At the University of Oxford, Contestations around FGM: Activism and the Academy

Celebrating women’s victories and challenges, a workshop, Contestations around FGM: Activism and the Academy, is taking place on March 7, 2015, from 8:00 a.m. to 8 p.m., as part of the annual Oxford International Women’s Festival, sponsored by International Gender Studies (IGS), Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford.

Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

Here’s the PROGRAMME.

Saturday, March 7, 2015, in the Old Library, Talbot Hall

09:00 – 09:15  Opening Remarks. Dr. Maria Jaschok (Director, International Gender Studies, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford) & Dr. Tobe Levin (Visiting Research Fellow, International Gender Studies, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford)

09:15 – 10:30  Session 1 ROUND-TABLE on Testimony/Oral History: Addressing the academy, policy-makers, and civil society, what do survivors want us to know?

Chair:   Dr. Maria Jaschok (IGS, LMH, University of Oxford) Participants:   Hoda Ali, activist and nurse (UK/Somalia); Khady Koita, author and founder, EuroNet-FGM and la Palabre (Belgium/Senegal); Lucy Mashua, blogger and relentless ‘Ambassador’ against FGM (USA/Kenya); Hawa D. Sesay, Executive Director Hawa Trust & social worker (UK/Sierra Leone); Hibo Wardere, educator, activist (UK/Somalia) Respondent:  Valentine Nkoyo, education activist (UK/Kenya)

10:30 – 11:45    Session 2 ROUND-TABLE on LAW: Concerning prosecution, what are the benefits, the hurdles and the effects on prevention of committed implementation of the law?

Chair:   Dr. Frankie Hutton, Rose Project and NJ State Commissioner (USA9 Participants: Dexter Dias, QC (UK), Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond, OBE, Professor Emerita, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, Honorary Fellow, LMH, (UK) Lorraine Koonce Farahmand, Esq Solicitor of England and Wales, NY lawyer and gender advocate (France)  Hilary Burrage, sociologist, journalist (The Guardian/Huffington Post) blogger and book author (UK) Linda Weil-Curiel, attorney, CAMS (France) Jennifer Obaseki, Solicitor (UK) Respondent:             Charlotte Rachel Proudman, attorney (UK)

11:45-12:00                                    Coffee Break

12:00-13:15  Session 3 on Medicine (1): How has the ‘Health Approach’ promoted as well as hindered abolition by encouraging widespread medicalization? (Alternatively: how is the medical profession responding to the FGM crisis?)

Chair:  Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Visiting Research Fellow, IGS, LMH (Germany) Presenters:  Adebisi Adebayo, Ph.D. Inter-African Committee, Geneva (Switzerland) Owolabi Bjalkander, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden (Sierra Leone) Prof Dr Els Leye, Vrije Universiteit Brussel – RHEA Centre of expertise on Gender, Diversity and Intersectionality/Ghent University-International Centre for Reproductive Health (Belgium) Dr. Gillian Einstein, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Toronto (Canada) Video presentation in absentia. Respondent: Kariyo-Grâce Nyandwi, medical student, Univ. Heidelberg (Germany)

13:15 – 13:45                                 Sandwich Buffet Lunch

13:45 -15:00   Session 4 on Medicine (2): How are survivors’ needs for care/treatment being met, including clitoris reconstruction?

Chair:  Frédérique Martz, executive director, Institut en Santé Génésique (France) Presenters: Dr. Phoebe Abe, physician treating FGM survivors (UK)Dr. Brenda Kelly, physician treating FGM survivors (UK) Dr. Comfort Momoh, MBE, FGM/Public Health Specialist (UK) Dr. Pierre Foldes, pioneer of clitoris restoration surgery (France) Respondent:   Surkhab Peerzada, public health specialist, thesis on FGM (Canada)

15:00-16:15 Session 5 ROUND TABLE on FGM, Media and the Arts: How can the arts best challenge FGM?

Chair:  Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, artist (Belgium/Nigeria) Joy Keshi Walker, MBA and curator (Nigeria/USA) Berhane Ras-Work, Co-founder & past president, Inter-African Committee and author (Geneva/Ethiopia) Chloe White, award-winning documentary filmmaker (UK) Jeanie Kortum, novelist (USA) Susan McLucas, Sini Sanuman (USA/Mali) (Music DVD in absentia). Respondent: Sarah Penny, author, academic and creative writing activist Brunel University (UK)

16:15-16:30                             Coffee Break

16:30 – 17:45  Session 6 ROUND TABLE on Activism and Research: How does research help to prevent FGM?

Chair: Dr. Phyllis Ferguson, Oxford Transitional Justice Research, University of Oxford. Participants: Professor Francisca Omorodion, Sociology/ Anthropology/Criminology, University of Windsor (Canada/Benin) Dr. Hazel Barrett, professor, Coventry University (UK) Dr. Anja Stuckert, Gender Advisor, Plan International (Germany) Dr Ann-Marie Wilson, Executive Director/Founder, 28TooMany, Anti-FGM NGO (UK) Fatoumata Siré Diakité, founder and President, APDF (Mali) and Erica Pomerance, filmmaker (Canada) Bannir le Couteau de l’Excision (film excerpt in absentia) Dr. Adriana Kaplan Marcusan, Fundación Wassu, Universitat Autonóma de Barcelona (Spain/The Gambia) (Statement in absentia) Respondent:  Grace Mbungu, researcher and activist (Germany/Kenya)

