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. …