Articles on Shifting Sands
Is Quilliam linking FGM to extremism?
Why did Quilliam ‘the world’s first counter-extremism organisation, launch an unremarkable report about FGM which says so little that’s new? Are they perhaps considering the practice a form of extremism, because many Muslims practice it? And that a lack of convictions means Britain may be pandering to Islam? I’m puzzled.
Despite that the less than rigorous approach which characterises the think-tank’s work, it calls on politicians, policy makers and civil society to give it due diligence while making a number of recommendations. What it doesn’t seem to realise is that most of these are already in place.
FGM Legislation in Britain: “A National Scandal” was written by Muna Adil and launched at the House of Commons in May 2018. That event was hosted by Sarah Champion, MP for Rotherham. She had been removed from her post as Labour’s equalities spokesperson, for bravely saying the gang-related sexual exploitation of teens in her constituency was caused by British/Pakistani Muslim men. She had swum against the sensitivity tide when far too many had tiptoed around being so specific.
Ostensibly, the report was about the inadequacy of Britain’s FGM legislation. So it’s intent was to highlight the perceived legal loopholes, and justifications for FGM. It suggests that in favouring comfort over truth, and inoffensiveness over empathy, the practice is being allowed to continue. And ‘(t)he misplaced desire to maintain cultural authenticity has allowed disturbing practices such as FGM to continue unhindered in the fear that’ ….We don’t know what the fear is – the sentence doesn’t have an ending.
While it’s true that there’s never been a successful conviction for the practice, the report suggests it’s because we’ve been too culturally sensitive and politically correct to tackle the issue head on. So are complicit in allowing societies most vulnerable individuals to continue to be victimised and abused.
But that would seem a straw dog argument considering the incredibly well funded, high profile industry that has grown and thrived in regard to the practice over the past 10years or so, sanctioned and supported by Prime Ministers and politicians of all political persuasions.
The report also includes a foreword by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose ahafountdation collaborated on it. This ‘enriched the content, in particular the sections concerned with FGM legislation in the US’. Ali is originally from Somalia and has good reason to fear Islamic extremists. She is a staunch opposer of FGM in any form and published a US orientated study ‘Why we hesitate to protect girls from FGM’ at the same time as Quilliam.
I will look at each section in turn.
The British situation
The report opens with a now familiar technique – a shocking quote from a ‘survivor’ about the horrendous ordeal she went through when undergoing FGM. But there’s a twist. This girl didn’t undergo the practice in a remote African village where a stereotypical traditional cutter wielded a rusty blade between her forcibly spread legs. No, she’d had it in Britain, and is the daughter of a solicitor of West African origin living here.
That the father’s guilt wasn’t proven in court was a huge disappointment to activists. He was cleared by a jury. But the case was used to highlight the alleged growing number being taken to court and a conviction not secured.
But this was the fourth (not second) case which didn’t result in a conviction. Details of the first two can be accessed here and here. The third was a Bristol father who was unsuccessfully prosecuted with letting his daughter undergo FGM. The judge deemed there was not a case to answer. A fifth is scheduled for January 2019.
To illustrate FGM prevalence, a year’s data from NHS Digital is cited to show ‘that during 2016-2017, 5,391 new cases of FGM were recorded in the UK’. Accompanied by the mantra ‘not a single perpetrator brought to justice’.
It’s important to note (the report doesn’t) the data relates to England only, not to the UK. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different reporting systems and their data is not easily accessed. So we have no idea what the UK situation is. Even England’s data is incomplete because everybody who should report, doesn’t, for a variety of reasons.
Neither are the new cases really ‘new’. The 5,391 figure simply refers to women and girls with FGM, who were recorded for the first time when accessing NHS care in England during that time frame. They’ve had their personal data, including names and addresses, mandatorily centralised to NHS Digital by health professionals, sometimes without their consent. Data began to be collected in this format in 2015. Nor does the figure demonstrate that the practice was undertaken in the UK.
There isn’t a link to this important data source so I’ll include it here. As well as to a piece I wrote following the report’s publication in July 2017, to help explain why there aren’t prosecutions: Still no UK FGM epidemic.
- 95 per cent of the women and girls seen had undergone FGM abroad and before they were 18 years old
- The UK was recorded as the country of birth for 112 people
- 57 had undergone the practice in the UK. Of these, 50 had type 4 (88%). Types 1, 2, 3 and others are not recorded/are unknown and are represented by asterisks. So maybe amounted to seven people
- 45 of the 57 were aged 18 or over when they had had FGM. Ten did not have this data recorded, thereby accounting for 55 of 57, leaving just two under 17’s who had it in the UK
It’s been acknowledged, even by the NHS, that much of the ‘Type 4’s’ being reported are intimate piercings. And, I am reliably informed, these are mainly in pregnant, caucasian teens.
