Discussion of female genital mutilation (FGM) has often been bedevilled by accusations of racism and Eurocentric insensitivity levelled against its critics. Some years ago the well-known feminist writer and academic, Germaine Greer, accused those who wanted to outlaw the practice, of meddling in “traditions they didn’t understand.” Their hostility to FGM was, she said, “an attack on cultural identity.” In similar vein, albeit rather more cautiously, a newspaper that considers itself to be on the revolutionary left recently tiptoed gingerly around the subject following a widely supported campaign against the practice initiated by Fahma Mohamed, a seventeen-year old Bristol school-girl. She had gained over 250,000 signatures for a petition calling on the then secretary of state for education to write to all primary schools warning them of the risks of mutilation that large numbers of mainly Muslim young girls faced. The editor, usually far from reticent on matters of child abuse, limited the paper’s comment to a bare and brief factual account of Fahma Mohamed’s courageous initiative and then proceeded to quote a care worker who offered the opinion that “mothers may come down hard on daughters who raise it [the issue of FGM]. They may also worry that social services may get involved with their families.” The paper’s editor then commented that “many Muslim girls and young women who already feel stigmatised in society do not see the police or other authorities as offering a solution. They may be reluctant to report their own parents or other family members.” Such hesitant prevarication when faced with the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation is an expression of the cultural relativism that has for a long time characterized much liberal and leftist response where matters of ethnicity, tradition and religion are enmeshed.
In Britain, where barely disguised racism is never far from the surface in much media coverage of news dealing with ethnic minority communities, it is understandable that great care is needed to avoid fanning the flames of prejudice. But the cultural relativism that defends or excuses blatantly intolerant and inhuman practices because they are considered integral to the lives, traditions or religions of certain communities, is unacceptable regardless of the ethnic or religious character of those communities and regardless of the sincerity and intensity of the beliefs that sustain them. The implicit, and often explicit, claim of much cultural relativism is that the concept of social progress is a chimera. Accordingly all preferential value judgements made about different societies and different cultures are purely subjective. No one form of social and economic organization and the ideological and cultural super-structure emanating from it, can be considered superior to any other. All belief systems are equally valid and should be equally respected; belief in shamanism and witchcraft is no less valid and defensible than acceptance of Darwinian evolutionary theory and Einstein’s theory of relativity. The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, including the theory and practice of democracy, notions of liberty, equality and fraternity, is no more “enlightened” or “progressive” than archaic societies based on tribalism or theocratic despotism.
Many liberals and leftists find themselves in a tricky position over such matters. The left has always been to the forefront of campaigns for racial, social and sexual equality. Such campaigns have been integrally linked to the struggle against capitalist exploitation and imperialism and for socialism. All variants of socialism have their origins in the Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment rationalism of the nineteenth century. The firm conviction that progress to a better world is possible is a sine qua non of all socialist movements. The struggle for women’s rights and full social equality with men is a universal value, valid for all time. But in more recent times there has been a marked reluctance on the part of many leftists to take a firm and unequivocal stand against the oppression of women and girls in cases where such practices are associated with ethnic minority communities. The prevalence of female genital mutilation in some Muslim communities is a case in point. It is perfectly true that this practice is not an essential requirement of religion; there is no Koranic prescription for it just as there is none requiring women to wear the niqab. Nevertheless, of the estimated 137,000 women in Britain who have undergone FGM, sometimes including the most extreme - infibulation (the sewing up of the labia and the removal of the clitoris) - and the 20,000 more (most of whom are under the age of sixteen) who are at risk of being cut every year, the great majority are from Muslim communities originating in those parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East where the practice is endemic. It has been estimated that world-wide as many as 140 million young girls have been subjected to FGM. The Muslim Council of Britain has now added its voice to those calling for the practice to be banned, describing it as “un-Islamic.” They say, rather equivocally, that it is “no longer linked to the teaching of Islam”, and rather less equivocally that it runs the risk of bringing their religion into disrepute, carrying “an increasingly high risk of being prosecuted.”
