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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue