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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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue