Frontpage Interview's guest is Ines Laufer, founder of the Task Force for Effective Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation, a network of Human-Rights-organisations and activists that is committed to measurable, broad prevention of genital mutilation among migrant girls in the EU. With the Task Force's prevention-programme, for the first time true protection of minor girls from this violence comes into reach.
FP: Ines Laufer, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to build on our last interview about how European politics give a helping hand to Female Genital Mutilation.
Let’s talk a bit about the myths, lies and errors about FGM.
Laufer: Sure, thanks Jamie.
Today, after 30 years of widely unsuccessful efforts for an end of the torturing mutilations, the time is overripe to identify, name and overcome all the fatal myths, lies and fundamental errors which continue to be spread even by so-called scientists and even most “activists”.
To reveal all those myths is about much more than being right or wrong; it’s about explaining WHY most strategies in the fight to end FGM until now are predestined to fail – and to be not much more than a waste of money, time, energy and resources – while millions of little girls continue to be maimed every year.
It’s about going to the roots and finding out the baleful mechanisms that lead to the continuation of this violent practice.
Finally, it’s about reforming the approaches and strategies, it’s about effective investment of resources and it’s about measurable results.
It’s about leaving worn-out paths which do only lead into a dead-end-street.
FP: Indeed, so let’s start with some of the myths. The first one is, obviously, that FGM has nothing to do with Islam, right?
Myth #1: FGM has nothing to do with Islam as it is not mentioned in the Koran.
As soon as it comes to discussions about the influence of religion on the worldwide perpetration of FGM on little girl-children, most “activists,” organisations and politicians are very anxious to explain that genital mutilations have nothing to do with Islam, that they are not mentioned in the Koran, and that there are followers of other religions, especially Christians and Animists, who also submit their female members to FGM.
Of course, FGM is prevalent among other religious groups than Islam – but it is mistaken to reason that there would not be a very close and very fatal link between Islam and FGM.
The truth is: Today, the vast majority of FGM-victims are Muslim girls and women. This is not even a surprise – because regardless the fact that FGM is not mentioned in the Koran, Muslim clerics widely propagate FGM and publicly legitimize this violence and instigate it. They do not even need to cite the Koran, because they simply refers to the Hadith of the prophet Mohammed.
It is hard going to argue if the FGM-concerned Hadith are “weak” or “strong”.
The only thing that counts is the social reality: In the 21st century, Islam is the only religion that is systematically being exploited by male authorities to make sure that women and their sexuality are brought under male’s control by destroying the most sensitive sexual part of the body, the clitoris.
But until now, the highest Islamic authorities deny their active participation and responsibility in spreading the mutilation-practice all over the world and strictly encourage its continuation – not only in African, Arabian or Asian countries, but also in Europe.
FP: And the places in Africa that FGM is most prevalent are Muslim.
Laufer: Right. If one has a look at the FGM-practicing countries on the world-map, one can hardly elude from the following cognition: In Africa, the countries where genital mutilations have been adopted, all belong to the “belt of Islamisation”. This fact - as well as hints which indicate that in Western-Africa, FGM does not date back more than 500 years - allows the assumption that FGM has been spread to Middle and Western Africa by Islamization.
From the Middle-East (for instance Iraq) and Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia) we do anyway know that the practice has been spread there by Islam and is perpetrated there in the name of this religion.
And even from Central Europe - from Bosnia – we received several hints that female genital mutilation seems to be “imported” through radical Islamiztion. This is no coincidence: Female genital mutilation clearly reflects the misogyny that underlies in Islam. FGM serves the prudish, misogynous and dogmatic definition of female sexuality, the madness of virginity and all what the woman-being implies.
As fatal as the fact that Islamic clerics publicly and openly propagate and call for female genital mutilation is the frightened silence of the world public. The incitement to torture, mutilate and harm female children in the name of religion, in fact has no consequences, no penalties for those responsible. I often have the impression that the fear to be called an “Islamophobe” completely stultifies the mind of scientists, politicians and activists and blindfolds them to obvious facts.
FP: Some other myths?
Laufer: There are many more.
Myth #2: There are different reasons why FGM is practiced – and FGM is different in different societies.
When it comes to describe the practice of female genital mutilation, its backgrounds and reasons, permanently and mantra-likely it is repeated that in different ethnic groups there are different reasons for perpetrating FGM. During the last 15 years, as I can speak for the situation in Germany, one scientist or activist or politician copies the mental trash from the other one, without questioning or rethinking. It is no matter if one looks at publications of development-organisations or active FGM-organisations or student papers – they all write the same falsehood: There are different reasons in different societies given for this “traditional custom.”
The truth is: There is only one single reason, one objective that can be found in every single ethnic group, in ALL regions and societies to be the essential reason for the existence of female genital mutilation: FGM is about the oppression of female sexuality, it’s about control and about women’s manipulation to function in the sense of male’s conceptions. The synonyms of this objective are the following: FGM is being performed to maintain the girl’s virginity, to curb their sexual desire, to maintain chastity and to guarantee sexual faithfulness. This is what it is ALWAYS about and there’s not a single society where this aspect would not appear.
