Possibility of African Consent: Meeri Koutaniemi’s Pictures on Female Genital Mutilation

Meeri Koutaniemi is a Finnish photographer who has received various awards for her work in the last couple of years. During the first months of 2014, one set of her pictures stirred an interesting controversy. The photos on female genital mutilation were published in the biggest newspaper of Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, on January 5, 2014. They have also been seen through various other media, including Time.

The Programme Director at Unicef Finland, Inka Hetemäki, soon criticized the publication of these pictures. “What if it was about our own children”, she asked publicly, paying also attention to the problematic nature of consent for the pictures received from the mutilated girls. A complaint about the article that contained the pictures was also filed for the Council for Mass Media in Finland. The council is a self-regulating body that interprets “good professional practice” and does not exercise legal jurisdiction.

Especially within Finnish social media, but also elsewhere, there was considerable debate around the pictures. It was good to see that also women with Somali background living in Finland contributed to the debates. One example was this public letter arguing that even if Koutaniemi’s pictures may have disturbed many, it is important to talk about their theme as it concerns also many people living in Finland.

I used and reproduced some of the debate in my global democracy class during March and April 2014 at the University of Helsinki, also with wonderful interventions by Elina Oinas and Päivi Mattila. I found it an interesting case on some of the questions that for example postcolonial theorists deal with. For the limited purposes of this short text, postcoloniality can be understood as an academic field that analyzes legacies of colonialism and imperialism, especially but not only as regards ideologies and discourses.

There were many interesting issues involved in the Koutaniemi debate, such the problems in reproducing the idea that Africa is “dark” continent with negative features. The Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar has highlighted this question with his installation based on covers of Time magazine. I agree that the image of Africa in Finnish (and most other) media is too based on “sensational negative publicity”, as was today stated in a public debate on my Facebook wall by the director of the Nordic Africa Institute Iina Soiri. Nevertheless, I do not think it follows that Koutaniemi’s pictures should not have been published. We need more diversity in reporting on Africa, but this does not mean we should be silent on problems.

Another important dimension of the debate dealt with the relations of power between feminists representing positions that can be considered white/European or black/African. I hope to write more about this and other aspects of the debate elsewhere, so let me now focus briefly on one of the reasons why I found it fascinating: the question of consent.

Some contributions to the Koutaniemi debate seemed to deny the possibility that the Kenyan girls or their parents or the village as a community could ever give a legitimate consent to the publication of these kinds of pictures in a Finnish newspaper. Thus, even if Koutaniemi did receive consent from the girls, their parents and the community for the pictures, the consent should not be considered valid because they could never understand the context in which the pictures would be published. The reasoning that seemed to deny the possibility of consent, I felt, ran the risk of reinforcing the idea that people from the global south are child-like and cannot properly make decisions about their own lives.

The world certainly is so complicated that people living in the village where Koutaniemi took her pictures can never completely understand the context in which things happen in a distant place like Finland. This, however, applies to just about anyone in the world. The fact that the world is complicated and our possibilities to understand it are limited does not mean that we should not have the right to participate in decisions that concern us.

In the case of Koutaniemi’s pictures, there were no sufficiently convincing reasons to deny the possibility that the girls and their parents could legitimately consent to the publication of the pictures. Denying that possibility would contribute to an infantilization of people from the poor countries of the South. There could of course be other reasons to criticize the publication of the pictures, but in this short text I do not intent to deal with all of them.

The Council for Mass Media in Finland has today ruled in favor of Koutaniemi and Helsingin Sanomat. My first reaction is that the council’s decision seems to be fair. Even if the pictures raise complicated questions, the ruling stated they did not break the professional rules of journalism. This in itself, of course, does not yet answer all the ideological and political questions about these particular pictures and about the more general issue of how poor people from the global south should be represented in media.

Already the same day the council’s ruling was published, Unicef Finland strongly criticized it. One of the key claims of Unicef was that a story like this, showing the face of the victims, would never be accepted if it was about Finnish children. Even if the council’s ruling is not totally clear on this issue, it probably assumed that it would be difficult to compare the procedure of mutilation pictured by Koutaniemi to violence against girls in Finland.

The ruling cites, without taking an explicit stand, the position of Helsingin Sanomat that established a clear difference in this comparison. According to the newspaper, even if someone might recognize the girls in Kenia, this would not be harmful “because in the Maasai culture circumcision improves the social status of girls”. Thus, says the editor-in-chief of the paper, Kaius Niemi, they “cannot be compared to victims of rape”, for whom publicity might cause negative consequences in their community. The debate on this question is likely to continue.


Teivo Teivainen, Professor of World Politics, University of Helsinki
Twitter @TeivoTeivainen

-The part of the text referring to the identity of the person that presented the complaint to the Council for Mass Media in Finland was modified on 21 May 2014.

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7 thoughts on “Possibility of African Consent: Meeri Koutaniemi’s Pictures on Female Genital Mutilation

  1. Thank you for an interesting post, Teivo!

    Could someone tell me how to donate money to the shelter home those Kenyan girls had set up for their peers (who had also fled FGM)? After so many emotional reactions I’m wondering why we don’t channel all this energy that we now use to commenting on Facebook to something good – why don’t we all donate 10 euros to that shelter home where those brave girls are doing great work?

    In the original piece, was it part of journalistic standards not to give any indication of how to help out? I’m just wondering why not to include that info.

    • Hi Evelina, thanks for your question.

      There a plenty of ways to support the shelter homes.

