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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.