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UK FGM parties hoax reached Sweden
Sara Johnsdotter and Birgitta Essén
In December 2016, several news media (for example, BBC News and The Independent) reported that midwives were being flown into the country to attend “FGM parties” on British soil. The rumour seems to have started when one activist organisation made the claim and another confirmed it.
This rumour reached Sweden through a UK ‘expert’ visiting a government conference in Sweden’s third biggest city, Göteborg, in February 2017. We were told in a newspaper article about the midwives flying-in and the associated FGM parties. And that authorities and professionals refrain from reporting FGM cases out of “fear of being labelled racist”. The article spread like wildfire on social media in Sweden and within a day had reached more than 15,000 shares in this small country.
The tale about midwives or circumcisers being flown into Europe is not new. In Sweden, for example, this rumour circulated in 2001 via television and newspapers. The features of the narrative are such that that the story qualifies as a contemporary legend, or ‘urban myth’. Sociologists describe these legends as accounts that evoke deep emotions of disgust or horror, with elements of innocent victims and evildoers. They often include details that help make them seem authentic, while they are in fact rumours that lack substance. Urban myths are said to reflect our deepest fears of evil deeds and our failings to prevent them. Goode and Ben-Yehuda in their seminal book Moral Panics (1994) wrote:
Contemporary legends are stories that are told as true, and are widely believed, but lack factual verification – which means that they qualify as rumors. On the surface, they seem to be about specific people and events; in reality they have an abstract, general, or cartoon-like quality (Goode & Ben-Yehuda 1995:108). […] The ideology of specific social categories, subgroups, or social movements provides a framework that makes certain horrifying (but empirically unlikely) events seem possible, plausible, or even likely; tales about such events are believable because, in certain circles, they give life to fears and threats that have been articulated on a more abstract and general level (1995:110).
There is no documentation of ‘FGM parties’, or of imported circumcisers in any European country. But that some activists spread these stories should not surprise us: it is part of the game that some activist organisations, reckless with claims, play in order to attract funding for their activities. What concerns us, however, is that journalists and the general public give credence to these stories.
Our propensity to believe appalling but patently absurd stories about FGM became obvious here in Sweden in June 2014. Anti-FGM campaigners declared via a local newspaper “An increasing number of mutilated girls are discovered”. And the introduction stated “60 girls with FGM [had been] discovered in Norrköping”.
Given that about 40,000 circumcised women and girls live in Sweden, it is not surprising that some live in that city. But the word ‘discovered’ pointed towards supposedly hidden, criminal activity. Other newspapers ran the story also, particularly after it had been promoted by Reuters news agency: “60 cases of female genital mutilation discovered in Swedish school”. The news item was published all over the world, from the US to India and New Zealand. In a Danish newspaper, the story was even more twisted: it said that 60 girls had “been mutilated in Norrköping since March” that same year. Few newspapers published disclaimers when it was clarified that crime was not suspected. The Guardian alone took a more independent stand. Having sent a reporter to cover the story, it did not repeat the hoax.
A study of FGM criminal court cases in Europe, commissioned by the European Commission in 2015, established fewer than fifty cases in Europe. Thirty had taken place in France alone during the 1980s and 1990s, and there is documentary evidence that girls had been circumcised there. We also know of other single cases: in Italy, in Switzerland, and possibly in Spain. But the typical case is one where the girl with European residence was circumcised in an African country. Sweden has had two court cases regarding circumcisions that took place in Somalia. Both ended in prison sentences.
An analysis of nearly 90 police reports and criminal investigations in Sweden demonstrates that the system is alert and there is a widespread willingness among authorities and professionals to report suspected FGM cases. In a few, it was possible to document that a Swedish girl had been circumcised even though it was not possible to take these cases to court. To prosecute in Sweden, both the victim and a perpetrator must have some connection to the country. In these cases, the girls were circumcised in Africa, and it was not possible to find evidence to incriminate anyone with a connection to Sweden. The bulk of the suspected FGM cases concluded that circumcision was not performed, or it was unlikely that the suspected case involved an illegal act of circumcision.
Research from Sweden and other countries indicates a general tendency towards cultural change after migration among potentially affected immigrant communities. Many appear keen to seize the opportunity to abandon a painful tradition when they migrate to non-practising countries. So, when we consider that there are few criminal court cases regarding FGM in Europe (given the hundreds of thousands of people from these countries now living in Europe), we should not jump to conclusions and assume that there are large numbers of unrecorded cases. There is every reason to view the scarcity of documented illegal cases as good news: as a sign of cultural change and one that ought to be encouraged. Instead, in the UK as well as in other European countries, immigrant communities and individual families are constantly viewed with suspicion.
Honest and impartial activists do not spread malicious tales. We, the general public, need to be better prepared to deal with claims from those who think that the aim justifies the means. Scepticism is worth deploying when we encounter unsubstantiated stories and exaggerations in the heated atmosphere of the FGM issue. The girls whom we want to protect deserve no less.
Sara Johnsdotter, PhD Professor, Medical Anthropology , Malmö University, Sweden
Birgitta Essén, PhD, MD Professor, International Maternal and Reproductive Health, Uppsala University, Sweden
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