No condemnation for FGM at Goldsmiths

Veiling and female circumcision are long-standing practices that predate all the Abrahamic religions but remain dominant throughout society today.

The former is a broad tradition practiced by women and girls across the world, that varies from the sartorial cloth over the hair as an extension of the dress or sari, to the more steadfast hijab, which neatly tucks away all hair, covering the ears and neck but revealing the face. Then there are variations that proceed towards the complete coverage of the body including fingers and ankles, where even the wearer’s eyes are hidden, confining their vision to a view mediated by a mesh screen.

eca eps we are not chicks
We Are Not Chicks (Eca Eps, 2011) is part of a photo series on women’s rights

The latter is a ritual with a specific intention to control female sexuality varying from removal of the clitoris to the entire genitalia, sewing the vaginal opening shut, leaving a hole just big enough for urine and menstrual blood to drip out. This ensures that a woman can be identified as a virgin before marriage and her husband is the one to execute the gallant act of deflowering. This is precisely why female circumcision for non-medical reasons is more aptly described as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Effects of FGM include infections, painful intercourse, infertility, difficulty in childbirth and other long-term consequences, which are still being discovered.

Regardless of how imposing the most extreme form of the veil can be, it is impermanent, unlike FGM which stings more destructively, so is it right to conjoin the two in the postmodern context of rethinking women’s agency? I was to find out that my brazen anti-FGM stance is ‘regurgitating the hideous colonial project that imposed itself on the rest of the world on a civilizing mission to rescue the women of the third world from its savage men’. The rationale I am told, is that even as a Nigerian born woman, I cannot speak for other less privileged Nigerian women, how much less, a white woman on behalf of ethnic minorities.

It was at Goldsmiths University that I came to witness this betrayal first hand, which ascribes brutality onto people from other places as part of culture but fashions itself so self-righteously. Like John the Baptist at the feet of Jesus crying; ‘Who am I to say that female circumcision is barbaric, lest I judge thee through my western colonial gaze?’

In the seminar that alerted me to the pervasiveness of this sinister trend, my lecturer failed to make a distinction between veiling and FGM, simply conflating the two as cultural modes of being that are parallel to western secular thought. The argument for veiling can certainly be made: Muslim women choosing modesty, piety and privatisation of their own bodies in order to maintain power – in what they deem a patriarchal world in which women’s bodies are objectified, sexualised and commodified.

As much as that would be true for them, it does not negate the fact that women are punished with lashes and acid for refusing to abide by the law where veiling is enforced. Sudan’s morality police routinely harass women for unveiling, while in northern Nigeria, the charge of indecent dressing can be levied on any woman found not to be complying – not to mention the aggressive policing of the veil in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. The comparison to bikinis and mini skirts as equivalents to the veil do not hold, because no woman is ever flogged, burned or stoned for not showing enough skin.

Jaha Dukureh, FGM survivor and campaigner at a 2015 press conference on FGM.
Photo: Mark Garten

Goldsmiths, very much like SOAS seems to be the hotbed of this double standard reinforced by some academics and propagated by a faction of student activists. In December 2015, the feminist and LGBT societies at Goldsmiths left even their own members baffled by their decision to extend ‘solidarity’ to the Islamic society, whose members disrupted human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie’s lecture. They had deemed Namazie a ‘notorious Islamophobe’, for referring to the veil as ‘bin bags’. During the lecture, Namazie backed up her statement and reinforced the importance of continued opposition against traditions such as FGM which are an affront to women’s rights.

When probed on the matter, a representative of the Goldsmiths LGBT society responded that “as a white person, I cannot condemn FGM because of my colonial past.” Is this putative desire to carry the burdens of the past squarely on one’s shoulders echoed among feminists? Germaine Greer once argued that attempts to outlaw FGM amounted to ‘an attack on cultural identity’, stating: “one man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.” Greer was widely condemned, almost unanimously. Nearly 20 years on, some fields of study in academia including critical race and gender theory are reawakening the same argument albeit from a postcolonial perspective – the difference now being that a generation of ethnic minority students have themselves, bought into this defeating narrative. The stance becomes reactionary, and any cause that contravenes the ugly history of colonialism becomes appealing, regardless of the implications.

This pattern of taking an apologetic stance is increasingly expressed on the far-reaching Left, reinforcing the idea that concerns of gender based violence become a separate issue to feminism if the perpetrator is brown or black. The issue is deemed as ‘their own problem’, inherent to their culture, which should be left to them.