17:45 – 18:15   KEYNOTE SPEECH by Maggie O’Kane, The Guardian “FGM and the media generation (video, community radio and the struggle): How a new generation of campaigners and journalists are harnessing the media”

18:15 – 19:15   Leyla Hussein, Psychotherapist/ Lead Campaigner and Consultant; Co-Founder of Daughters Of Eve, Hawa’s Haven and Dahlia’s Project, presents “The Cruel Cut”

19:15-19:45   LIVE PERFORMANCE. A scene from WAAFRIKA. Kenya. 1992. Two Women Fall in Love. By Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, dramatist and author (USA/Kenya/Tanzania) Actress: Tzena Nicole

19:45-20:00  Conclusion

All day: sale at conference discount, books on FGM from UnCUT/VOICES Press (Frankfurt am Main, Germany) and Ayebia Clark Publishing (Banbury, UK). Giclée reproductions of Nigerian paintings on FGM, exhibition originally curated by Joy Keshi Walker and Godfrey Williams-Okorodus in 1998. Artwork by Diane Walsh, FPA Foreign Correspondent communication-strategy consultant (GAFGM, GWPF) (UK)

Costs: £12 per participant for two coffee breaks and lunch; additional £15 per participant for concluding reception at the Cotswold Lodge.

Gratitude to assistants Dr. Phyllis Ferguson, Roberta Staples, Dr. Selin Akyuz, Dr. Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi, Kerrie Thornhill, Emily Tifft, Rowel Leung, Karen McCallum and Dr. Angela Raven-Roberts.

February 6, Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation Day: the Hippocratic Oath


Dr. Pierre Foldes

Dr. Pierre Foldes

“I can’t put into words what I felt at that moment. A fire burned between my legs. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I hopped about a little. You couldn’t call it dancing. I was one of those said to have a timid nature. I was puny, exhausted and distressed. During that monstrous jiggling that seemed to go on and on and on under the watchful eye of several matrons, I suddenly had the impression of a tornado swirling around me. The storm broke. And after that, I don’t remember anything. I had fainted.” (1)

The quote appears in Undoing FGM, novelist Hubert Prolongeau’s biographical account of the pioneer in clitoris restoration, Dr. Pierre Foldes. Privileging his patients’ words, Dr. Foldes stands firmly behind the theme of this year’s Zero Tolerance Day, to outline responsibilities of medical professionals. First is of course … Do No Harm. The injunction sounds straight-forward. It isn’t. Campaigns to end FGM in Africa began by appealing to logic: genital wounding, like smoking, can be devastating to your health. It can kill. Therefore, as a reasonable person, you will understand the harm and stop.

FGM hasn’t stopped. Instead, it is being medicalized, that is, imported into clinical settings, (and in some places, like Egypt, at an alarming rate), mainly in response to the trauma of FGM committed in the raw. The thinking goes, if the big OUCH is the issue, let’s use Novocain. Unsanitary instruments? Sterilize  them. Accidents occur because the girl fights back? Knock her out first.

So what happens then? Less harm? Wrong. The few studies we have show a tendency to take more tissue, sew more tightly, leave the inert, torpid victim with a pretty scar — not disfigured by infection – covering over more ample amputations.

The indignity of FGM and violation of sexual rights is erased. Yet isn’t this precisely where the conversation ought to start?

Speaking at the American Graduate School of Paris to attentive, sympathetic students. Photo credit: Corentine Chaillet

Speaking at the American Graduate School of Paris to attentive, sympathetic students. Photo credit: Corentine Chaillet

FGM is an emotional issue. It is an economic, human rights and feminist issue appropriately housed in gender and masculinity studies departments. It involves a toxic mix of motivations, from respecting tradition to desiring beauty, from honoring Mother and Father to wanting community harmony – or community escape.

It is also nowhere near as foreign as you may think if you were not born into societies that cut. One of its most puzzling aspects concerns the women who perpetuate it. To understand why they do, let’s consider loveliness.

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, The Urhobo Bride, Oil on Canvas, 2007

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, The Urhobo Bride, Oil on Canvas, 2007

Nigerian artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus in “The Urhobo Bride” aptly associates amputations with enhancement of beauty and desire. Four elements stand out in the bust of a serene woman with harmonious sensual features: the same passionate crimson triangulates full lips, beaded necklace, and fat flower. The single discordant element is a razor that adorns her right ear – the instrument aestheticized as jewellery. The same elision of disfigurement and fashion also frames the portrait: ten palms beckon to the viewer, most tattooed with plant life but one with a blade. Here Williams-Okorodus anticipates the “truth” most challenging to advocates: women’s emotional attachment to the damage, justified as pain in the service of beauty. As the French say, “Il faut souffrir pour être belle.”

With student Linnette Vélez Defendini at AGS

With student Linnette Vélez Defendini at AGS

This does not make FGM resemble cosmetic surgery because the former is forced on children, but it does suggest a powerful motive for supporting it. FGM is (also) an issue of aesthetics — and gender identity. I often ask my audiences to envision the following. Tomorrow morning, each female in the class, a bit like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, wakes up with a full beard. What’s the first thing she’ll do before showing her face? Right. She’ll shave and then, if possible, she’ll high-tail it to the nearest clinic for some medical advice. An amplitude of facial hair has just destroyed her femininity, made her suddenly less of a woman according to embedded ideas with which she/ we have been brought up.

