DCI Leanne Pook of Avon and Somerset Police speaks as someone with a profound sense of right and wrong, so when she explains (during an interview conducted last year) that “there’s quite a lot of grey areas” in the law on female genital mutilation (FGM), she doesn’t mean that in a moral sense. The legislation outlawing FGM was introduced in 1985. No prosecutions followed. In 2003, recognition of the fact that many girls were being taken abroad to be mutilated led to an amendment making it illegal to perform FGM on a UK national or UK permanent resident in any territory. Again, no prosecutions followed – until last Friday, when it was announced that Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena and Hasan Mohamed (both of London) would be the first people prosecuted under FGM legislation in the UK.
How could it have taken almost 30 years? Campaigners and frontline workers offer various explanations, from institutional racism to misguided multiculturalism – two apparent opposites which in fact have the identical effect of allowing black girls to suffer horrendous violence precisely because they are black girls. But for DCI Pook – who has taken the lead on FGM cases in Avon and Somerset for just over two years and helped formulate the influential Bristol FGM Model which is now shared with other forces – the problem is the law. “The legislation has too many gaps … [but] we can’t prove the legislation isn’t good enough without taking a job far enough down the road to show that it doesn’t work, and the fact that the legislation isn’t necessarily fit means that it’s very difficult to do that.”
There have been three main obstacles to achieving the UK’s first FGM prosecution, according to DCI Pook. The first is that getting any testimony at all can be incredibly hard. FGM is usually arranged by close family members of the victim, and children (whether from loyalty or fear) are rarely eager to implicate their own parents. The second is one of status: the girls most at risk of FGM are from North African families, and their immigration status may not be clear enough to allow prosecution under the current law: as things stand, it would be very difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that UK law has jurisdiction over an act that may have been committed by a foreign national against a foreign national in a foreign territory – even if both perpetrator and victim usually live in the UK.
The third is physical: “FGM is very, very difficult to age,” says DCI Pook. “And by that I mean physically age the presentation of the vagina when it’s been done, to say whether the FGM is eight years old, nine years old, ten years old … It’s still possible for people to say this was done in 2001 or 2000, when actually it wouldn’t have fitted within the most recent legislation. That will change, but we’re not quite there yet.” These, then, are the grey areas which make Friday’s announcement such an aberration. But there are other alleged aspects of the case revealed on Friday that are typical of FGM, according to Nimko Ali, co-founder and CEO of the organisation Daughters of Eve, which campaigns against FGM and provides support to women who have had it inflicted on them.
FGM is often spoken of as a crime committed by women against women, and one founded in ignorance, so it’s striking that both of the people charged are men and one is a doctor educated in the UK. “Male violence against women,” says Ali. “That’s ultimately what FGM is. This is about controlling women’s bodies and controlling how they see themselves in society. A lot of the people that are practising FGM right now are well educated but the women haven’t been emancipated from those cultures and the men ultimately believe in those control frameworks.” There’s an ongoing failure to educate girls about their rights but, Ali stresses, no defence of naivety can be extended to the perpetrators and promoters of this crime: “None of these people are ignorant. Those that are pro-FGM often know more about the law than the people that should looking after the girls that are at risk.”
But for a long time, authority figures who endorsed or tolerated FGM within their own communities were treated as the official spokespeople on the issue – and that left girls voiceless. “It’s [politicians] being in bed with community leaders, the male community leaders, that has meant that women won’t come forward,” says Ali. “Because the women know that those they seek to trust are talking to the ones that are seeking to abuse them.” This is the context in which FGM has been allowed to go on unopposed until very recently: one where within certain African immigrant communities black men dominated black women’s lives, and the largely white (and largely, though not exclusively, male) mainstream condoned that domination.
And that’s why Ali doesn’t give any credence to one of the major sources of white feminist squeamishness about policing FGM – the idea that to enforce legal limits on how women’s genitals may or may not be surgically altered would be to somehow restrict women’s bodily autonomy. (It’s worth noting, of course, that men have rarely campaigned for the right to have their penises deformed beyond function, which might suggest something about how valuable this version of bodily autonomy might be.) “We don’t accept that women that go back into abusive relationships are women that wanted to go back,” says Ali. “We understand that they have been coerced or been systematically abused to the point where they can’t say ‘I don’t want this’. The law says you can’t consent to GBH, because if you did there would be a corroded society.”
This hard line on physical protection, however, doesn’t mean that Ali supports invasive measures to secure prosecutions. On the subject of compulsory examinations as practised in France, and credited with being part of the approach that has led to over 100 prosecutions while the UK has failed to achieve any, Ali is scathing: “Girls that will come forward to seek justice are girls that have already been failed. It’s not about abusing other girls’ autonomies by pulling down their knickers because they’re Somali or whatever.” DCI Pook echoes this point that the number of prosecutions should never be seen as the ultimate measure of success for FGM policy: “The day we prosecute somebody for having FGM done to a young girl or a young woman actually represents another failure in the protection of that girl.”
It’s hard to see any criminal conviction as worthy of celebration when you know the gravity of the abuse that was not prevented. Whatever the outcome of the case against Dharmasena and Mohamed, this can only be a small part of what is owed to those who are at risk of or have already suffered FGM. True justice for all women and girls means freedom from violence, freedom from fear, freedom from control. The aim of ending FGM in a generation once seemed absurdly ambitious: now, thanks to the joint efforts of campaigners, public servants and politicians (notably Lynne Featherstone MP and Jane Ellison MP), it seems not just possible but even plausible. How much can we achieve if we stop letting defeatism constrain our hopes and ask instead for everything that women deserve as humans?