Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The French take genital mutilation seriously. But then they also ban burqas

Newsnight has been doing its bit towards the public service remit this week by highlighting the barbaric practice generally known as "female genital mutilation", or FGM. Two reports by Sue Lloyd-Roberts, who also wrote about the issue in Monday's Independent, highlighted suggestions that the authorities Britain were turning a blind eye to the practice.

Despite the fact that it has been illegal since 1988, there has never been a single prosecution in this country. In France, there have been more than a hundred. The UK, Lloyd Roberts suggested, is so lax on the issue that girls are being brought into the country from elsewhere in Europe to have their genitalia sliced off, sewn up or otherwise mangled by supposed doctors in the name of cultural tradition, pseudo-religion or virginity-preservation.

The ever-disappointing DPP Keir Starmer was asked on Monday's Today programme why there had been no prosecutions. Adopting a see-no-evil attitude, he claimed that there had never been a single complaint. Meanwhile, Lloyd-Roberts interviewed the senior Met officer in charge of child protection, Commander Simon Foy, who justified the lack of action on the grounds that he was "not necessarily sure that the availability of a stronger sense of prosecution will change it for the better", an answer that Nick Cohen rightly called "a disgrace".

Why has FGM been tolerated for so long in Britain? The general explanation is one of "cultural sensitivity", or what Cohen calls "the racism of the respectable." If white English girls were regularly being subjected to such life-ruining procedures at the age of four or five, there would surely be an outcry, but because the victims belong to minority communities (for example, Somalis) it's easier to look the other way rather than be accused of cultural imperialism. This may be more than just misplaced liberal good intentions. Cohen writes:

I know doctors who worry they will be accused of racism if they protest about the mistreatment of girls. They suspect that their employers will not report protesting parents to the police but punish them instead.

The French, by contrast, are not satisfied with passing symbolic laws against FGM. They refuse to let cultural sensibilities stand in the way of protecting small girls from abuse, even instituting programmes of physical examination that Foy claimed amounted to child abuse. Do the French authorities care more about child protection than those in the UK? Or are they just less concerned about respecting cultural sensitivities?

I do not think it is a coincidence that France has also banned the public wearing of burqas and niqabs (full-face veils) in France, a step that in the UK would be regarded by mainstream opinion as beyond the pale. There is, of course, a huge difference in principle between an adult women making a personal choice to wear a veil for religious reasons and a small girl being intimately mutilated and facing a lifetime of pain, sexual misery and health problems as a consequence. The two are not directly comparable (although both may be justified on the grounds of preserving a woman's "honour" and sexual chastity). A cross-channel comparison may still be valid, however.

Kenan Malik, a firm secularist, recently argued that no liberal society could contemplate banning the burqa because such a ban is violates a fundamental freedom to manifest one's religious beliefs. He says:

Wearing a burqa neither harms, nor discriminates against, others. Of course, one might well believe that the burqa harms the woman who wears it and is an expression of discrimination against women. A liberal society accepts, however, that individuals should free to make choices that may not be in their interest and that, to liberal eyes, demean them. This applies even to particularly distasteful expressions of degradation, such as the wearing of the burqa. If women are forced to wear the burqa against their will, the law should protect them against that coercion. It should not, however, impose a ban on those who have chosen to wear the burqa.

Most people in Britain would agree. A thoroughgoing liberal might well add that if an adult woman wished to have her genitalia hacked off or sewn up on a kitchen table, that is her right too. One can even find self-described "feminists" such as Germaine Greer affecting to see no difference between FGM and cosmetic surgery. Many in France, however, would say instead that the burqa is not compatible with participation in an equal and democratic society. A certain sacrifice of individual rights, in this case, the right to hide one's face in public for religious or cultural reasons, is justified if it advances the wider aim of creating a unified civil space. The public realm, on this view, is characterised not as a neutral meeting-place of different forms of life, among which it makes no judgement, but is itself a cultural expression, something that demands the adherence of all its citizens.

The French republican approach may produce an "illiberal" ban on burqas, but it will also have few qualms about stamping upon barbaric imported customs such as FGM. The British multiculturalist approach will defend people's right to manifest their own oppression by wearing a burqa on the grounds of individual liberty. It will also encourage, or at least permit, ethnic or religious communities within it to police their own, whether this means allowing women to be discriminated against by Sharia courts applying antiquated rules of divorce and inheritance, or turning a blind eye to forced and coercively "arranged" marriages. And it will tie itself up in knots of embarrassment and cognitive stress when it comes to what ought to be the clear-cut abuse of FGM.

It's not that burqas and FGM are in any moral sense comparable. It's just that a society that is inclined to ban the first will be less likely to tolerate the latter.