Powerful Inscriptions and Inscriptions of Power: female bodies contested, invaded, defended and owned — an invitation on International Women’s Day

Invitation to a Symposium on 19 June at King’s College, University of London

Within a broad spectrum of historical and cross-cultural violence against women, the female body is subjected to patriarchal inscriptions which range from fashion-driven body modifications to brutal mutilation – related practices situated on a continuum of acceptance and repulsion which obscures commonalities and erases distinctions. A proposal, still a work in progress, is now under way at the Art’s & Humanities Research Institute, King’s College, University of London, to establish a programme combining study, grounded theorizing and application (for uses in education and in outreach). Building on extensive scholarship and advocacy in the field of epistemic injustice and embodied gender performances, we will add new areas of interpretation and activism.[1] The Call for Papers for the Symposium links up with our on-going preparations for such a major research programme.

By inviting the wider community of scholars and members of relevant professions into a one-day debate surrounding issues over female-bodied texts and socio-political contexts, we pursue a two-fold aim: mapping the body singular and female, and mapping body politics as global and gendered. Only such cartography can facilitate in-depth intersectional and cross-cultural analyses of what we hold to be related interventions which encompass, moreover, highly contested FGM practices. We are here calling for debates that take on board the urgency created by human rights abuses specifically, but not exclusively, related to FGM, better understood within the wider systemic and normative unravelling of democratic governance at home and elsewhere, affecting all spheres of life.


[1] (working title) ‘Female Bodies and Patriarchal Inscriptions across Cultural Contexts and Girlhood/s; a multiple-voice, multi-media, cross-cultural research project on human rights violations, cultural traditions, female genital mutilation, body modification, self-harm and self-empowerment’ (by invitation of King’s College, Arts & Humanities Research Institute, London); initiated by M. Jaschok, T. Levin v. Gleichen, Comfort Momoh; in progress.

When, as some scholars hold, we are nearing the end of the era of democracy and democratic accountability, what are the implications for integrity of associated regimes that shape identities and entitlements to rights and resources? How will an anticipated weakening of the democratic body politics weaken the protocols, legislations, and policies serving to protect ever intensifying gender-based precarities?

Faced with a volatile global political environment and intensifying migration crises exacerbating abuses of human and children’s rights, we are seeking critical questions and insights from a diversity of disciplines and methodologies. Our aim?  To problematize and enlighten on the complex linkages between newly masculinized ideologies and populist identity politics while also revealing prospects for protecting and creating context-sensitive human/women’s rights-based cultures of bodily integrity.

We are inviting contributions to the following proposed sessions:

Democracy, populism and enduring patriarchal traditions   The existence of loyalty to ‘female circumcision’ in most cultures that perform it raises the issue of democracy itself: its weakness lying in the possible ‘tyranny of the majority’. How do efforts to end FGM relate to democracy as it is presently under attack? To what extent has FGM been appropriated and instrumentalized to serve populist exclusionary aims and demonization of entire cultures on the basis that they perform FGM? How does the political will exemplified in passage of laws against FGM relate to failures of enforcement? Is this due to the tenacity of existing beliefs about gender, vested interest in the status quo, inadequate instruction and persuasion (in NGO speak, sensitization), meagre financial investment, suspicious resentment of ‘outside interference’ in anti-FGM efforts or a combination of these?

Hierarchies of liberation; women and the nation state   Opposing FGM interrogates motives anchored in affect and impervious, as emotions are, to reason, such as desire for beauty, (social) acceptance, and gender identity. In his first act as head of an independent, anti-colonial Kenya, Kenyatta argued for ‘female circumcision’ and vehemently against its abolition, naming it the mainstay of Kikuyu culture on which the moral edifice depended, and this in turn ‘legislated’ sex-assigned behaviours suitable only for males or only for females, i.e. forbidding gender ambiguity and thus logically criminalizing LGBTQ+.   Are we to understand this as a conservative stamp placed on inherited (unequal power) relations between women and men to benefit (mainly) the latter? What lessons can be learned from Kenyatta’s timing, declaring at the very birth of liberation a rededication of gender difference brutally enforced by violent suppression of female pleasure? (The fact that jouissance at times continues after cutting doesn’t obviate the amputation’s aim.)

Mothers and daughters: continuity, love, fear and belonging   Feminism has made exploration of relations between mothers and daughters central to its project. How are these considered fraught, damaged, broken, or, in the eyes of FGM-supporters, strengthened by clitoridectomy? (The impairment, understood as universal to womanhood, is implicated no matter whether or not ‘rites of passage’ are explicitly celebrated). Given most nation’s adherence to global governance, human rights conventions, attainment of Sustainable Development Goals, how is FGM antithetical to macro-political aims by impeding women’s solidarity and smiting them with a range of debilities (negative health consequences)? How does FGM compare to other abuses women endure that fracture their inclination to identify and support one another?

The FGM Industry and its critics   How do NGOs, working in various environments to end FGM, differ or resemble other voluntary associations dedicated to ending comparable forms of abuse? (For clarity, the US Domestic Violence Movement convention included, at least once, a panel on FGM.) Which have been notable successes of NGO involvement and what explains their relative impact if compared to NGOs considered by critics both ideologically dubious and, when it comes to FGM survivors’ needs, ineffectual? The question to be explored: why the continued calls for more effective intervention to prevent FGM and penalize perpetrators when, in some critics’ eyes, the past decade has witnessed considerable political will and financial support for an abolition ‘industry’? For the UK, is this observation, that sufficient investment has been made, justified? For the phenomenon globally?

Circumcision: maketh the man, maketh the woman   If as Simone de Beauvoir said, women are made, not born and, by extension, clitoral amputation produces them, circumcision similarly makes the man. Although the aims of clitoridectomy and removal of the foreskin are in truth incomparable, the belief in their equivalence plays a role in the longevity of the former, argued by both men and women. And given that human and children’s rights are increasingly influential in discussion of both customs, avoidance of the ‘circumcision’ debate for anti-FGM campaigns is increasingly untenable. Therefore, contributions are invited that explore issues surrounding circumcision; consider circumcision in comparison to FGM; analyze efforts to sustain and/or abolish both; examine circumcision/FGM as enhancements/ detriments to sexual development or fulfilment; that look at each in relation to gender identities; take into account personal narrative (memoirs) as well as creative writing (fiction); mine the shafts (pardon the pun) of ethnographic history concerning circumcision rites; review historical and contemporary religious debates, etc.

Sexual pleasure withheld: contestations surround clitoral restoration   Since 1988, when Dr. Pierre Foldes uncovered how to restore the clitoris, the relatively simple, 20-30 minute operation has been celebrated by beneficiaries, distrusted by FGM’s opponents, and vehemently opposed by guardians of the status quo, one of whom, a male nurse in the Burkinabe hospital where the joyful after-effects of removing the clitoral scar were reported, threatened the clinician. “You can treat pain” – with which the patient had presented – but “not that,” Foldes was told. Yet, once he had been thanked by the former victim whose renewed clitoral sensation gave her pleasure, the doctor persisted, perfecting a technique from which, today, more than 5000 women have benefited. The census of trained surgeons able to perform clitoral restoration remains small, however, relative to the number of victims. Why? What efforts have been made in various venues to introduce discussion of sexual pleasure? What explicit impediments arise? How has the medical profession dealt with the pioneering technique? What protocols are followed? What do beneficiaries say about their newly-won status? How and where can FGM survivors find medical help and each other, in order to share stories? And how does the fact of restoration affect abolition?

Suggestions for additional themed panels gladly accepted. Volunteers for an advisory committee are also invited to signal interest. We plan to publish invited papers in a peer reviewed volume and have been invited by the Journal of International Women’s Studies to a prepare a special issue.

Maximum 250-word Abstracts of papers are due March 15th. Proposals are accepted for an entire panel or for an individual paper. A fee £25 per person/£100 per NGO (5 people) applies, but no one will be excluded for inability to pay. For assistance, please contact the organizers.

Email to all three principal organizers: (Tobe Levin v. Gleichen) tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com; (Maria Jaschok) maria.jaschok@area.ox.ac.uk; (Comfort Momoh MBE) drcomfortmomoh@gmail.com

VENUE: King’s College, University of London (Strand Campus), Arts and Humanities Institute directed by Dr Anna Reading.

In the European Parliament, UnCUT/VOICES with Healthy Tomorrow advised on FGM

Thanks to MEP Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana for facilitating SKYPE participation of UnCUT/VOICES (Tobe Levin presently at Harvard) and Healthy Tomorrow (Susan McLucas in Somerville, MA) in European Parliamentary discussion dedicated to hastening an end to FGM.

I’m happy to report that among the honorable sponsors are La Palabre, launched by UnCUT/VOICES’ author Khady Koita (_Mutilée/Blood Stains_) and Dr. Pierre Foldes’ Woman Safe Institute introduced by Hubert Prolongeau (_Undoing FGM_)
Khady. Photo by Britta Radike.

At left, earlier in Geneva with friends at the Human Rights Council, l to r, author Kameel Ahmady, painter Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, activists Holger Postulart, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Elisabeth Wilson, Dr. Edna Adan Ismail.

A short report follows. Please zoom.

‘There’s One Humanity or There Isn’t’*: Kudos to UnCUT/VOICES’ author Sachiko Mitsumori for her pioneering study of Alice Walker’s novels in Japan

*“‘There’s One Humanity or There isn’t: A Conversation” between Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.  Originally published in The New York Review of Books, March 21, 2019. https://www.nybooks.com/contributors/henry-louis-gates/ Accessed 20 January 2020

On 20 January 2020, the federal holiday honoring the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I drew from my German mailbox a mystery package whose Japanese stamps appealed to me. What could it contain? I asked.  From within its fold I drew a hefty tome with glossy cover, a gift inscribed with my former mentee’s name in Kanji script: Sachiko Mitsumori. The gouache painting – an explosion of coalescing pigments like hair adorning a woman’s profile –created a resonating, polyvalent symbol of unity in diversity,  one whose endorsement can easily be found in the work of MLK, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alice Walker and others. And the inspiration could as well be called “ethics into action.”

For instance, interviewed by Satsuko Kamiya in The Japan Times on her first visit to that nation, Walker was asked why, if at age 20 she had first encountered ‘female circumcision’ in Kenya, it took so long before she wrote about it, Possessing the Secret of Joy being her 15th book. Walker’s answer is instructive:

“I was … gathering my courage, because it is such a taboo subject and I knew that many people didn’t want it discussed. I myself didn’t want to embarrass anybody. So I had to question what was the best thing to do, or what should I do. Was my duty to write about this so that people can see and feel it and think about it in a different way and change it? [Italics mine] Or, like all the other people before me, should I just camouflage it in my fiction and make it look like something else? You know? I had to struggle with all those issues. So I took all the time I needed to be able to make a decision that I can live with.

“… And actually what came after Possessing was a lot of criticism and a lot of controversy. But I could sustain it because I’d had 20 years to think about it and commit myself to it.” [1]  

My book, Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy and the Global Movement to Ban FGM  (2014) explores (and deflects) Walker’s negative reception, often couched in terms of misguided tolerance and a static understanding of tradition. When asked how Alice responded to criticism faulting her for interfering in ‘other peoples’ culture’, Setsuko is assured, “Genital mutilation is torture, and torture is not actually a culture. It may be a custom,” Walker adds, “but it is not a culture.”

Endorsing Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights, Khady Koita’s intimate account of her experience under the blade, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has written, “What we think of as the unspeakable pain and suffering of FGM must be given voice” (on the front cover). In Sachiko Mitsumori’s view, Walker does more than mount the megaphone for redress of genital abuse; instead of freezing a separate moment of horror, the excision drama melts into the context of an oeuvre that conciliates and seeks allies.

We applaud those African American voices Sachiko ferries across the Pacific that stand for tolerance and unity for all.

 Footnote

  1. Setsuko Kamiya. “Alice Walker: Love Makes Her World Go Round.” The Japan Times. May 4, 2003. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2003/05/04/general/alice-walker-love-makes-her-world-go-round/#.XibCAyMxk2w Accessed 20 January 2020.

What follows are Sachiko’s synopsis of her book and the chapter she has contributed to mine.

Compliant to Rebellious: New Interpretations of Alice Walker’s Seven Novels

By Sachiko Mitsumori. Hiroshima: 株式会社渓水社 [Keisuisha Co.], 2020.

By highlighting the intertextual relationship between The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Meridian I open my interpretation of Walker’s oeuvre. Depicting the struggles of black people under the crop-lien system, — de facto slavery by another name–, and the civil rights movement, Walker hails not only the survival of discrete persons but also their broader quest for “One-Life” that exceeds the individual. As Grange’s achievement is crowned by success in passing full, no longer monstrous, humanity on to his granddaughter Ruth, Meridian’s activism also hands the torch to future generations under the banner of social change and improved mental health.

Chapter two looks at the complementary relationship between The Color Purple and By the Light of My Father’s Smile. Uniting the male protagonists in these novels is the violence to which they subject their wives and daughters while destroying themselves in the system of white supremacy and patriarchal dominance. The suffering of both women and men is attributed by Walker to the same cause, and she aims to emancipate both sexes from a dichotomous worldview.

The third chapter turns to Possessing the Secret of Joy to show how Walker pursues the goal of abolishing FGM. The protagonist Tashi agonizes both physically and mentally from the lingering effects of her ordeal. Therefore, it might seem that her victimhood lies at the heart of the script. In fact, Walker features a number of perspectives other than Tashi’s, such as Adam’s, Olivia’s, M’Lissa’s, and last but not least Mzee’s, and delineates each person’s struggle to achieve their own “universal self.” The strength derived from this figuration of wholeness is very much needed to enable solidarity with Tashi in protest against genital abuse whose abolition presupposes community consensus. 

The final chapter compares The Temple of My Familiar and Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart. Regardless of age, sex or nationality, all characters in both novels, set in the eighties in the USA, suffer separation from their history and feel strong anxiety about their future. Close scrutiny of each one’s challenge reveals deep roots in colonialism and imperialism endured by parents or ancestors going even further into the past. Therefore, restoring a healthy bond to mothers and fathers brings understanding of black resistance and engenders fortified, wholesome identities that enable peace to embrace them all.

SACHIKO’S chapter, “Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy. Towards the Universal Self,” from Waging Empathy follows an excerpt from my Introduction to Waging Empathy (UnCUT/VOICES, 2014).

“‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’.” Audre Lorde

Lorde’s mantra finds expression in the final section [of Waging Empathy] “Treasure and Text.” Both nouns and, given smart-phones, also verbs, the global reach of Walker’s effort is celebrated here. I treasure these texts on Walker’s fiction by scholars with influence in indisputably important places, in Japan, China, India, Uganda, and Kenya, and I was, frankly, gratified to find a common thread among contributors no matter where they live: the claim that women’s rights are human rights and that stopping FGM presents a universal moral challenge. 

The first stop on this journey is Japan. 

The lush campus of Jogakuin University, set on steep, graceful hills, was steaming on July 9, 2013, as Sachiko and I, seeking shelter from the heat, came upon a powerful reminder of tragedy, hope, and the ability of humans everywhere to see how one child’s destiny speaks to their own lives. Inscribed “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), the plaque next to the library’s entrance announced a new rose created in Belgium at Otto Frank’s request to honor Anne with a symbol of his daughter’s dream of peace. In 2005, the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb and the young author’s death witnessed the planting of saplings. Now fat with fragrance, their blossoms provided an iconic preface for information I would soon impart to youthful students on FGM, an act also known as „cutting the rose.” The symbol of loveliness and harmony, the flora represents female genitalia whose desecration I would soon ask my listeners to confront. How could this best be done? 

When Alice Walker came to Tokyo to promote the Japanese translation of Possessing the Secret of Joy, she was concerned about this, too. How do you do it? Walker chose to place genital mutilation on a continuum with other sexist tortures labeled „culture.”  

Similarly in Chapter 9, “Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy. Towards the Universal Self,” Sachiko Mitsumori asks how “a horrible truth” can be brokered into insight that “what is done to Tashi is done to all.” The heroine’s trauma presents a dilemma, for readers don’t automatically act when confronted by dramas of injustice. They may be indifferent, even hostile. „How can [the author] replace … distaste for objectionable facts with empathy?”  

In the plot itself, Walker embeds critics’ challenge to her understanding of (neo) colonialism and pre-empts their refusal to voice FGM by having her heroine, at first, bear its standard. She makes defiance of the colonizer Tashi’s motive to have herself cut; and then again, as a result of immense anguish, her motive to end genital assaults on others, even if defiance costs her life. Thus, anticipating being faulted for her “superior Western attitude toward Africa,” Walker deflects the barb by promoting the “idea of a universal self, one enabled to embrace the pain of others” (Mitsumori). 

What allows this universal self to surface? It arises from the tension between resistance and complicity. After all, the story ends with a call to arms but the preface is serial assassination. Mitsumori writes: 

Women murder women in this book. M’Lissa kills Dura; Tashi suffocates M’Lissa; the State – in superficial solidarity with its token female ‘national monument’ – executes Tashi. There are metaphoric deaths, as well, of parts of personality: M’Lissa never to emerge from the scene of torture but her girl self left to weep all of the world’s tears; Nafa, in mourning for her daughter Dura, leaving footprints for Tashi to follow who envisions them stained with blood. The blood of women – a force in birth but also in death – fuses the African female characters into a single image. Nafa, M’Lissa, Mbati and Tashi gradually merge.  

Empathy among these women allows them to cohere. But what of the men? If initially Adam rejects his wife’s genital distress as the fit subject of a sermon, his mind opens at the trial: in the crowded courtroom he considers the ordeal that each female has gone through, “the women suffering from the unnatural constrictions of flesh their bodies have been whittled and refashioned into,” (Possessing 166) and he sees that Evelyn [Tashi] is not alone; there are so many others.  

This man had once been in complicity with patriarchy for refusing to nest the trials of women under the wings of a tormented Jesus, but the pastor has a change of heart. He joins the psychiatrist Mzee who, “horrified at what was done to [his patient], … recognizes it as something that is also done to [him]. A truly universal self” (Possessing 84). 

Chapter 9  

Sachiko Mitsumori  

Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy: Reflections on the Universal Self 

In Possessing the Secret of Joy, Alice Walker’s protagonist Tashi, a.k.a. Evelyn or Mrs. Johnson, has been ill-treated by a widespread custom that few fictional works make their central theme: female genital mutilation. Not an obscure act or ‘isolated brutality’ taking place far away from us, it wounds large numbers of people around the world. Yet, as Tashi gradually reveals her trauma, Walker faces a dilemma: how can she replace the inevitable audience distaste for objectionable facts with empathy? How can she present a horrible truth from which readers will not turn away but, on the contrary, accept in order to become their sisters’ keepers? How can the point be made, that what is done to Tashi is done to all? Criticized for her neglect of cultural diversity and application of superior Western attitudes toward Africa, Walker deals directly with the tension in these concepts and, although colonialism surges at key moments in the plot, the author promotes the idea of a universal self, one enabled to embrace the pain of others. How does this work? 

In Warrior Marks (with Pratibha Parmar, 1993), a companion video that pursues the theme, Walker brings more than an outsider’s anger to the widespread amputation of girls’ genitalia; she leads us inside the process of becoming a voice for change. In “Feminist (and ‘Womanist’) as Public Intellectuals,” Tobe Levin argues that Warrior Marks has been misread as a “straight-forward documentary” about FGM. Actually, it is as much about Walker herself and “the coming-to-awareness of an activist, writer and public [figure] willing to take on and encourage others to oppose a dangerous but entrenched custom” (Levin 266). Part of a broader social movement, Walker grows emotionally and realizes herself, not unlike her characters, by acting to stop what causes harm; and featuring thickly in this development is empathy, taking on the burden of the other, sharing in a “universal self.” In the novel, Adam enlarges his awareness; so, too, does Olivia, if incompletely. But Tashi’s murder of M’Lissa is the prime universal gesture, ending symbolically the chain of pain toward which the fiction and the facts all tend. Out of the characters’ mutual empathy, based on common suffering and hope, comes the impulse to act — as Walker does in her everyday life, and her characters do in the book.  

Beyond the Western lens to the “universal self” 

First, Adam … 

Walker depicts a poignant scene: surrounded by nurses, students and staff, Tashi is giving birth in the USA. Like a “sideshow” (Possessing 61), her body is exposed to Westerners’ curious gaze, and her infibulated genitalia, called “the hole” by a doctor of questionable courtesy, become a source of deep humiliation. Not only is Tashi’s physical body at stake but also her human dignity. The experience ‘others’ her, a danger of which Walker is keenly aware, as revealed in supplementary narrative vignettes. 

