Articles on Shifting Sands
Western origin and limits of the anti-FGM movement
What gave rise to the FGM movement and why Zero-Tolerance?
Mike Ward, a middle-aged, white British male and long time supporter of All Women are Free to Choose decided some time ago to get circumcised as an adult (neonatal male circumcision is hardly the norm in the UK or as routine as it is in the US). Getting circumcised was a personal preference, taking into account hygiene, comfort and appearance, and his resulting experience fulfilled his expectations. He was also pleased to discover that his sexual pleasure was enhanced.
In this feature article for SiA Magazine, Ward reflects on what he describes as a “witch-hunt” and “persecution” of African and Muslim women for upholding the same practice and aesthetics of circumcision as men. For the avid readers among us, enjoy this illuminating piece on the genesis and hazards of FGM campaigns. We definitely agree with Ward’s view on the medicalization and modernization of traditional female and male circumcision as a better way forward than anti-FGM campaigns.
In the late 1950s, Masters and Johnson commenced a series of laboratory studies of human sexuality. This was ground-breaking work at a time when discussion of such topics was generally taboo in polite western society and, in particular, the prevailing culture of demure femininity kept any expression of female sexuality at a strictly private and personal level. The studies continued for many years and covered a wide range of topics, including the physiology of the female orgasm and the role of the clitoris in stimulating it.
At a similar time the second wave feminist movement was emerging, led by activists whose main claim was that women and men were effectively identical and therefore should behave and be treated identically. They also considered, with some justification at the time, all male influences to be fundamentally hostile and oppressive to women. Integral to this view was the concept of female sexual freedom and pleasure, conveniently supported by the development of the contraceptive pill and the published findings of Masters and Johnson.
This developed into a virtual obsession with the clitoris as proving the equivalence of women and men, and led to the ultimate triumph of second wave feminism with public recognition of the previously very private fact of female masturbation. Another finding of Masters and Johnson, that identical orgasmic response could be achieved through purely internal vaginal stimulation, was conveniently ignored.
Some of these activists started to take an interest in female initiation and circumcision customs in largely African cultures of which they had no experience and little knowledge, and in which they had no interest other than an obsession with the fact that circumcision often included excision of the visible clitoris. Their radical feminist agenda along with the mistaken belief that the visible clitoris is the actual, entire organ and supposedly the exclusive source of female sexual pleasure, led them immediately to denounce these cultures as patriarchal societies in which the men denied women all sexual pleasure or freedom, and brutally oppressed them in other ways.
Hanny Lightfoot-Klein in Prisoners of Ritual was one of the earliest to proclaim the sexual enslavement of circumcised women, despite ironically admitting that nearly all of the Sudanese women in this study stated that they enjoyed sex with their husbands and experienced orgasm.
The fact that the vast majority of women in practising societies strongly supported the practice was explained by the assumption that the women must have been pressured and brainwashed into this attitude by the men.
In the late 1970s a leading activist, Fran Hosken, an unapologetically racist German-American feminist socialite, invented the intentionally emotive and derogatory term Female Genital Mutilation to express her abhorrence for the more extreme form of infibulation and her disdain for what she believed was the ignorance and primitiveness of black Africans. Despite being a rare form of female circumcision, infibulation is today conflated with all the more minor forms that represent more than 90 per cent of prevalence in Sub-Sahara Africa.
The problem of traditional methods of circumcision – male and female
Early anti-FGM writings also focused heavily on the manner in which the surgery was performed under traditional, rudimentary conditions. They included lists of the implements allegedly used (rusty knives, broken glass, etc) and of the short-term and long term medical complications observed in a minority of cases of badly performed circumcisions.
These lists have subsequently been uncritically copied word for word in almost all anti-FGM writings, and are deceptively presented as if they reflect both current practice and the inevitable consequences of the circumcision itself. Similar deception is applied in describing circumcision as its most extreme form, including infibulation as traditionally practised in the Horn of Africa, in order to make it sound as abhorrent as possible to western ears. In fact this form represents 10 per cent or less of all cases, with the majority comprising a wide range of less radical practices, some of which are far less invasive than male circumcision.
