female genital mutilation

Reporting on the unthinkable: Ancient, multicultural roots of female genital mutilation

Reporting on the unthinkable: Ancient, multicultural roots of female genital mutilation

It's hard to imagine a topic that would be harder for journalists to write about than female genital mutilation (FGM).

In some parts of the world it is a procedure with deep cultural and even religious meaning. For others, it may be a way to keep young women attached to a tribe or a family structure that is truly patriarchal. Yet there are women who insist that it is an act that is totally necessary, if women are to be trusted, accepted and in any way empowered in certain cultures.

There is no question that there is a religious element to the FGM story, even though this rite "pre-dates both Christianity and Islam, and is commended in the core texts of neither faith," according to a disturbing, but fascinating, think piece at the website of The Media Project, the organization that supports GetReligion. 

The author of this reported essay is journalist and media-literacy pro Jenny Taylor, best known was the founder of Lapido Media in England.

How high are the stakes in this ongoing crisis? Taylor notes:

As many as one-third of girls in areas of Sudan where there are no antibiotics will die, according to another report. The complications range from haemorrhage to tetanus, blocked urethras and infertility.

A key figure in the essay is anti-FGM activist 55-year-old Ann-Marie Wilson, the founder of 28TooMany. The name is a reference to number of countries that had not banned this rite, at the time Wilson began her work.

How old is this ritual? This first paragraph contains a detail that I had never heard before:

Wilson, a doctor of psychology and a midwife who trained in Pakistan, recently completed a paper on the origins of FGM, claiming that the mummies in the British Museum show clear signs of FGM.


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This YouTube age: The Washington Post wrestles with a female genital mutilation debate

This YouTube age: The Washington Post wrestles with a female genital mutilation debate

It would be hard to imagine a religion-beat topic more difficult to cover, in an accurate and balanced manner, than that of female genital mutilation.

Some journalists attempt to ignore the whole subject and, in particular, deny that it has anything to do with debates inside the complex world of global Islam. There is a tendency to say this practice is rooted in backward cultural traditions linked to sexism and patriarchy (in isolated groups of Christians and some other faiths as well) and that is that.

That stance is hard to justify if journalists actually listen to the voices of people involved in these debates, which often take place in private, or in Muslim community events that draw few observers from the outside.

Now one of these debates has gone public in the Virginia suburbs near the Washington, D.C., beltway, drawing coverage from The Washington Post -- "A Virginia imam said female genital mutilation prevents ‘hypersexuality,’ leading to calls for his dismissal." This report is much better than the norm.

However, there is one tension in the Post article that is worth noting, because it is linked to a crucial fact: In a debate among Muslim leaders, it is highly likely that people on both sides are going to quote Islamic writings and traditions when stating their case. Hold that thought. Here is the overture in this report:

A Virginia mosque has publicly condemned the words of its leading imam, highlighting lingering divisions among Muslim leaders over the controversial and widely rejected practice of female genital mutilation.
The Board of Directors at the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church said Monday that Imam Shaker Elsayed’s seeming endorsement of the outlawed practice as “the honorable thing to do if needed” ran afoul of both U.S. and Islamic law. 
Elsayed’s comments during a lecture on child rearing and family life last month sparked a brief controversy last Friday after a right-wing watchdog group circulated a video clip of his speech online.

The fact that it took actions by conservative groups to force this into the open complicates matters for some mainstream journalists. However, the YouTube videos are there to see and to debate.

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Islam, ISIS and the FGM fatwa

Islam, ISIS and the FGM fatwa

Reporting from the front lines of the Middle East conflicts be a parlous experience if you are on the wrong side of the battle line. However not all of the no-go areas are geographically bounded. The topic of  Islam and female genital mutilation is a country few reporters are willing to enter. Cultural prejudices and politically correct assumptions appear to be driving the reporting on Islam. Few reporters seem willing break free from the herd and ask “why”? Western Asia is a hard place for reporters. Relying upon U.S. or Israeli government agencies for information can be a frustrating experience — bureaucratic petty-mindedness knows no national boundaries. Yet it is possible to test the truths handed out in press statements by observation and old-fashioned reporting.

This is not always possible when reporting from the rebel side or from hostile regimes. Checking can get you killed as reporters covering the fighting in Gaza have noted in recent days. Even Hamas, however, attempts to play the Western media game (according to its lights) and holds press conferences.

Not so with ISIS, the Sunni extremists who have seized Mosul. While their supporters can be found on Twitter and the Web — it has not been possible for reporters to check the claims coming out of Northern Iraq. The atrocities and destruction committed by ISIS can be seen in the photos of decapitated government troops, crucifixions of enemies and videos of burning churches and fleeing refugees taken by smart-phones and posted to the internet.

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The Guardian on Islam and female genital mutilation

The Guardian reports that Britain’s largest Muslim organization, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), has condemned female genital mutilation as un-Islamic. The article reports on the campaign to end the practice brought to Britain by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, and the steps taken by the MCB and NGOs to educate immigrants on its health dangers.

I am pleased to hear this news as I believe FGM is an abominable practice. But in looking at the journalism on display in this story — not the topic — I was struck by the disconnect between a claim in the lede that FGM is “no longer” linked to Islam and the claims made by the Muslim council further down in the article that it was never part of authentic Islam.

It is not The Guardian‘s job to referee disputes between religious scholars and to award the prize to what it believes is the true embodiment of Islamic principles. Yet by presenting only one view of Islam, only one side of the debate, the newspaper does just that.

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