0,,2358771_4,00Considering the degree to which the West consistently eulogises its own moral and cultural fortitude as the peak of modern civilisation, we should be ashamed that in this year of grace, 2014, the first prosecution for female genital mutilation has only just been announced on our shores. It would seem axiomatic that child mutilation would be at the top of any socio-moral agenda, least of all when it occurs with hidden frequency across the multi-ethnic suburban landscape that has come to define modern Britain. So, why have we had to wait so long for this issue to move into the iris of public debate? The answer, it seems, lies in our current understanding of culture; or rather our misunderstanding. 

In Northern Sudan, a place where FGM continues to be practiced as a routine part of everyday life, women are thought to possess a wild and untamed sexuality that must be domesticated through ritual circumcision. According to Janice Boddy, an anthropologist with ethnographic expertise in this part of the world, this traumatic surgery is seen as an act of purification that paves the way for marriage and fertility. As Boddy notes; ‘only when physically transformed and shaped to the image of human morality can they be entrusted to reproduce.’ For these women, if they are to act as proper moral vessels, they must remain uncontaminated, “closed off” from the dangerous pollutants that lie beyond their societal boundaries – a process that starts and ends with the closing of the body. And yet morality cannot exist in a vacuum, as if beyond a cultural or historical framework. This particular morality is mediated by extraordinarily brutal conditions of patriarchal surveillance.

As globalisation tore down national boundaries and new diasporas spread across the world, this particular “culture” found itself being reproduced in our own country, riding in on the coattails of multiculturalism. Somewhere along the line, culture stopped being seen as an invitation to consider and engage with Otherness (for better or worse) and started to become weaponised under the relativist banner that “all cultures are equal.” Can we really uphold the relativist position when culture acts as an accessory to murder and mutilation? Modern life has sterilised the once flexible and porous boundaries that have come to define our understanding of culture. How else can we explain our increased capacity for mono-ethnic communities in the heart of our “diverse” society? The fact is that when these families move across here, local traditions can often anchor them at a time when it feels as if their identity is slipping away. Rather than engaging, understanding, and challenging their Otherness through meaningful dialogue, we gave their brutal patriarchy asylum – a protection offered through a happily granted, and yet hostile solitude. Culture only becomes meaningful when it is stretched to and beyond its elastic limit, when it is shared across societal and historical boundaries. Now the public is up in arms at reports of this horrendous practice, shocked that this kind of thing can even be happening in such a “civilised” place. The reality, it seems, is that these houses were enabled to remain structural reflections of the culture from which they migrated, allowing them to bring with them their violent moral frameworks. FGM happens because of the impotency of our own political inclinations – to pay lip-service to cultural Otherness rather than to engage and transform. 

The rise of far-right nationalism is testament to our increasing fear of cultural alterity – a fear that is now bordering on the hysterical. As noted by the late Christopher Hitchens:  “As Shakespeare put it in ‘King Lear,’ the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.” Have we forgotten our own hypocrisies? Have we not seen in FGM the perverse reflection of our own history of child mutilation? The Obama administration is rightly joining the anti-FGM bandwagon, publicly condemning its seemingly unseen prevalence within US borders. And yet within the same country, infant male children routinely have their genitals mutilated with impunity. Whether for religious purposes or simply parental vanity, these operations are acts of barbarism in the same way as FGM. Even though the medical and psychological implications of the female-based practice are more dangerous and complex, this should not misdirect us from the ethical hypocrisy at play. The great virtue of law is that we, as both individuals and society, cannot simply pick and choose from its web. The mutilation of a child’s sexual organs should not be morally judged on which side its gender falls. Until we come to terms with our own cultural blind-spots, it is foolhardy to think we will ever make any headway in confronting the moral inadequacies of other forms of patriarchy.


Joshua Burraway is an Esrc funded PhD student at UCL studying anthropology. He is currently researching the politics of intoxication among London’s homeless population.

%d bloggers like this: