Friday, 28 February 2014

What right do I have?

I've been trying to write this blog for quite a while now. I started it almost three weeks ago and aside from being crazy busy at work, something just hasn't felt right. Despite feeling like I've known exactly what I've wanted to say I just haven't been able to get my words out right…until, perhaps, today. Last week I attended a networking meeting in preparation for the UN Commission on the Status of Women hosted by the National Association of Women's Organisations (NAWO) in the UK and I met a woman who works for the Orchid Project. The Orchid Project are a fantastic organisation in the UK who work to end FGC (Female Genital Cutting) and after spending some time chatting about preparations for the upcoming conference I blurted out the question that had been sitting on my lips since the conversation began. Why did she refer to Female Genital Cutting in that way (FGC), rather than FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) as it is more commonly known? Her response articulated a lot of what I have spent the last three weeks not being able to say.

Let me take you back to the beginning.

The 6th of this month saw the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I first became really aware of this form of gender based violence when I was working for a theatre company in Northampton. I was at a training for local individuals and groups who were applying for funding for new projects that would tackle a growing social problem and across the table from me was an incredibly passionate woman who wanted to start a project to educate midwives in Northampton on what to do when they were faced with a woman in labour who had been 'cut'. One of Northampton's largest ethnic minority groups is Somalian and Somalia has one of the more severe forms of FGM where a girl not only has all of her external genitals cut out but she is then sewn back up to a leave a hole the size of a tiny pinprick. As you can imagine, she would not be able to give birth naturally. I remember leaving the training horrified but really really interested. I literally couldn't stop talking about FGM and I wanted to have a conversation about it with everyone.
I have since expanded my knowledge on the subject and been educated by survivors of FGM on some of the myths surrounding the practice; such as the reasons that some girls are given for why they need to be cut. I also remember being told by my boyfriend while I was in New York last year that the free London newspaper, the Evening Standard, had published a double page spread featuring a British 11 year old who had written a letter to the paper begging not to be cut like her sister had. Some very revealing statistics followed that showed how prominent FGM is in London, and the UK.

So naturally, when the 6th February came around I was right there on social media letting my views on the ‘horrific’ practice be known and encouraging people to change the perception that this is something that happens elsewhere and isn't our problem. I argued passionately, as I always do, that 'culture' is not an excuse. Neither is religion or tradition. It is a form of violence that destroys girls’ lives and has life-long consequences and effects. Lots of my Facebook friends liked my post. I was retweeted on Twitter. I got people who I didn't expect to sign the petition I was promoting. Everywhere I looked everyone was condemning the was a no-brainer, right?
It wasn't until a conversation at work the next day that I even considered the implications of what I had done...

What happens when you start talking about ‘culture’? What happens when you start highlighting that something happens in one area of society and not another? What happens when you start pointing the finger of blame at particular people, and what happens when you are not one of those directly affected?
Let me be clear... I DO NOT condone FGM. It is a breach of a girl's basic human rights. But, maybe, we have to be careful about how we approach this...

My favourite thing about living in London is that it is a wonderful boiling pot of so many different cultures, religions and ethnicities. There are, however, already so many divides within this massive 'community'. Immigration is a tricky subject for many people – there are a great deal of myths that are perpetuated by politicians desperately trying to grasp a win in the next election and there are phrases such as, “they come over and take our jobs” and “I’m sick of walking down my street and hearing every language but English spoken” that even in London I still unfortunately hear. As a practice that is hugely rooted in culture and tradition surely we have to be careful about the way we speak about and label FGM as otherwise I’m scared we are creating another excuse for people to condemn our multi-cultural society. Doesn’t a subject as delicate and upsetting as FGM/C – as it is referred to by many UN entities and bodies – need understanding (and by that I do NOT mean 'excuse') and a community that is willing and able to work together to be at the heart of a solution? Surely we need conversation and discussion to be able to tackle it effectively, otherwise are we not just in danger of pushing the practice back into the shadows?

This brings me back to the feeling that led to me starting this blog in the first place. I have not been affected, directly or indirectly, by FGM/C or its effects. Aside from girls I have met, I do not have any friends who have been cut or are at risk of being cut. I have no idea how a girl who has been cut, or is going to be cut, feels at any point. As a white Caucasian British woman, what right do I have to be even talking about this issue? I’m scared that by me standing up and raising my voice I am perpetuating the cultural divide; condemning it from my perch of assumed authority as a member of an ethnic group that believes it doesn’t have any violence as terrible as that going on. I’m scared that I am leading others to ignore the fact that 1 in 4 women in this country are victims of domestic violence[1] or the fact that 1 in 5 women aged 16 – 59 will experience sexual assault in this country in their lifetime[2] or the fact that girls and women contact in hoards every single day to report their personal suffering, and these have no ‘culture’, religion or ethnic background directly attached to them.

My boyfriend says I’ve been thinking about this too much. Putting issues and people in boxes labelled ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’; after all, many of the girls in danger of being cut in London, and the UK, are British born and bred… But I know how things can be portrayed and I know how delicate both FGM/C and the issues of culture and ethnicity are.

I wasn’t sure I would have any sort of conclusion on this. I wasn’t sure if there would be any nice way to wrap this up and leave people, and myself, feeling hopeful and able to still make a difference. However, having had time to reflect, and after speaking to my new Orchid Project friend, I came to some sort of realisation.
I do have a right to speak out on this issue…it’s just how I speak out about it that matters. It doesn’t matter about my ethnicity or whether I have been affected by it myself, it matters what words I use and whether or not I am willing to listen, even if it makes me angry and upset. I honestly believe that change can't happen unless you engage the 'opposition' in the discussion, rather than just shouting at them and telling them they're wrong.

So I apologise to my friends in other parts of the world, and the UK, who deal with FGM/C on the ground all the time, who saw my Facebook status and were hurt by my harsh words condemning something in a way they knew would never create change. I apologise to any girls who have been cut but are fed up of being made to feel like victims. I apologise to the mothers or aunts or fathers or brothers or grandmothers who realise now that they made a mistake by bowing down to pressure and following their social norm, but now feel so outcast from society by people's anger and flippant words that they can’t see what choice they had.
But most of all, I’m sorry for not being more aware that my words could hurt in the first place.
Starting the conversation. Paving the way for change.
Illustration by Gary Hunt -

The reason that the Orchid Project refer to the practice as FGC rather than FGM is because mutilation is a horrible word laden with judgement. The woman I met last week told me a story of the first time a girl, living in the UK who had been cut, heard someone tell her that she had been a victim of ‘female genital mutilation’. This girl, who had already suffered enough, said that hearing the word ‘mutilation’ was like reliving the experience all over again. She didn’t see herself as mutilated. Yes, something bad had happened to her but she had to live with that, and being labelled as ‘mutilated’ – although that may be a powerful way for others to see themselves – was an incredibly traumatising experience for her.

So maybe, the next time you scream, shout or rant about an issue that makes you angry and upset, think about who may be affected by your words. Everyone has a right to an opinion, but I never want to upset anyone. All I want to do is make some sort of difference and I want to do that in the most understanding way that I can.

Helpful resources:
The Orchid Project – working to end FGC -
The Everyday Sexism project – sexism happens everyday, everywhere –