Any surgery performed under crude conditions is, by modern standards, a horrific and highly dangerous business. This was the case historically in the West, before the availability of anaesthetics and sterile techniques, and it is still to an extent the case today for other customs in Africa and elsewhere, such as male circumcision and scarification.
In South Africa, anecdotally, each year during the male circumcision season dozens if not hundreds of young men suffer severe mutilation, and some die, as a result of operations performed by a small minority of irresponsible traditional operators who may be more concerned with the celebratory nature of the occasion than with the need to perform accurate and safe surgery. The sensible response is not to try to eliminate the deeply entrenched practice, but to encourage a degree of medicalisation, and eliminate the few incompetent traditional operators.
In a similar way, some societies which traditionally practiced female circumcision – i.e. Guinea (Conakry), Egypt and Southeast Asian countries – took advantage of the increasing availability of medical facilities to make the operation safer for their daughters by having it performed under medical conditions. An early example was in the Sudan, under British colonial rule, where the school for midwives trained traditional birth attendants in basic medical techniques and, knowing that they would continue to derive much of their income from performing circumcisions, encouraged them to perform a less extreme ‘intermediate’ type.
As a result of this trend, the circumcision experience of girls in practising societies is now often very different to that which is emotively portrayed in the anti-FGM narrative. The operation is frequently performed by trained nurses or midwives, using sterile techniques and anaesthetic, and there is a clear trend to less radical types of circumcision than those which were normal in previous generations. It must be recognised, however, that the majority of traditional operators are extremely skilled at their trade, because their reputations depend on it, and they produce excellent results with very few complications.
The failure of criminalisation and benefits of medicalisation
One of the greatest and most damaging disservices to girls in practising communities has been the insistence by anti-FGM campaigners on an extreme zero-tolerance policy which attempts to immediately and totally eliminate all types of circumcision, including the very mildest forms which are no more than symbolic in nature. Any suggestion of medicalisation, so that girls who are undoubtedly going to be circumcised anyway can have it done safely and with minimal discomfort, or of a compromise such as a harmless small nick of the clitoral hood to satisfy social or religious beliefs, is met with fierce and vociferous opposition.
In the same way as criminalisation of abortion led women in desperate situations to seek back-street abortions, sometimes resulting in long-term damage and even death, so this zero-tolerance campaigning has undoubtedly, at the very least, condemned many women to live with lifelong disfigurement or medical problems which could have been avoided by taking a more pragmatic approach.
In the 1970s and 1980s there was some genuine justification for the growing anti-FGM movement, in that it was normal in some immigrant communities for parents to have their daughters circumcised in the traditional manner, either by sending them back to their country of origin or by bringing a traditional circumcisor to the UK. Girls growing up in the home country would know from an early age that circumcision would be an important event in their development and although the traditional operation would be extremely painful, albeit brief, they would be rewarded immediately by celebrations and presents, and in the longer term by increased social status, so they would generally be content with their situation.
By contrast, in the western social environment, the need for discretion meant that girls were kept ignorant of what was to happen, they had become accustomed to western standards of medical care and pain relief, and they gained little or no social benefit. Their experience could therefore be traumatic and deeply unsettling, and they would suffer further psychological damage if they were exposed to the rhetoric of the anti-FGM activists, indoctrinating them to see themselves as mutilated, sexually crippled victims of a barbaric culture. There was good reason to protect girls from such negative experiences, and indeed this was also recognised within immigrant communities who started of their own accord to abandon the practice.
Who are the FGM activists?
It is notable that the leading activists were almost all either white western women or elite western educated African women or African women from countries which did not practice female circumcision. Trying to legitimise their attempts to impose their cultural values on others, they recruited impressionable teenagers and young women who had been traditionally circumcised, indoctrinated them with the anti-FGM narrative, and literally promised them fame and fortune if they would speak in public against the practice.
