Tuesday 7 August 2012

Astronomy talks for the Orchid Project

I'm in the process of setting up a new project, which hopefully should have its own website soon, though I'm still looking for a name. I will soon be giving a series of astronomy talks, aimed at the general public, to fundraise for the Orchid Project which works with communities to bring an end to female genital mutilation.

I love giving astronomy talks, and have several left over from Tea with the Stars, plus ideas for many more. Hopefully, this autumn, I'll be starting talks at the Newington Green Unitarian Church, who with amazing kindness have offered me their building for free! (The talks will have absolutely no religious affiliation; they're open to anyone who likes astronomy.) You can find the place here; it's incredibly friendly. It looks like we'll be able to have tea, coffee, biscuits etc. too.

The talks look as if they are going to be once a month, probably on a Wednesday evening. A lot remains to be decided, such as the exact price and length. A few expenses will be involved, such as steward fees, but the rest will go to the Orchid Project. (I will of course provide spreadsheets of all the money that comes in and where it went, though I know nothing about accountancy.) There are so many human rights violations I want to help stop, and it's impossible to "pick one", but I choose to concentrate, for now, on female genital mutilation.

Female genital mutilation is the cutting off - often with scissors and unsterelized equipment, with no anaesthetic - a girl's external genitals. It is a very painful and dangerous practice. The Orchid Project explains in graphic language here. It may be part or all of her clitoris, clitoral hood or labia. At worst, the wounds left are sewn very tight shut, leaving only a tiny hole for menstrual blood and urine. She will then have to be cut open again for sexual intercourse and for labour, and may even be sewn up again - so she will have to be re-cut later - after birth.

This is not something unique to a few isolated African tribes, or insert stereotype of choice here. It happens in 28 countries across the world. And one of them is the United Kingdom. 

This was recently highlighted by programs such as Newsnight, and there was a spate of articles in the press. It was the beginning of summer - when girls as young as five may be taken to their parents' or grandparents' countries to be cut, or even to have it done right here in a British town

The Orchid Project have a success rate of over 70% of encouraging communities in Africa to give up FGM - and to publicly announce that they are doing so. In 2011, two thousand communities rejected the practice. This means not just passing laws, but informing all local people that you are doing so - to raise awareness of why, to point out that the practice is not required by any holy book, and to let your neighbours know that any girls they marry from your town will not be cut and why. 

Why, then, does it still happen in the UK? Orchid Project point out that when populations emigrate - become "diaspora" - they may try to retain their cultural identity even after their original countries have moved on. At the beginning of the 20th century, most women in China still had their feet bound. Within twenty years, the practice abruptly dried up. It was clung to for longer, however, in populations in California.

The other reason it happens in the UK is worry about intruding on other cultures. I have to tackle with my own private voice - "Who are you, an unaffected white girl, to tell people you don't know how to bring up their children?" The best answer I can give is that I believe religious rights end when human rights are violated. France and the UK made the same laws at the same time, but France enforces them while we do not. Despite an estimated over 20,000 girls being mutilated, here or abroad, the Crown Prosecution Service has not prosecuted a single person. People in France - and, most significantly, ladies from the ethnic minorities in question - ask why.

Makumi McCrum, a policy advisor to the Scottish government, remarks that FGM is "a violation so intrusive and personal that many people adopt a culture of silence as it is humiliating and embarrassing to talk about." More worryingly, Nick Cohen writes: "Anti-colonialism is no longer an opposition to foreign occupation but opposition to the ‘inappropriate’ imposition of ‘western’ values on the formerly colonised. Fear plays its part in the silence. I know doctors who worry they will be accused of racism if they protest about the mistreatment of girls. They suspect that their employers will not report protesting parents to the police but punish them instead."

A woman named Muna, who left Somalia and now lives in Glasgow, told the BBC: "They are so terrified and they are using cultural sensitivity as a barrier to stop them from really doing anything. What would you do if the girl had blue eyes and blonde hair? Would FGM still be carrying on in the UK?"

On a similar note, Iram Ramzan tells us, "It is not politically correct to continue to ignore the plight of ethnic minority women." As with "honour killings" (which rather than simply being called "murder", which it is, have their own special sensitive name), this is violence, and should be treated as such. This is not some delicate or essential religious practice. It is about the control and subjugation of women. There are no benefits, and there are terrible physical and psychological consequences. (If of course an adult woman wants it done, that's a different matter altogether.)

There's a place for cultural sensitivity, and that is not allowing children to be wounded and women to be put in agony and danger.

So what am I doing about it? At the moment, I'm not directly getting involved. I don't know how and I don't feel I know enough yet. Instead I'm doing something I love doing, and that can bring people a bit more knowledge and enjoyment. Hopefully, that will not only help Orchid Project and women in danger, but also raise awareness among people in London.

I expect the talks will aim to last 40 minutes or so, and be followed with question and answer sessions. Subjects will probably include: Galaxy Zoo; the Cassini mission; relativity and black holes; the life of a star; astrochemistry; spectra; various aspects of astronomical history and women in science. And probably more as I think them up. What I can't do is practical astronomy. The only thing I can do with telescopes is break them. Of course, if anyone wants to bring a telescope along . . . Hopefully someone from the Orchid Project will come along to at least one of them, too. And if any other charities or organisations fighting FGM would also like to come and spread the word, or even just post me along some leaflets to hand out, please do.

You can also sign the petition to allocate more funds to enforce the law banning FGM. (Not make more laws. We already have them.)

Nothing's finalised yet. But I've been in enough communication with the Orchid Project and with NGUC that it's time to announce what I'm up to! If you have any ideas, or would like to come along, please let me know. And most importantly . . . 

I need a name for this project. It's likely to run for a few months and I want it to be special. I want it to include something to do with women, stars and/or astronomy, and perhaps even orchids. But I'm open to other suggestions! Please do leave a comment or tweet me with yours. 

A galaxy we call "The Rose" at Galaxy Zoo; from SDSS.

Maybe I'll see you there.