This week I’ve been reading up on female genital mutilation (FGM) for an upcoming piece, and it has been a hard slog. One of the challenges on Better Politics is how to reconcile what underpins the Better Politics thesis – that people are essentially good, only struggling with the means of change rather than the principle – with what may seem like inexplicably hardwired, harmful behaviour.
While interning at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Khartoum when I was a student, I met with the health minister at the time to discuss an anti-FGM awareness campaign that the UNDP had received funding for. We were shocked to find that the health minister, who was a doctor and a woman, rejected the funds and the campaign, insisting that FGM was part of Islamic practice. I protested that it was clearly not a religious duty and, in fact, long predates the introduction of Abrahamic religions in Africa.
This was something she clearly knew but refused to acknowledge, tying herself up in logical knots, and at one point getting quite angry that she was being questioned. It became obvious that she resented the suggestion that the United Nations, a foreign body of experts, was judging a common practice in the country, and so she got defensive. Her fit of personal insecurity cost God knows how many girls the opportunity to be saved from FGM. The campaign was scrapped.
This is a common response when talking to educated, informed people about their support for FGM – a sort of knee-jerk response that assumes the questioner is judging or sneering. The way such horrific rituals become normalised – the way they overpower strong maternal and paternal instincts of protection of children from harm – is that they become tied in to a person’s identity. As the health minister proved, ignorance is only one part of the answer. The rest is about positioning FGM as part of a wider cultural and social framework that is so powerful it becomes impossible to challenge without picking apart the structure as a whole.
Successful campaigns to abolish FGM by making it illegal seem to rest on challenging the practice by othering it, by casting it as something that is foreign to society that must be discarded. Through figuring out how that happens, I hope to tease out how to tap into that essential kernel of goodness that has been suspended by external political and social forces to show how Better Politics can be achieved.
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