When Tashi enters psychoanalysis, for instance, the treating physician remarks that “Negro women … are considered the most difficult of all people to be effectively analyzed” (Possessing 18). Tashi, who denies that she is “a Negro woman,” feels “negated [to realize] that even [her] psychiatrist could not see [she] was African. That to him all black people were Negroes” (18).  Walker’s sensitivity to critics’ concerns about the West’s disdain is revealed by this ‘othering’ even in the consulting room where a special form of empathy – transference — is prescribed. Notwithstanding the stone and clay figures of African divinities, office decorations are impotent to obviate Tashi’s initial feeling about her clinician, that he is a “stranger” and “white” (18). 

Similarly, Walker confronts the deep emotional rift between Africans and the West in Warrior Marks introduced by a script Walker sends to Pratibha Parmar that depicts the cradle of Walker’s empathy in her own experience. “I’ve done this in a deliberate effort to stand with the mutilated women, not beyond them,” she wrote (Warrior Marks 13). Lovalerie King considers the effort successful, noting how “deeply personal” the project is for Walker, and how “she situates herself in the middle, rendering her narrative from that subjective vantage point. She frames her telling of their collaborative journey around her own blinding in one eye at the age of eight” (King 542). With a Christmas present – an air rifle — from their parents, one of Walker’s brothers had shot her, the injury later identified once she became “a consciously feminist adult” as a “patriarchal wound.” These two concepts – male dominance and violence – tie an everyday experience in the American South to the routine maiming of African girls.  

The blending of both continents occurs again when Adam, otherwise supportive, refuses to preach a sermon whose text reveals what Tashi and so many others have gone through. A progressive minister in San Francisco, Adam discourses on the suffering of Jesus to his increasingly confused and impatient wife who wants to know why women’s anguish resulting from torture in the name of tradition has never been revealed in the church. Tashi argues that “[n]ot in some age no one remembers, but right now, daily, in many lands on earth” (276) women are being crucified. “One sermon, [she] begged him. One discussion with your followers about what was done to me.” His reply? “… the congregation would be embarrassed to discuss something so private and that, in any case, he would be ashamed to do so” (Possessing 276). 

The last of the novel’s epigraphs reads: “When the ax came into the forest, the trees proclaimed, ‘The handle is one of us’.” This theme of complicity in oppression – the flipside of empathy — is reinforced when Adam refuses Tashi’s request. In critic Alyson R. Beckman’s words, like a colonizer, he maintains “a disempowering silence” (91).  In fact, as Walker writes, the real task is “[to] understand what it means to all of us in the world, that you can have this kind of silencing of the pain of millions of women, over maybe six thousand years” (Warrior Marks 269). It is strongly implied that revelation will save lives – as the unfurled banner that closes the tale proclaims. “Resistance is the secret…” of success. 

Does Adam resist?  Indeed, his thoughts at Tashi’s trial show him moving beyond complicity to solidarity by means of empathy in an approach to the universal self. If as a preacher he had maintained a distance from her concerns, he later starts to think of Tashi’s pain as his own. In the hot and crowded courtroom he considers the ordeal that each female has gone through, “the women suffering from the unnatural constrictions of flesh their bodies have been whittled and refashioned into” and he sees that Evelyn is not alone; that there are so many others (166). He confronts the prosecutor, mentioning the taboo word and infuriating from the crowd. Tashi acknowledges his transformation: “He is saying I am a tortured woman. Someone whose whole life was destroyed by the enactment of a ritual upon my body which I had not been equipped to understand” (162). “Weary” and “about to weep,” Adam touches Tashi’s heart and identifies with her affliction. A man once in complicity with patriarchy in refusing to universalize the suffering of Jesus to include the trials of women, he now appears ready for a change of heart. 

After Adam comes Olivia … 

If Adam represents the stranglehold of masculine privilege even on the kindest of men, his sister Olivia provides the occasion to look at another structural oppression, not gender now but colonization, a stronger impediment that in fact prevents Olivia’s attainment of a universal self. Thematically linked to continuation of FGM and thus Tashi’s torment, colonization stubbornly draws boundaries, marks exclusion and sets up rigid hierarchies. Tashi may think of Olivia as the “sister of [her] heart” (Possessing 24) and “best friend” (275) and yet, twice, the African confronts the African American concerning superior Western attitudes and even explains her self-destructive choice in terms of resistance to them. As Tashi states on departure for the Mbele camp: 

All I care about is the struggle for our people, I said. You are a foreigner. Any day you like, you and your family can ship yourselves back home. 

Jesus, she said, exasperated. 

Also a foreigner, I sneered. I finally looked her in the eye. I hated the way her hair was done. (Possessing 22-23) 

Tashi captures the crux of it in a few pithy questions: “Who are you and your people never to accept us as we are? Never to imitate any of our ways? It is always we who have to change” (Possessing 23). 

This tension between Tashi and Olivia reflects the volatile situation concerning FGM in formerly colonized – and now neo-colonialized — African nations. The Olinka, modeled after inhabitants of such states, had been evicted from their land, deprived of property and impoverished. Social status had been undermined and compulsory measures enforced. Under such circumstances, rebellion is a logical choice that entails reversals. Whereas the girls’ arms had previously looked beautiful in contrast, now Tashi disdains Olivia’s “mahogany,” (23) a sign of impurity. She also mocks the American’s braids and Mother Hubbard, her prudish and inconvenient high collar announcing not only foreignness but a specific kind within a specific context, middle-class American. Moreover, Tashi has cultural knowledge that Olivia lacks. Can the missionary recognize “the sister’s elbow” (19) in the basket? The “crazy road” on the cotton cloth? (74) As M’Lissa will later remark, red fingernails connote ancient blood power, but those who consider her ignorant are ignorant of that. 

