FGM or female circumcision: Traveling from culture point a to culture point b without exploding into pieces

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Fadumo Dayib, who writes a great blog called Somali Womanhood and is Migrant Tales associate editor, asked me a very good question when I spoke to her about what some call female circumcision and which the critics refer to female genital mutilation (FGM). “What new points of view can you bring to the debate,” she asked. 

A very good question indeed. I’m a man who was brought up in societies where this practice, which has been going on for centuries, doesn’t take place. In the societies that I grew up in, the norm has been to encourage greater sexual freedom and enjoyment as well as acceptance of sexual minorities like gays

What, then, can I offer to such a topic?

I will try to write about it from a journalist’s viewpoint who has a background in anthropology.

From an anthropological perspective, it’s important to point out that this practice is one of many elements of a rite of passage that prepares young girls for womanhood and marriage.

Opponents of FGM, however, emphasize that the practice is detrimental to a women’s health and well-being. Some, like Dayib, consider this practice a ritualized form of child abuse, violence against women and a violation of their human rights.

About twenty years ago, when I worked for a Finnish family magazine called Apu, Eve Hietamies asked me about doing a story on the topic. Taking into account the negative climate at the time against Somalis, I tried to explain to her the impact her story would add to the widespread prejudice people had of this group.

What kinds of passions would such a story reinforce and awaken? Would it fuel empathy for minors who may fall victim to such a practice in Finland or fuel our intolerance and prejudice of people who come from different cultures?

The same question I asked the Apu reporter a long time ago is still valid but in a different context. Am I writing about this topic because I’m genuinely interested in the welfare of these minors and that it could take place in Finland, or interested in career advancement and social pornography?

I advised the reporter not to write such a story and that is what she did.

A similar story was published by Helsingin Sanomat. It showed two 14-year-old-adolescents of the Maasai tribe in Kenya pictured by Meeri Koutaniemi. The author of the story, Anu Nousiainen, hadn’t been present while Koutaniemi took the pictures of the two adolescents.

While we can – and should – be able to speak openly about such a practice, our reporting ethics and standards must be in order. Moreover, extra care must be taken not to victimize in the process whole groups in Finland never mind globally.

As an anthropologist and migrant, I know that getting from culture point a to culture point b doesn’t look as easy as it seems. That journey between these two points can be full of minefields that won’t tear your limbs to shreds if stepped on but expose instead your ignorance, prejudices, ethnocentrism, cultural and career opportunism in the raw.

As a journalist, I understand that this is a “good” story that can win me and the publication a lot of attention and prestige. I understand as well that I can get away with murder by not adhering fully to ethical standards since the readers’ and my colleagues’ prejudices will encourage them to turn a blind eye.

This type of protection only works for a while. Time is the final judge of what you write. How would the Apu reporter’s story look today and how will the Helsingin Sanomat pictures go down with us twenty years from now? Will they have the same impact or expose our own issues with respect to the plight of billions of people who are not as fortunate as us to live a life of abundance in the developed world?

Those who have travelled successfully between culture point a to culture point b, understand that the best way to make journey in one piece is with the protective shield of respect and cultural sensitivity.

Certainly there’s a big difference if a semi-sensationalist magazine like Apu publishes a story about female circumcision versus a quality daily like Helsingin Sanomat, which is supposed to abide by the highest journalistic standards.

And here’s the crux of the matter. Dailies like Helsingin Sanomat sometimes don’t abide by such standards. How many still remember Saska Saarikoski’s defense of Perussuomalaiset MP Jussi Halla-aho, who got sentenced for ethnic agitation, and how the media gave inflated respectability and importance to people like him?

The biggest problem that Helsingin Sanomat journalists like Saarikoski had before the 2011 parliamentary elections was that they couldn’t tell the difference between outright racism and freedom of speech.

Dayib explains eloquently some of the ethical issues in a recent blog entry. She takes a stand against FGM but writes as well about the double standards and hypocrisy of “concerned” NGOs and white women.

One important question that we should be asking is how widespread this practice is in Finland? Why are white people writing about this topic? Why do Africans allow white Europeans to write their narrative?

Unicef of Finland considers the story published by Helsingin Sanomat was unethical because it exposed the minors’ faces and identity despite the fact that the children’s rights association uses pictures of minors itself on its web pages and publications.

Apart from showing what FGM or female circumcision is in the raw, why is the focus of the Helsingin Sanomat story shifting from this practice and the plight of minors in countries like Kenya to ethical issues?

The answer is self-evident: It’s a white narrative of somebody else. We’re not really interested in what happens because it doesn’t concern us directly. It’s about some group faraway whom we don’t know and don’t care enough about to make a difference in their lives. How come we except so much injustice and poverty to take place globally if we live in countries that have the means to eradicate such issues?

Saido Mohamed, who is an advisor at the Finnish League for Human Rights, travels daily from culture point a to culture point b and back.

“First and foremost matter to take into account is the child’s right to privacy and confidentiality,” she told Migrant Tales. “This is a question that any self-respecting reporter and NGO must adhere to. I believe that it is a good matter that this issue  is brought up and debated in public.”

According to Mohamed, it would be important for the media in Finland and elsewhere to set some guidelines, without watering down the issue, on how to report such cases in the future.

The Council for Mass Media (JSN) will soon make a pronouncement on the Helsingin Sanomat story.