Letter to the Editor, The Guardian, 22 February, re Question Time, 20 February

22/02/2020 Comments Off on Letter to the Editor, The Guardian, 22 February, re Question Time, 20 February

Good on Owen Jones for his criticism of the BBC (Opinion, 20 Feb 2020) for tweeting about the hate-filled, racist rant that was allowed to go on forever on Question Time. But there is far more to say about what happened on that programme. The discussion began with a question about the proposed new regulations limiting the number and “type” of Europeans who will soon be allowed the privilege of working in this country. The responses were all appalling, even if one foul-mouthed woman got all the attention. Fiona Bruce sat open-mouthed and did nothing. There was not one person on the panel except Ash Sarkar, and no one in the audience at all, who stood up for the millions of European citizens who have made this country their home, who have formed relationships here, had children here, participate in their communities – as well as doing essential jobs. No one said the truth – that they will be irreplaceable. Not just those doing the “lowest” jobs – you know, the ones who keep the streets clean, the gardens beautiful, the garbage collected, the old people looked after – but also the ones driving the buses, staffing the shops, restaurants and hotels – and the NHS – and doing a lot of the agricultural and fishery work that puts food in the mouths of everyone in that audience. Quite a few of them have well-paid, higher-up jobs too. They are our neighbours, damn it, they have a right to live without being trashed on national TV and harassed in the street.

Still, Question Time did the nation a favour Thursday night. It exposed the racism underlying Brexit that is infecting the country. Who was the ass who said Brexit is done? Brexit is just beginning, and this is what it’s going to be like, every day, from now on.

Re: Hidden Voices UK: Circumcised Women Speak Out (revised 11 Feb 2020)

10/02/2020 Comments Off on Re: Hidden Voices UK: Circumcised Women Speak Out (revised 11 Feb 2020)

On Saturday, 8 February 2020, the recently formed group, Hidden Voices UK, hosted a theatrical performance called “Judging without Knowing” at Oxford House in Bethnal Green, East London, followed by a panel and open discussion with over 70 people who attended. It was organised in partnership with Women’s Inclusive Team, TALO, Queen of Sheba International, and Acta Community Theatre Bristol.

The event was one of a number of responses to the 17th anniversary of the UN’s 6 February International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and a ground-breaking one.

The members of Hidden Voices are increasingly concerned about how the criminalisation of FGM (also referred to as female genital cutting or FGC) is negatively affecting African communities living in the UK, particularly women and girls from Somali communities. Hidden Voices say that instead of being able to focus on whether any cases of FGM are even taking place in the UK, their group is having to focus on unethical and unnecessary referrals for child protection and helping innocent women to get back their children, who have been taken into care. They say: “The massive increase in referrals has put all on a hopeless path, and we have decided we must go public and expose this injustice.” Hence this play and public event.

The play, “Judging without Knowing”, was created entirely by Somali women working with actors from Acta Community Theatre, Bristol. It highlights the damage caused by a now common narrative that surrounds FGM in the UK – a combination of victimhood, stigma and criminalisation. The performance puts mothers and daughters at the heart of the issue and shows how women who were “victims of FGM” (mothers who were cut as children, almost all in Somalia in the last century) are now being pre-emptively criminalised by the assumption that they will have their daughters or granddaughters cut too. This narrative is promoted not only by the Tory Government and in recent law and new regulations against FGM, passed by the Tory Government, but also by prominent anti-FGM NGOs who have received funds from the Tory Government, and others who are promoting this narrative across the country. In my opinion, this is a new and insidious form of racism – supporting some African diaspora groups to stigmatise other African diaspora groups.

Through the real-life stories of two women, one with a young daughter and one with a newborn daughter, the play depicts the impact that so-called safeguarding policies have on families who are accused of carrying out this practice without any concrete evidence that they are planning to do so, and who are not believed when they insist they have no intention of doing so. What becomes clear is that the women are suspected of intending to carry out this crime only because of their racial, ethnic and cultural background and their own history of FGM as children. This “suspicion” is a form of racial profiling. It is unethical and discriminatory and should be rejected.

The play was followed by a panel, chaired by author and journalist Ella Whelan, which included:

– Zainab Nur, founder of Hayaat Women’s Trust in Cardiff,

– Bríd Hehir, researcher and author of the blog Shifting Sands,

– Yasmin Aslam, senior project officer at Ashiana in Sheffield who works with ethnic minority and refugee communities who have been affected by violence and abuse, and

– Janet Fyle, professional policy advisor, Royal College of Midwives.