In light of colonial mandates, history confirms many versions of Tashi’s decision to have herself sewn up, thinking she would thereby benefit, not burden, the tribe. For instance, “in 1946, during the era of British colonial rule in [the] Sudan, [when] the news that a law banning infibulation was about to be proclaimed” (Islam and Uddin 75), a rush to mutilate ensued, parents wanting infibulated daughters NOW in case vaginal sealing could not be done later. And 

When some midwives were arrested … anticolonial protests broke out. The British colonial government, fearing a massive national revolt such as those that had occurred in Egypt and Kenya, eventually let the law go unenforced. More recently, calls to action by Western feminists and human rights activists provoked similar negative reactions. (Islam and Uddin 75) 

These responses are like Tashi’s, and even if they disable her, Tashi at first conforms to customs that identify the group. Olivia argues from medical and ethical standpoints only, not acknowledging these emotionally-anchored patriotic roots of Tashi’s self-destructive act. Outwardly, Tashi is loyal to a fatherland; inwardly, though, she enacts her own rebellious will. To “disobey the outsider” – “even if it is wrong” — is to stand up for herself, “all [she] now [has] left” (Possessing 254), she explains. Olivia doesn’t understand. Her dress and hair faithful to a different standard, Olivia cannot see Tashi’s deep connection to tradition and community. Her empathy falls short. “You’ve paid for not listening to me all your life,” (254) Olivia reminds the prisoner. “And I intend to keep on paying, I say” (254). 

The rift between Tashi and Olivia mirrors that between Walker and her critics. Here empathy fails. But it wasn’t always so. From the moment she enters the story, Olivia contrasts with Adam in her sensitivity to child abuse, remembering the little girl whose sister, Dura, a hemophiliac, had just bled to death after genital mutilation (though the missionaries do not know this), and who wept in mourning  the very day that the dusty village welcomed the weary strangers. “One crying child is the rotten apple in the barrel of the tribe!” (7) Samuel had taught Olivia to empathize. But the weeping girl soon disappears and with her Olivia’s access to what remains hidden under the surface. 

Surfaces and depths continue to challenge both young women. Take the classic Olinka woman’s walk, for instance: Olivia loses Tashi to the effects of FGM, the once “cheerful” and “impish” pal replaced by an overly studied if graceful figure whose feet no longer rise above the ground but “appear to slide forward,” the visible gait occasioned by the invisible disfigurement between Tashi’s thighs. Assisting with hygiene, Olivia takes care of Tashi in America, their friendship re-established on a pragmatic basis: a medical syringe “like a small turkey baster,” used to clean behind the scar (Possessing 67), frees Tashi from the odor of accumulated blood that had kept her “virtually buried” in her home. 

Olivia’s friendship, however useful, is also inelastic, seemingly limited to surface action; the depths of Tashi’s mind continue to elude her friend, in particular the condemned woman’s need to fantasize. Geneva Cobb Moore has remarked that “[u]nable to reconcile the impoverishment of her culture with … cultural arrogance, Tashi develops a ‘passion for storytelling’ and slips into madness” (Moore 114). Tashi’s alternate realities, however, introduced from the start when a swooping bird steals the shiny penny from a water glass, define not only madness but also sanity, enabling her to go with lucidity where others, and especially Olivia, cannot.  

At her trial, Tashi sees this fissure, hurling at the prosecutors but even more so at her family the rhetorical question, “Can you bear to know what I have lost?” (35). What is lost – undercover, not there, unrealized – is the specific creativity of a woman, i.e. the essence of her wholeness. 

It must therefore be imagined, and the faculty that births it is empathy, also a component of the universal self. Spying Olivia in a gallery seat at the trial, Tashi notes her deficit. The smirk on her face, friendly but also disapproving, reveals her thoughts, and Tashi names them. “Oh, Tashi, her look seemed to say, even here, on trial for your life, you are still making things up!” (35-36). As a child, Tashi had been mocked for this and suffered; now she knows, however, the existential healthful function it serves. “Without [my fantasy life],” she thinks, “I’m afraid to exist. Who am I, Tashi, renamed in America ‘Evelyn,’ Johnson?” (36).  

Who is Tashi? A post-colonial subject, she strikes a blow for women’s freedom that Olivia, African-American, cannot understand because it means Tashi’s death. But doesn’t it really mean her universal life?  

Solidarity for resistance 

The novel ends with a demonstration of women’s solidarity, surprising given the dominant emphasis on treachery. Women murder women in this book: M’Lissa kills Dura; Tashi suffocates M’Lissa; the State – in superficial solidarity with its token female ‘national monument’ – executes Tashi. There are metaphoric deaths, as well, of parts of the self: M’Lissa never to emerge from the scene of torture but her girl self left to weep all of the world’s tears; Nafa, in mourning for her daughter Dura, leaving footprints for Tashi to follow who envisions them stained with blood. The blood of women – a force in birth but also in death – fuses the African female characters into a single image. Nafa, M’Lissa, Mbati and Tashi gradually merge.  