While this response may at first be dismissed as the uninformed opinion of a fringe student minority, to what extent do they represent the politics within modern feminism? And how does this type of politics play out in the wider world? What is dangerous about this standpoint is how it fails minorities such as children, women and non-hetrosexuals within those minority communities.

FGM, like veiling is not a practice confined to far off lands. FGM continues to be practiced illegally on British born girls, with a case reported in the UK approximately every 2 hours. If FGM is carried out on a white child in Britain, it will be regarded as criminal – so why does this position shift when a Somali child is violated?

According to the neutral stance prescribed on my course, I am not to celebrate Nigeria officially banning FGM in 2015, because it is actually reverting to the colonial standard, which deemed the practice as barbaric. Nigeria also banned the veil for girls at public schools throughout Lagos state, with a judge ascribing the policy to “values of plurality and the respect for the rights of others who have subscribed to a non-faith based educational system.” This is an immense achievement, and a testament to the growing secular pushback throughout countries that have been so wedded to religion. To write this off as ‘an internalized racist form of colonialism that continues the western patriarchal imposition’ is a disservice to the progress being made in the advancement of women’s rights and freedoms on the continent.

An anti-FGM signpost photographed in Kapchorwa, Uganda in 2004

It is possible that lecturers are finding it increasingly difficult to swim against the wave of regressive thought gaining ground in courses in social sciences and humanities, nevertheless students should be presented with the plural sides of the debate. There was no mention of African feminists who have dedicated their lives to banishing FGM, such as the [late] Ghanaian activist Efua Dorkenoo, who worked tirelessly for 30 years and pioneered the global movement to end the practice, along with Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi, a vocal abolitionist. In the diaspora, campaigners of African heritage include Waris Dirie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Amal Farah, Nahla Mahmoud, Bogaletch Gebre, Alishba Zarmeen, Jaha Dukureh, Hibo Wardere, Salimata Knight, Mona Walter, Sainab Abdi, Leyla Hussein, Nimko Ali and many others too numerous to list.

Unlike veiling, FGM is not a category to which we can apply surplus doses of cultural relativism or justification by brandishing theories of orientalism and notions of colonial resistance. If we truly stand for universal human rights, we must demand better from our institutions.




  • Lucie

    March 26, 2016

    Thanks for this article.

    As a French, may I also add that the way the lecturer describes France’s position on the veil is a gross misrepresentation? The hidjab has never been banned in the street. A woman who wishes to hide her hair or dress however she wants to is absolutely free to do so and no one thinks of changing that. The burqa is forbidden because any dissimulation of the face is forbidden and has always been forbidden for security reasons.
    It is only at school that religious signs are forbidden, because we believe school should be a neutral ground. There is no relation whatsoever with the male gaze, especially as this implies that the Islamic veil is the only way to be decent. If I don’t want to position myself as a physical, sexual body (and want to first attract attention to other elements such as authority and speech if I’m about to speak in public) there’s no need for a veil…so many hairdoes and clothes are possible. The veil may be a personal choice, but I think we should refute its automatic association with decency.

    Here in France those who denounce FGM have sometimes been accused of negrophobia…does it go that far in the UK?

  • John Raggatt

    March 27, 2016

    Religious and cultural apologists have a lot to answer for . To describe any objection to anything that is quite obviously wrong as racist is absurd.
    Male genital mutilation is also something that is rarely discussed but also needs to be outlawed.

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  • Jeannie E

    March 28, 2016

    To defend FGM for any reason is just sickening and downright evil. And it is yet another reminder why I despise political correctness and its utter hypocrisy and absurdity.

  • Esteri Khorasani

    March 28, 2016

    This kind of cultural relativism is nothing but disgusting. This is a discourse that has more and more become only self-centered and it‘s own alleged self-righteousness – egotistical to the extent that they‘re even sacrificing the implementation of human rights sake for their own ego. this shows a hubris even worse than colonialism.

