Jewish women from across the community this week joined together to urge the government to do all it can to end the “horrific” practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) once and for all, writes Stephen Oryszczuk.
In a stunning display of cohesion, leaders from the main branches of Judaism, communal groups and charities joined students, doctors and police in condemning the practice inflicted on young girls in the UK and abroad.
The show of solidarity was all the more noteworthy because FGM has been linked by some to brit milah, or Jewish ritual male circumcision, and there has been a reluctance among male leaders to speak out on the subject.
The illegal practice is often performed abroad, but can be performed in the UK. It involves the removal of external female genitalia or other female genital organs, such as the clitoris, for non-medical reasons. In the UK, over 20,000 girls up to the age of 14 are estimated to be at risk each year, while three times that number live with the consequences of it.
“It’s horrific,” said Dalia Cramer, co-chair of US Women. “Young girls being told they’re going on holiday, only to be mutilated once they’re there. One of the biggest problems is under-reporting. Hundreds report it but thousands know about it. We need to encourage people to come forward.”
WIZO-UK director Linda Boxer said she was “delighted to support the campaign to eradicate genital mutilation in the UK,” adding: “This type of abuse against young girls is appalling. We support moves to stamp it out.”
Leonie Lewis, co-chair of the Faiths Forum for London, said: “It’s very important we get behind this campaign as people do sadly conflate this dreadful mutilation with male circumcision. My Muslim colleagues abhor this practise too and it is important we support their petition.”
Dr Ellie Cannon, a Jewish GP, said: “I’ve seen, and continue to see, women who have been subjected to FGM, so I know from my clinical experience that it causes pain, suffering and psychological trauma.”
She continued: “The most horrific thing about it, for me as a doctor, is that it serves absolutely no medical purpose whatsoever. There is not even one recognised procedure. It’s a whole host of different forms of mutilation. The sole reason for it is to mutilate, nothing more.
“I have patients who suffered FGM as little girls who are now older women, but decades later they still have problems. It has an impact on childbirth, sexual relationships, even things like going to the toilet.”
Female Jewish students were among the most vocal in condemning what Chair of UJS Women’s Network Melissa Leigh said was “nothing more than patriarchal tyranny masquerading as cultural norms”.
She added: “FGM victims can face humiliation, cutting without anaesthetic and long-term health effects. As a woman of faith, I cannot stand by whilst women suffer under the false pretences of religion and culture. This is not a religious practice, it is designed to curtail women’s freedom and ensure subservience to their future husbands. We passionately support any action that would put an end to it.”
Similarly, Manchester-based Jewish LGBT student Emily Carp said it left “mental and physical scarring,” adding: “More needs to be done to protect women from the horrors of FGM. I stand in solidarity with anyone who striveS to make this practice a horrific aspect of our history.”
Dr Sara Levene, a medical officer from the Jewish Police Association, said she too “fully supports police efforts to detect and prevent this most abhorrent of crimes,” adding that the Met “stood ready and able to help with specially-trained officers and are encouraging people to report those responsible”.
Senior Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner also offered her support, saying: “I join with Britain’s different communities and ethnicities to condemn FGM, which is a hidden and violent practice. We need to strongly encourage the government to prioritise this and follow up any leads.”
Laura Marks, co-chair of Women in Jewish Leadership, called FGM “a basic human rights abuse” and said the solution may be driven by other women.
“We talk a lot about the importance of having women in leadership positions, but actually, with thousands of women worldwide being subjected to abuse, this puts everything in perspective.”
Addressing the relative scarcity of female leadership on this issue, she asked: “Who will stand up for these women, if not other women? I see it as our duty as prominent Jewish women, to do everything we can to keep all young women safe from harm and we need more strong women to champion causes which might otherwise not reach society’s agenda.”
For Dr. Cannon, such help can be provided by specific clinics, such as that at UCLH, for female victims of FGM. “From what I see, these women need practical and psychological support,” she said.
“At the very least we need to be able to help those women who have been through this, and at the same time raise public awareness,” she explained.
“Some of the immigrant communities I work are very private, very closed. It takes advocates from within those communities. It’s all very well a group of well-educated, highly-empowered British women standing up against FGM, but we need to work within these minority communities in order to prevent it.”
Read the Jewish News comment on this issue here.