As Nura Abdi so poignantly notes as a refugee in Germany finding out for the first time that not every woman is ‘circumcised’:  “In Somalia you talked about gudniin in lovely language, as you would about good fortune. Yet here I was, surrounded by people who reacted to it with horror. … They behaved as though I had been the victim of a crime, as though it were shameful to be circumcised – whereas I had always believed, circumcision made me clean.” (2) That is to say, a feminine woman. … As Simone de Beauvoir so famously phrased it, “Women are made, not born.”  Fortunately, the Clitoris Restoration Fund, a project taken on board by the EuroNet-FGM, favours bodily integrity, and you can be sure, patients who get their clitoris back won’t take it off their girls. The horror really can end here…

Professor Lorraine Koonce Farahmand will manage the Clitoris Restoration Fund for the EuroNet in France

Professor Lorraine Koonce Farahmand will manage the Clitoris Restoration Fund for the EuroNet in France

Tax deductible contributions may be transferred to FORWARD – Germany working closely with the EuroNet FGM (please don’t forget to note Clitoris Restoration Fund): FORWARD – Germany, Frankfurter Sparkasse IBAN DE 20 5005 0201 0200 0293 98  SWIFT-BIC.: HELADEF1822  … In the USA you can contribute by check noting Clitoris Restoration Fund mailed to Healthy Tomorrow/Sini Sanuman, 14 Williams Street, Somerville, MA 02144.

And as today IS February 6, I take pleasure in sharing UnCUT/VOICES’ board member Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté’s IAC press release.

Health bodies demand zero tolerance on FGM by all health personnel and pledge to be at the forefront of the generation where FGM ends


CONTACT: Inter-African Committee, Africa Hall, Menelik Avenue, P.O Box 3001, Addis Ababa

Dr Morissanda Kouyaté, Inter-African Committee (IAC),, +251 911 8085 70

ADDIS ABABA, 6 FEBRUARY 2015. Today, as we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), spearheaded by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC), a coalition of leading health bodies are committing to mobilise their members and use their spheres of influence to accelerate an end this extreme form of violence against women and girls around the world.

FGM is an extreme human rights violation that has no medical benefits, but has dangerous health consequences. Every year, three million girls are at risk and, in some countries, FGM procedures are increasingly carried out by health personnel. This ‘medicalisation’ of FGM is one of the biggest threats to its elimination.

Health personnel are supposed to protect rather than cause harm. They are tasked with providing care and support and are usually the trusted first points of contact for women and girls. Many health personnel are already leading advocates for ending FGM and provide excellent care, but we need a final push to make sure that every single professional comes on board.

Recalling the UN General Assembly Resolution on FGM, the International Federation of Genecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) join the IAC, the Africa Coordination Centre for Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (ACCAF), The Girl Generation, Forma, FORWARD and Equality Now, to urge:

  • All health personnel to fully adhere to the Hippocratic Oath and their obligation to protect the health and well-being of their patients, which includes not performing FGM.
  • Regulatory bodies in all countries to ensure that health professionals do not promote the medicalisation of FGM.
  • Health personnel to not only protect girls at risk of FGM, but also provide physical, psychological and emotional care and support to survivors.
  • All health professional bodies to ensure that FGM care and prevention are part of their training and education programmes.

‘’During the regional workshop for health professionals, organised by the IAC in 2009 in Nairobi, a strong African Health Workers Network was created for accelerating Zero Tolerance to FGM. The commemoration of February 6, 2015 is an opportunity to further engage this important network. Fighting FGM is part of the improvement of the health of women and girls.’’

– Dr Morissanda Kouyaté, Executive Director, IAC

Also recommended:


(1) Hubert Prolongeau. Undoing FGM. Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2011, 17-18.

(2) excerpt from Nura Abdi & Leo Linder. Tränen im Sand. Bergisch-Gladback: Lübbe, 2003. Trans. Tobe Levin

Egypt’s First FGM Conviction …

“Egyptian Is Convicted of Genital Mutilation” Merna Thomas tells us on January 26, 2015, in the New York Times. This first conviction is stunning, and Equality Now deserves credit for appealing the original acquittal of physician and father who ordered amputation of thirteen-year-old Suhair el-Batea’s clitoris. Equally remarkable is that the New York Times has at last called what happens to the female vulva, –not ‘cutting’, the paper’s previously favored term–, but “mutilation.” Check out earlier reports. According to the NYTimes, not dismemberment, damage, injury, maiming but mere cutting, a kitchen-knife ouch, had been taking place – not death, not (soul) murder.

If you are reading this, you already know about FGM, but possibly not how high a rate saturates the most populous Arab state. Hubert Prolongeau, writing about Dr. Pierre Foldes, anticipates this information gap and dedicates the final chapter in Undoing FGM to the ancient civilization. “We’re in Egypt,” Prolongeau exclaims. “Why would we finish this book in that country?”

“First because Pierre Foldes has had high-level contact and his discovery has attracted attention there, but above all because … Egypt is one of those nations where excision stubbornly persists. It’s omnipresent yet at the same time taboo and a pretext for confrontation between a relatively moderate but rapidly expanding Islamist milieu; a government in denial that nonetheless tries to oppose it; and strong-minded militants, too few, who fight as they can. Ninety-seven percent: 97% of Egyptian women who have ever been married and are aged 15 to 45, as often Christian as Islamic, are excised. This number, which dates from 2000, is official. It is stupefying. Most specialists on FGM consider it exaggerated: the questionnaire that produced it was the first to use the word “circumcision” and because “circumcision” is thought to be an Islamic practice, not admitting it would make oneself appear a bad Muslim. OK, let’s accept the argument. That doesn’t obviate the fact that, even if inflated, the figure speaks to a reality that according to other sources touches 80% of Egyptian women. Who, among the hordes of tourists unfolding regularly on the Nile River to cruise between Luxor and Aswan, to run from the Museum of Cairo to the Pyramids amid the concert of horns and the dust of the capital, to plunge into the shadows of royal tombs, among all those people, who is informed? In Upper Egypt, where vestiges of the past are most famous, prevalence explodes, far exceeding 90%” (p. 210).

