UPDATE – Yassmin’s Story, “cultural” problems in Islam and female genital mutilation (FGM)

A few days ago I wrote about the problem of female genital mutilation within Islamic doctrine. Whilst mentioningAbdel-Magied doesn’t speak specifically about FGM in her memoir”, I remembered today she does.

She describes a conversation with one of her oil rig workers, “an older English bloke”, who didn’t have a rosy view of Africa (all bold emphasis mine):

He’d been everywhere, like most older blokes in the industry – had done time in Angola, the North Sea, Brazil. You name it, he had probably been there. So I asked him how he’d enjoyed working in Africa – both Nigeria and Angola.

‘Oh god, it was awful!’ he said, disgust colouring his voice. ‘The people in Nigeria were just…’

He went on to describe all the stereotypes Nigerians hate being associated with – that nobody would like to be associated with. I stook there, taking in the barrage, internally aghast.

‘It couldn’t be all bad…’ I countered, trying to draw out an alternative narrative….I thought I could use this opportunity to offer an alternative perspective, so I tried a different tack. ‘But you can’t blame people over there for being resentful, right? A lot of African nations are still dealing with all this post-colonial stuff [Yep, I dropped an academic word into the middle of a debate with a rig guy, that’s right!] and…’ I trailed off as he started shaking his head.

‘No, darling, it’s not that. It’s just that their culture is corrupt. I mean, look at what’s happening to England. London is full of people from other placed. Where are we meant to go now?’

Ah, I thought. Here comes that anti-immigration spiel.

‘Don’t get me wrong – I definitely think we should be helping folk,’ (I nodded approvingly), ‘but they need to work hard and understand they have to earn their place. We can’t just open our doors to anyone. I mean, they kill their daughters for being raped!’ He swore. ‘And those Muslims treat their women so horribly – ‘

I sighed. ‘Hey,’ I interrupted his tirade. ‘C’mon, man. It’s not like you white lads are all that great to your women either!’

‘Yeah, well, at least we don’t kill them in the name of honour!’

My retort, if I had been quicker, would have been ‘No, in Australia, men just kill women because of underlying gender imbalance. More than one woman a week dies at the hands of a partner, yeah?’

…I listened some more, probing to make sense of his attitudes. Admittedly, he’d experienced discrimination and resentment at the hands of those from a different culture, but he refused to make the connection between the wider context and himself. He was unable to see that he was most probably being treated as a representative of a system that was exploiting those same people.

By the end of the muster, only twenty minutes later, I was exhausted….The man followed, still talking to me, not taking the hint, so I started up the stairs.

‘You see, Yassmin, these Muslims, right…’

I paused, turned to listen to the last of what he had to say.

‘I’ve worked with lots of good one. But there’s something really wrong with the way they treat their women. You know they circumcise their women? How awful is that? Female genital mutilation is a thing for them, they have to do it – ‘

‘I didn’t think that was a religious thing; I am pretty sure it’s a cultural one,’ I tried to cut in.

‘Oh no, it’s definitely in the religion. They do some messed-up stuff and they’re taking over England. Think about it – how would you like to be forced to wear a burqa and have your bits removed with a rusty knife?’

‘Wow, really?’ He must have somehow interpreted my thinly veiled sarcasm as innocent ignorance. ‘It sounds like that would be terrible. Anyway, I’ve got to get back to work,’ I called, as I walked up the stairs.[1]

Without knowing too much more about her colleague, he nevertheless makes some correct points. Apart from her pride about using the ‘academic’ word “post-colonial” (I’m sure this English bloke had never heard that before) and bizarrely thinking this man was “most probably being treated as a representative of a system that was exploiting those same people” (does she mean this is occurring today or in the past?), she clearly doesn’t understand how domestic violence – an awful problem which Western governments condemn, treat seriously and respond to vigorously – is very different from religiously-sanctioned violence.

However, the bottom line is that Abdel-Magied thinks FGM is not religious but cultural. As mentioned in the previous post, whilst FGM is not unique to Islam, it is mentioned in the Hadith and the different Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence. According to the Shafi’i school, female circumcision is obligatory whereas for the other schools, it is either highly recommended or permitted. The justification for this practice is contained in and derived from Islamic sources and codified in the sharia; thus, there is an “Islamic case” Muslims can make and do make to justify female circumcision. As long as this is left unreformed, Islamic doctrine and sharia law will continue to allow young Muslim girls to be subjected to such an evil, heinous act.


[1] Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Yassmin’s Story. Vintage, Australia, 2016, pp. 304-306.