Wednesday 11 December 2019

Forget the small differences - #MeToo is right on FGM

Prime Time interview: Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre
Prime Time interview: Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Since it first appeared in the dim and distant days of, oh, about six months ago, the #MeToo movement has become the most successful social media campaign of all time.

What has been particularly interesting is that a campaign which could have fizzled out like the quickly forgotten Occupy Wall Street, has embedded itself in our consciousness and, on the face of it, that can only be a good thing.

It is also, however, a movement that has become so broad that it risks collapsing under the weight of the contradicting philosophies of the people involved.

While anyone with a beating heart is repulsed by the likes of Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo has become stymied by its lack of perspective.

From Matt Damon to Catherine Deneuve and, most bizarrely, Margaret Atwood, anyone who even questions the methods of the #MeToo movement is immediately condemned as a heretic. The problem is that it conflates an atrocity like rape with a politician putting a hand on a female reporter's leg. Also, one of the main criticisms from other feminists is that it is too white, too middle class, too privileged and too obsessed with trivial slights and rude behaviour.

The middle-class nature of the debate can be seen in the hysteria over the so-called 'rape culture' on American college campuses - despite the fact that women of the same age who work in minimum-wage jobs are statistically more likely to be raped than a college student.

People aren't stupid and they know a bandwagon when they see one.

That doesn't mean they don't care about the victims of sexual assault, it just means they don't care for some of the casual showboating and histrionics of some of the campaigners involved.

In fact these new Victorians, many of whom seem to have absolutely no life experience or understanding of how the world works, are doing more damage to the cause of female equality than any number of men's rights groups.

But sometimes, out of the trivial comes the important.

After all, having been rightly accused of focusing too much on hurt feelings and border-line slights, the #MeToo movement has finally become involved in a genuine, horrifying threat to women - female genital mutilation (FGM).

A worldwide campaign against this unconscionable violation of a woman's bodily integrity was launched in Dublin last week in conjunction with the ubiquitous hashtag.

It might transpire to be the single biggest achievement of the #MeToo movement and it's one which, even for those of us who now just roll our eyes at some of the more ridiculous claims made by campaigners, we should all support.

The vexed issue of FGM is hardly a new one - even in this country. In fact, the first reported case of suspected FGM in Ireland was more than 15 years ago. But it was always an issue so tied up in the toxic stew of racism and the fear of being seen as culturally insensitive that few people were prepared to put their head above the parapet.

Now, that is all changing and it's something to be welcomed.

Ali Selim of the Islamic Cultural Centre has been in the firing line ever since his disastrous interview on Prime Time last week when he appeared to condemn female genital mutilation while supporting female circumcision. But, of course, that's a distinction without a difference, a case of semantics run wild.

That Selim should parse his language and defend the indefensible wasn't a surprise.

What was a surprise, however, was the fact that many other Islamic leaders living in this country were so quick to castigate him. That was a welcome intervention and, also, a timely reminder that Muslims aren't one homogeneous group, any more than Christians of different denominations speak with the one, uniform voice. Selim tried his usual tactics of accusing the accusers. The problem, apparently, was the critics and he said: "It is always portrayed as 'horrible' or 'barbaric' or 'mutilation' and is portrayed as a dark-skin practice or from the dark ages."

He has since been forced to row back on his comments but up until recently, that would have been the end of the matter.

Being accused of racism or some sort of phobia can be a career killer and we have seen countless examples of white, western liberals keeping their mouth shut whenever there's a potential collision between women's rights and the fear of being called an Islamophobe.

With the intervention of another prominent Irish-based scholar, Umar al-Qadri, coming out so unequivocally against FGM, that fear has been removed, although it would be easier to have more respect for some of those now condemning the practice if they hadn't waited for tacit permission from a male Muslim.

In a culture where we tear each other to shreds over relatively small differences of opinion, the issue of FGM should never even have been a hot button issue or a bone of contention.

If we can't all, as human beings, condemn the mutilation of a girl's genitals in the name of spurious purity then we have lost the right to call ourselves moral beings.

#MeToo has its critics, but they're on the money with this campaign.

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