Young women in Somalia take part in a discussion on FGM, February 2014. Photo: Getty
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Zero-tolerance on FGM doesn’t have to be an attack on multiculturalism

The problem is that many feel they have to pick a side. But we know that cultures are not as fixed and unchanging as powerful advocates within them may like to make out.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) has recently attracted widespread media attention after a Guardian petition that numbered over 150,000 signatures. We have recently seen some of the first British prosecutions of perpetrators of FGM in history. These changes have been hugely welcome – but we seem to have trouble articulating why.

We often refrain from a deeper conversation about why FGM is practised. It isn’t enough for us to say that we are going to prosecute those who practise FGM; because by then the damage – physical, psychological and social – has already been inflicted.

We need to stop the practice – prevent it from happening – and that means, alongside a zero-tolerance attitude and stringently enforced law, prevention measures in place that recognise this is a risk. It also means striking a fine and precarious balance between working within communities where FGM is prevalent and introducing and enforcing measures to show that FGM has no place in a democratic society.

It also means stopping the debate about FGM from becoming an “anti-multiculturalism” debate or a pretext for propagating racism – securing a position for FGM as an issue that lies firmly at the heart of a wider discourse about empowering women across all cultures. Dexter Dias QC of Garden Court Chambers said for this very reason that, “If this government is serious about protecting young girls, they must also protect the communities they come from from racial slurs.” In short, a mishandling by governments of issues such as these can often do more harm than good in the long-term.

Because of these complexities, entering into this debate is not something I take lightly. I feel, however, that it is important to do so – even though I am not myself a survivor of FGM. I enter into it, first, because as a feminist we need to work to further the empowerment of women across all cultural divides. But also, more importantly, because I believe the conversation on FGM touches on a question that goes to the heart of how we govern in a 21st-century multicultural Britain.

That question is this. What should governments do and have the right to do when cultural practices are damaging and harmful to groups within those groups (in this case, women and girls)? FGM is a very extreme but important example of the need for governments to do something to protect individuals in those instances - many FGM survivors are far too young to have a voice, many of the perpetrators are supported by social norms and structures which silence those individuals within the communities who oppose the practice, and yet many FGM survivors strongly identify as belonging to their communities and their societies.

We can reframe the same problem using different examples – those who belong to communities where homosexuality is forbidden and are gay often face a similar challenge. And forced marriage is of course an issue that has some parallels to the conversation on FGM – because it often pits cultural views about the role of marriage and its importance to that culture against what many see as the woman's right to choose their partner.

Underlying some of these practices are a set of assumptions about people – that LGBT people and their sexualities do not exist, that women are products not individuals to be empowered, and that children are objects to be shaped according to specific cultural views and beliefs. I would like to say that these assumptions aren’t unique to FGM or to specific cultures – they manifest themselves in different ways across different cultures. We know that forced marriage is an enormous problem for many communities to grapple with, and yet underlying forced marriage are assumptions about women, a sense that communities and cultures own women in a way that they don’t own men, and a belief that women’s bodies, desires and beliefs are not their own – but society’s to play around with.

Powerful advocates within communities that practice FGM, that support homophobia, or that mandate forced marriage will often say that governments have crossed the line of what is acceptable. They will cite consent or acquiescence from minorities within those communities as justification for allowing such practices to continue, and they will often argue those cultural practices are an essential part of the culture – that governments challenging those cultures are illiberal because they do not make space for free expression of those cultures.

The problem is that many on both sides of the debate feel they have to pick a side. That supporting multiculturalism is somehow inconsistent with supporting rights for minorities – including women. But we know that cultures are not as fixed and unchanging as powerful advocates within them may like to make out – they shape themselves to the conditions around them, to social and economic imperatives, and they often liberalise rapidly in new worlds and environments by combining a healthy recognition of traditions, backgrounds and cultural practices with new and modernised interpretations of what it means to belong to that culture in a globalising world.

We also know that change within cultures can only happen when advocates and allies within those cultures are empowered to change minds and hearts around them – and this is where governments must focus their efforts when tackling such problems. The most powerful voices are always those on the inside, not the outside – and governments would do well to work with those voices in order to amplify them.

That has been the real success of the campaign on FGM – its increased visibility in the past two years, and the way in which it has made voices more prominent. Campaigners such as Leyla Hussain, an FGM survivor from the campaign group Daughters of Eve are so important for this very reason, as are political advocates such as Jennette Arnold AM and Diane Abbott MP – who have campaigned on this issue and taken a strong position of leadership for some years. All three of these speakers were present at a meeting of the Fabian Women's Network last week. Abena Oppong-Asare, who chaired the discussion spoke eloquently about the role FGM has played in regulating women's bodies, desires and self-expression in different cultures.  

It is in this direction (of leadership, advocacy and dialogue with communities) that governments must look – if they are to reconcile protecting rights of individuals with the objection that cultural practices are a no-go area for policy makers because those policy makers “just don't understand”.

So navigating this thorny question – “what should governments do to empower minorities within minorities?” isn't just about listening. It is also about creating a parliament representative enough to listen and be heard in those communities. That, more than anything, is what bolsters the case for a diverse parliament and political platforms that looks like and reflects a multicultural society it serves.

In fact - that is the only way we can equip ourselves and compellingly respond to the multicultural society we serve.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.