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Saturday, 27 November 2010

Female Genital Mutilation

If you visit this blog regularly you will have noticed a new widget on the right-hand side, down towards the end. It’s a link to a petition being organised by Irish Amnesty International and other NGOs, the aim of which is to raise consciousness in Europe about the issue of female genital mutilation.

This petition, and the way I discovered it (on Facebook), is one of the positive things about the spread of the internet worldwide and its possibilities. This, of course, can be overemphasised and cynics may question the value of such actions. After all, how much difference does it really make for us to simply click a link on a website and spend less than a minute entering a few details and hitting a “Submit” button? Not much. But not much is not nothing and such actions have cumulative effects. Firstly, even the minimal engagement shown by digitally “signing” such a petition can be quite effective when multiplied by hundreds of thousands, and there have been many such internet actions in the past years which have had an effect in bringing the weight of worldwide public opinion to bear on particular issues, one of the most recent being the global publicising of the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to stoning to death for adultery. Secondly, such actions have the effect of raising public consciousness about issues and keeping these issues in the focus of public attention.

Thirdly, such actions are, in many ways, harbingers of new forms of individual participation in civil societies, hints of new ways of future empowerment, the first tentative steps maybe towards as yet undefined structures of what political philosophers and theorists call deliberative democracy. One of the basic premises of many old philosophical models of anarchism predicated complete freedom of information as a necessary stage in developing societies beyond centralised state structures. This was perhaps too simple, for one of the ways free information can be most effectively countered is to simply bury it in a flood of trivia – often the prevailing reality in our so-called information age. Yet the availability of information remains vital in the development of free, responsible societies and it is not a coincidence that many states with totalitarian, illiberal tendencies are quick to try to block access to particular web sites and to emasculate search engines.

But to come back to the theme of the link on this site, female genital mutilation is still commonplace in many countries in the year 2010. It is an unspeakably cruel, ghastly practice and it is a shocking indictment of our self-assured maturity as human beings that we continue to tolerate it in our world. The following is from the “End FGM European Campaign” site:

Three million girls and women are subjected to female genital mutilation worldwide each year. That's 8000 girls per day.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a form of violence against women and children that can amount to torture.

The practice violates:
  • Right to physical and mental integrity
  • Right to highest attainable standard of health
  • Right to be free from all forms of discrimination against women (including violence against women)
  • Right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
  • Rights of the child, and
  • in extreme cases, right to life

Female genital mutilation has been documented in certain parts of Africa, Asia and Middle East, and it is now being encountered in Europe as well. Most often, girls and women are taken to their countries of origin during school holidays to be mutilated.
The European Parliament estimates 500,000 girls and women living in Europe are suffering with the lifelong consequences of female genital mutilation.
FGM constitutes a persecution qualifying for being granted refugee status according to the international human rights standards as well as European law. However, because of lack of uniform implementation among all member states of the European Union (EU), women and girls are put at risk of being returned to countries where they could be subjected to FGM…"[i]

“…There are several reasons provided to justify the practice of female genital mutilation:
  • Control over women’s sexuality: Virginity is a pre-requisite for marriage and is equated to female honour in a lot of communities. FGM, in particular infibulation, is defended in this context as it is assumed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and lessen temptations to have extramarital sex thereby preserving a girl’s virginity.
  • Hygiene: There is a belief that female genitalia are unsightly and dirty. In some FGM-practicing societies, unmutilated women are regarded as unclean and are not allowed to handle food and water.
  • Gender based factors: FGM is often deemed necessary in order for a girl to be considered a complete woman, and the practice marks the divergence of the sexes in terms of their future roles in life and marriage. The removal of the clitoris and labia — viewed by some as the “male parts” of a woman’s body — is thought to enhance the girl’s femininity, often synonymous with docility and obedience. It is possible that the trauma of mutilation may have this effect on a girl’s personality. If mutilation is part of an initiation rite, then it is accompanied by explicit teaching about the woman’s role in her society.
  • Cultural identity: In certain communities, where mutilation is carried out as part of the initiation into adulthood, FGM defines who belongs to the community. In such communities, a girl cannot be considered an adult in a FGM-practicing society unless she has undergone FGM.
  • Religion: FGM predates Islam and is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, but it has acquired a religious dimension. Where it is practiced by Muslims, religion is frequently cited as a reason. Many of those who oppose mutilation deny that there is any link between the practice and religion, but Islamic leaders are not unanimous on the subject. Although predominant among Muslims, FGM also occurs among Christians, animists and Jews.”[ii]

The chairman of an Indonesian Islamic foundation which sponsors female “circumcision” defended the practice to the New York Times journalist, Sara Corbett, in 2006, citing three “benefits” for the victims:
‘“One, it will stabilize her libido,” he said through an interpreter. “Two, it will make a woman look more beautiful in the eyes of her husband. And three, it will balance her psychology.”’[iii]

As a father with two daughters, the very idea of this practice makes me profoundly sick. There are different forms of it, the most extreme being infibulation, the so-called pharaonic circumcision – if you really want to read the details they are available on the end fgm website or in the Wikipedia article on the subject. The writings of victims like Waris Dirie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are also moving – and harrowing – descriptions of what goes on. Mutilation is generally forbidden by law even in the countries in which it is most commonly practised, like Egypt, but the law is often not enforced. The reason usually given for this is that FGM is deeply culturally rooted.

I confess to having little sympathy for this explanation. Culture cannot be put forward as a blanket justification for all kinds of barbarity; it could just as well be used to condone cannibalism, or slavery. But, with clenched teeth, I can accept the argument that the most effective means of combating this unspeakable abuse of basic human rights is patient educational work on the ground by social workers and local women activists. Who need support, including material support.

Which is one of the basic reasons for the petition to your right. Please sign it. It is part of a series of actions in Europe which will be running until December 10. If you’re on Facebook or another social network, post a link to it. If you have a blog or a website, copy the html code and put the widget on your own site. It is very little for us to do but if the few minutes we spend helps save even a few girls from this horror then they were surely well spent.

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