both of London) would be the first people prosecuted under FGM legislation in the UK.

How could it have taken almost 30 years? Campaigners and frontline workers offer various explanations, from institutional racism to misguided multiculturalism – two apparent opposites which in fact have the identical effect of allowing black girls to suffer horrendous violence precisely because they are black girls. But for DCI Pook – who has taken the lead on FGM cases in Avon and Somerset for just over two years and helped formulate the influential Bristol FGM Model which is now shared with other forces – the problem is the law. “The legislation has too many gaps … [but] we can’t prove the legislation isn’t good enough without taking a job far enough down the road to show that it doesn’t work, and the fact that the legislation isn’t necessarily fit means that it’s very difficult to do that.”

There have been three main obstacles to achieving the UK’s first FGM prosecution, according to DCI Pook. The first is that getting any testimony at all can be incredibly hard. FGM is usually arranged by close family members of the victim, and children (whether from loyalty or fear) are rarely eager to implicate their own parents. The second is one of status: the girls most at risk of FGM are from North African families, and their immigration status may not be clear enough to allow prosecution under the current law: as things stand, it would be very difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that UK law has jurisdiction over an act that may have been committed by a foreign national against a foreign national in a foreign territory – even if both perpetrator and victim usually live in the UK.

The third is physical: “FGM is very, very difficult to age,” says DCI Pook. “And by that I mean physically age the presentation of the vagina when it’s been done, to say whether the FGM is eight years old, nine years old, ten years old … It’s still possible for people to say this was done in 2001 or 2000, when actually it wouldn’t have fitted within the most recent legislation. That will change, but we’re not quite there yet.” These, then, are the grey areas which make Friday’s announcement such an aberration. But there are other alleged aspects of the case revealed on Friday that are typical of FGM, according to Nimko Ali, co-founder and CEO of the organisation Daughters of Eve, which campaigns against FGM and provides support to women who have had it inflicted on them.

FGM is often spoken of as a crime committed by women against women, and one founded in ignorance, so it’s striking that both of the people charged are men and one is a doctor educated in the UK. “Male violence against women,” says Ali. “That’s ultimately what FGM is. This is about controlling women’s bodies and controlling how they see themselves in society. A lot of the people that are practising FGM right now are well educated but the women haven’t been emancipated from those cultures and the men ultimately believe in those control frameworks.” There’s an ongoing failure to educate girls about their rights but, Ali stresses, no defence of naivety can be extended to the perpetrators and promoters of this crime: “None of these people are ignorant. Those that are pro-FGM often know more about the law than the people that should looking after the girls that are at risk.”

But for a long time, authority figures who endorsed or tolerated FGM within their own communities were treated as the official spokespeople on the issue – and that left girls voiceless. “It’s [politicians] being in bed with community leaders, the male community leaders, that has meant that women won’t come forward,” says Ali. “Because the women know that those they seek to trust are talking to the ones that are seeking to abuse them.” This is the context in which FGM has been allowed to go on unopposed until very recently: one where within certain African immigrant communities black men dominated black women’s lives, and the largely white (and largely, though not exclusively, male) mainstream condoned that domination.

And that’s why Ali doesn’t give any credence to one of the major sources of white feminist squeamishness about policing FGM – the idea that to enforce legal limits on how women’s genitals may or may not be surgically altered would be to somehow restrict women’s bodily autonomy. (It’s worth noting, of course, that men have rarely campaigned for the right to have their penises deformed beyond function, which might suggest something about how valuable this version of bodily autonomy might be.) “We don’t accept that women that go back into abusive relationships are women that wanted to go back,” says Ali. “We understand that they have been coerced or been systematically abused to the point where they can’t say ‘I don’t want this’. The law says you can’t consent to GBH, because if you did there would be a corroded society.”

This hard line on physical protection, however, doesn’t mean that Ali supports invasive measures to secure prosecutions. On the subject of compulsory examinations as practised in France, and credited with being part of the approach that has led to over 100 prosecutions while the UK has failed to achieve any, Ali is scathing: “Girls that will come forward to seek justice are girls that have already been failed. It’s not about abusing other girls’ autonomies by pulling down their knickers because they’re Somali or whatever.” DCI Pook echoes this point that the number of prosecutions should never be seen as the ultimate measure of success for FGM policy: “The day we prosecute somebody for having FGM done to a young girl or a young woman actually represents another failure in the protection of that girl.”

It’s hard to see any criminal conviction as worthy of celebration when you know the gravity of the abuse that was not prevented. Whatever the outcome of the case against Dharmasena and Mohamed, this can only be a small part of what is owed to those who are at risk of or have already suffered FGM. True justice for all women and girls means freedom from violence, freedom from fear, freedom from control. The aim of ending FGM in a generation once seemed absurdly ambitious: now, thanks to the joint efforts of campaigners, public servants and politicians (notably Lynne Featherstone MP and Jane Ellison MP), it seems not just possible but even plausible. How much can we achieve if we stop letting defeatism constrain our hopes and ask instead for everything that women deserve as humans?

 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.