Articles on Shifting Sands
Swedish debate about FGM
This summer, a frank exchange of views took place in Sweden between Sara Johnsdotter, Professor, Malmö University, and Lars Åberg, Journalist and author about the contentious issue of FGM there. Below is a translation of that exchange.
Strange disagreement about genital mutilation
There are shared opinions about how common genital mutilation is in Sweden. With more and more immigrants here from countries who practice this miserable custom, it is not reasonable that those who defend old facts and positions can be so sure of their views, writes author and journalist Lars Åberg.
It is hard to imagine a more clear and elaborate expression of female oppression than genital mutilation. Nevertheless, it remains a sensitive subject. New and up-to-date information is often dismissed by those who have studied the question early and gained positions as subject experts.
As a rule, I usually react negatively when someone reports that “research shows” something specific because, as you look closer, at least in society, for the most part there are also theories and research findings pointing in another direction. The growing mistrust of authorities also increases the demands on those who want to be credible.
Sweden is the country of consensus culture, for good and often for bad. We also live in a place where every time and every subject is characterised by certain ‘truths’.
For a long time, the newspapers and the radio believed that there was only one criminal expert (Jerzy Sarnecki), one on police work (Leif GW Persson), one on justice (Anne Ramberg), one on children (Lars H Gustafsson), one on Islam (Jan Hjärpe ) and one on Islamism (Mattias Gardell). It was convenient to phone them and no other; they always had something to say and the more often they were presented as experts the more weighty their expertise became. Other perspectives had to remain marginal.
That is not exactly the case any longer. But the struggles over the interpretative prerogative continue, not least in the academic world where many compete for the same research resources.
Just forbid the wretched thing – must there be more to it?
Rarely do these contradictions become as public as when, last year, the Swedish Civil Protection and Preparedness Agency, MSB, published a preliminary study on Muslim Brotherhood and Islamism in Sweden, written by, inter alia, terrorist researcher Magnus Norell. The study was immediately rejected by a number of Islamic researchers, among them Gardell and Hjärpe. Here the defence of positions of power was interlaced with political activism; Mattias Gardell has long had good relations with the Islamic network, which usually accuses Swedish society of stigmatisation.
But how can something like FGM even become an issue for debate? Is there more to it than just forbidding the wretched thing, and make sure that people abide by the law?
The disagreement seems to concern the number of people in Sweden who are subjected to the practice and whether the abuse is being carried out here.
In April, a physician in Michigan was arrested in the United States, who, according to the police investigation, has mutilated girls since 2005. FGM has been banned in American since 1996 – and in Sweden since 1982. The doctor and the girls belong to a Shiite Muslim sect with fairly closed groups around the USA. In the July-August issue of the left-wing journal Mother Jones, a woman who grew up in this sect, Tasneem Raja, described genital mutilation as a compulsory religious ritual and related how she, as a seven-year-old, was exposed to the abuse in the bedroom of a family acquaintance at the end of the 1980s.
A study from 2012 found that half a million girls in the United States were at risk of getting their genitals torn to shreds. Raja had thought that this practice would die out as new generations were born as Americans, but she finds that nothing has changed. The girls are encouraged to stay silent about what has happened. “Now this doctor is sacrificed and they pretend nothing is going on.”
The number of genital mutilations increase
In Sweden, researchers count in different ways. When the question is occasionally discussed in the media, Sara Johnsdotter, professor of social anthropology at Malmö University, and author in 2002 of a doctoral thesis on Somalis in exile, is being interviewed, she says that genital mutilation is very unusual in this country. She downplays the problem. In autumn 2016, the National Board of Health reported that about 40,000 women in Sweden were genitally mutilated, but only counted the immigrants from a small number of countries where the abuse is extremely common.
Migration continues and leads to an increased number of genitally mutilated women. This is an area of inadequate knowledge, one must say. And it seems unlikely that the custom would disappear at the same times as people cross the Swedish border.
One mutilation is one too many
In Sweden, in 2015, approximately 130,000 women and girls were from one of the 29 countries where, according to the UNICEF and the EU, there is a high risk of FGM. If you also include girls born in Sweden with both parents or just a mother from one of these risk countries, the figure increases by almost 55,000. The Swedish estimates should have this broader perspective, says Vanja Berggren, associate professor of public health at Lund University, who has produced materials about FGM for the Swedish Crime Victim Compensation and Support Authority, the County Administrative Board of Östergötland and the National Board of Health and Welfare.
If I were a researcher and devoted myself to a subject area, where the facts are uncertain and the fear to stigmatise minorities widespread, I would welcome new information, not reject it immediately. One mutilation is one too many. The need for knowledge is great and it is unreasonable that those who defend old facts and positions are so sure of their case.
Lars Åberg, Journalist and author.
The original, in Swedish, can be accessed here
Facts are facts no matter the political winds blowing
Debate / Reply
As a researcher, I have to relate to empirical reality. And the truth is that there is no evidence that FGM has taken place in Sweden, writes Professor Sara Johnsdotter.
It is difficult to write a response considering the number of mistakes that exist in the journalist Lars Åberg’s article on FGM. In it, he discusses the number of Swedish girls at risk of genital mutilation and what seems “unlikely” to him when he considers what has happened to the custom in regard to their migration to Sweden.
Lars Åberg writes that, as a researcher, I “downplay the problem” and that I “usually say it is very unusual for girls to be mutilated here in this country”. No, I do not usually say that. What I always say is that there is still no indication that the procedure has ever taken place on Swedish soil. This is a fact, not an estimate.
Research material that extends over two decades, including an archive containing some ninety police reports and criminal investigations regarding suspicion of genital mutilation, should provide a fairly stable basis for research analysis. Even if we calculate that a certain number of unreported cases may exist, it is clear that a significant cultural change has taken place within affected immigrant groups in regard to the practice.
As a researcher, unlike Lars Åberg, I have to relate to empirical reality, and I cannot twist my conclusions so that they fit his or others’ preconceived ideas. Sometimes I wish I could have a bit more of a casual approach to facts in the way that Lars Åberg’s work demonstrates. It would have saved me a number of attacks over the years, as well as the impression conveyed by some people that any research of mine would be “controversial” because it does not confirm with what Åberg and others have a feeling is the truth about genital mutilation and Africans.
But my job is to convey as thoroughly as possible research findings based on existing data, regardless of the political winds blowing or the angles that journalists and others want. Everything else would be a betrayal of the taxpayers who fund my research. And, importantly, of the girls to whom the research relates.
Sara Johnsdotter, Professor, Malmö University.
The original, in Swedish, can be accessed here
Both pieces were published in GP, western Sweden’s biggest daily morning paper.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia.
She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still.
She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.