These statistics horrify. They shriek for action.

An animated discussion among Khady, Dr. Adriana Kaplan and Naana too-Oyortey in Brussels, European Commission

An animated discussion among Khady, Dr. Adriana Kaplan and Naana Otoo-Oyortey in Brussels, European Commission

And measures are being taken. Also on January 26, as guest of the European Commission, I attended a follow-up to the “Communication” called “Towards the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.” “What still needs to be done?” we experts had been asked. My response: 1) fund European-wide networks such as the EuroNet-FGM launched in 2002 by UnCUT/VOICES Press author Khady; 2) Focus on African youth and especially the remarkable young women courageously leading a movement that, strategically, also includes young men; 3) Underwrite holistic institutions serving affected populations modeled on Dr. Foldes’ Institut génésique; 4) Anchor female genital mutilation studies in universities like efforts being made at Oxford and Harvard; and 5) sponsor the arts and social media against FGM.

Khady, Tobe, Alvilda Jablonka from No Peace Without Justice in Brussels

Khady, Tobe, Alvilda Jablonka from No Peace Without Justice in Brussels

This last point is crucial. A girl died a needless death in Egypt. Emotion is appropriate. Anger. Mourning. Anxiety. Regret. Take policy directives – dry, abstract – and ensure they reflect the appropriate feelings. We haven’t done enough. Our response has been too weak, our dedication faulty. What might Suhair have become? How many lives might she have touched? How might Egypt prosper had so many Suhairs not been maimed?





Scholars Ending FGM: A Tribute to Engagement on International Human Rights Day

Lorraine Koonce Farahmand moderates Crimes against Women at the AGS in Paris

Lorraine Koonce Farahmand moderates Crimes against Women at the AGS in Paris

“Five miserable looking women are huddled into the room by police officers.They have been charged with causing the death of … a 17 year old school girl. One woman is the mother, the old woman with thick glasses is the grandmother, it was she who took the razor blade, the other three are neighbours, they had come to sing and rejoice. They did not intend to kill her, the mother had loved her. She was the grandmother’s favourite grandchild named for her. That is why she wanted to do what was best for her, turn her into a woman. They said she wanted it, too.

She bled and bled, they tried to stop the bleeding but they didn’t know how, and she couldn’t stop bleeding. They ran around in panic in the village trying to find someone with a car who could take her to the distant hospital, but there was nobody and she continued bleeding. She bled until she couldn’t bleed any more. She was dead.

The state wanted a psychiatric assessment. They were sane and of sound mind.

As they turned to leave the grandmother tried to open the window instead of the door. She was called back, her vision was tested. She had undergone cataract removal, even with the glasses she could only see shadows. She was almost blind.

After they were taken away, I thought about the faceless girl whom I had never known. She was probably strong, healthy. I thought of all the things she might have done, gone happily to school with her friends, played net-ball, laughed all the way to the river as she went with other girls to fetch water. And she died such a senseless death.” (13-14)

Tobe Levin introducing the IAC and Bamako Declaration

Tobe Levin introducing the IAC and Bamako Declaration

My friend Dr. Anna Muthoni Mathai penned these insightful words[1] that capture the entrapment and heartbreak binding unwitting actors in an infernal social script they did not write. Recording field notes in her diary, the physician and former FORWARD – Germany board member, now at the University of Nairobi, had been on loan to rural psychiatric clinics in Kenya to explore attitudes toward FGM and was reporting back to her sponsor, the German Society for Technical Cooperation, Inc., then called the GTZ (Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit).[2]  

In 1999, the GTZ published Einschnitte [Incisions] Materialband zu [Documentation on] Female Genital Cuttings (FGC), edited by F. Diaby-Pentzlin and E. Göttke [GTZ: Eschborn]. The collection, a mélange of testimony, creative writing and research results, informs German development workers about the practices comprising FGM, for despite the title’s use of the disputed term “cuttings,” “texts make no attempt to convince anyone that the practice should be stopped. On that point, general consensus reigns.” In other words, without a doubt, the human rights violation — FGM – must end.

How to end it, however, is the question. The essays answer by entering “the minds of those in favor, confronting conservatism on its own ground.” Yet caution is advised. Ethnographers tread a fine line between observation of a harmful tradition and tacit approval of it.[3]

Tobe Levin speaking at the American Graduate School in Paris on FGM

Tobe Levin speaking at the American Graduate School in Paris on FGM

Sections in the documentation suggest where fine lines may lie. Part 1, “It’s only women’s pain”[4] reflects the trivialization of women in male-dominant cultures, including of course our own; Part 2, “Why does this practice continue?” cites numerous rationalizations perpetrators offer; Part 3, “Body and Identity” explores aesthetics, femininity, and pressures to conform; Part 4, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” finally makes claims and Part 5, “Where Good Practices Begin” shares several promising projects.

Sadly, this research from nearly two decades ago, including Mathai’s poignant account of an FGM fatality, remains relevant. Muthoni’s field notes could as easily describe an event in 2014 as they did in the mid-1990s. FGM continues endangering lives and thereby – I’m sure we agree – violates human rights.

