Campaign against FGM exposes how differently we view our own obsessions

Are we being two-faced? Shutterstock

Both forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are deemed to be human rights issues, and as such, should be universally applied. From such a viewpoint, they are simply wrong – legally and morally – and where they involve children or minors, they are a form of child abuse.

That so much attention is now being placed on FGM and forced marriage is good news. But we cannot escape the possibility that there is a certain level of hypocrisy in the UK government’s drive. For one thing, child marriage is still, technically, legal in the UK; the minimum age to enter into a marriage in England and Wales is 16 and in the eyes of the law, at this age you are still considered a child. This is why if you want to marry at this age you need parental consent. So while the government champions the end of child marriage abroad, it actually remains legal for children between 16 and 18 to marry in the UK, under certain conditions.

The government has also highlighted the issue of forced marriage, which is often a complex one. For instance, arranged and forced marriage are sometimes conflated because it can be difficult to separate the two, given the family pressures that some girls are placed under. Most Westerners find “arranged” marriage difficult to comprehend, brought up in a culture which deems romantic love and choice of partner the paramount criteria for marriage. Yet it is crucial that we preserve the distinction between something that is arranged, to which the parties consent willingly, and a marriage which is imposed, most usually on girls but sometimes also on boys.

As an anthropologist who has lived and worked for many years in India where arranged marriages are the norm, I am aware that they can often be highly affectionate. People there often say “love comes after marriage, not before”, while the divorce rates in the West show that romantic love is not always forever.

Another point of hypocrisy is the idea that “we” would never carry out FGM. Yet clitoridectomy was practised in 19th and early 20th-century Britain and America as a way of reducing female masturbation, hysteria and mental illness. Genital surgery is arguably also still being conducted, albeit in somewhat different forms and because of different societal pressures, by plastic surgeons up and down the country.

Cultural relativism

FGM was first outlawed in the UK in 1985. The act that brought this into force has since been followed up by other pieces of legislation including the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2003. Yet despite being illegal for almost 30 years, there have been very few prosecutionsone to be exact.

On the whole, the attitude of officialdom has been to turn a blind eye to FGM practises on the grounds that they are part of particular cultures and identity. In comparison, in France, where FGM is also illegal, authorities have been much more robust, and around 100 convictions have been achieved. In the UK, it is thought all too often that condemning these acts carries the risk of a charge of racism, resulting in a widespread position of cultural relativism, which says: “It’s their culture, isn’t it?” Such a stance applies not only to FGM but to other cultural practises around women’s rights.

However, while such a concern appears to have been fairly pervasive among social workers, teachers, medical staff and even the police, this attitude now appears to be increasingly deemed unacceptable, as well as unlawful, in.

Humans are often quick to spot and condemn differences in others. It’s a way of saying who “we” are by highlighting what others do differently, in other words of constructing social boundaries.

So when it comes to FGM, “we do not practise it” is a good example of this boundary making. But it might be salutary to reflect that we used to and that we might still do in different ways.

A shift in perspective

If Victorian culture repressed sexuality, especially female sexuality, modern culture is saturated with it and women today suffer considerable anxiety about their bodies. So now we find plastic surgery being used to “improve” women’s genitalia. Curiously (or not, depending on your viewpoint) the World Health Organisation does not include cosmetic procedures such as labiaplasty (reduction of the inner labia), vaginoplasty (tightening of the vaginal muscles) and clitoral hood reduction as examples of FGM.

Accordingly, it can be argued that there is a double standard here, with girls and women subject to FGM being viewed always as victims, while Western women seeking cosmetic genital surgery – so-called “designer vaginas” – are exercising their right to control their own bodies. In both instances, there are considerable societal pressures to conform to a particular standard of bodily acceptability.

While both national and international law view FGM as a form of violence against girls and women, one cannot help wondering why other forms get less discussion in the UK: domestic violence remains a major problem and there are few convictions, while rape and sexual assault are also prevalent but few perpetrators – here and the US, for example – are found guilty and punished.

So while we may wish to support policies which aim to rid the UK of practices which affect girls and women negatively and which are deemed both unacceptable and illegal, we must ask why have these particular ones been picked out by the government? Is it a way of “othering” different cultures, and deflecting attention away from the hard work that still needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the UK?