There was also an open and rich discussion between the panellists and many well-informed members of the multi-ethnic audience, including women from FGM-affected communities, researchers, health professionals and advocates involved in addressing FGM in diverse ways. It became clear that women and their families and communities are being harassed by “safeguarding”, which is seriously harmful to children when it is not required or justified.

There were many crucial issues addressed. These are the ones I focused on:

1. What does “Zero Tolerance” mean in practice as opposed to being a slogan? What is the relationship between this and the assumption that everyone is guilty unless proven innocent, and that an assumption of guilt means it’s OK to take children into care without concrete evidence that they are at risk – that is, on the basis of “just in case”? Let alone to claim, as one person did in the meeting, that sometimes we just have to accept a few injustices to avoid children being hurt. This implies it is OK to hurt some children to protect others? Surely not.

2. When and why did the designation by the World Health Organization of FGM/C as a “harmful traditional practice” change to it being described as “child abuse”? FGM/C traditionally had, and still has, a cultural value in many African communities as a rite of passage from childhood into womanhood and readiness to be married. There were and still are many social penalties for refusing to circumcise girls, just as there are for not circumcising boys. At the same time, because of 40 years of campaigning against FGM/C, the practice has been declining globally, which is rarely acknowledged.  In 2013, UNICEF first published data to prove this, and to show that the more severe forms of FGM have also become less severe (and medicalised) in many places through concern to protect the child from harm but still be able to fulfil social requirements.

Here are some legally recognised definitions of child abuse:

– Child abuse includes physical, emotional and sexual criminal offences, as well as neglect, of a child. https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/child-abuse-non-sexual-prosecution-guidance

– Harm to a child means ill-treatment or damage to their health or development, including the on-going failure to meet a child’s basic physical needs or psychological needs, or both; not providing adequate food, clothing and shelter; making inadequate childcare arrangements; and failure to protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger; threat of injury, or an actual physical injury, such as hitting or shaking a child; constant or unjust punishment; withholding affection; telling a child that they are worthless; not giving a child opportunities to express their views; preventing a child from taking part in normal social interaction; letting a child see or hear the ill-treatment of someone else, for example, in a domestic violence situation; serious bullying, including cyber bullying, causing the child to feel frightened or in danger; sexual abuse; domestic abuse. https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/family/children-and-young-people/child-abuse/what-is-child-abuse/what-is-child-abuse/

These definitions are about systematic, ongoing forms of ill-treatment, punishment and injury for its own sake. While everyone agrees that FGM/C is a harmful practice, it is also qualitatively different because it is a traditional ritual, symbolising initiation and belonging – the opposite of rejection or punishment.

The fact that male circumcision is not seen as child abuse by the same people who consider female genital cutting a form of abuse raises questions that few wish to confront or answer.

3. I participated in one of the first discussions at WHO about FGM and the terminology describing it. The decision to use the word “mutilation” – as opposed to circumcision – had the effect of adding moral condemnation, completely differentiating it from male circumcision, about which a comparable term might be “male penile mutilation”. I now believe we got it wrong from the start. USAID decided some years later to reject the term FGM and created the term female genital cutting (FGC) to avoid causing offence or distress to those who had had the procedure. Others insist on saying FGM, in that they believe the word “mutilation” is an accurate descriptor of what is done.

In the meeting, we heard that there was another term used by Somali women (Halal, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halal) that does not carry a meaning of condemnation, but indicates that it is a traditional practice.

4. There are no accurate data on the prevalence or practice of FGM across the UK. While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, it is wrong to claim the numbers are “an epidemic” based on deeply flawed NHS Digital data, or total numbers of calls to the National FGM Centre, or on FGM Protection Orders issued, as some very vocal groups do. The “estimates of the numbers of girls at risk” that are being bandied about have not been reached through valid methods. They should not form the basis of any policy whatsoever. Epidemiology is the study of the incidence and distribution of health-related events. There are recognised methods for collecting data; accuracy is critical. It is past due time for proper studies to be carried out, and that means with anonymised methods.