Yet, even when life goes on, the specific abuse of girls’ genitalia falls under the aegis of today’s commemoration. Declared by the UN as International Human Rights Day, December 10 is dedicated to abuses of women (and men, girls and boys) on many fronts but certainly includes indignities incurred as a result of FGM.

On November 28,, 2014, the American Graduate School in Paris, accepting the UN’s commemorative mandate, hosted an international colloquium. My contribution “On FGM. Cause, consequence, and key to abolition” found the fulcrum in African leadership. I introduced the Inter-African Committee and the Bamako Declaration[5] as well as UnCUT/VOICES Press to an audience nearly 200 strong. English  solicitor, NY lawyer and gender advocate Lorraine Koonce Farahmand opened the event with a powerful delivery of numerous forms of violence that affect women worldwide. Having answered her invitation, “policy-makers, diplomats, international lawyers, scholars, human rights activists, and journalists” considered how best to approach, and end, the global scourge of aggression aimed mainly at women and girls. The illustrious podium seated representatives of the Council of Europe (Carolina Lasén Diaz), UNESCO (Angela Melo), CEDAW (Violeta Neubauer), the Embassy of Austria (H.E. Ambassador Ursula Plassnik), the Chief Crown Prosecutor of the UK Crown Prosecution Service (Nazir Afzal, OBE),  American Graduate School in Paris faculty, The New York Times (Marlise Simons), NGOs such as CAMS (Linda Weil-Curiel), others and me.

Helpfully, FGM was embedded among many forms of violence. Speakers offered alarming statistics, in one case from the CDC which mentions upwards of 66,000 annual cases of rape in South Africa measured against 1000 convictions; or Russia where domestic violence kills 14,000 women each year. Germany, we heard, reveals one-third of girls physically abused before age 16. And the list goes on. Fortunately, the Istanbul Convention is an agreement with teeth, holding its signers accountable for government preventive action, and although cultural norms require respect, “they never excuse a crime” (Farahmand). As Nazir Afzal OBE insisted, “Prosecution must be used” to counter “gender terrorism.” And, the Crown prosecutor added, “The state should not let women down” where ethnic sensitivity competes with rights.

This is Khady’s position in Mutilée as well. Translated into English as Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (2010), Khady undergoes excision and then, having just turned fourteen, is forced to marry an immigrant sanitation worker who brings her to Paris. Facing marital rape night after night, she gives birth to five children in as many years. And then her husband imports a second teenaged wife. Fortunately, Khady had completed the 7th grade and knows how to write but most of her friends from Senegal are illiterate. Nearly all are also without private means, dependent on the generosity or meanness of spouses who control the purse-strings. Many men disapprove of birth control and beat wives they discover taking the pill, creating intolerable living conditions.

These abuses – FGM; forced child marriage; marital rape; economic dependency and lack of reproductive rights – were, indeed, deplored and denounced. As abstract nouns, however, they appealed to reason, not anger. But rage is surely reason where child abuse is concerned. As Khady reveals:

The fourth or fifth in line, I was seated, … trembling at every howl, my entire body strained by the agony behind the wall. Then two women caught me and dragged me inside. One took hold of my head, her knees crushing my shoulders. The other clasped me firmly by the thighs and spread my legs … Using her fingers, the exciser grasp[ed] the clitoris and … whacked it off like a piece of zebu meat. … Often, she can’t hack it off in one go she’s obliged to saw. (10)

Having felt like her “frame had been hacked in two,” Khady laments, years later she still hears herself howling.

Multiple variants exist, of course, but basically, this is what FGM is. This is what critics prefer not to discuss. This is even what timid – some might say, cautious–, advocates of abolition want to hide – because, you agree, it is just too terrible.

An emotional issue par excellence, female genital mutilation remains a neglected human rights abuse partly because it is so distasteful, the memory suppressed by victims, the facts too vile for outsiders to grasp, and the fear that revealing them will incite latent racists.

None of these, however, can excuse inaction, and certainly not on the part of scholars trapped by reverence for an illusory neutrality.

For what Khady and Muthoni’s girl suffered was wrong, and the academy, with the rest of the world, should no longer fail to acknowledge  it.


Photo credit: Alyssa Barylotti

[1] You can find them online in a special issue of Feminist Europa. Review of Books on FGM: Search Anna M. (Muthoni) Mathai …

[2] The name was changed to the GIZ, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, like US AID or the UK’s DFiD (Department for International Development).

[3] FE FGM p. 68.

[4] “It’s only women’s pain” contains a mélange of poetry, field notes, interview and straight-forward reporting, thereby mustering the fullest range of language choices, from the strictly scientific to the emotional. To start, Somalian Dahabo Elmi Muse’s famous poem on the three feminine sorrows introduces a female perspective followed immediately by Ahmed, speaking for Sudanese men. “The thought of hurting someone I loved so deeply caused me great discomfort,” he admits (11, back translation). Ahmed charges most husbands with indifference to wives’ pain and their own. The morning after the wedding night not infrequently sends the couple to the hospital, both wounded. “A friend’s penis had been rubbed raw…” (11).

