I was emotional impressed and in awe one night watching Channel 4 recently. The weather forecast was slightly different. The forecast was for fanny-forwardness with a chance of cupcakes. Okay, the weather forecast was a lie although it would be funny to see fannies popping up all over the weather map. But one night recently Channel 4 was much more fanny forward than usual.
Channel 4 broadcast a groundbreaking documentary, The Cruel Cut with Leyla Hussein on the pernicious scandal of FGM, Female Genital Mutilation. Girls who have undergone FGM have had their genitals cut often at a very young age. The practice of FGM originated in 512 BC. 140 million girls worldwide have undergone FGM. That alone is a shocking figure. If I was to substitute the vagina for a leg, or an arm that wouldn’t be right would it? Neither is it right to condone the mutilation and refashioning of the vagina for non-medical reasons. FGM is a disgusting practice. It is one which dehumanises and stigmatises its victims, causing them lifelong and everlasting emotional and physical pain. I am glad that Channel 4 decided to broadcast this programme.
Leyla herself had been cut at a young age. Hearing her recount the false expectation of normalcy from the day, she recalls sunlight beating through her window is emotional in itself. For that day would be a day like no other and a day that changed the course of her life for good.
FGM though is not just a remote cultural practice happening on a remote island somewhere. It is happening here and now in Britain in 2013, in our homes and in our communities. So therefore it is not just affecting victims, although it affects them primarily. It should affect us too, as we can help in the efforts to arrest and cease this practice.
To raise awareness amongst women and girls Leyla set up a vagina tent, telling people there were going to discuss vaginas for the afternoon and also enticing people into the tent with vagina shaped cupcakes. I have never before seen a vagina so expertly dusted in pink icing!
Unfortunately after the sweetness of the cupcakes, the event proved much more harrowing than a sweet treat. Leila ran through the different types of FGM and how they are performed. In the first type the clitoris is cut or pricked. I don’t just want to say that as a blasé statement. When I was making notes for this blog yesterday I sat and thought long and hard about how that would feel. Imagining searing pain and blood for the victims, their vaginas damaged and never quite the same again made me really sad. And there are no fancy semantics or words I can use to dress that up. It made me sad that human beings could do this to other human beings. Many of the cutters themselves are women too, so one cannot easily simplistically dismiss this as female subjugation meted out by men. Men and women are complicit in this barbaric practice and it has gone unchecked and unquestioned by the wider public for centuries.
In the second type, both the clitoris and the small labia minora are cut. In both cases this results in a lot of bleeding and discomfort. The remaining hole is then cut and closed.
In a third type of FGM, infibulation, a woman’s labia majora and clitoris are both removed. Therefore the big and small lips are gone. What remains is a tiny hole out of which women are expected to menstruate, give birth and urinate.
As I write I am thinking, and thinking hard. What FGM is at heart is butchery of a woman’s body. It would make every one of these three experiences listed above much more traumatic than it needs to be. Not only would it be more traumatic, it would be physically painful. I would dread going to the toilet I really would. Periods although painful for many women would become the stuff of nightmares. Giving birth, and having to squeeze a tiny human being out of this tiny space would be nothing short of brave.
Yet thousands of women in the UK are living with this reality. They experience urinating this way, giving birth this way and menstruating this way because they have no choice and I salute them. Let us not forget that this is something done to women in the name of obscure culture rather than done for them and their benefit. They experience these things because they have no choice but to carry on with the burden of FGM on their shoulders. There is an operation known as reversal which can open the hole further reducing the pain, but it can never be a reconstructed vagina returned to its original form and functionality. This violation of women’s bodies is permanent and irreversible. Many women carry on because they have no choice and I find that admirable.
The operation does enable women though to have periods like everybody else. Why shouldn’t they? The thing I want people to keep in mind as they read is that there is no medical reason for this. It is a non-medical procedure. It can be likened to somebody amputating my legs just for the hell of it. There is discrimination here hiding in plain sight. It is advancing the myth that women are somehow inferior and less worthy than men which is simply never true.
During a fruitful discussion at Leyla’s house the conversation turns to the topic of sex. Leyla said that in the clinic environment she had witnessed women with third-degree vaginal tears because of men having to force the penis into a tiny space. There was also she said a high amount of anal sex amongst couples where the women had been cut, because quite simply there was nowhere else for the penis to go.
Everyone has the right to enjoy pleasurable sex in ways that feel good and pleasurable to them. FGM reduces the chance of this and I think that is barbaric. It turns what should be a pleasurable experience into a painful one and a nasty one which you would most likely remember for all the wrong reasons and that is not right ethically, morally or sexually. It is taking women’s rights away. It is allowing and encouraging discrimination against women because women who have not been cut are seen as unclean, with cut women seen as the gold standard. FGM is an agent of social control against women, limiting their sexual experience and opportunity and that is not right. It destroys women’s confidence and love for themselves. Interestingly though the women pointed out that African men were more understanding of their experience knowing about the culture and practices for themselves.
I think it is impossible to ignore the racial dimension inculcated within FGM. Felicity Gerry, a criminal barrister and anti-FGM advocate stated that it was impossible to take race out of the equation. Gerry was uncompromising. She said plainly that;
“This would not happen to white vaginas.”
For me there are two issues raised by what Felicity Gerry argues and they are both equally as troubling. If FGM wouldn’t happen to white vaginas, why not? Is it because issues affecting marginalised groups are not enough to motivate the rest of the population into getting onto their collective feet and making a noise? Following on from this, is there the subsequent implication that non-white vaginas and therefore non–white people and their lives matter less? If so I find this disgusting and beneath contempt. Every life matters and every life deserves the protection of the society and the law enforcement around it. I cannot help feeling somewhere in the pit of my stomach that if FGM was happening to white people there would be protests, innumerable online petitions and perhaps even a debate in the House of Commons without anyone asking for one. What we need to do is to get a point where all life is sacred because it is.