The practice of FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985 but there has not been one prosecution, though the first case is now pending. Britain has the worst record in Europe in this respect. This failure is often put down to the cultural sensitivities surrounding the subject. But FGM, which in most cases is perpetrated against children and adolescents, is nothing less than child abuse and must always be treated as such. It is barbaric and intolerable. In France, where there is a policy of zero tolerance of the practice, there have been more than 100 successful prosecutions and there have been no new instances of FGM reported for some time.
Traditionally, cutting of the genitalia of young girls to remove part of labia and the clitoris, has been carried out by women, often using unsterilized knives and razors, without anaesthesia. This has led some opponents of FGM to argue that women are even more culpable than men in the communities where it is practiced. This is to ignore the essence of the issue. FGM is a barbaric expression of patriarchal society. It is one of the most extreme expressions of gender inequality and misogyny. There is no room for complacency concerning misogyny in western capitalist democracy. In Britain, despite decades of campaigning - led by women - for women’s rights and gender equality, the battle is far from won. As well as persistent and growing inequality in the workplace, too many women are still victims of physical violence, sexual harassment, rape, and even murder. Misogynistic, sexist objectification of women is evident on a daily basis in a tabloid press that demeans women, panders to immature male fantasies, and pressurises teenage girls into colluding with, and perpetuating such fantasies. And women are subjected to the most vile, murderous, misogynistic threats and abuse by internet trolls.
The ruling elites of all class societies depend for their survival on creating and perpetuating divisions amongst the subordinate classes. This also goes for the subordination of women. The novels of Jane Austen can be read as social documents about the collusion of middle class mothers in perpetuating their own and their daughters’ subordination through arranged marriages to the wealthiest suitors. They do, however, also reflect the determination of enlightened women to break free from such suffocating mores. Because of the courageous struggles waged by women from the beginning of the twentieth century, for full equality with men, throughout most of the western world great advances have been made. But in societies and amongst communities where women are still relegated to a status distinctly inferior to men, deeply entrenched inegalitarian attitudes prevail. In such societies and communities, many women have internalized the patriarchal misogynistic mores that govern their lives, believing them to be unchallengeable precepts of religion and/or age-old codes of practice that cannot be questioned. This goes a long way to explaining the collusion of women in the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. But it does not alter the fact that responsibility for the subjection of young girls and women to FGM can be explained only by the domination of men in deeply reactionary, oppressive patriarchal societies. The practice is an expression of male misogynistic attitudes to female sexuality.
FGM is now widely recognized as a form of physical and sexual abuse, mostly committed against children. In the past it was frequently described euphemistically as “female circumcision”. There can be no comparison with male circumcision. Whatever one thinks of male circumcision, the removal of the foreskin is not intended to deprive men of pleasure during sexual intercourse and it does not do so. Neither does it result in prolonged agonizing pain, deep trauma, serious injury and not infrequently, death. FGM can lead to any or all of these. But its main purpose is to deprive women of the ability to experience sexual pleasure during intercourse. This objective is most evident in the excision of the clitoris. This horrendous assault on female sexuality is rationalized as the need to protect women’s chastity and to ensure that the bride is preserved “pure” for her husband; only the daughter who has been “cut” will be marriageable, it is believed.
It is very encouraging that more and more women from Muslim communities are speaking out. But what about men? It is time that more Muslim men made their voices heard. But that goes equally for men in general. This is just one (albeit an egregious one) of the numerous injustices suffered by women where male voices have hardly been heard. Now is the time to make those voices heard loud and clear. We should heed the courageous Muslim feminist, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s heartfelt plea for men to become engaged in the campaign to end FGM:
“We women have been screaming for justice and rights for years, while our sons, husbands, lovers and male friends remain disengaged and therefore complicit. The twentieth century world war is against females young and old.”