All other reasons given, like aesthetic reasons, purity, initiation, religious reasons or completely insane ones, like the clitoris could kill men and babies, are nothing else than a helpful part of ideological legitimization to
- deviate from the true intention,
- to create a certain pressure that helps to make the nationwide implementation of this oppressing violence possible and - together with the tabooization -
- prevents the victims from asking questions, from getting to the bottom of this practice and from putting it into question-
All these disguising justifications are well suited to justify and to excuse FGM and mask the true nature of what in real a very systematic form of violence.
It is quite fascinating to see how this ideology not only perfectly fulfils it’s meaning - in the countries where FGM is practised – but foremost among the ethnologic and anthropologic scientists as well as activists and politicians in the Western world: They, by failing to analyse the justifications of FGM as exchangeable constructs, for a long time refused – and still widely do refuse - to properly tackle FGM as serious phenomenon of specific violence against an exactly defined group within a society.
FP: Another myth?
Laufer: Myth #3: The parents who let their children mutilate only want the best for the girls.
Repeated like a mantra for decades, this myth excuses and trivializes offender’s intention who badly maltreat their children through FGM.
This lie lulls the masses and hinders the indispensable deep understanding of the nature, intention and systematic of female genital mutilations.
It reflects the Western illusion – or devotional wish - that parents always intend to do the best for their children. If one looks at what is really going on in the world, one has to recognize that the familial relationship quite often is a source of grave violence, maltreatment, neglect etc.
The basic cause of this behaviour is disrespect, the psychologist and Children’s Rights-activist Monika Gerstendörfer gets to the point: Disrespect towards children within a disrespectful environment.
FGM needs to be seen as symptom of a social environment dominated by control, oppression and legitimised violence.
Therefore, it is not a secret nor a surprise that in all FGM-practising countries/groups, a very high level of general violence against children is very common, that consists of physical and psychological abuse, beating and severe punishment.
Nevertheless, the dimension of this regular violence is still surrounded by a big taboo and again there are the Western “scientists” who do their best to keep the silence alive.
There is not a single FGM-practising society where FGM is not directly linked to so-called “forced/arranged marriages”. The verbal association of this act to “marriage and wedding” obscures its true nature that simply is slavery: If any male human-being would be offered to a future owner for money, gold or material stuff, to be raped and always be in his attendance, it would be clear and apparent that we would have to talk about slave-trading.
As soon as the victims are female children or female adolescents who are sold by their fathers for money, gold, camels or goats to other men, this obvious slave-trade is being named “marriage”. What a cynicism!
And because the future owners of the girls refuse to “buy used good”, they insist on virginity and genital mutilation, what they see as effective measure to preserve it.
As girls and women in this context are seen, treated and traded like any good, it is of course marginal if they suffer pain and/or trauma, if they are deprived of sexual fulfilment and personal development
So, by letting the own daughters mutilate, every male patriarchs act with regard to their own interests and highest profit that could be achieved by selling the girls later. The health, welfare, wishes and sexuality of the girls are simply subordinated to these interests.
FGM is not an act of love but an act of disrespect, disdain, violence and personal material interests of others than the victims.
FP: So what is the key to end FGM?
Laufer: The key is connected to another myth itself.
Myth #4: The key to end FGM is education and information.
Although it might sound provocative, long-time experiences in Africa and Europe oblige us to reconsider the meaning of information and education within the process of FGM-abandonment.
While right from the start the main-focus was put on educating and informing the FGM-practicing communities about the harm that FGM causes – hoping that this would lead to accordingly abandon the practice, today’s reality is unmasking this idea as pure illusion.
Many Western-based organisations blindly insist on claiming that “if people understand that there is noting good within this tradition, they will stop” (Marianne Raven, CEO, Plan International Germany e.V.).
Others at least admit that this strategy widely failed: Recently, the German GTZ conceded that “education about the health consequences does much more lead to FGM-medicalisation than to its abandonment.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) had to raise the question why women, who are well-aware of the awful consequences of FGM, even those who officially campaign against the practice, continue to mutilate their children in spite of that.
The answer to that question does not only lie in the social pressure.
To find an answer to that question, the still widespread view, that FGM is a “traditional custom that people do for the girl’s best” must be put into question:
This view does not only label the people who perform and propagate FGM as uneducated and “not really knowing what damage they do”, but also offers an excuse and trivialises both the perpetrators and the practice itself.
Already in 1977, the Senegalese authoress Awa Thiam was contradicting this shortened perception by pointing out that there’s “an apparent wish to exculpate our elder women by alleging that they don’t have any science-based information about clitoridectomy. This is a bad underestimation.”
