Imagine if a Ukip politician wrote about being on an aeroplane that was ‘heaving’ with black people. Imagine if he described becoming suspicious of them, and assuming, on the basis of no evidence, just a hunch, that they must be flying overseas to get up to no good. Imagine if he complained to British police about this ‘heaving’ group of dark-skinned air travellers, and the police agreed to interrogate them upon their return to Britain.
There would be outrage. We’d see this as racialised suspicion. In which case, why has there been no outrage, not so much as a raised eyebrow, over what the Lib Dem Baroness Jenny Tonge did at the end of last week?
Baroness Tonge wrote about a flight she recently took from Heathrow to Addis Ababa. In a Facebook post she said her flight had been ‘heaving… with British-Somalia families’. It looked like they were ‘returning to Somalia for “the holidays”‘, said Tonge. Why the scare quotes around ‘the holidays’? Because Tonge wasn’t convinced that this heaving mob was really off for a good time. It all looked ‘innocent enough’, she said, but she soon found herself wondering what was the ‘real purpose’ of their trip. Perhaps, she said, the girls among this throng were being flown to Africa to undergo FGM.
Then, with not so much as a smidgen of evidence, without seemingly having talked to any of the families on the flight – ‘I chickened out,’ she said – Tonge grassed on these ‘holidaymakers’ (as we must now doubtfully refer to them) to Scotland Yard. And the Met says it will keep an eye out for them when they return.
The families also found themselves splashed across the media at the weekend, courtesy of Tonge’s dark suspicions. ‘Was planeload of girls on way to Africa for FGM?’, newspapers breathlessly asked. Well, they must have been. I mean, these were African families and they were flying to Africa — what else could they have been doing other than plotting the mutilation of their daughters?
I can’t be the only person who finds this episode deeply disturbing. On the basis of nothing more than one well-connected woman’s hunch, scores of British-Africans have become objects of media whispers and police nose-poking.
This ugly incident suggests the crusade against FGM is spinning out of control. It is casting a blanket of racialised suspicion across Britain. It is inviting all of us to spy on our African neighbours and friends for signs or whispers of FGM. It is generating division and authoritarianism.
There is a new raft of anti-FGM measures that could have a seriously detrimental impact on community relations. As of this month, anyone — literally anyone — can apply for an FGM Protection Order to prevent people from travelling abroad if there’s any reason to think they might be going for FGM. Are your Somalian neighbours planning a six-week trip abroad? Do they have daughters? Are their daughters a bit moody? Quick, get an FGM Protection Order.
Starting in Autumn, all teachers and health workers will be legally required to report cases of FGM to the authorities. According to the NSPCC, signs of FGM can include girls ‘spending longer than normal in the bathroom’ or talking about being ‘taken “home” to visit family’. Is this for real? Every girl going though puberty takes long trips to the loo. And loads of children of immigrants spend their summers abroad (as I did). To become suspicious of girls who start to feel embarrassed around the age of 12 and who talk about going on holiday to Africa is to be suspicious of virtually every pubescent African girl in Britain.
There’s even a serious discussion about mandatory vaginal checks. Diane Abbott has called for mandatory check-ups in all schools. Guess whose vaginas would be interrogated? Not little Chloe’s — just little Abebi’s.
The irony is grotesque: in the name of protecting African girls and women from a misogynistic practice, crusaders against FGM are turning these girls and women into second-class citizens whose travel can be restricted, whose every move is watched, and who one day could find their vaginas under investigation. A campaign against misogyny has generated its own misogyny.
Anyone who criticises the campaign against FGM risks being branded a cultural relativist. Karen Bradley, minister for preventing abuse, says we should tackle FGM without allowing ‘political or cultural sensitivities to get in the way’. I’m with you on cultural sensitivities. I don’t have those. I’m happy to say FGM is a backward, barbaric act. Those who say it’s just another cultural practice, and we should respect it, are moral cowards, incapable of making judgements.
But ‘political sensitivities’? I admit to having those. Lots of them. I’m sensitive to the reduction of African migrants to objects of suspicion. I’m sensitive to the diminution of people’s freedom and autonomy. You want me to spy on my African neighbours? The African shopkeeper I see every morning? His daughter? I won’t do it. If the crusade against FGM means treating my fellow citizens as pre-criminals on the basis of their skin colour and heritage, count me out.