    As to this paragraph: “Muslim women choosing modesty, piety and privatisation of their own bodies in order to maintain power – in what they deem a patriarchal world in which women’s bodies are objectified, sexualised and commodified.”
    It is precisely the request to women to cover themselves with a veil that is highly objectifying and sexualizing a woman‘s body. Men don‘t have to cover themselves up because they are not sexualized and objectified. The veil is a cover that is constantly pointing out that there is something to be covered (as opposed to a man‘s body), something “too sexy”, something sexual underneath, something a piece of neutral clothing would not suggest. If this is not sexist, tell me what is. A woman who “chooses” the veil might think that she is doing so to maintain power over her body – but feeling the need to do so requests a society that demands women to veil themselves, and in fact she only subdues to the standards of her patriarchal society. We shall never forget that the veil is a symptom of patriarchal society, not a remedy. A society that teaches women that their bodies belong to themselves however they dress, just as a man‘s body belongs to himself, does certainly not teach women that they need to cover themselves up to maintain “power” over their bodies, or teach men that they only respect a woman when she‘s giving away the control of her body (and the control of her body is her free choice of dress, and a choice of dress that ideally should be free from either negating or emphasizing her sexuality) to a society that only respects her when she veils herself – and which is falsely regarded as “maintaining power over her own body” – it‘s nothing but a sign of submission of the control and laws of that very patriarchal society, and that‘s exactly why certain men would rather attack a woman in a mini skirt (which she can wear either to be hot, or not to be too hot in summer) than in a veil – because the one has already visibly subdued to their rules and limits, while the other one needs to be taught the lesson that her body or sexuality which she‘s showing off so self-determined and freely does not belong to herself, but is the property of everybody. Both, making women veil themselves or molesting unveiled women, has to do with depriving women of the control of their own bodies.

    • Dana

      March 28, 2016

      The problem here is you’re suggesting women have the responsibility to desexualize ourselves. The problem of women’s veiling being a sign of their sexualization will not be solved by their refraining from veiling. The veil is a symptom, not an illness.

      How about just stop telling women what to wear. That all right with you?

      FGM is different in that it causes physical damage.

      • Esteri Khorasani

        March 29, 2016

        I am not at all suggesting that women have the responsibility to desexualize themselves, and I‘m the least one to tell women what to wear. In the contrary, I am criticizing societies imposing gender-based dress codes on women. That‘s all.
        I agree with you, the veil is a symptom, not an illness.
        Oh, and btw I‘m a woman myself, and I have worn the veil, I have worn miniskirts and everything in between.

    • Magda

      April 4, 2016

      Critique of cultural relativism was precisely what we addressed at that seminar, but sadly this along with many other interesting voices were silenced in this article…

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  • Sophia

    March 28, 2016

    I appreciate your article except for this particular part: Nigeria also banned the veil for girls at public schools throughout Lagos state, with a judge ascribing the policy to “values of plurality and the respect for the rights of others who have subscribed to a non-faith based educational system.” This is an immense achievement, and a testament to the growing secular pushback throughout countries that have been so wedded to religion. To write this off as ‘an internalized racist form of colonialism that continues the western patriarchal imposition’ is a disservice to the progress being made in the advancement of women’s rights and freedoms on the continent.

    “This is an immense achievement…” <– By 'this', do you mean the ban of FGM mentioned prior to the quote above, or do you mean the policy in which girls are banned from wearing the headscarf in public schools? Or both?

    While I completely agree with you on your stance of FGM, I would like to attest that you cannot compare FGM to the headscarf. FGM as you said has been proven to be medically harmful and to be a cause of undeserving pain for many unfortunate girls and women who have had to undergo it. The headscarf in itself is just a piece of garment that cannot by its simple nature hurt its wearer. Yes, there are some (and minority) Muslim-majority governments that impose its use and inflict punishment for the lack of it, which we both can agree is wrong. However, in most Muslim-majority countries, there is no such punishment, and in these countries, there are modern (if you like) Muslim women who wear the scarf as a form of empowerment, for the exact reasons you mentioned before; to counter the sexualized and objectifying culture women live in in the West. There are also women who wear it for just cultural reasons, out of their own choice. To say that banning the use of the veil to women who personally choose to wear it for their own personal reasons (even if it is in school) is a measure of progress for women's rights and its advancements is I believe, a fallacy. We can choose to condemn the imposition of the headscarf, just like the imposition of 'unveiling' while respecting that some women choose to wear it out of their own empowered choice. Telling women WHAT to do however, to either wear it or to force them to un-wear it, is a decline in the progress for women's rights.

  • Ash

    March 29, 2016

    I read an article just yesterday from two Muslim feminists about how they can choose why they veil and they can choose how they veil and these choices are what for them turn veiling from oppression to empowerment.

    But neither chose to mention if they could choose when to veil. It certainly seemed from the article they couldn’t choose when to veil.

    If so, if they can’t choose when to veil, how real is their choice of why they veil or how they veil?

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  • Jakki LvD

    April 5, 2016

    The words of this article illustrate that FGM is violence against women and girls, and can NEVER be justified. Well written. However the inclusion of such an appalling image is not only unnecessary, I understand that women living with FGM are deeply wounded by it.

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