5. Lastly, is criminalisation the best or most effective way to prevent and stop FGM? Although this has been an important topic of debate and discussion internationally, and is ongoing, it rarely occurs in Britain. Yet internationally there is an increasing level of questioning by human rights advocates of the value of imposing criminal sanctions as a way of protecting human rights – across the board, which can be applied with FGM. This has also been raised in relation to punishing sexual transmission of HIV, carrying condoms, using contraception, having an abortion, and buying and selling sex.

Few people have been prosecuted for FGM/C in any country, no matter what the prevalence of the practice. In the belief that prosecution has failed in the UK, the reasons for which deserves closer examination and explanation, a growing number of people who are still in pursuit of punitive measures, are calling for safeguarding of children. This includes taking children into care based on their mother’s historical FGM/C. This is punishment based on an assumption of guilt without a crime. It is a violation of justice and rights, and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

6. There is much more to say. For example, this meeting didn’t even touch on the role of accusations of witchcraft that greatly influenced the decisions to convict in both the London trial in early 2019 and the Dublin trial at the end of 2019. Links to witchcraft must be rejected and excluded from prosecution. They are misogynistic, racist and obscene.

But the most important thing that happened in the Bethnal Green meeting was that nearly every African woman who spoke talked about being made to feel like criminals, about being stigmatised, blamed, treated with suspicion, and disbelieved. They insisted that FGM was simply not happening in their communities in the UK, as they have given up the practice. They asked why the Somali community was being targeted in particular, but no one knew the answer. They said their children were being traumatised by being singled out, questioned, and even having their genitals examined for signs of FGM. That children are being removed from their families and cannot understand why. The damage being inflicted on them and on their families is unconscionable, especially coming from people who claim they are the only ones who think protecting children is important.

This was a powerful, positive event. I hope the play and more discussions like this one can be held around the country and open up even more discussion of these issues among everyone who is affected, and everyone who is involved and concerned, from many perspectives.

Leaving the European Union?

31/01/2020 Comments Off on Leaving the European Union?

I am not leaving the European Union. I am a European by ancestry and in my own mind. The European Union brought a greater level of peace to this continent than it has ever experienced in the past. I’m staying. The rest of you can do what you like.

Letter to Rebecca Long-Bailey

30/01/2020 Comments Off on Letter to Rebecca Long-Bailey

On 18 January, I wrote a letter to Rebecca Long-Bailey MP as a member of the Labour Party and an abortion rights advocate, to ask her more about her views on abortion, as reported in the Guardian, Telegraph and Catholic Herald during the previous week, and to respond to them. I felt none of these newspapers, who only looked at her views on late abortions for fetal anomalies, asked her enough about where she stands, which I think it is crucial to know for anyone considering voting for her. The Labour Party has been in the forefront of support for abortion rights for many years. While everyone has a right to their personal opinions, I feel the Party must not have as its leader a woman who is opposed to abortion, let alone one who would invite the Pope, who is virulently opposed to all abortions, to any Labour consultation on abortion. She has not (yet) responded to me. Here is my letter:

Ms Rebecca Long-Bailey MP

18 January 2020

Dear Ms Long-Bailey,

I am writing to you as a member of the Labour Party and as a long-standing advocate for women’s right to safe abortion. I am a member of the Voice for Choice coalition in the UK and the founder and former editor for 23 years of the journal Reproductive Health Matters. I have also worked internationally for women’s right to safe abortion for over 45 years.

Reading the various Guardian, Catholic Herald, Telegraph and other stories about your views on abortion the past few days, I’m concerned about several things. One is that you seem to be confused about what you actually support and don’t support in regard to abortion, because you make a distinction between your personal views and your views as a member of the Labour Party and of Parliament.

If you “do not agree with allowing abortion on the grounds of disability after the standard limit of 24 weeks”, then you are opposed to an important aspect of the current British abortion law, with the implication that if it came up in Parliament, you would argue and vote to restrict the current law. But then, the Guardian says, you “stressed that this was a personal view”. Surely this is untenable. If you “argued last year against being able to abort on the grounds of disability later than if there is no disability”, then this is a political stance, not just a personal view.

Which leads to my second concern. Are there other aspects of the current British abortion law that you do not support? No one from the press seems to have thought to ask you this, but it is a relevant question. I would be very keen to learn the answer. I’m glad you supported law reform for Northern Ireland, but given the fact that their previous law violated an international human rights convention, there was little choice. What about now, with Stormont finally sitting again. If the DUP tries to restrict the new law, where will you stand?