[5] See and

Female Genital Mutilation as Violence against Women. At the Institut en Santé Génésique with Dr. Pierre Foldes, Frédérique Martz, Linda Weil-Curiel, and satisfied patients

When Fatoumata gave birth to her first child, a girl, she devoured the newborn with a hungry mother’s eyes and found her perfect — until her gaze rested on the child’s lower body, on something untoward between her legs. Suddenly grasped by anxiety, she thought of hermaphrodites and asked the midwife, “Is my daughter ok?” “What do you mean?” her helper replied. Pointing at a prominent outcrop, the new mother said, “Look. What’s that? She’s not like me…” “Oh,” the clinician replied. “That’s because you’ve been excised.” “Excised?” “Yes. You’ve had a clitoridectomy. What you are seeing is a clitoris, and yours has been cut off.”

Dr. Pierre Foldes teaching in Düsseldorf about his method of restoration. February 5, 2014.

Dr. Pierre Foldes teaching in Düsseldorf about his method of restoration. February 5, 2014.

I heard this story yesterday at the Institute for Genital and Sexual Health in St. Germain en Laye. To celebrate 25 November, the International Day of Violence against Women, the Institute near Paris held a press conference on domestic violence, FGM, and other abuses targeting mainly females.

Although the majority of speakers were victims of wife-beating, four women talked about FGM. Most striking in their testimony was that three of the four, like Fatoumata, acceded to their traumas only in adulthood. Their narratives expressed the shock incurred when they learned, almost accidentally, that their vague sense of bodies being not quite right could be explained. The knife met them in their very early years, well before memory formed. “I can’t remember being cut,” Bintou exclaimed. “And therefore never thought about what I did or didn’t have. Still, I always felt uneasy, as though something was wrong that I couldn’t quite place. It was my first boyfriend who asked…”

25 November 2014 at the Institut génésique for the International Day against Violence against Women

25 November 2014 at the Institut génésique for the International Day against Violence against Women

Since the 80s, the age at which FGM is carried out has been sinking, a sure sign, in the words of Institut génésique board member Linda Weil-Curiel, that people are aware the procedure is forbidden. Whereas clitoridectomy had routinely been faced by teens and considered a rite of passage to adulthood, recent decades have witnessed excisions in toddlerhood or even infancy. Why? Because the smaller the victim, the less likely she is to squeal, leading to arrest and conviction.

Bintou was not the first to tell me that, despite having been too young to remember, identifiable damage had been done.

Speaking Out against FGM on the International Day against Violence against Women

Speaking Out against FGM on the International Day against Violence against Women

Sinidou, for instance, back in Frankfurt, came to sit in my living room day after day for  weeks to watch my videos on FGM – this was in the early nineties before widespread access to the internet. She was searching for something, the source of a general malaise about her body. One day she said, “I’ve found the answer.” And only then could we talk about it

The November 25 event in St. Germain en Laye showcased the benefits of articulating what had happened and how it felt. “Des mots pour des maux” – a pun in French meaning, as the Chinese might state it, talking bitterness – expressed the idea behind the “cercle de parole” or speak-outs during which Dr. Foldes’ patients share tales of surgery and healing. “You had to have patience,” Awa said, “because, if you were older when they mutilated you, the operation sends you back, and even anticipating it can be upsetting. Then, when you’re still sore, and the discomfort can last for weeks, you doubt whether this miracle is really plausible. Only after several months does your heart begin to sing …”

Maimouna agreed. “I felt enormous relief — I’d even call it liberation –, on finally finding I wasn’t alone but among many others full of questions. And whereas before I was shy, now I even have the confidence to address a group and to tell my friends they’d better not do it to their daughters …”

In other words, the feeling of wholeness, after restoration, isn’t merely sexual. Over and over the audience heard, not only was it now conceivable to speak out about FGM but also possible and even appealing to speak up about other things as well. Witnesses agreed, self-confidence replaced timidity.

“May I take your picture?” I asked as our quarter hour conversation during the lunch break wound down. “I’d like to put you in my blog.” “I’m sorry,” my witness replied, shaking her head. “At home, they’re not supposed to know I’m here.”

A good many hurdles remain …

To respect anonymity, all names have been changed.

You can contribute to the Clitoris Restoration Fund whose first beneficiary is well on her way to recovery with a significant waiting list keen to follow. In the United States, send CHECKS in dollars drawn on US Banks with the notation “Clitoral Restoration Fund” to Susan McLucas, Healthy Tomorrow/Sini Sanuman, 14 William St. Somerville, MA 02144. See

For information on tax exemption in Germany, email Tobe Levin or

You can also contribute directly to the Institut en santé génésique in France.

Why should you care? What can we do? “Sing and Shout against FGM”

As soon as her sister shrieked, Uba dashed to a door with no lock but found it shut tight. They must be leaning against it, she thought, anxiety on full. Her turn would come soon. And when it DID, she still heard screams. Assaulted by sound, she wanted to know, where was it coming from? Bouncing off walls, reverberating through the room, what was the source? It took time to grasp: the second gang of howls had been hers. …

Such loss of self in FGM victims isn’t rare. [1]

On October 29, 2014, in London’s Garden Court Chambers, our host Dexter Dias, QC, opened his “Sing and Shout against FGM” with this story, the gift of a survivor. Not yet ready to witness under her own name, she wanted the Queen’s Counsel [2] to disseminate the tale. “We met in the Dunkin’ Donuts at South Boston Station,” he explained, highlighting how, in the mundane world of brand-names and pastry, horror lies just below the surface, and cognitive paralysis, in both victim and witness, prevents us from grasping its scope. The litany of integers – 140 million– doesn’t make sense. Only one by one, each individual’s narrative does, and the anguish becomes our own. It is indeed ours, Dexter Dias asserts, by virtue of emotional investment in children, our “emissaries,” –so Neil Postman –, to ‘the future’.

