Originally posted on Euro Babble on 12 December 2019.
It’s high time we talked about combatting Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – and without fuelling hate speech through our words.
Last week, the End FGM European Network and the World Solidarity Forum (WSF) co-hosted a seminar in Brussels on how to sensitively and effectively discuss FGM and other forms of gender-based violence – to inspire change through empowering women and girls while being empathetic to different cultural perspectives.
Despite FGM remaining a widespread and devastating issue, journalists and politicians alike tend to shy away from the topic. This is partly due to the fact that talking about either child abuse or female anatomy remains taboo in society. But there is also the fear of backlash by shunning a cultural practice.
The seminar included input from various expert panelists for a multi-faceted perspective on the issue and encouraged a collective improvement in approach to avoid causing further by speaking out.
What is FGM?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) – sometimes called female circumcision or female genital cutting – is a cultural practice carried out by various communities around the world, now classed as a form of gender-based violence. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as any non-medically-motivated procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to the female external genitalia.
Currently affecting 200 million women worldwide, it is estimated that each year in Europe, 180,000 girls and women are at risk.
Why do people practise FGM?
The proposed reasons for FGM generally fall into five categories:
- Controlling female sexuality: FGM is thought to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards, and to increase male sexual pleasure.
- Initiation into womanhood: FGM is viewed as a rite of passage and an intrinsic part of some cultures.
- Hygiene and aesthetic appeal: In some communities, the external female genitalia are considered dirty and ugly (although it has been proven that FGM has no health benefits)
- Religion: Although not endorsed by any religious text, supposed religious doctrine is often used to justify FGM.
- Economic necessity: In many communities, FGM is a prerequisite for successful marriage or inheritance.
Breaking the cycle
Although it is usually a woman who carries out the procedure, men also play a major role in perpetuating the practice. Some men wouldn’t accept getting married with an uncut woman – considered to be impure and less worthy. This is why fathers and parents in general keep on having their daughters cut, in order to make sure they will find a husband.
It is the ‘entrenched gender inequality’ and accompanying mindset that need to be addressed, rather than the perpetrators themselves, who have also been harmed by the very practice which they now enforce. The complexity of FGM lies in the fact that the “aggressor” usually commits this act of gender-based violence with well-meaning intentions, under the belief that this is necessary for the health, wellbeing and development of the child.
In order to successfully combat FGM, we should not be demonising those who perform it but must address their reasoning, circulating facts about the harm which it causes to ultimately break the cycle.
FGM: The Misconceptions
Panelist Dr. Amina Easat-Daas from De Montfort Leicester University in the UK explained how on the occasion that European media or politicians broach the topic of FGM, it tends to paint the picture that this is a problem unique to Africa, or to Islam. In reality, neither of these misconceptions are true. They only serve to stigmatise already-marginalised communities in European society, and deter attention from many girls who truly are at risk, but don’t fall into these categories.
Although most well-known to take place in Afro-Islamic communities such as in Somalia and Ethiopia, in truth young girls spanning religions and regions are being subject to this harmful practice. Juliana Wahlgren from ENAR Europe stressed: ‘Intersectionality is about protecting the most at risk, within the minorities. Intersectionality shouldn’t be a buzzword.’
Hayat Traspas, representing the anti-FGM NGO Save a Girl Save a Generation, added: ‘Journalists focus their headlines on Africa. But not all African countries practise FGM, and some countries outside of Africa do practise FGM. We need to let survivors lead the narrative on FGM because not all stories are the same.’
FGM in Europe
FGM has been around in Europe for a long time. This is both among immigrant communities, and to some native populations such as in the Caucasus region.
Each year, an estimated 180,000 girls and women in Europe are at risk of FGM. However, there are still many challenges that we need to address in order to develop adequate national and European policies on the practice. This must start with open and fact-based conversations.
The power of words
As we have previously explored in other contexts, language and vocabulary are fundamental when it comes to public opinion. An example regarding gender-based violence is the preference to refer to “survivors” rather than “victims”. This emphasises the strength of overcoming, rather than the alleged weakness of being targeted.
In the same vein, organisations such as Plan International and UNFPA are circulating terminology like “born complete” or “intact” to shift perspectives by reinventing the status of “uncut” women and girls. This simple switch has the potential to transform harmful narratives that suggest a need to control the female body and sexuality – which still live on in some shape or form in every culture.
End FGM European Network Programmes Officer, Isma Benboulerbah stated: ‘It is crucial we use a non-stigmatising narrative to develop a common fight against FGM… [this] is a first important step towards ending violence.’
Why link FGM to hate speech?
Earlier this year, the first FGM-related conviction was made in the UK, (although already illegal in the country since 1985). The judge labeled the practice ‘horrific,’ ‘barbaric’ and ‘sickening.’ Although not usually ill-intended – as the practice can certainly shock those of us on the outside – using such terms only intensifies the cultural divide. It makes it even more difficult to get through to FGM-practising communities, and for girls at risk or already inflicted to get support.
It is through combatting hate speech targeting women and migrants that we can appropriately communicate about gender-based violence without blaming individuals for the social norms which they themselves have fallen victim to. Every one of us is deeply influenced by the society we grow up in, which shapes our perspective in ways we can barely grasp. It is crucial to remain open to self-critique, while also being prepared to speak out against injustice when we see it elsewhere.
Demonising the parents and communities who endorse FGM does no help in eradicating it. We shouldn’t judge communities for harmful practices such as FGM, but learn their reasoning in order to make change collaboratively.
FGM: Everybody’s business
FGM is one of the most important human rights violations of our time. It comes along with various other fundamental gender equality issues such as child marriage, honour-based violence, and girls’ education.
On top of that, FGM is even more complex than other forms of gender-based violence. This is because, in the vast majority of cases, the “aggressor” is a female relative who truly believes that this is the answer to the girl’s health and wellbeing. As difficult as it may be, those of us outside of this culture must be both persistent and sensitive in our approach.
In short, starting progressive yet non-stigmatising conversations about FGM encourages wider discussion on gender-based violence, and can be a real catalyst for change. However, we must be humble and ready to learn as we speak on behalf of the girls at risk, even though it may not be straightforward.
After all, human rights and dignity are more important than a privileged minority feeling comfortable.