Warning: the following post contains images that readers may find graphic or disturbing.

by Firdos Ali 

Last week, FGM campaigner Hibo Wardere broke the news that Sky had filmed the mutilation of a little girl in Somalia and intended to broadcast the footage in the UK. FGM campaigners who had seen the footage were in agreement — the footage was distressing, a violation of the little girl’s rights and broadcasting rules. Sky News has delayed the broadcast since the uproar. Many were shocked at Sky News’s audacity but this readiness to show violence on black bodies and black girls in particular is not new.

FGM, now rightly framed as child abuse and as sexual abuse (by some), has become a crowd-pulling commodity and the little black girl has unwillingly become the face of British FGM campaigns run by charities and police, artistic endeavours in galleries, theatre and books. The subject has become trendy, an award-winner for artists, creative agencies and charities — sensitive representation be damned: FGM, you say? Must be amazing, courageous, necessary. No matter how many times the award-chasers claim FGM is not just a Black problem, the images and stories resolutely remain that of the black girl.

So, just how are these little black girls represented visually? Let’s start with theatre — a world I know a little about. Here, the image is that of the black girl and/or woman (specifically Somali), often fragmented, focusing on the face with facial features either removed (Cuttin’ It, Young Vic/Royal Court) or stitched up in a collage of different faces (Little Stitches, Arcola Theatre, 2014).

The images are essentially ‘cut’ — a reference to FGM, as though activist theatre gives license to further cut/abuse, fragment a victim. This cutting of the face of the black girl in particular is a foul dehumanisation and commodification in the name of theatre’s activism and will offend and push away communities that have traditionally practised FGM. But do they matter? Is any of this for them anyway?

The Met Police and the NSPCC also engage in this fragmentation, as seen in this NSPCC poster decapitating a black girl. All of the NSPCC posters I have come across are exclusively of the black girl.

Besides photographs of black girls, visual images of FGM in the UK revolve around stick female figures and symbols. If the only FGM-related photographs the British public see are of black girls, then any non-photographic representations of FGM will invariably be associated with little black girls. So what do these images look like?

Female stick figures (Scotland Police, Avon & Somerset Police, NSPCC) always have scissors and broken lines running through them, the scissors pointing at the genital area or the line running through the genitals themselves — essentially more cutting, fragmentation of the female body — the girl body, really, the black girl body of the photos.

NSPCC
NSPCC

The presence of the scissors, blade, knife, thread, needle appears often: weapons of assault used against little girls shown off damaging the girl body. In no other representations of other violations (sexual violence, domestic violence etc) have I found this systematic presence of the tools of torture. These are not acceptable in representations of violence against adults, let alone on posters of violence against children! Why, then, are the representations of FGM so callous, so vulgar, so insensitive to the victims, of the dignity of the black girl body?

Beyond the stick figures lie the more symbolic representations, often using the rose or another flower to represent the vagina, with thread or scissors never far off. Why do we need to see this dehumanisation of the body? Why this need to show the act of violence itself on a child? ‘Clever’ campaigns run for charities like Amnesty and 28 Too Many race to win awards for this sort of commodification. Ogilvy’s FGM advertisements for 28 Too Many depicting blood-stained flags cut and sewn back together attracted some criticism but went on to win the Cannes Lion, the most prestigious global advertising award.

The most disturbing images are created by who I refer to as armchair campaigners, dehumanising and commodifying the little black girl with abandon.

No other campaigns in the UK highlighting harm to children depict the actual harm or the tools used to cause harm to the child. FGM, however, has its own rules. A call for everyone to make a difference (which has had results) has led to its representation as a cut-up black girl, often inaccurately shown as an adult despite the fact that the victims of FGM are children, her vagina symbolically on display with all its wounds, its instruments of torture poised, in action, and always the red of the blood, dripping, pooling, splattering. There is a distinct tone of ‘othering’ that allows for the representations of FGM in this way. The need for awareness does not justify or require this gross injustice, this level of dehumanisation of the black girl. Enough. Just stop.

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Firdos Ali is a UK-based playwright who writes about the Black, British, Muslim experience. Her works include Struggle, Stripped Black and How I Feel. She is currently on commission, working on her latest play. She mostly (re)tweets from @Firdoswrites.

