Why jail time alone won't stop female genital mutilation

Shabbir Mohammedbhai Vaziri arrives for sentencing.

Shabbir Mohammedbhai Vaziri arrives for sentencing. Photo: Daniel Munoz

Last week sentences were handed down in Australia's first case for female genital mutilation (FGM). Former midwife Kubra Magennis and a mother (who can't be named to protect the identity of her daughters) from the Dawoodi Bohra religious sect were each sentenced to a maximum of 15 months and will likely spend that in home detention.

The two were found guilty of cutting the clitorises of the mother's two daughters when they were seven years old, between 20009 and 2012. The case is notable because the two women were convicted even though there was no physical evidence. Medical examiners found no signs of cutting or scarring and the guilty verdict was reached on the strength of the girls' testimony alone. Both said they had been hurt. A community leader found to be an accessory after the fact received the same sentence. 

The news of the relatively lenient sentence was greeted with some measure of outrage with multiple newspapers announcing that the women "had escaped jail." This reaction assumes that throwing the book at perpetrators in cases like this deters other would-be offenders, something I think is unlikely.

FGM is a deeply embedded cultural practice. Because of its sheer brutality, it's natural to assume that those who inflict it on their daughters must be lacking in any and all compassion.

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That is likely so in some instances. But, judging from the court reports, it could also be that some parents subject their children to rituals like this because they misguidedly think that the alternative is even worse.

When it comes to FGM, the alternative is that girls will be unmarriageable. That's not such a negative prospect from where we stand, but in some communities, an unmarried woman is perceived to have literally wasted her life. It is this fear of an unmarried daughter that spurs countless horrendous crimes against women including forced marriage, child marriage, and, of course, FGM.

I do not, by any means, excuse FGM. Rather, I am saying that to put an end to it, we need to understand the context in which it occurs, and what drives otherwise loving parents to subject their daughters to it.

That this particular mother loved her children is apparent in this court report from Guardian journalist Bridie Jabour written at the conclusion of the trial:

At one point Emma is asked about her family.

Interviewer: What do you like about your mother?

Emma: I like that she does some really nice things for me, like packing and making my lunch, and Dad, he helps me when I'm sick.

Interviewer: What else do you like about your mother?

Emma: She is kind.

Interviewer: Is there anything you don't like about your mother?

Emma: No.

As Jabour overheard one of the court reporters say at the time, "She must be a good mum. …Most of the time."

Of course, this does not excuse this mother cutting her daughters. But it does suggest, given her otherwise commendable parenting, that, unlike the law, the pull of culture is often too strong to resist.

This should be obvious given that even in countries where it is most prevalent, including Kenya and Ethiopia, FGM is illegal but has simply been driven underground.

Culture is a potent drug. It is so strong indeed, that we are not even fully aware we are high on it. Whatever culture we are born into, we are likely to stick to it pretty closely. From the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the way we dance; we are practicing culture.

The West is no less susceptible to this pull. As someone who usually finds comparisons between FGM and male circumcision disingenuous because the former is usually far more devastating than its male counterpart, I nonetheless feel certain that if it were Imams rather than Rabbis infecting male babies with genital herpes as a result of oral suction circumcision (yes this really happens), then we would likely find this tradition more repugnant than we apparently do.

Clearly, we have our blind spots too.

The trouble with tradition is that it renders us unable to objectively assess the damage it causes. That which is familiar is accepted and perpetuated, that which is alien is rejected and condemned. It is in this context that devastating practices like FGM (and oral suction circumcision) are normalised.

The good news is that there is a way to erode support for FGM and that is through formal education. One Guttmacher study, for example, found that every year of education a Sudanese woman receives decreases the likelihood of her approving of female circumcision. Moreover, as is the case in Egypt, this opposition to the practice that originates in educated women spreads throughout the general population.

It has become a cliché but education really is key to changing the world, particularly for women. Genital cutting of girls is a symptom of a patriarchy that demonises female sexuality. Divorcing it from this cultural context won't eradicate it. But exposing the communities that still practice it, particularly the younger members, to different ways of viewing female sexuality just might. That children should be free to absorb diverse ideas, is incidentally, why I am not in favour of religiously-run schools that limit children's exposure to contrary viewpoints at a crucial time in their development.

Whether or not the women in this case deserved a harsher sentence, the truth is prison alone is no match for thousands of years of culture. But education and open-mindedness is.