For me, this is nothing to do with your being Catholic, and I’m sorry to learn people are holding that against you. I have many friends who are Catholic who support abortion rights fully. There is an international Catholics for Choice network, and there are millions of Catholic women around the world who have abortions every year for whom it was a necessity. But how pro-choice are you?

According to the Guardian, you said you “would play a part in ensuring the views of the Catholic church were heard in any Labour consultation on new laws and regulations on abortion”. That is certainly not just a personal view. And what Labour consultation?

I’m afraid I will not be voting for you on 11 February on the basis of that remark alone. As a humanist and a secular person, I believe politics and religion should be kept absolutely separate. Not least when we are talking about a church that is virulently anti-women’s rights and that has covered up and failed to put a stop to its own sexual abuse of children.

Returning to the issue of abortion and disability: In 2017, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities contradicted themselves in their recommendations to the UK when they disagreed with allowing abortion at any stage in pregnancy on the ground of fetal impairment.[1] Thankfully, the government rejected their recommendation to change our law.

I wrote to the Committee at the time as follows:

“…It is surely a contradiction in terms to call [as they did] for ‘women’s rights to reproductive and sexual autonomy to be respected’ and then to call for an exception to those rights for any reason and in this case, for one reason only.

“This is no different from other groups calling for abortion not to be allowed in cases of rape or incest, and still others in cases where the embryo/fetus is female, and still others in cases where there is a risk to the woman’s life. All three of these are actual stances taken by those who are anti-abortion in different parts of the world. For anyone apart from the pregnant woman herself to decide… denies women’s rights to reproductive and sexual autonomy. It means that there will always be someone – who is not the woman herself – who will assert their power to determine what she is and is not permitted to do. In the end, it means someone else can always deny her an abortion. That is the power you wish to exercise in your recommendation to the UK….

“The only way to avoid this conundrum is to reject assertions that the embryo/fetus: a) has human rights before birth, or that: b) any condition in the embryo/fetus is the reason for abortion or for refusing abortion. In other words, it must always and only be the woman’s reasons for abortion that count – and the bottom line is that she seeks an abortion because she cannot cope with having that baby at that time….

“Fetal anomalies are medical conditions that arise when something serious or even fatal goes wrong during fetal development. Medical science is working hard to identify these conditions and figure out why they occur and whether they can be treated or prevented. Women carrying an embryo/fetus with one or more of these conditions needs to know they are there, so as to be able to decide whether this is a pregnancy and potentially a child who, if it can survive at all, she can cope with for the rest of her life. She has to take into account her own, her partner’s and her existing children’s life circumstances, and whether she will get any support to do so.”

In the end, if motherhood is not voluntary, an extreme form of discrimination and forced labour is imposed on the pregnant woman.[2] The alternative to removing the right to an abortion on grounds of fetal impairment after 24 weeks is to remove the 24-week restriction on abortions for all grounds. Only a tiny handful of women will be affected no matter what their reasons for abortion. But they will be eternally grateful for the same support that 99.99% of other women who seek an abortion receive.

I hope you will reconsider your position.

Kind regards, Marge Berer

  1. “Concluding observations on the initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” CRPD/C/GBR/CO/1, 29 August 2017 (As adopted during the 18th session of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (14 -31 August 2017)
  2. R Copelon, et al. Human rights begin at birth: international law and the claim of fetal rights. Reproductive Health Matters 2005. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1016/S0968-8080%2805%2926218-3

Response to a Manifesto by Action:FGM, Dahlia Project, Savera UK, Magool, and The VAvengers

30/01/2020 Comments Off on Response to a Manifesto by Action:FGM, Dahlia Project, Savera UK, Magool, and The VAvengers

Your Manifesto has been shared with me as someone who has written on FGM and published papers on it in the journal Reproductive Health Matters while I was the editor.

I am absolutely not willing to sign your manifesto. Here is why:

First, it is incorrect in a number of places:

1. FGM is not an epidemic. An epidemic is: “the widespread occurrence of an infectious disease”. FGM is a harmful traditional practice. Moreover, its prevalence has been falling internationally since at least 2013, thanks to positive educational campaigns about why it is harmful and also because so many women in the communities where it was traditionally practised have decided themselves to stop the practice. Including in the UK.

