The seminar introduction will focus on an ongoing analysis of police reports and criminal investigations regarding suspected ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM) in Sweden: the archive includes police documents and court material covering the period from 1982 (when the legislation prohibiting FGM was launched in Sweden) until today.

Two cases of illegal FGM of Swedish girls have reached court and ended in prison sentences. Both in 2006, and both said to have been performed in Somalia. Concurrently, up till 2017, at least 64 girls in Sweden have been subjected to genital examinations – often without consent from their legal guardians, who mostly were not even informed about the check-up or the fact that a criminal investigation had opened.

In an ongoing study funded by Forte, I and my co-worker Lotta Wendel (PhD, lawyer) analyze how the authorities have handled suspected cases of FGM. Theoretically the project has its starting point in a legal perspective focusing the principle of proportionality. The following questions guide the study: How much state invasion of privacy of individuals, according to the professionals, is proportionate to the interest of checking for an inadmissible practice? How do officials balance between conflicting laws when they handle cases of suspected FGM? How do public ideas about the scope of the problem in Sweden affect the choices made about actions in the specific cases?

There is a significant discrepancy between the prevalent public idea that there are many unrecorded cases of illegal FGM in Sweden and what can be known from an analysis of the police files on suspected cases. The media reporting is also not in line with international research demonstrating cultural change (general abandonment of circumcision of girls) among affected immigrants in Sweden and other European and North American countries.

The lack of confirmed illegal cases in Western countries results in harsh initiatives among the host countries in order to check for illegal FGM. This, in turn, increases the stigma and discrimination of these groups – including the girls that the societies intend to protect.

Sara Johnsdotter is professor of medical anthropology at Malmö University. In 2002, she defended her doctoral dissertation (Dep of Social Anthropology, Lund University) about how Swedish Somalis have reassessed the practice of circumcision of girls: Created by God.

Her research has included various aspects of genital modifications with a special focus on circumcision of girls. Much of the research has been done in collaboration with Prof Birgitta Essén, obstetrician and gynecologist, at Uppsala University. Johnsdotter has represented Sweden in five EU research projects. In 2014, she was the PI of a study about FGM court cases in Europe, at the request of the European Commission. Co-author of the report was the Spanish philosopher of law Prof Ruth Mestre i Mestre (Female Genital Mutilation in Europe: An Analysis of Court Cases. Brussels: European Commission, The Directorate-General for Justice, 2015).