That’s because cosmetic genital piercings for non-medical purposes, are classified as FGM by the WHO, British and US law. So in the absence of actual ‘mutilation’, these presentations are being reported as FGM.
Shockingly, the figure may even have included newborns in England’s hospitals who were incorrectly reported as having undergone ‘FGM’.
It’s also worth noting that labiaplasty in under 18’s is becoming increasingly common: 150 of the 200 reported to have had this surgery during 2015-2016 were under 15. Yet this is not popularly viewed or reported as FGM although, by law, it is.
So who would Quilliam like prosecuted? Genital piercers? Fictitious mutilators of newborns? Or maybe it could press to have labiaplasty publicly recognised as FGM? That would certainly boost conviction rates.
The report then suggests reasons why Britain remains alone in Europe in its inability to prosecute FGM. These include disempowered survivors, a lack of witnesses, cultural sensitivity, a severe lack of education and resources for victims, and the existence of legal loopholes.
But considering the very well funded and resourced industry that has developed in the UK and been exported around the world, none of these reasons seem remotely valid.
While precise figures for domestic funding are hard to ascertain, we know that £370K was committed for community engagement work in 2014 on top of £1.4m for the FGM prevention programme. The National FGM Centre was established in March 2015 with £2.1m and continues to be funded. It’s worth noting also that the UK recently pledged £50m to help end FGM across Africa by 2030. This follows the £35m pledged in 2013.
The US situation
In her section of the report, ‘Across the Atlantic: FGM in the US’, Ayaan Hirsi Ali asserts that an estimated 513,000 women and girls have undergone FGM. Evidence for this figure is not referenced.
She draws our attention to a ground-breaking case, the first being brought to trial since the practice was outlawed there in 1996, and ‘will set a precedent for how the US handles the crime.’
A medical doctor, Nagarwala, has been charged with performing FGM on young girls in Michigan: ‘Up to 100 girls have been identified as victims.’
But lawyers for the defendants argue this practice by the Dawoodi Bohra (a Shia Muslim sect) is a protected religious procedure – no more than a “ritual nick”. They suggest that it should not fall under the category of FGM – that the Doctor simply “removed membrane from the girls’ genital area using a ‘scraper’… the girls’ parents then bury the membrane in the ground.” Ali believes this is suggesting that a mild, or less invasive, approach to FGM should be permitted which she profoundly disagrees with.
But in a surprising development on 20th November 2018, Judge Friedman of the US District Court, Eastern District of Michigan ruled that Congress went beyond its authority to pass the law against FGM.
In the 28-page ruling, Friedman wrote “Congress overstepped its bounds by legislating to prohibit FGM” because “FGM is a ‘local criminal activity’ which, in keeping with longstanding tradition and our federal system of government, is for the states to regulate, not Congress.”
The ruling resulted in most charges against Dr Nagarwala, her associates and the mothers being dropped. She however remains under house arrest and in April 2019 will face a conspiracy charge, and with two others an obstruction count. If found guilty, a federal prison sentence will ensue.
The ruling has generated much concern and confusion. Many activists have incorrectly interpreted it as giving the green light to FGM. The video ‘Did a US judge just make FGM legal?’ by ethicist Brian Earp and this by lawyer, Will Chamberlain, help explain why the judge ruled the federal, anti-FGM law unconstitutional.
In one sense it’s a shame that the case wasn’t heard because under the First Amendment to the Constitution, free religious expression is a fundamental right of Americans. The court would have to judge whether this religious practice, less severe than male circumcision is, and done routinely and legally on US boys, is actually a crime.
The section on Cultural Sensitivity illustrates how Quilliam scraped the barrel attempting to illustrate it. It used a 25 year old example of Brent Council in London wanting to make FGM legal because they viewed it a “right specifically for African families who want to carry on their tradition whilst living in this country”.
Ann Johnson was a councillor then, and in a 2014 interview recounted how she challenged that 1993 proposal. As a consequence she ‘suffered abuse and verbal attacks, and believes her treatment scared off other people from speaking out against FGM for years, out of a fear of being called racist.’
While there may be some truth to this assertion, considering the size and influence of the anti-FGM industry that had begun to develop by then, and the vitriol directed at anybody who dared to question or challenge it, cultural sensitivity is patently not the deterrent she perceived it.
A second example is a (deleted) tweet by West Midlands Police from 2017, cited as an example of the cultural sensitivity within the Police force. It said in response to a question about the lack of prosecutions: ‘education and safeguarding vulnerable girls is the focus. Prosecuting / jailing parents unlikely to benefit child.’
