Dr Christina Julios, Honorary Associate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, discusses the research that has informed her new book on the changes in anti-FGM campaigning over time. She highlights how, while prevalent in 30 countries around the world, it is now a global phenomenon as practices spread through diaspora communities.
My new book, Female Genital Mutilation and Social Media, explores the phenomenon of anti-FGM online activism. With over 200 million girls and women worldwide estimated to have been subjected to FGM, I have examined international efforts to eradicate the practice. I also considered entrenched belief systems underlying the communities and cultures behind FGM. Prevalent in about 30 countries, FGM is a harmful tradition highly concentrated in a swath of African nations from the Atlantic Coast to the Horn of Africa, together with areas in the Middle East and Asia. A veritable global problem, international migration has seen the spread of FGM across the world, as practicing communities have exported their customs overseas. FGM is now present in Europe, North and South America, Canada, Australia, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Malaysia, to name a few. In the UK alone, three million girls are affected by FGM each year, with the vast majority of recorded cases hailing from Africa.
A complex multi-layered social problem, FGM encompasses a variety of factors such as cultural and religious traditions, patriarchal attitudes to women and their sexuality as well as health and human rights issues. Against this background, I was interested in analysing the many debates surrounding the genital cutting of girls and women, particularly from an African perspective. Such debates have often polarised African activists and communities at home, together with their Diasporas abroad. Pro-FGM arguments include criticism of the language used to frame FGM as opposed to ‘female circumcision’; justifications of genital cutting as part of African women’s identity and their right to choose; advocating FGM on the grounds of cultural and religious freedoms; as well as supporting the ‘medicalisation’ of FGM in clinical settings. On the other hand, anti-FGM arguments have mainly viewed the practice as a form of child abuse; a violation of human rights; an expression of violence against women and patriarchal control over the female body; and ultimately as a type of grievous bodily harm in the name of culture and religion.
In order to illustrate the many voices on the FGM debate, Female Genital Mutilation and Social Media draws on twenty-one fieldwork interviews with anti-FGM activists, frontline practitioners and survivors both in the UK and abroad. The volume specifically features five international accounts from FGM survivors I interviewed for the book, namely: Mama Sylla, Chairwoman of La Fraternite Gineenne (Ginea); Masooma Ranalvi, Convenor of We Speak Out (India); Farzana Doctor, Member of We Speak Out (India); Fatou Baldeh, Trustee of Dignity Alert and Research Forum (DARF) (Edinburgh, UK) and Mariya Taher, Co-founder of Sahiyo and Member of U.S. Network to End FGM/C (USA). In addition, the book documents five case-studies illustrating the work of prominent anti-FGM campaigners of African heritage, namely: Efua Dorkenoo OBE, Waris Dirie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jaha Mapenzi Dukureh and Leyla Hussein. I have furthermore examined various key global online campaigns to end FGM featuring social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. They include the UN’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, the WHO’s Sexual and Reproductive Health Programme, The Girl Generation, The Guardian’s End FGM Global Media Campaign and the Massai Cricket Warriors’ campaign.
By exploring FGM through such an array of narratives, I have been able to illustrate the contested and multifaceted nature of this intractable social problem, as well as highlighting common challenges faced by anti-FGM activists. I have moreover identified changes in anti-FGM campaigning over time, while considering the various ways in which anti-FGM activists engage with Internet-based technology. In doing so, I unveiled the existence of widespread ‘online abuse’ and ‘cyber-misogyny’ aimed at silencing women’s voices, together with tensions between online and offline anti-FGM campaigning. I have also considered the potential drawbacks of online mobilisation including, so-called ‘clicktivism’ or token activism together with ‘technological determinism’, which may undermine the importance of offline participation.
The book’s methodology comprises analysis of primary data from the twenty-one interviews, including written personal narratives submitted via an online questionnaire, as well as content analysis of relevant materials on leading social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In addition, I engaged in documentary analysis of a wide range of secondary sources including, official publications, parliamentary debates, legislation, scholarly books and journals, newspaper articles, grey literature, online films and documentaries. Such wealth of sources has allowed Female Genital Mutilation and Social Media to provide a rich picture of the complex phenomenon of anti-FGM online activism in the first academic study of its kind.