Another major realisation from the dinner party which Leyla hosted is that men have to be part of the wider conversation about FGM, although from the film it seemed that many older men were hesitant to condemn it outright.
The younger generation though are a different matter. After being shown imagery of the types of FGM and plasticine models in the case of the boys, both young men and women were in no doubt that they wanted to join the campaign to end FGM. During the film one boy was seen to feel dizzy and had to leave the room.
The views of the young men changed dramatically after their plasticine experience.
Before beginning their day with Leyla they had said that FGM was a good thing, and that it calmed women down rather than being like a supermarket open to everyone.
Now at first glance this may seem depressing but the change in attitude from the boys afterwards was nothing short of amazing and I feel confident that they will take that change and knowledge back to their own communities. It shows that hoping for a sea change in attitudes and perception around FGM is not unrealistic nor a waste of time.
Keir Starmer the former Director of Public Prosecutions was also interviewed for this film. There were six active cases being considered at the time of the end of filming. The main difficulty though as he said is that the chances of a child being willing to testify in court against family members is pretty slim.
Approaches to tackling FGM also varied widely in terms of geography. In France they have a prosecution heavy approach, and have secured just over 100 convictions. Girls are also routinely checked for FGM by doctors.
In the Netherlands, FGM education programmes are routine. There is also real political will to tackle the issue with an overall financial investment of €4.2 million. Britain falls behind with a much lesser financial investment benefiting fewer people.
The political difficulty also in Britain, as the chair of the all-party group on FGM, Jane Ellison MP points out is that FGM policy is spread out across three departments, the Department of Health, the Department of Education and the Home Office. We need more joined up thinking and a single minister or department responsible for FGM policy. Only then can we move things forward politically as a country.
That is something we need to do. Leyla suggested that Britain is considered a soft touch on FGM by many of her European colleagues.
Returning back to Felicity Gerry, in her eyes women are at the bottom of the agenda and black and minority ethnic women further down still. By implication then FGM is someone else’s problem.
For Efua Dorkenoo OBE the Chief Executive of the charity Equality Now the problem is that Britain opted for diversity, meaning that different cultures are allowed to live their lives in their own way however they see fit.
This is interesting for me as I have never really considered the idea that diversity could have disadvantages as well as advantages. For me diversity of people, and diversity of life has always been something to be celebrated.
But in terms of FGM culture is most definitely the problem. We in Britain take a laissez-faire approach and turn a blind eye, because being typically British we do not want to interfere in somebody else’s life in somebody else’s culture for fear of being racist or nosy or unfriendly. But in the case of FGM I feel it is a situation where we must interfere far more.
And if anything proves that, it was Leyla’s own survey which she conducted appearing to support FGM. Because it was seen to be a cultural practice, most people voted in favour of retaining FGM when in reality Leyla hoped they would do the exact opposite. It is amazing how much of a lever cultural practice is over people nowadays even if harmful to others. Leila even dropped in subtle verbal cues like mutilation and torture to encourage people to smell a rat in yet they still voted in substantial numbers in favour of FGM is a cultural practice..
This is the part of the film where I felt most empathy for Leyla and being honest I was almost in tears myself. To realise that there is such a disparity between your own critique of practices within your own culture, and the lack of awareness of this critique amongst the wider public must have been devastating for her. This is why we need to be far more fanny forward in everyday life and tell people about the dangers and consequences of FGM. There is more on that petition here in London’s Evening Standard. We must not be afraid to critique or question cultural practices. Such scrupulous behaviour could lead to a better life for somebody and we must never lose sight of that.
We need to learn something from the approach in France. As Efua Dorkenoo OBE suggests, we need to adopt their approach of equality. For France they would say, all the children are French, and this is what French kids do.
Another contributor said Britain is too politically correct when it comes to tackling FGM. If ever there is proof that cultural sensitivity and a laissez-faire approach does not work always then FGM is that proof.
The concluding part of the film centred around a trip to Maidenhead the constituency of Home Secretary Theresa May MP to talk to her about FGM. I was really sad when their hopes of spending a little time with her were dashed. However I know that a meeting has taken place with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and newly promoted Public Health Minister Jane Ellison. That really encourages me.
Overall then, I am proud of Leyla Hussein and her colleagues as they all work tirelessly, individually and together to end FGM. We need to move away from the idea that somehow FGM is happening in another culture, in another place, that it is something we should no longer pay attention to now the documentary has aired. FGM and the fight to end it is an ongoing struggle and it is a struggle which we can all play a part in. We owe it to these women and girls. The best way we can show that we understand their pain is to do something to help them and do it now, I found the documentary genuinely harrowing to watch, but that is insignificant in comparison to how harrowing it is for the victims of FGM to live through that experience, and as another contributor said;
“The image never leaves you of standing in your own blood, looking at your own flesh.”
I doubt those heartbreaking words will ever leave me either.
We must stop compartmentalising this child abuse. It is not a black problem or a white problem. It is not an African problem or a British one. It is not just the Government’s problem. It is not just your problem and it is not just my problem. It is everyone’s problem across the world if we care at all about the forced medically unnecessary mutilation of female genitals, and the residual emotional scars. It is our problem and we can do something to help end this scurrilous practice. I salute every victim of FGM, their courage their bravery and their strength in coming forward to share their stories.
Thank you to all involved, thank you to you for raising my awareness of FGM. I will definitely forever be fanny forward.
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