They would be presented with the implicit implication that they were representatives for their communities which, in general, they definitively were not, and they would be coached to recite the standardised anti-FGM narrative with appropriate exaggeration and distortion of the facts. Some became accomplished motivational speakers and have been rewarded in various ways for saying the ‘right’ thing. As also often happens in the context of religious conversion, some of the converts have become even more ardent campaigners than their original mentors.
The birth of an FGM industry and reliance on “fake news”
As the anti-FGM campaign grew, formal structures emerged. Charitable organisations were established and received grant funding from central government, local authorities, and charitable sources, those involved drew regular, substantial salaries, and the convert spokeswomen were well paid for their public appearances. The campaign became a substantial industry, supported primarily by public funds and, by its own standards, it was extremely successful.
Like ‘fake news’, if dubious or incorrect statements are repeated often enough to a less informed audience, they start to be believed as if they were true. In this way the entire population has been falsely indoctrinated to believe that a rampant FGM epidemic is sweeping the country, with tens of thousands of girls at risk of barbaric mutilation by parents who are incorrigible child abusers. Politicians, in panic, have enacted laws which embody such blatant discrimination and double standards that they would normally never have passed proper scrutiny, and public agencies are spending millions of pounds in a crusade which has all the characteristics of a mediaeval witch-hunt, driven by ignorance, superstition and prejudice.
The media, which can normally be relied on to aggressively investigate suspect activities and look for the other side of the story, have been totally seduced, and have uncritically allowed the campaigners to produce almost all the related material which they publish. Otherwise responsible politicians, with absolutely no real evidence, have made emotive statements like “Every hour, in every day, girls here in the UK are being mutilated”.
The rush to prosecute and persecute women
The very few prosecutions which, in desperation, have been brought to court have been so ridiculous that, fortunately, they have been summarily thrown out, either by the judge or the jury, and individual activists, appearing as self-appointed ‘FGM experts’, have been criticised for adjusting their witness statements to suit the objectives of their crusade. Recently there has been one UK conviction, however this appears to be so unsafe that it is probably a result of ‘witch-hunt’ hysteria rather than proper evaluation of the evidence.
One would have thought that the absence of any substantial prosecutions, despite many years of intensive effort and the expenditure of probably tens of millions of pounds from public funds, would indicate to the activists that there is no longer any significant issue to prosecute, and that they could wind down their campaigns with the satisfaction of a job well done.
On the contrary, however, their response has been to intensify the campaign with claims that a hidden FGM problem requires even more intensive efforts to reveal and eradicate, with the setting up of additional agencies and the participation of well established and otherwise respectable child protection charities. This paranoid frenzy produced a competitive blood-thirst to become the first agency to achieve a successful prosecution for FGM, and families, primarily of African heritage, are being racially profiled and, on the slightest pretext, are being torn apart, with children placed in ‘social care’ for alleged ‘safeguarding’ while loving parents are thrown into custody.
It is hard to imagine anything more damaging for the development and life chances of the unfortunate children involved.
The waste of public funds
The activists systematically exclude from their public events anyone whom they know to hold views critical of their activities, they actively try to suppress dissenting voices, and by this and other tactics isolate themselves in a ‘group think’ situation which reinforces their obsessive belief in their own infallibility. One cannot help suspecting, however, that the underlying motivation for their behaviour is that they have now lived very comfortably for several decades on public funds, sometimes also receiving public honours, and the end of the campaign would bring an end to their comfortable lifestyles.
If this were simply a matter of waste of public funds, it would be disgraceful, however the fact that it also involves devastating interventions which tear apart innocent families, makes it outrageous.
Mike Ward is an occasional writer and social critic residing in the UK.
Originally published with photographs here 12/2/2019 and reprinted with permission.
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