The UK’s first prosecution of a medical professional for undertaking a female genital mutilation (FGM) procedure collapsed this week, amid accusations against the Crown Prosecution Service for staging a “show trial” in response to political pressure. It took the jury just 20 minutes to throw out the case against Dr Dhanuson Dharmensa, who had been accused, along with a Hasan Mohamed, after stitching up an incision necessary for childbirth as a result of the mother having been subjected to FGM in her native Somalia. FGM is a term commonly used to refer to procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other damage to the female genital organs, such as stitching the outer labia together, for non-medical reasons.
As an expert researching harmful practices, I was asked to instruct the defence lawyers on the socio-cultural aspects of FGM. Specifically, we explored the nature and context of FGM in Somali communities. Why is it done? Is it an Islamic practice? How prevalent is it in Somali communities in the UK? Understanding the answers to these questions is essential if we are to support women affected by this practice and avoid spurious prosecutions in the future.
Is FGM a religious or cultural practice?
FGM originates in cultural rather than religious values and traditions, although justifications given for it vary across regions and cultures. Despite commonly being associated with Islam, there are a large number of Islamic countries, including Morocco, Algeria, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where it is not practiced. In countries where FGM is practiced – which for historical reasons are predominantly Muslim African countries – the practice is not confined to Muslim communities. In other words, it is predominantly a cultural, not a religious practice. This does not mean that religion has no influence. There is no requirement for FGM in the Quran; however, many perpetrators invoke Islam to justify their acts. Therefore experts generally refer to religion as a “justification” or “rationalisation” rather than a “cause”.
Why is FGM carried out?
Beliefs and social norms associated with FGM usually concern rites of passage into womanhood. In some cultures, FGM is seen as ensuring social acceptance and marriageability by preserving virginity and protecting the family’s “honour”. Not circumcising a daughter is seen in some communities as equivalent to condemning her to a life of isolation, shaming her and her entire family. The difficulty women face if they try to refuse a centuries-old practice is not always recognised. Neither is the fact that this ritual is carried out as a way to give women status, identity and opportunities.
Why does FGM persist in the Somali diaspora?
Communities living abroad can more readily challenge the cultural norms of their country of origin, for example, questioning the beliefs, values and codes of conduct that underpin FGM. Studies examining the views of women and men in diasporic communities from countries where FGM is regularly practiced have identified three key factors behind the continuation of the practice: the preference for a circumcised wife, the wish to circumcise daughters, and the belief that FGM should continue albeit in a modified way. However, many factors discouraging the practice emerged: the societal view that FGM should be stopped, the evidence suggesting that uncircumcised women are no more promiscuous than circumcised ones, associated health complications, unfulfilling sex and an increasing tendency to question whether it is a religious requirement. In diasporic Somali communities, the decision to abandon the practice often results from internal debate about whether Islam demands FGM, with many ultimately concluding that it does not. In fact, close examination of the Quran often leads people to decide that FGM should be seen as forbidden and as a form of harm inflicted on God’s creation.
What can we do to tackle FGM in the UK?
In many diasporic communities, especially those in European and other countries where it is condemned, the incidence of FGM is decreasing. This is helped by educational campaigns across Europe and the Horn of Africa, led chiefly by women’s groups (such as Daughters of Eve and Plan UK) which are reducing tolerance for this harmful practice. Even though this condemnation is central to the rejection of the practice, understanding how change comes about – especially change from within affected communities – is vital in creating effective policies to eradicate FGM.
Outright repulsion and a lack of understanding risks making women feel that they are not understood. This can make it harder for them to seek help or engage in dialogue on the issue. It is vital to carefully consider how women experience the portrayal of FGM both in the media and in interactions with service providers. Concerned professionals, such as health workers (nurses, midwives, antenatal and postnatal care providers) and judicial and government officials (police officers, lawyers, judges, teachers and social workers) can play an important role in combating FGM, but only if they are trained to deal sensitively with those they are trying to help.
The widespread practice of FGM is as varied and diverse as the people in the communities affected by it. My research in connection with this case made it clear that not all Somalians living in the UK have entrenched views on FGM. These communities are dynamic and open to change, and opinion is in constant flux. People are actively questioning the impact of this form of violence on Somali women’s bodily integrity.
Rather than forming stereotypes of communities where FGM remains a problem, the problem is best tackled by exploiting this dynamism. Working with communities to change attitudes, rather than imposing judgements from outside, is essential to combat the practice in the UK.
As the recent collapsed trial shows, spurious prosecutions to demonstrate that the authorities are “doing something” are not the way to tackle the problem. Ultimately, it is shifting attitudes within communities that will bring an end to FGM.