Articles on Shifting Sands
We have sleepwalked into this FGM mess
Interview with Jama
A Somali-Londoner says his community has sleepwalked into the FGM mess while he outlines his views on the hysteria around FGM, responses to the practice, Government initiatives and the role of activists in FGM campaigns.
Jama has lived here for more than 25 years and is a family man. His parents are from Northern Somalia.
Why are you interested in FGM?
Of course FGM is wrong but the campaigns have had a deep impact on our community, leaving us feeling stereotyped and ostracised. We already felt isolated and marginalised and this has made things worse. There’s mass hysteria around it.
The campaigns have not been thought through and the campaigners, some with vested interests, don’t seem to realise the damage they’re doing to the community. Politicians have opportunistically jumped on the bandwagon once they realised there was milage in it for them. And the press use it as another stick to beat us with – a community already on the floor.
Why do you say you’re on the floor?
We’re marginalised. Racial abuse is common but under-reported. Newspapers promote negative coverage about the Somali community. Then there’s islamaphobia. And piracy. It all adds up. Small problems get magnified. Not long ago, the Met (London police) targeted over 1,000 people across London in a drive to deal with drug dealers. The only nationality mentioned out of those arrested was Somali. This trend leads to racial profiling, tension, stereotyping, marginalisation and ostracisation.
In regard to FGM, the Somali community has been talking about it for 35 years. We’ve been educating people to recognise that it’s wrong and is an imported, non-islamic practice.
I’ve heard the likelihood of FGM being carried out in London is small.
Yes. It’s non-existent. No child who’s undergone it has been identified here. There’s not been an arrest. Between schools, GP practices and public services, not one case has been found.
But we’re told it’s a hidden, secretive practice
It’s not hidden because it’s not happening. We know it’s wrong. We’re against it. If people were doing it, it would’ve come out. Of course it may still be happening in parts of Somalia. The young women who arrived in the 90’s may have undergone it there. They are the women being targeted now by people who have to report actual or suspected cases of FGM. But our community is more concerned with how the practice can be ended in Africa.
Here, the way it’s been handled is wrong. Policies have been railroaded through. The community has been stereotyped by campaigners and professionals. Sometimes they overreact in identifying possible cases, leading to false accusations, children are bullied in school because they are from communities who used to practice it. Doing damage like that.
Politicians and campaigners continue to say that girls are still being taken abroad to be cut and/or cutters are being brought here
But where’s the evidence for any of this? How could you get a cutter here even if you wanted to? Do they realise how hard it is to bring people here? Even to bring somebody’s mother or grandmother to visit. The British Embassy need surety. Lots of money. And proof the people they will visit own a property here.
But, even if it were true, the community needs to be worked with. To have it explained why it’s wrong. Not have knee-jerk reactions like taking girls off planes. Making false allegations….
It’s very easy to accuse somebody but it’s hard to apologise. There are lots of newspaper stories with headlines about girls about to be taken abroad to be cut. About FGM Protection Orders being issued. But afterwards, when no charges are brought, no evidence found, there’s no coverage. Or apologies. Think of the damage that does to us.
Are others as angered by this as you?
Yes! We feel people who hold racist views are given extra ammunition. They said we contribute nothing to society. Ever since Stephen Lawrence’s racist murder, there’s a continuing undercurrent of racism. Now there’s also islamaphobia which we share with other muslim communities. Every time something happens, the Somali community has fingers pointed at it.
And Somalia doesn’t have a central government. Somaliland is not recognised. There’s nobody to speak up for people here. No coherent voice. There’s no think-tanks. No common or agreed narrative.
But that shouldn’t stop people here from speaking out? Those who do are given a platform
Yes, but they are soon incorporated into the campaign machinery. They lose what independent voice they had. They are expected to support the campaigns and the policies being promoted and pushed through, even when they don’t agree with them. The new narrative replaces theirs. But they go along with it nevertheless.
Are you referring specifically campaigners from the Somali community?
Yes, but not just them. This is a general occurrence across the board. You become ‘neutralised’. I’ve been around these issues for a long time and I’ve seen again and again how this happens. But we’ve sleepwalked into this mess.
Why do you say that?
We deal with the topic privately because it’s embarrassing. We feel ashamed. Although we took the issue seriously, because it’s still a kind of taboo subject, we haven’t engaged the community publicly about it. While others talk, we stay silent. When we might have engaged or challenged the campaigners, there was nobody saying anything or offering an alternative narrative. Nobody saying ‘No, we don’t agree with you. We don’t do it.’
