To many people, it may seem that there is cause for a grim kind of celebration at the conviction of a thirty-seven year old mother for female genital mutilation (FGM). This is the first conviction of its kind, though FGM has been a crime in the UK since 1985 and NHS England has observed over 5000 new cases of FGM in the course of a year.
This conviction is rightly hailed as a landmark. Tweets and news articles have poured in, elaborating at length on the news and often expressing hope for the future. Many see this case as a very real signal to perpetrators of FGM that they cannot evade the law any longer. But while the British justice system congratulates itself, it is important to note that years of failure to address the problem are the reason why this case is perceived to be such a landmark. Considering that there is a legal no-tolerance policy towards FGM, ramped up in 2015, it is shocking that it is only in 2019 that we can see the ramifications of this.
FGM is a practice commonly associated with a number of African and South-Asian communities. The majority of cases seen in the UK have been performed outside of the country. It is often carried out by communities where social stigma motivates this mutilation in the belief that it will prevent girls from being promiscuous. The complications from the procedure are usually severe, with women being exposed to risks such as infection, haemorrhage, infertility and even death. And this is not to mention the psychological and sexual implications of FGM.
The articles covering this conviction have rightly noted that the child’s mother was of Ugandan origin, and her father from Ghana. It is undeniable that the likelihood of FGM in some ethnic minority communities is significant, and it is important that those responsible for safeguarding understand this, so as to be aware of children who may be more at risk.
But although it is true that the child was from an African background, the coverage of the case is almost overly keen to emphasise the Otherness of her origins and upbringing. The BBC article leads with a photo of limes captioned ‘The police found evidence of “witchcraft” in the woman’s home…’. While it is indeed true that the defendant did stuff various pieces of fruit with written curses, in the hope that social workers and police would be driven away, this is hardly the most important issue at hand.
Likewise, in the Guardian’s coverage of the case, ‘witchcraft’ is mentioned within the first hundred words of the article. News outlets demonstrate an undeniable fascination with these aspects of the story; they intrigue readers and convince them that the world of people who commit crimes such as FGM is a bizarre and generally unintelligible sphere.
But it is not. By sensationalising cases such as these, the media can trick us into forgetting that both the defendant and especially the victim are very real people, and that FGM is a very real problem in our society. It is not some sort of distant evil, but something which we as a society must take collective responsibility to combat.
As a graduate of English Literature, I often find myself taken aback by parallels between what I have read and what I see happening around me on the news. When I think of FGM, I am reminded of a passage in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale. In the prologue to the tale, the Wife of Bath discusses an old proverb whereby people would burn their cat’s skin, so that it would be more tempted to remain in the home rather than prowl about at night. She feels that women are treated like that cat: under constant threat of being burned and maimed by those who would confine them in the home.
But this risk of mutilation is not simply a mediaeval phenomenon - we see it today across society. And it is not just confined to situations where the perpetrators believe in witchcraft. Think of the acid attack on former model Katie Piper - a man who she had briefly dated became jealous and obsessive and had sulphuric acid thrown over her. This instinct to deliberately deform or threaten to deform women is borne of misogynistic structures of male possessiveness, and fears of female independence. It is prevalent across all cultures, and manifests itself in many ways - from the intimidation of women who are out alone at night, to the mutilation that occurs during FGM.
The mutilation of female bodies is not just a by-product of FGM, but the fundamental reason for it. The belief that women who undergo FGM will not be promiscuous stems from a belief that you can deform women into passivity, that you can frighten women into inaction. This crime may be secretive and difficult to prosecute, and this conviction is certainly a start, but we have not reached the end goal yet. If we truly believe in creating a world where no woman should have to be afraid simply because she is a woman, then we must take pains to address this crime - right from the ideologies behind its origins, wherever they are found in society. Until we do this, we remain guilty of compartmentalising this crime as something different, something ‘other’. And forgetting that at the heart of it is a little girl who needs to be given a chance at a fair life.