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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage