Hrm. I have cause to apologise to Nick Cohen. I’m so used to being irritated by his unfair accusations of bigotry or totalitarian sympathies that I’ve become prejudiced against the bloke. So, when I found him insisting that our society’s inadequate response to acts of female genital mutilation was due to “opposition to the ‘inappropriate’ imposition of ‘western’ values on the formerly colonised” I huffed about his moralism. Well – he had a point; a reminder not to let one’s views towards writer’s previous offerings entirely shape one’s perception of their newer works.

Female genital mutilation has been the subject of two Newsnight documentaries that exposed the scandal of the British response to such atrocities. There are thought to be more victims of it on our isles than in France and yet they’ve witnessed the conviction of dozens of perpretrators while we’ve prosecuted none of them. The Muslim girls who appeared in the documentaries were not shy in pinning this on handwringing over cultural sensitivities and that, to some extent at least, seems to be correct. Cohen writes that he “know[s] doctors who worry they will be accused of racism if they protest about the mistreatment of girls”. He’s not the only one. In 2004 a paper by Belgian academics reported that “key informants [in Britain] indicated the anxieties of many health professionals in responding appropriately…such as fear of being perceived as racist or accepting FGM because cultural traditions have to be accepted”.

But there’s a limit to what health professionals can do. Much of the two-part programme was concentrated on the fact that the French has instituted mandatory inspections of girls families who are deemed to be at risk. I can understand discomfort with such measures. If I was a parent and the state insisted that my daughter’s genitals be examined I wouldn’t be thrilled. Scotland Yard’s Simon Foy went further, suggesting that inspections might themselves be a form of abuse. Hmm. Genital mutilation can and does result in acute infections, haemorrhaging, cysts, fistula and a lifelong absence of pleasure during sexual intercourse, as well as all the mental trauma that such a painful and humiliating operation is liable to provoke. Such inspections might be embarrassing and aggrieve a few innocent parents. An argument as to the efficacy of such measures would be one thing but Foy’s is indicative of terrifically skewed priorities.

Prosecutions are, of course, no panacea. A hundred convictions might be better than none but considering the extent to which the practice continues it’s hardly worth celebrating. The traditions and beliefs that underpin its continuation have to be discredited. This means that the clerics who promote and legitimise it have to be opposed; professionals who are willing to perform it have to be exposed and, yes, communities have to be inspired to be proactive in teaching their relatives, friends and neighbours of what an abomination it is. That sounds like the kind of liberal notion that’s easy to write but hard to realise yet the girls Newsnight profiled were so dignified and articulate that on this issue, at least, I think it could well happen.

The rest of us have to listen to them, and especially to those of them who’ve faced abuse. One thing Cohen forgets, I think, is that a lot of people aren’t so much indifferent to horrendous things like FGM as oblivious to or unable to comprehend them. Before the migration of the 1990s what reason would most Brits have had to even be aware of it? I think that many of us are struggling to catch up with pace at which local phenomena have been internationalised by globalisation and it can be bewildering. We’ve had it so good with regards to our personal freedoms that I think we find it hard to grasp the magnitude of suffering others can be forced to bear. This, perhaps, is also a factor behind our being oversensitive with regards to issues concerning discrimination and judgmentalism. We’ve all had people be rude and condescending to us. It’s harder to imagine being held to the ground and having knives taken to our flesh.

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