When FGM related projects and campaigns sprang up, they provided an opportunity for people to opportunistically jump on the bandwagon. There was and is lots of milage in it. Previously money came from the Home Office. Now it comes through the Local Authority through mainstream grants. £10K, £15K, £30K grants and more were sought and granted. But the accountability and evidence expected was poor.
Is there a difference between what people say publicly around the practice and what they think privately?
Oh, yes! Publicly they’re opportunists, ‘selling’ inauthentic products. A bit like Gerald Ratner did in 1991 when he said that his jewellery company sold items that were ‘total crap’.
And FGM is being linked to other agendas like the ‘prevent programme’ for schools, intended to protect children from radicalisation. What’s that got to do with FGM? The Government is lumping all sorts of issues together for the schools to deal with and we wonder what’s going on. There’s money in ‘preventive’ work.
Is this a conscious government agenda or a co-incidence?
The community think it’s mapped out and deliberate. But the Government doesn’t realise the damage it’s doing. That it’s counter-productive. The community is not engaged as it should be.
Will this have a knock on effect when it comes to elections?
Sure. Voters will look at where individual MP’s stand on specific issues. In national elections, people may not think FGM is their priority issue but maybe education, health, security. But when it comes to local elections, when they learn more, they will ask what their local MP says in regard to issues like FGM.
What do men think?
In our culture there are some things we don’t talk about. Sex for example. FGM is also a taboo subject for us. That’s one of the reasons why we sleepwalked into this. Men were absent from the discussion. We need to deal with this now rather than wait for the aftermath.
But campaigners say women continue the practice to please men
No! That’s just not true any more. Men may have expected this in the past. But here, attitudes have changed. Men now need to find a voice. They are more experienced in speaking publicly. But the campaigners who would like to involve women and men are part of the machinery, so are not trusted. They are being paid to do this.
Most women are not a challenge to the activist and feminists. They’re not ‘radical’ or ‘liberated’. But the women need to find a voice also. They are the ones that GPs will be examining. Maybe falsely accusing. That way, the issue will be brought into our homes. It’ll take a huge effort to get people to say ‘No, Enough!’ Maybe it’ll take a big case to make us react.
Won’t that be too late?
Yes! We need to find a way of speaking out now. Of warning people about what’s heading our way. About the changes in the law. The way professionals are expected to maybe report young women to the police. We know about these now and are afraid.
It’s a bit like ‘Remittances’. We pay high fees to transfer money back to relatives. This has caused a scandal but if these doors are shut, there will be an uproar. But it hasn’t happened yet……
You’re not the only man concerned surely?
No, there are many. But everybody’s busy. However, somebody needs to make a start, to gather people together, to galvanise people around it. To start developing a different narrative.
Lead campaigners are now saying they want to involve men
Activists don’t really want us involved because they say we are the problem. They promote that they are liberated while our wives are under our thumb and control. We might be critical of their outlook and suggest different approaches. So at the moment they’re happy to include mostly women.
Some campaigners anyway have no connection with the people whom they should be speaking to, and even avoid them. They would need an interpreter to deal with many of the people they say they represent.
Maybe the communities are not their audience?
But they are being paid tax payers money! They need to be accountable.
But isn’t the Government pleased to have them on board?
Absolutely! It’s a big hit for it. It ticks all their boxes. They are its saviours. But it’s in Africa that the problem really needs to be addressed.
Isn’t the Department for International Development (DfID) involved there?
Yes, it is. But NGOs have more of a presence here than on the ground there. It’s all about branding and packaging for them. This doesn’t resonate with ordinary people overseas who are relaying concerns about them.
So what needs to happen?
People need to know their rights and have support mechanisms in place should something happen to them or they be falsely accused. Look, we live here. We’re part of this society. A few think they’ll go back to settle in Somalia eventually but most of us won’t.
Government representatives, like MP’s, need to engage with local people – those without vested interests, instead of our so-called ‘representatives’. The Government needs to learn what the real situation is. To reconsider its policies. To soften its stand and approach. It should for example not be linked to ‘Prevent’.
There is a need to monitor the numbers and type of cases dealt with by Social Care, the Police, the Border Agency and the Courts. Many people are being wrongly accused and their freedom curtailed. We need to know more about this – to expose it.
School heads and teachers e.g. need to be educated differently – to deal with pupils and communities more sensitively. They should not be taken in by the stereotyping which encourages them to view everybody with suspicion. This is not something OFSTED should be monitoring schools about. No more than the CQC should the NHS.
But we need to take it up in Africa. To challenge the practice there. Everybody has been thinking this but nobody is saying it.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa 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.