So, every 11 seconds, what happens? Dexter asks. Someone mutilates a child, and, viewed through a human rights lens, the crime is clear.

BAREtruth readers  present Isley Lynn's "Sleight of Hand."

BAREtruth presents Isley Lynn’s “Sleight of Hand.”

Less clear is the complexity of FGM, staged in Isley Lynn’s “Sleight of Hand,” a dramatized reading by the BAREtruth Theatre Company including a flight attendant, teacher, ice cream van driver, street cleaner and postal worker. Like Chaucer and Boccaccio, the author tells stories that, taken together, remind me of the “blind men and the elephant” who, in grasping with their hands only parts of the whole, affirm the giant mammal resembles a snake, a tree trunk, or a wall. … Here FGM manifests for the flight attendant in the girl who slipped a spoon into her panties in order to set off the security alarm so she could appeal to the personnel for help. A victim of child marriage, she was being taken back to be cut in Africa. The instructor in turn teaches art, describing ‘normal’ children’s drawings until she spots one betraying excessive agitation. (Back in the early 80s, Pia Grassivaro Gallo of the University of Padua asked Somali pupils to sketch human beings; with depressing regularity, the girls produced stick figures that had NO body.)

If professionals meet regularly with tell-tale signs of evil going on, how can they read  clues without background knowledge? On landing in Nigeria, why is that girl still crying? Why, all the way from London, has she been so grieved? As the street cleaner notes, people try mostly not to look. But even if they do, can they see?

Sarah Jane Morris and Tony Remy warm up

Sarah Jane Morris and Tony Remy warm up

Acclaimed recording artists, modern jazz soul singer Sarah Jane Morris and her guitarist Tony Remy try to open our eyes in their album Bloody Rain, devoted to social justice and violence against women. Their lyrics expose the shared motivation behind clitoral ablation and so-called ‘honor’ murders. “The whore you became when you brought Western shame on this good family name,” a father explains, means “We’ll crush your will, your blood we’ll spill, and we will kill.” A song against FGM affirms, “You were born perfect, my precious little … rosebud,” yet what “makes your body sing” is shorn.

Mona and Ifrah present at "Sing and Shout"

Muna & Ifrah present at “Sing and Shout”

A monstrous violation, excision and infibulation drew two remarkable  twenty-somethings, Muna Hassan and Ifrah Hassan, to tell us how, when only thirteen and fourteen, they began writing poetry against FGM — and were ordered to stop. Who censured them? “Men told us we shouldn’t. We were embarrassing the whole community.” Their mothers supported them, however. “You must do this,” their moms agreed, “because we couldn’t.” Thus inspired, the girls and their group at Integrate Bristol – including Fahma Mohamed, whose petition to Education Minister Gove was signed by 200,000 people — produced Silent Scream, a drama-documentary that won first prize in Light Movies’ 2012 Young Voices competition. But “it’s porn,” their critics warned. A mentor from Zed Productions that helped bankroll the project, praising the “’courage and dignity of the teenagers involved’,” acknowledges the “fierce opposition” they faced. “Yet they were utterly determined to speak out, take action and resist … pressures“ [3] to hide FGM.

Hilary Burrage

Hilary Burrage

Mutilation of girls’ genitalia has been obscured as much by the actors themselves as by a laissez-faire academy that could have educated an indifferent public capable of being roused by information which, instead of serving to spare children torture, was horded in archives or even actively suppressed. “This is a sorry tale of what for years I didn’t know about FGM,” sociologist and Guardian journalist Hilary Burrage [4] confesses in her astute remarks. Among the facts not disseminated broadly, Hilary lists a Minority Rights Group report, Female Genital Mutilation: Proposals for Change, co-authored by our friend Efua Dorkenoo whose recent passing we still mourn. This came out more than a quarter century ago, yet the proposals themselves are largely the same today. They include strengthening the will to prosecute, as attorney Linda Weil-Curiel has done so effectively starting in the early 1980s in France. They also include publishing “stories of FGM survivors” as “Tobe Levin in Germany, here with us tonight” has been doing “for years.”

Thus, one by one by one, the truth behind razors and knives is coming to light. Presented dramatically in two more BAREtruth plays – Bahar Brunton’s Dancing Feet and Karis E. Halsall’s Mutant, the impression over-all is contained in Hilary’s summation: “Now at last there is no excuse for anyone to say, ‘I didn’t know’.”[5]

[1] Most memoirs on FGM report a disconnect, an out-of-bodiness divorcing mind and matter.

[2] QC, or Queen’s Counsel: an attorney (in the UK a barrister or solicitor) awarded this status, based on merit, by the Court. In the reign of a male, the title is KC.

[3] Oliver Zimmerman quoted in “Bristol Teenagers Win Top Film Award.” Retrieved 6 November 2014.

[4] Author of the forthcoming Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation. A UK Perspective.

[5] The program also included good news. Alice Greenlees described a local project managed by Chase Africa among the Maasai in Kenya whose ethnicity cut 70% to 90% of girls. (When a teacher from the local partner initiative EVE asked pupils how many had faced the blade, ALL hands went up.) Successful implementation of alternative rites of passage has reduced those numbers.

P.S. When UnCUT/VOICES asked Ifrah and Mona to submit a manuscript, they agreed.

Source: Marshall, Daisy. “The time is now to end FGM – Guest Blog by 28TooMany volunteer Daisy Marshall.” 2 April 2014.

