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The campaign against FGM must ignore intersectionality

25 February 2014

5:58 PM

25 February 2014

5:58 PM

Two terms have been bouncing around a lot recently: FGM and intersectionality. Julie Burchill dealt with the latter in the Spectator last week, and triggered an angry reaction, proving that hell hath no fury like a transgender person scorned. For those not accustomed with the term, it’s a nebulous sociological concept that, put simply, suggests race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and class must all be factored into social commentary. It’s increasingly being used to suggest that you can only discuss and campaign on issues that you have direct experience of. The phrase ‘check your privilege’ neatly sums it up. Pick a topic, any topic, and in the intersectionalist’s eyes, you cannot discuss it without paying due regard to your background.

So let’s talk summer holidays. I am a white, middle-class girl, and when I was young, I spent much of my summer pretending I was a mermaid on a beach in Cornwall. But for a number of young British girls, predominantly with African and Middle Eastern roots, their holiday experience will have been very different. Their summer may have included a ‘cutting season’ – during which they were either taken out of the country to have their genitals sliced up, or they had some dodgy ‘doctor’ do it here. It’s carried out during the long holidays so there’s enough time for the wounds to heal before school starts again. The details are horrible, but suffice to say a more medieval attitude to femininity would be difficult to conjure up.

The first prosecution for female genital mutilation in the UK is expected to take place within a few weeks. Given that more than 24,000 British girls are at risk and more than 66,000 women are living with the consequences of it, it’s hardly a triumph for our legal system, but it’s a step forward at least. The nature of FGM makes it a hugely personal matter, meaning it’s very hard to keep tabs on. Aside from a girl stepping forward to say ‘I was cut’, it’s difficult to tell who is a victim. A loophole in British law also makes it tricky to prosecute FGM when it has been done outside of the UK. Despite FGM being illegal in Britain for 29 years, no one has yet been prosecuted.

In the British press, the Guardian has run the most forceful campaign against FGM. This is of course laudable. But the left’s obsession with intersectionality has put this topic on a sticky wicket. Can British women who have no direct experience of FGM protest against it, without looking culturally snooty? When I, as a white, middle-class woman, stand up to say that this custom, predominantly practiced by African or Middle Eastern people, is wrong, I risk coming across as culturally elitist. I see that.

But this is what needs to be done, and we can’t afford to let FGM become a subject defined by left-wing jargon. There will be people all around Britain who have read about this barbaric practice, and believe we must adopt a tougher stance – but they may be put off saying so because they feel it’s not their place. Regardless of whether you have experience of it, this is not the place for feminist cant. The more we talk about it, and criticize the people who perpetrate it, the more likely it is to be eradicated. And that may mean upsetting certain ethnic minorities.

Let me check my privilege: as a white, middle-class girl, I was lucky enough not to have been cut up with a rusty razor or a shard of glass. If this piece seems bigoted, so be it. That’s a risk I’m happy to take on this particular issue, because anyone in Britain should feel able to discuss this, campaign against this, protest against this. We need the girls it doesn’t affect to feel able to support the girls it does. After all, the girls it does affect aren’t all that likely to want to talk about it. When it comes to the issue of FGM, the campaign should transcend political and cultural beliefs. Mutilating young girls is not something Britain should tolerate.

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