Why do we allow this grisly mutilation?

When women and girls are being physically brutalised, then cultural differences be damned
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UNTIL FOUR years ago, I worked part time as an adult education tutor in Tower Hamlets. A large number of my students were Somali women refugees who spoke English but needed help to get into professional training. They were strong women who were clearly discovering the benefits of self- determination in their personal lives. They would tell stories about how wonderful their villages were, and the community spirit that sustained them. But at times they would also recount the terrors they had to live through - the wars, the famines and, worst of all, the genital mutilation that they had been forced to suffer when they were eight or nine years old.

They had all been traumatised by this experience, and the few who defended the practice were the women who were afraid that without it they would sever an essential connection between themselves and their cultural roots. The rest were impatient with such excuses. Their men were beginning to resent the practice, too, partly because they were becoming aware, by having seen so many images of couples enjoying sex together, that this was impossible with a partner who had been genitally disfigured.

Yet female circumcision goes on here in Britain and in France, and the authorities choose to turn a blind eye because it is easier to do this than to get embroiled in battles over cultural rights and racism. Television investigations have revealed that a couple of Harley Street doctors have been involved in the business, but more frequently the circumcision is carried out on girls by taking them home when they are too young to understand or protest.

I will now describe what the worst kind of mutilation entails, and I apologise if it causes distress. I was shown what happens to the genital area by Khatoon, one of my former students, who is now studying at a new university. Where the inner labia and clitoris should be, was flat, scarred, barren, tight, tortured skin. Khatoon sobbed as she told me how her mother and grandmother held her down, singing her favourite songs, while two other women cut off the parts:

"They tied up the hole with sharp sticks and thread. They left a small space for the blood of the woman for later on and I was left on the bed with fever for so many weeks. Going to the toilet was like hell."

Intercourse is impossible, so the vagina has to be cut open on the wedding night. A razor blade is used by the husband. Childbirth causes untold suffering and complications, and some doctors I once talked to at the London Hospital wanted to publicise this grisly information to try to affect the attitudes of the people concerned. It is all to do with the fear of female sexuality and pleasure.

The novelist Alice Walker and the British film-maker Prathiba Parmar have been campaigning for years to end this cruelty, which has tribal origins and pre-dates Christianity and Islam. These days, though, it is wrongly thought of as an Islamic custom because Islam is the main religion of the countries where female mutilation is commonly found. Islam, as a matter of fact, emphasises the right of sexual satisfaction for women within marriage, and I have yet to find a mutilated woman who says she has a good time in bed.

The good news is that yesterday a major trial began in France, where a woman from Mali, 52-year-old Hawa Greou, stands accused of the genital mutilation of 48 young girls. The parents of the girls have also been charged. Although, technically, genital mutilation has been against the law for 15 years in France, this is the first time that a case has been triggered by a victim's complaint and it is the first time, too, that a female judge is presiding.

The young woman who went to the police is now a law student. Women like her have the means to change things. Education, especially Western education, makes you question your own people, for better or worse, and learn about fundamental freedoms and rights. In Kenya recently such women have persuaded some village chiefs to organise circumcision ceremonies, but in purely symbolic ways, and this is beginning the slow road to reform.

Donor countries providing aid could impose tighter conditions on this issue. The problem in Britain is that there is a fear of interfering with "ethnic" cultures, and a reluctance to impose norms.

In general this delicacy is no bad thing, as it shows a greater respect for pluralism than our culturally more arrogant French cousins. But when women and girls are being physically and emotionally brutalised, denied the right of education and treated like objects, then cultural difference be damned, I say to the people in power.

Follow France. Do what is necessary, and what you would if these girls were white.