There’s something of a rule that has evolved over the years, in discussions and debates about female genital mutilation. Call it a matter of etiquette, if you like, or even a tactical ploy, but the rule is this:
When people are discussing FGM, please do not attempt to expand or divert the discussion onto male circumcision.
It’s a rule not everyone accepts or sticks to, but I try my best to do so for the following two reasons, both of which I find persuasive:
Firstly, the social and political contexts to the two practices are different. Male circumcision or MGM is widely normalised and accepted in many parts of the world, including the culturally-dominant USA. It is considered a religious and cultural obligation by around 1.5 billion Muslims and Jews around the world. Challenging and (hopefully eventually) eradicating the practise globally is a gargantuan, long-term project and we are undoubtedly generations away from succeeding. By conflating FGM and MGM we risk diluting and losing ground on the far more attainable goal of eradicating FGM.
Secondly, there is a practical matter of how debates around gender issues are conducted. Often when men step into a debate about women’s issues to demand to know why we aren’t talking about men’s issues instead – or as well, this is not perceived as a compassionate attempt to consider the needs of forgotten victims. It is perceived (often, but not always, correctly) as an attempt to undermine and derail the original efforts, to prevent intellectual and political progress. It is seen, bluntly, as men telling the feminists to shut up and stop whinging because women’s issues are nothing special.
We could spend all day debating the rights and wrongs of that, and that is the precise problem. Very quickly you find you have indeed spent the day fighting the FGM campaigners or the feminists or whoever, and achieving precisely diddly-squat towards your supposed objectives for either side.
So, as much for practical reasons of realpolitik as anything else, I am happy to say yes, if we care about both FGM and MGM, let’s have a conversation over there about FGM and let’s have a conversation over here about MGM and maybe if we stop treating it as a competition for who has it worse and instead as a pair of similar but distinct issues, maybe we’ll all make more progress much faster, not to mention staying much more friendly.
You might be thinking at this point that there is a third reason that I have missed, which is commonly cited for not comparing male and female genital mutilation. Usually when the point is raised, someone will say “well there simply isn’t a comparison. Male circumcision is a common, harmless, even beneficial procedure conducted under clinical conditions which rarely causes anyone any problems, whereas female genital mutilation is a brutal gruesome torture in which the clitoris is gouged out or the vagina sewn up.”
The reason I don’t make that argument is because it is not actually true, or at least it is a bit more complicated than that. The reality for untold millions of boys around the world is that circumcision is conducted in unsanitary conditions with dirty blades or scissors, without anaesthetic or antibiotics. In much of the world there is literally no epidemiological data about morbidity and mortality, we have no idea how many children are left with gangrenous or mutilated penises, how many deaths there are from sepsis or shock. We do know that where figures are collected – specifically in South Africa and a few other countries in Southern Africa, the statistics are horrific. A good year is when only a few dozen boys die from the suppurating wounds of their butchered genitals. In a bad year it rises into the hundreds. Countless thousands more are left with life-altering deformities and sexual dysfunction. South Africa, the birthplace of Christian Barnard and heart transplantation, now leads the world in the science of penis transplants.
Even here in Britain, where conditions are clean, clinical circumcisions are an option and medical treatment free, urology departments are kept busy with a constant supply of botched circumcisions needing repaired or re-performed. No national statistics are collected but one single hospital can see over a hundred such cases in one year. And yes, children die. I’ve mentioned before that in 2012 I sat in on some of the trial of Grace Adeleye here in Manchester and will never lose the image of the hollow, devastated faces of the parents of Goodluck Caubergs, a beautiful little boy who bled to death after having his penis ripped apart with scissors on their own kitchen table, by Adeleye, an untrained midwife.
The situation is not that simple with FGM either. Of the various procedures of FGM which are practised around the world, a significant minority are so-called Type IV. This is a catch-all category which can include a pin-prick or scalpel nick, or a labial piercing.
And this, finally, leads me on to the Channel 4 documentary the FGM Detectives which, as described in my previous post, portrayed a two-year effort to prosecute a father for suspected Type IV FGM.
As I mentioned last time, there were several points in the documentary that had me literally shouting in outrage and anger at the telly, at the incompetence, arrogance and thinly veiled racism on display from the detectives who were supposed to be the stars of the show. Amongst the comments that still, 36 hours later, have me twitching in bilious anger were these, from DCI Leanne Pook.
“If we had people running around with razor blades taking little chunks out of kids, I just think, you know what, if we had a little white girl here and we took off the tip of her finger there would be bloody outrage.”
“When I first got myself involved in this [my colleagues] would say “Oh Leanne why have you got yourself caught up in this? I nearly got myself a little guillotine made so that when the blokes gave me any grief I could say “well you get your bits out and we’ll chop off this much and then we’ll carry on the conversation when you feel well enough.”
When she made the latter comment, a charity worker beside her chipped in in agreement:
“I’m sorry but if that was a British, white child I don’t think they would say ‘oh a little nick, that won’t hurt her.’“
You do not get to do this. You do NOT get to fucking do this.
If we want a consensus that we don’t derail the issue of FGM by bringing up male circumcision, then you simply do not get to emphasise the horrors of what can happen to little girls by downplaying and disregarding the horrors of what can happen to little boys, what really is happening to little boys right here, right now.
The truth of the matter is that we do have “people running around with razor blades taking little chunks out of kids.” The truth of the matter is that until someone noticed just a few weeks ago, you could – quite legally – buy a home circumcision kit on fucking amazon.co.uk.
The truth of the matter is that a few years ago in Bristol, within a few miles of where Pook was speaking at that moment, a baby boy fractured his skull after he fell off a kitchen table while being circumcised by someone “running around with a razor blade taking little chunks off kids.”
The truth of the matter is that people do indeed say of little (black, brown and) white kids, “Oh a little snip, that won’t hurt him.”
As someone with an active interest in the health and wellbeing of boys and men, and the politics around it, I do not want the debates about male circumcision to detract from the issue of FGM ever, in any way. I am utterly committed to supporting the fight against FGM however I can. I will commit to trying wherever possible to keep the issues distinct and separate.
In return, I say to anyone involved in the fight against FGM, you do not get to use your ignorance and overt indifference to the suffering of the victims of male genital mutilation as a punchline or a performance.