Burrage photo Source:

The Clitoris Restoration Fund and its US representative: Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow

Given the relentless Ebola crisis, a term is becoming increasingly familiar to English-language readers: MSF, the acronym for Medecins sans Frontières or Doctors without Borders. The admirable organization is mainly known for its intrepid intervention in medical catastrophes, but it deserves applause for another reason.

One of its founders, Bernard Kouchner – also, at one time, the Foreign Minister of France – penned these words:   “Give pleasure back to women, emotions other than fear of violence, gratification beyond that available to … a baby machine.” Kouchner is naming the intention of Dr. Pierre Foldes.

In his introduction to Hubert Prolongeau’s Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris, Kouchner offers a brief history. His friend the clinician “operates, and his medical research and surgical repair attract attention. People start to emulate him; the World Health Organization is interested. He publishes an impressive series of successes. In nearly 80% of cases, women no longer suffer after intervention. They regain elementary sensation. A great physician, he has innovated a common surgical procedure for magnificent humanitarian ends.”

The Clitoris Restoration Fund aims to make this treatment available to women whose health insurance doesn’t cover it.

The joy among those 4/5ths is openly expressed. And “in any case,” Prolongeau reminds us, “restoring the capacity for sexual pleasure is not surgery’s principal aim but rather recapturing [a] sentiment of wholeness, of physical integrity, by taking back what had been snatched.”

Frequently patients say, “Now I’m a woman.”

A loyal supporter at UnCUT/VOICES’ Harvard presentations, Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow is represented among this group of attendees at the reading by Hubert Prolongeau and Tobe Levin of Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who restores the Clitoris (March 8, 2012, for International Women’s Day). Left to right back row: Dr. Hal Weaver, Dale Smoak (Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow), Jasmine DeCock (M.I.T.), Dr. Tobe Levin. Front row left to right, Susan McLucas (founder of Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow), Hubert Prolongeau, Dr. Abby Wolf (Executive Director, the Hutchins Center), Dr. Marianne Sarkis, and Dr. Krishna Lewis.

A loyal supporter, Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow is represented among this group of attendees at the Harvard reading by Hubert Prolongeau and Tobe Levin of Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris (March 8, 2012, for International Women’s Day). L to r back row: Dr. Hal Weaver, Dale Smoak (Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow), Jasmine DeCock (M.I.T.), Dr. Tobe Levin. L to R front row: Susan McLucas (founder of Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow), Hubert Prolongeau, Dr. Abby Wolf (Executive Director, the Hutchins Center), Dr. Marianne Sarkis, and Dr. Krishna Lewis.

To bring this sense of fulfillment to as many sufferers as possible, Dr. Foldes appealed to French social security to pick up the bill. For French residents, he succeeded. Others in the Diaspora and, above all, in Africa, are lined up looking for relief.

How vast is their desire? The UK, presently a leader in the global fight to end FGM, has recently begun collecting statistics as part of its new Female Genital Mutilation Prevalence Dataset. As reported by The Desert Flower Foundation, in a single month (September 2014), 647 instances were newly identified by physicians when women sought treatment. Older cases numbered 1,279. The monthly data is published by the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) which plans, in 2015, to produce the annual report disaggregated according to age and type of mutilation.

The need for a comprehensive demographic survey of this type is pressing wherever FGM is practiced, and especially in the United States, home to the largest number of girls at risk.

Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow is partnering with UnCUT/VOICES Press, FORWARD-Germany, and the EuroNet-FGM in accepting tax-exempt donations to the Clitoris Restoration Fund. By publicizing the collection, these registered charities are raising awareness of both the crime of FGM and the hopes of those who have been subjected to it. In close collaboration with journalist Hilary Burrage in the UK, attorney Lorraine Koonce Farahmand in France, and the Institut génésique in St. Germain-en-Laye founded by Dr. Pierre Foldes and an inter-disciplinary team, the Clitoris Restoration Fund has already supported its first beneficiary whose operation took place on September 5, 2014. Understandably wishing to remain anonymous, she reports, however, that she is recovering well.

Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow is also notable for activities in Mali. Pioneers in an artistic approach to changing hearts and minds, for many years the group has engaged leading pop stars to broadcast on Africable, a cable station viewed in 10 countries by 20 million people. In “Takhoundi,” performed by Nayini Koné in Sarakolé, girls in ritual dress ascend a mountain clearly heading toward excision but rushing up after them are their long-gowned mothers intent on snatching their young from the exciser’s grasp. Kandia Kouyaté’s song “We Can Say ‘NO!’” ran on the same station in September 2014. The narrative features a passerby who intervenes to stop the cutting while the lyrics detail damage to health which the fortunate girl has escaped. These videos and more can be viewed on the website:

To raise money in support of these broadcasts, to help the group continue counseling victims of sexual violence at their Listening Center in Bamako’s District 1, and to ensure on-going conversations with influential preachers such as Ousmane Chérif Haidara, Healthy Tomorrow will hold a rug and Christmas tree sale on December 6 and 7 from 11 to 4 at Unity Church Somerville, at 6 William Street, on the corner with College Ave near Davis Square.  Beautiful, fairly-traded rugs from Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan or a Christmas tree are on sale at the group’s largest fund-raiser of the year.  Volunteers to help are also sought.

You can make a tax-deductible donation to support Sini Sanuman/Healthy Tomorrow with a check to Healthy Tomorrow at 14 William St, Somerville, MA 02144 or donate on the website at

To donate to the Clitoris Restoration Fund, simply note this clearly on your check.

The full HSCIC report is available from[SL1]