4 thoughts on “FGM as spectacle: the dehumanisation and commodification of the black girl

  1. Hibo Wardere came to talk at my school and she was so inspiring. I remember her saying that the pressure to continue he tradition is actually mostly from the women- you are seen as a ‘bad mother’ if you don’t choose to take part in this horrific practice. It makes me so sad to think about how much trust a child has in their parents, and how this trust is so betrayed with this one act of unforgiveable violence. So horrible, but truly amazing that women like Hibo who have experienced it first hand are speaking up and against it.

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  2. One of my biggest issues with the way FGM is portrayed is the total lack of nuance. Not nuance in the form of shallow multiculturalism like “well this is a custom so it’s ok” but in discussing the how and why these practices continue despite such broad condemnation of them. It’s very easy to post shocking images, like the ones you discuss in this post, it’s another to give a comprehensive explanation of the problem. And ultimately one has to wonder at how effective images meant to illicit shock are going to be in dealing with intracommunity issues.

    For example, in the softcore porn industry there was a brief trend of women trimming skin off their labias. There was a good deal of disgust when some industry outsiders found out but none of that disgust did anything. Because of the rules around softcore porn (that only “discreet images” of genitalia be shown) pronounced labias were something of a liability. Without good editing, scenes could become hardcore and bring on a whole host of problems for the studio. Likewise, clothing options for films became more limited since it has to hide or downplay the actress’ genitals. The trend did die down but not until the financial insentive went away.

    FGM is magnitudes more complex a problem. These are girls not women, there is the distinct spectre of Mighty Whitey at work in a lot of the outreach programs, many FGM practicing communities are starting to frame FGM as a sort of passive resistance against Western influences, like all child abuse there’s the shame and denial the victim might feel, and the list goes on. So while I’m all for artists expressing their contempt in creative ways, I do think organizations devoted to stopping FGM shouldn’t be defaulting to exploitative images. Like the post says, it’s exploitative and dehumanizing and I don’t see how it’s meant to help behind galvinizing opinions.

    Thank you for the read

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  3. The emotional and empathetic chasm between the abused and those reporting (or culturally digesting) it is never wider than when the victims are black and the godly messengers white. IMHO, by far the most disgusting manifestation of this is the apparent lack of need for consent to show – in full identifiable detail – victims, their relatives, or the relatives of perpetrators. Objects all! Another blood boiling recent example of this was the execrable “India’s Daughter” BBC documentary in which the *children* of some of the perpetrators of that obsene rape-murder were shown, at length, unobscured. Touchingly, this documentary was presented as a “gift to the people of India” by their kindly white benefactor!

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  4. how classy of you to assume that these poster campaigns had no input from any “black girls”. cuttin’ it, at least, was written by a black woman, and the met campaigns were developed in conjunction with “community leaders”

    “Why, then, are the representations of FGM so callous, so vulgar, so insensitive to the victims, of the dignity of the black girl body?”

    because fgm is callous, vulgar and insensitive to its victims and to the dignity of their bodies. and the reason it survives is due to the societies in which it is present whitewashing the physicality and dehumanization with a veil of pseudo-dignity (its ironic that you’re basically adhering to exactly the same line). these ads are designed to instill a sense of shame in its practitioners and resistance in those with responsibility for its potential victims and influence over its potential practitioners.

    “If the only FGM-related photographs the British public see are of black girls, then any non-photographic representations of FGM will invariably be associated with little black girls.”

    i somehow doubt if these ad campaigns had been expanded to include little olive-skinned girls as well you’d not still be whining about it

    “often inaccurately shown as an adult despite the fact that the victims of FGM are children”

    ….seriously? you might want to think about this a little harder

    “In no other representations of other violations (sexual violence, domestic violence etc) have I found this systematic presence of the tools of torture.”

    probably because most sexual violence and domestic violence doesnt involve tools of torture?

    if you want tools, though, how about:




    “There is a distinct tone of ‘othering’ that allows for the representations of FGM in this way. ”

    can you provide any examples of FGM campaigns from nations with black majorities which to
    “Female stick figures (Scotland Police, Avon & Somerset Police, NSPCC) always have scissors and broken lines running through them, the scissors pointing at the genital area or the line running through the genitals themselves — essentially more cutting, fragmentation of the female body — the girl body, really, the black girl body of the photos.”

    the photos….from completely different ad campaigns? great stuff

    Liked by 1 person

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