The tweet was widely interpreted as the Police going soft on FGM, of selectively enforcing or ignoring the law, or of pandering to Islam. Their ‘FGM expert’ quickly clarified their position, tweeting: ‘Hi, I’m DC Squires, WMP FGM expert. For clarity @WMPolice WILL prosecute parents or cutters if in the child’s best interests. #FGMletstalk’.
Going soft on FGM is not something I’d remotely associate with the Police force. There’s been an ambitious National Police Chiefs’ Council strategy since 2015 whose aim is ‘the total eradication of FGM from all communities’.
Although Commander Ivan Balhatchet of the National Police Chiefs’ Council recently admitted their FGM intelligence woeful, he also said that preventing crime happening at all, and ensuring victims are taken care of, is the police priority. And “the UK not having any successful prosecutions is unacceptable to me as the national lead.”
But the discriminatory Bristol Partnership Model which the Police helped develop and implement, with its associated racial profiling and community persecution, illustrates the lengths they go to infiltrate so called ‘hard to reach’ communities. They were supported by local representatives from the charities Integrate UK and FORWARD who helped with intelligence gathering.
This collaboration led to a 400 per cent increase in potential FGM referrals from 2009 to 2014. I elaborated here.
That the Bristol Somali community was consequently ‘over-policed’ is evidenced in this recent report. At the community’s insistence, Safeguarding Guidelines were revised after the 2018 Bristol court case. Referrals have since dropped by a massive 95 per cent.
So political correctness is far from the problem the report suggests, and the recommendation of the need to move away from it, in the name of assumed cultural authenticity, a figment of their imagination.
Practical recommendations ‘that can aid in fast-tracking FGM prosecutions in the country and generally provide more support to victims or potential victims’ ended the report. They include moving the burden of proving FGM from the victims to investigators, identifying high-risk communities and vulnerable girls, training key frontline individuals, incorporating FGM awareness into mandatory sex-ed classes, and addressing the cultural root of the problem.
These recommendations are based on the author’s un-evidenced assertion about FGM occurring in the UK. And doesn’t take into account that many of them have been in place for some time. For example a raft of worrying measures were introduced by the Serious Crime Act 2015 which amended the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.
In addition to increasing the maximum penalty for FGM offences to 14 years imprisonment, a mandatory duty on regulated, frontline professions like teachers, social workers and healthcare workers who encounter a ‘known’ case of FGM in under 18’s, was included. They are now required by law to report this directly to the police force. Or else!
FGM Protection Orders (PO’s) have also been introduced for potential victims. Between July 2015 and December 2017, 222 applications and 205 orders were made. The Ministry of Justice considers the number small but doesn’t elaborate.
Consequences of these orders can include confiscation of passports or travel documents of the child ‘at risk’, family members and/or other named individuals, to prevent girls from being taken abroad. And can last until she is 18.
As I wrote here when exploring who benefits from PO’s, not all cases are straightforward and other factors and agendas, some professional, some domestic, can confound them.
Since the advent of Operation Limelight, travelling has become hugely problematic for specific people. Airside operations focus on inbound and outbound flights to ‘countries of prevalence’ during the summer holidays – the so called FGM ‘cutting season’.
In a related development in September 2018, British and US Police forces and Border agencies collaborated about sharing intelligence about FGM, and agreed to help identify cutters and perpetrators. Information on flight paths and investigations is now being shared by Operation Limelight with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.
I’m left wondering why Quilliam bothered jumping on the FGM bandwagon by writing this report when it patently didn’t have anything distinctive to say. Did it ever consider the possibility that the lack of successful prosecutions might be because FGM is an acknowledged diminishing practice overseas, and rarely if ever happens in the UK, or even the US?
They suggest that people who question the industry which Quilliam patently has now joined, are misguided and misinformed, responsible for allowing it to persist unhindered.
We also, supposedly, delegitimise the concerns of some of the most well-informed members of the concerned community. And allow societies most vulnerable individuals to continue to be victimised and abused. In response, I recommend these pieces where I have argued that anti-FGM activists demean women and we need to protect our girls from the industry.
The last thing needed is their recommendation that more incentives for politicians, policy makers, and civil society are needed ‘to give this issue the due diligence it deserves.’ By implication that the state should wade in even heavier than it does already. There has been far too much of that approach, and targeted people continue to suffer the consequences. They are being stigmatised for what their ancestors did, and humiliated and insulted by being labelled monsters and mutilators.
If Quilliam really wants to help, they could lobby to dismantle the industry – have FGM laws scrapped, campaigns scaled back and funding withdrawn. They should also give targeted people credit for the changes they’ve wrought in this sphere, independently, despite the challenges and hostility they face.
As for FGM being a form of extremism: Move along folks. Nothing to see here.
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.
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