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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.

Young women in Somalia take part in a discussion on FGM, February 2014. Photo: Getty
Young women in Somalia take part in a discussion on FGM, February 2014. Photo: Getty

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.