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From rage to effective action against female genital mutilation

Reports that Isis in Iraq is planning to impose FGM on girls in Mosul – since denied – mark a new peak of horror, writes HILARY BURRAGE

Sometimes the only response to news is rage. Not the physical indigence and damage of a fight, but the fierce raging of the heart, mind and soul when what’s happening is so wrong and there feels to be so little one can do to stop it.

That’s how I — and to judge from numerous messages over the past few days, many others too — feel about the announcement last week that all girls in the Isis-controlled parts of northern Iraq are to be subjected to female genital mutilation. 

Since then reports from Iraq suggest this proclamation of intended crimes against humanity was a hoax created to smear the reputation of Isis leaders. 

Either way, Isis cares not a jot for its humanitarian reputation in the West. It is attempting to impose a severe form of Sharia law on its citizenry and, while FGM is absolutely not a requirement of modern Islam, it has recently been more vigorously enforced in various locations such as Egypt, where traditionalists once again hold sway.  

It is also possible, for instance, that some of the girls recently kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram may have been forced to undergo FGM in the course of being made the “wives” of their captors.

The purpose of FGM is to impose, callously and in full mindfulness of what it brings about, the total submission of women to men.  

First established millennia ago, this cruel and sometimes lethal “practice” — which leads to a significant rise in maternal and infant mortality — is the fundamental underpinning of the oldest of all political allegiances. 

FGM is quite literally the flesh and blood embodiment of patriarchy. 

And patriarchy presents both the hardest challenge and the biggest opportunity to stop the gratuitous destruction via FGM of the future of any nation, of its young people and, especially, its girls, whose talents are most often laid to waste.

With FGM and “child marriage” — in truth, sanctioned paedophilia — a girl most likely abandons her education. She becomes a chattel bought and controlled by her husband, the physically frail and psychologically traumatised servant of her spouse and her children. Of course, some women — the ones we see on the television — manage to maintain a striking individual autonomy, but many can’t and don’t.

To overcome the appalling damage of FGM requires, then, the abatement of patriarchy, whether the setting is traditional Iraq or a diaspora community in Melbourne, Madrid or Manchester.  

Yes, women usually perform the physical act on girls and they gain critical status from doing so — they are the grandes dames of their communities. But if men respected the autonomy of girls and women there would be infinitely better ways for matriarchs to establish their personal sovereignties.

So here’s the challenge and the opportunity — how can those who abhor FGM in any guise persuade the men who could halt it to do so?  

There are some clues already. Not all FGM is connected with Islam, but in Britain several major Muslim authorities, including the London Central Mosque and prominent faith leaders from the British Arab Federation, have denounced FGM as un-Islamic.  

How then can we support more effectively these efforts to resist fundamentalism? In respect of Isis this position must be articulated more strongly still. As we have seen in heart-wrenching televisual clips, it is difficult even for some parents to convince their sons and daughters not to join the jihad, but a tactic must be found. 

How can we all work together to send the message that brutality and cruelty of every kind is an abhorrence? What must we change, socially and economically, to demonstrate there is a better way for all to live freely, in modern and democratic societies? 

Let’s bring to bear an unremitting rage, an overt horror of FGM and what it stands for but let’s be sure to do it in ways which respect women and men, believers and unbelievers, alike.  

Let’s work together to challenge patriarchy. Example speaks more loudly than mere words and, as its public denials of this gruesome announcement show, even Isis is not entirely an island unto itself.


Hilary Burrage is a sociologist currently specialising in female genital mutilation. She has organised an open-access meeting during this year’s Labour Party conference in Manchester to explore ways forward in eradicating FGM on September 22 from 9.30am in the Mechanics’ Institute (venue sponsored by the North West TUC). Speakers will include Keir Starmer QC, shadow public health minister Luciana Berger, council leaders and community activists. All welcome.



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