An energetic worker in the wars of independence and champion of the ancient ways, M’Lissa appears in a Newsweek photo. She is honored as “a link with the past for us,” Mbati tells Tashi, “especially for us women,” adding “she is an icon” (154). But she is the only one, because only one is needed. Angels or devils, either women conform, or they are demonized. Either their genitals are sewn, or they are loose and monstrous, as Tashi confides: “[her] uncircumcised vagina was [considered] a monstrosity” (121). Note how geography doesn’t matter here: in Africa or in the West, women’s genital organs define them, corseting their options to act. 

Both Tashi and M’Lissa share this insight. Both have the eyes of the sere, Melissa’s “beady,” (151), Tashi’s suggesting madness, flat and unreflective, serving no longer to see out but rather to look in where each finds the other’s doppelgänger, the young child that each had once been abandoned to weep unheard—until now when, at last, liberation is imminent even if the effort to save a girl had been tried in the past and failed. It was M’Lissa’s mother who had wanted to leave her daughter’s clitoris intact. But the vain attempt led to even graver injury when the “witchdoctor … corrected the fault,” (221) leaving on M’Lissa’s body “the mark … of her … mother’s disobedience” (217), a keloid scar “hard as a leather shoe sole” (217), a wound that becomes a sign of the child’s betrayal (225) and at the same time a signal to open blocked pathways to the heart. 

The device that frees the way is tears – “Why is the child crying?” –, Tashi enabled to shed them, M’Lissa, not yet. Realizing her enemy’s pain and hence its reflection of her own, Tashi weeps: “For [herself]. For Adam. For [their] son. For the daughter [she] was forced to abort” (Possessing 224). M’Lissa, however, cannot shed tears thoughshe evokes her own childhood’s howling and understands for the first time her fragmented self, finding release.As Olakunle George observes, M’Lissa’s and Tashi’s voices fuse with those of “every little girl that has passed under her … knife” and who have not ceased to cry “’since [she] left’” (366). Thus,  M’Lissa, who calls Tashi “daughter,” and Tashi for whom the older woman is “Mother Lissa,” (153) finally connect, united by their shared weeping,but instead of commemorating their mothers’ and many children’spain,M’Lissa had already stopped feeling, and she persuades Tashi to accept that “there is no God known to man who cares about children or … women.” Rather, “the God of woman is autonomy” (223).  

Autonomy, however, a function of power, remains unavailable to women coerced into performing or commissioning their own dismemberment. When Tashi, her inarticulate mind resembling “a crow … cawing mutely at an empty sky, … wore black, and black and black,” the mournful image of both insanity and protest evokes the patriarchal politics that led her in the first place to accept the cut. Allegedly ‘for her own good’, as proponents insist, it failed to liberate but instead imprisoned her – as it did M’Lissa and all victims – in their inflexible flesh. Millennia old, rigid in the mutilated skin, the labial stitch perpetuates the status quo in which mothers like Nafa and M’Lissa, by “prepar[ing] the lambs for slaughter” (258), ready them for lives prematurely closed, emotionally numb and, above all, inarticulate. As Elaine Scarry writes, pain has no language; Walker, at least, has taught it to speak through fiction.  

M’Lissa’s last story is told by Tashi. Tashi wants to learn more about her sister Dura’s death, her mother’s role in it, and M’Lissa’s thoughts. If Nafa knew that Dura was a bleeder, why wasn’t she spared? The discussion implies that her death could have been prevented, but not by Nafa, “the kind of woman who jumps even before the man says boo” (253), nor by M’Lissa who, by the time it’s Tashi’s turn, “did not care” (54).  

Not caring, indifferent, resigned to the status quo destructive to women, M’Lissa dies not only for what she has repeatedly done in the absence of conscience but as much for what she has ceased to feel — the pain of women and her own. Tashi must kill indifference in M’Lissa and also in herself, and in doing so rejuvenates herself, admitting to a sense that, “at the end of [her] life,” she can “reinhabit … the body [she] long ago left” (110).  

What kind of body is it? The frame Tashi enters is American. 

“What does an American look like?” (210) M’Lissa asks Tashi in a seemingly unrelated, Scheherazade-like change of theme that prolongs the exciser’s life. “An American looks like me,” the younger woman comes to realize. The specific question that postpones the murder is for Olakunle George the missing key to closure. America, a “sub-textual protagonist” (365), encourages intervention to right wrongs. If Americans harbor hidden wounds (213), then Tashi belongs among them and can drink at the fountain of a new allegiance. Tribal pride encouraged mutilation; another nation’s alternative ethos enables her to fight it. An ideal America is inclusive, as Mzee writes about his “self”: it is “horrified at what was done to Evelyn, but recognizes it as something that is also done to me. A truly universal self” (84).  

Works Cited 

Althaus, Frances A. “Rite of Passage or Violation of Rights?” International Family Planning Perspectives 23.3 (Sept. 1997): 130-133. Print. 

Brownworth, Victoria A. Rev. of Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women by Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar. Lamdra Book Report 4.6 (Sept.-Oct. 1994): 37. Print. 

Buckman, Alyson R. “The Body as a Site of Colonization: Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy.” Journal of American Culture 18 (1995): 89-94. Print. 

Cape, Jonathan. “Looking like an American.” Rev. of Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker. New Statesman and Society 9 Oct. 1992: 36-37. Print. 

George, Olakunle. “Alice Walker’s Africa: Globalization and the Province of Fiction.” Comparative Literature 53.4 (2001): 354-72. Print. 