      Virpi Panula, has been building four shelter homes in Kenya. You can contact her through Facebook to give the money straight to individuals.

      Also in Kenya, there is a shelter home Tasaru, which you can support through me. Or to support a woman, Elizabeth, who escaped FGM and is now working to inform other Masai villages about the dangers of FGM.

      Here is one site, that is doing important work about informing about FGM: https://www.facebook.com/IhminenIhmiselle

      Then there is also organizations like Solidaarisuus, Ihmisoikeusliitto and Plan who are doing remarkable anti-FGM work. You can support their work through their websites.

      • Great, thanks Evelina for your question and Meeri Koutaniemi for your response. About the journalistic standards, one possibility would be also to ask the journalist, Anu Nousiainen, who wrote the text for the article in which Meeri’s pictures were published in Helsingin Sanomat.

  2. Yes, we could have included a factbox with information on ngo’s that work to stop FGM. I don’t have a reason why we/I didn’t do so. I suppose I never expected such a strong reaction. I’ve written a few pieces on FGM before and never has anyone contacted me to get information on how to help. This time there were many such requests and I replied to every one of them. I assume it was the photos that forced many people to react. Or the presence of a Finnish photographer at the distant village that somehow brought it closer.

  3. How hard I tried nobody seems to understand the basic problem. Meeri Koutaniemi has absolutely no chance to protect the girls, their parents and the village if some paramilitant religious group gets an idea to kill them because they gave chance for a colonialist white photographer to mock the aboriginal way of living. I tried to contact JSN and wrote about this in my blog, no use. However this is the most important thing. We as westerners go to dark Africa and to promote ourselves as photographers – shoot a story only using those who in reality cannot understand the negative power of SOME. This is a hundred years old tradition – a whitey goes to shoot some nice pics of some interesting “wilds” ONLY for her own good. We have hundreds of old somali women here in Finland but their mutilated vaginas and pain and bad walking of course are not interesting enough cause they are in Finland.
    I have contacted several newspapers in Kenya and I keep collecting thoughts of those locals who try to help victims there. So far everybody have condemned Koutaniemi´s work as physically extremely dangerous for the girls and their community. I myself lost my fixer in 1982 when I was stupid enough to make a small story of him in Pakistan and it was published in Germany. World is small and gets smaller. Meeri Koutaniemi made a dramatic mistake by using those villagers for her own good. Now those people are in constant danger for the rest of their lives cause they let a whitey to intervene in local habits.
    If a kenyan photographer came here and shot a finnish teenagers drinking habits and free sex during a weekend – the outcry would be terrible and ear breaking. We europeans first used Africa for our economical purposes and now we use it for our own good cause it is visually interesting.
    PS. We never may know how much koutaniemi´s fixer paid for the parents. I have worked in those countries for two decades and I know how pictures are valued.
    PS2. If those pictures were taken by an old and ugly man they would not be published and talked about, when they are taken by a young and beautiful woman the pix get a nationwide heavenly praise.
    PS3. I use some sarcasm in this comment…for instance a word wild….

  4. How hard I tried nobody seems to understand the basic problem. Meeri Koutaniemi has absolutely no chance to protect the girls, their parents and the village if some paramilitant religious group gets an idea to kill them because they gave chance for a colonialist white photographer to mock the aboriginal way of living. I tried to contact JSN and wrote about this in my blog, no use. However this is the most important thing. We as westerners go to dark Africa and to promote ourselves as photographers – shoot a story only using those who in reality cannot understand the negative power of SOME. This is a hundred years old tradition – a whitey goes to shoot some nice pics of some interesting “wilds” ONLY for her own good. We have hundreds of old somali women here in Finland but their mutilated vaginas and pain and bad walking of course are not interesting enough cause they are in Finland.
    I have contacted several newspapers in Kenya and I keep collecting thoughts of those locals who try to help victims there. So far everybody have condemned Koutaniemi´s work as physically extremely dangerous for the girls and their community. I myself lost my fixer in 1982 when I was stupid enough to make a small story of him in Pakistan and it was published in Germany. World is small and gets smaller. Meeri Koutaniemi made a dramatic mistake by using those villagers for her own good. Now those people are in constant danger for the rest of their lives cause they let a whitey to intervene in local habits.
    If a kenyan photographer came here and shot a finnish teenagers drinking habits and free sex during a weekend – the outcry would be terrible and ear breaking. We europeans first used Africa for our economical purposes and now we use it for our own good cause it is visually interesting.
    PS. We never may know how much koutaniemi´s fixer paid for the parents. I have worked in those countries for two decades and I know how pictures are valued.
    PS2. If those pictures were taken by an old and ugly man they would not be published and talked about, when they are taken by a young and beautiful woman the pix get a nationwide heavenly praise.
    PS3. I use some sarcasm in this comment…for instance a word wild….

  5. Thank you all for the swift replies! I’ll get in touch with the Ihminen Ihmiselle project Meeri suggested.

    And in the future please do include a fact box! Imagine how many (beyond the ones who actually wrote to the journalist) thought to themselves: wish I could do something.

    It’s the same kind of Weltschmerz potential that lies around ie. news pieces on Rana Plaza factory collapse – potential that could be directed towards people finally seeing why ethically made clothing is worth its price and actually buying those clothes. If left hanging, that world pain will most likely compound to the cynicism, frustration and phlegmatism that are already prevalent enough in our society. So please give us Sunday morning paper readers ways to channel those emotions! Thank you for the comments.

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