In 2007, the Egyptian FGM-Activist Riham Shebl vehemently answered back to the wrong image that continues to be created about FGM:
"For a long time FGM was associated with lack of education, a lower socio-economic background. This made it worse for upper- and middle-class women, because it became a double stigma; they were not only circumcised, but are also like the poor and the uneducated…”
Her colleague Vivian Morqos unmasks the active involvement especially of educated Elites in perpetuating the violent practice:
“..75 per cent of those in the medical field are the ones practising it, though it was Ali Ibrahim, a doctor, who first lobbied for banning FGM/ C in Egypt back in 1928.”
"Incomplete information, unprofessional opinions and the notion that the practice is limited to grassroots communities are all instances of irresponsible misinformation."
In 2000, a study run by the African Women’s Organisation in Vienna underlines that people, who are well-aware about the consequences of FGM, are far away from the step to abandon it: 75% of the interrogated immigrants who live in Austria now were in favour of FGM-continuation – although the number of those who confirmed to know the devastating effects was not considerably lower!
In the last centuries, Female Genital Mutilation has been spread to countries and populations which cannot be considered “traditional clan-people”, but who adopted FGM for the same identical reason that can be found in all FGM-practising communities: to oppress and control women’s sexuality in a society where general discrimination and marginalisation of female human-beings is legitimate. Such countries are Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia – and more recently, the number of hints increases, that even in Central Europe - in Bosnia - FGM is on advance.
Yet, it might be more comfortable or more “politically correct” for Western organisations and politicians to hold on the illusion that the cause of FGM can be found in lack of education or knowledge and therefore can be eliminated by education.
But day by day and year by year, the ones who have to pay the price for this obvious error, are thousands of little girls who are submitted to that inhuman treatment in full awareness about its consequences.
The time is overdue to finally recognise the true nature of Female Genital Mutilation as a particular, specific kind of violence against female children.
\Once we start to analyse the Systematic of that violence, we can find conclusive and logical answers to the – until now – helplessly asked question:
“Why do people continue to mutilate their children in full awareness of the consequences?”
The psychological mechanisms which take effect can be compared with those appearing in “classical forms of violence” which are passed within families from one generation to the other, for example sexualised violence against children within families.
By understanding Female Genital Mutilation in conjunction with “inter-generational violence,” it gets clear that women do not mutilate their daughters although they have been victims themselves – but because of that.
This comprehension leads to a necessary change of priorities: The highest priority must be put on breaking through the fatal circle of violence by consequently stopping girls from becoming victims of FGM.
The responsibility for that clearly lies in each government’s hands. Our European governments have to implement efficient measures that cover all potential FGM-victims and lead to true and measurable protection of the girls.
This includes consequent identification and prosecution of the perpetrators.
There are consequent and efficient strategies that could lead to a measurable end of Female Genital Mutilation in Europe even in three years – they just need to be applied.
These strategies set entirely new standards and will become a criterion, how serious Western governments, politicians and NGOs the problem of FGM honestly take.
FP: What can average people do to help save girls from FGM?
Laufer: Well, generally I think that preventing FGM in a Western society is not the duty of average people – but it’s the responsibility of each government.
Of course, as long as the governments fail to implement effective prevention measures, the girls are fully dependent on help of courageous members of the civil society. In the recent years of our work on concrete cases, we always experienced a very high inhibitions: people are very hesitant to “denounce” potential offenders or families who are supposed to have mutilated their girls. Mostly, they fear to be called “racist” or to “discriminate innocent migrants” – and at least the mass-media reactions in the recent FGM-prevention case in Germany proof that this fear is quite entitled.
Anyhow, to say it with the words of Rakieta Poyga, president of the organisation Bangr’Nooma that works for an end of FGM in Burkina Faso:
“Please – do not allow that little girls in your country are submitted to genital mutilation”! she called on the audience of the film “Maimouna, la vie devant moi” that was presented in 2008 in several cities in Germany.
- If you get any information about a girl who is supposed to be brought to a country where FGM is commonly practised – and therefore will be at risk to be submitted to FGM - for instance during summer-holidays, please inform the social service to undertake concrete steps.
- If you get information that a girl might have been mutilated already, please inform the police or state attorney: Please always be aware that FGM is a serious crime – and not a “cultural practice” that we should tolerate
- Find out if there are organisations in your country who consequently work for true protection of little girls, who do not betray themselves and others by stating that “if the people are informed about the health consequences they will stop to mutilate their children”. If there are organisations who put the government and ministries under pressure in order to implement effective strategies to protect girls from FGM, support them.
- Express your concern about the area-wide mutilation of the sponsored girls from Plan International, World Vision, CCF Kinderhilfswerk and other organisations. Protest against the continuation of mutilations in Western-financed development projects. If you donate money, make sure that the organisation guarantees the protection of the girls in the concerned community. Please be aware that all organisations could do that quite easily – if only they would be committed.
- Help to overcome the lies and myths that are still spread about FGM by naming and putting it in perspective.
FP: Ines Laufer, you are a true hero. Thank you for your brave and noble work on behalf of female children and your effort to protect them from this barbarity.