2. You have distorted the figures about prevalence in the UK. You seem to be making the false assumption that all the daughters of all the women in the UK who had FGM as children in another country are at risk. There is absolutely no credible evidence to show this. You may believe these figures since so many other anti-FGM groups use them as well. But they are absolutely wrong and all of you should stop bandying them about without checking the source — because you actually do not understand what the source says.

3. Your description of FGM uses gross exaggeration. The severity of the cutting in many countries has been greatly reduced because of educational campaigns, and also because many people are going to medical doctors for it, the same as they are doing with male circumcision. You don’t even mention this. I would very much like to know where you got your information to claim that FGM is done many times, let alone more than once, to the same child. I have never seen any such published, peer-reviewed evidence.

4. Can you also provide published, peer-reviewed evidence that “A survivor may require invasive surgeries throughout her life as a result”. Do you have any evidence that this happens in the UK, since your call for action is about the UK?

5. Can you also provide published, peer-reviewed evidence that “FGM is part of a continuum of violence against women and girls”?

6. And again, what is your evidence regarding this claim: “Tackling FGM provides the pathway to eradicating these other forms of gender-based violence.” It’s a completely spurious claim, not least because you don’t define what you mean by “tackling FGM”.

It is highly irresponsible to make these claims without evidence. People’s lives are put at risk, children are being taken away from their parents for no reason, and whole communities are affected.

As regards “what needs to be done”:

7. You call for more convictions and yet if you look at the number of times the police and the DPP have sought convictions and failed, because they arrested people without credible evidence, because they were overly keen to prosecute, you might want to think again. Has it ever crossed your minds that the reason there have been next to no convictions is because FGM is not being done much in the UK? It’s not possible ethically or legally to assume risk exists because of ethnic origin or, for example, to treat everyone in an airport with suspicion, arrest them and put their children into care just because they are going abroad (which has happened).

8. You call for every female patient in the country to be questioned by GPs, thus criminalising all of us??? This is absurd and unethical.

9. You mention the recent conviction in Ireland. Are you aware that when the police were unable to identify anyone who could have carried out the alleged cutting, they said it must have been a witch? And are you aware that in the conviction here in London last year, the mother who was sent to prison was also accused of witchcraft, and false claims were made in court that FGM and witchcraft are linked, and that this successfully demonised her? Do you actually think this represents justice? Or do you yourselves believe in witches?

10. You want to pay people to report cases? Welcome to the Stasi in East Germany. Or don’t you know that people will lie for money.

I recommend you withdraw this manifesto because it contains unsubstantiated information, proposes nothing of value, discredits you and your groups, and if taken seriously, can do serious harm to innocent people because it calls for criminalising large numbers of people because they are women, and due to their ethnic and racial background. I think it’s shameful.

Don’t call him Boris

22/12/2019 Comments Off on Don’t call him Boris

Don’t call him Boris.

It’s the name for a cuddly toy, a cute little Russian boy a dashing guy from a book by Tolstoy.

Don’t call him Bojo.
He’s not fast like Flo Jo or sexy like J Lo. Don’t mix up mojo with a sleazy libido.

Don’t even call him a Bozo.

He’s not dopey or stupid or amusingly ropey.
He’s lazy duplicitous, slippery, wet soapy.

He’s no fool, no joker, no harmless buffoon, he’s a cynical, calculating racist goon.

Please don’t compare this dangerous fake
To a benign and affectionate

He’s not original, a one off.
He’s not a maverick.
If you have to say his name call him
… another word for dick.

A friend wrote this… do share it!!!

Two letters about the Labour Party and losing the election that I found helpful and worth learning from

19/12/2019 Comments Off on Two letters about the Labour Party and losing the election that I found helpful and worth learning from

The one is a very moving letter from former MP Laura Pidcock (who lost her seat last week) addressed to the residents of her constituency North West Durham: https://medium.com/@laura.pidcock.mp/letter-to-the-people-i-represented-406aea893243

The other is an equally moving comment in the Guardian from Andrew Fisher, who was Labour’s executive director of policy from 2016 to 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/17/corbyn-mcdonnell-transformed-labour

I found both of them helpful and worth learning from. I am already sick to my stomach of all the destructive criticism flying around. Laura Pidcock has a lot of courage. I share Andrew Fisher’s praise for both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. I hope they are all able to stay active and contribute to Labour’s future, along with others who retained and lost their seats. They will understand more than almost anyone else what went right and what went wrong. We need them with us going forward.