James, Stanlie M. “Shades of Othering: Reflections on Female Circumcision / Genital Mutilation.” Signs 23.4 (1998): 1031-1048. Print. 

Islam, M. Mazharul and M. Mosleh Uddin. “Female Circumcision in Sudan: Future Prospects and Strategies for Eradication.” International Family Planning Perspectives 27.2 (June, 2001): 71-76. Print. 

King, Lovalerie. Rev. of Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women by Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar. African American Review 31.3. Autumn 1997: 542-545. Print. 

Levin, Tobe. “Alice Walker, Activist: Matron of FORWARD.” Black Imagination and the Middle Passage. Eds. Maria Diedrich, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Carl Pedersen. NY: Oxford UP, 1999. 240-254. Print. 

—–. “Feminist (and “Womanist”) as Public Intellectuals: Elfriede Jelinek and Alice Walker.” In The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond. Exploring Liberal Humanism, Jewish Identity, and the American Protest Tradition. Eds. E. Goffman and D. Morris. W. Lafayette, IN: Purdue U.P., 2009. 243-274. Print. 

—–. Rev. of Warrior Marks a film by Pratibha Parmar, executive producer Alice Walker, 1993; and Warrior Marks. Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women by Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar. NWSA Journal 6/3. Fall 1994. 511-514. Print. 

Menya, Diana C. Rev. of Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker. The Lancet. 13 Feb. 1993: 423. Print. 

Moore, Geneva Cobb. “Archetypal Symbolism in Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy.” Southern Literary Journal 33.1 (2000): 111-21. Print. 

Olenick, I. “Female Circumcision is Nearly Universal in Egypt, Eritrea, Mali and Sudan.” International Family Planning Perspectives 24.1 (March 1998): 47-49. Print. 

Pifer, Lynn, and Tricia Slusser. “’Looking at the Back of Your Head’: Mirroring Scenes in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy.” Melus 23.4 (1998): 47-57. Print. 

Sample, Maxine. “Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy.” Explicator 58.3 (2000): 169-72. Print. 

Osaki, Lillian Temu. “Madness in Black Women’s Writing. Reflections from Four Texts: A Question of Power, The Joys of Motherhood, Anowa, and Possessing the Secret of Joy.” Ahfad Journal 19.1 (2002): 4-20. Print. 

Vega, Susanna. “Surviving the Weight of Tradition: Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy.” Journal of American Studies of Turkey 5 (1997): 19-26. Print. 

 

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Reminder: 17 October 2019: At Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Tobe Levin on Fiction to End FGM

At Cornell University, 17 October 2019: Tobe Levin on Fiction to End FGM

Female genital mutilation thrives on authority over female bodies that has been challenged by a vibrant movement of audacious youth and seasoned authors in Diaspora and in many nations where excision prevails.  In this lecture, I’ll discuss Linda Weil-Curiel’s screenplay Bintou in Paris (1994); Klaus Werner and Uschi Madeisky’s Sharifa’s Three Wishes: With the Kunama in Eritrea (2000); cineaste Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé (2004); Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s WAAFRIKA 123 (2016), likely the first anti-FGM fiction by a Kenyan transgender playwright, and Jeanie Kortum’s novel Stones (2017), the last two from UnCUT/VOICES Press.  These works uncover a conservative demographic that fears disaster should the ’deeply anchored’ tradition be broken. What emerges as authorizing FGM is terror generated by deeply held beliefs amenable to change by innovative cultural narratives.

On the UN International Commemorative Day for Charity, September 5: with gratitude to Bernard Kouchner and Pierre Foldes in Undoing FGM

A remarkable Frenchman, an immigrant whose paternal grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz, rose to become the Foreign Minister of France. He also founded Médecins sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) as well as Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) and was honored by the Jerusalem Post in 2010 [1] as “the 15th most influential Jew in the world.” I’m talking about Dr. Bernard Kouchner who authored the Foreword to UnCUT/VOICES’ book by Hubert Prolongeau about Dr. Pierre Foldes:  Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon who Restores the Clitoris (Translation and Afterword by Tobe Levin. 2011. Original 2006. Cover design by Kaye Beth). Beyond the selflessness of both Kouchner and Foldes in their relentless  service to humanity, they have a special link to this particular UN Day, named in memory of Mother Teresa who passed away on September 5th, 1997. In deep appreciation of his friend and colleague, Kouchner reminds us that

“Pierre Foldes worked in Mother Teresa’s hospice. Influenced by the devotion of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, he, too, grew determined to shelter the dying no matter where they came from. And knowing the protective force of words, he would start to unsettle those indifferent to sexual mutilation, speaking out about the rights of man, the rights of woman, and for equality. He never fled from his responsibilities. Not in Burma as the military regime acceded to power and used forced labor while spreading AIDS by growing poppies for heroin production.  Not in Mali or in Sarajevo either, where he accepted constraints in order to serve the greatest number. But let’s stick to what we know.  Who forced him to volunteer? No one, and therein lies his power.”

Prize-winning novelist Hubert Prolongeau, commissioned first by a major French weekly to depict Foldes, approaches his subject with enthusiastic admiration in the following excerpt from the Introduction to Undoing FGM:

“Urologist, physician and humanitarian, from his earliest assignments in Africa the gentle giant witnessed ravages due to FGM. At first he failed to see the horror and, like many, saw instead another’s custom that his respect and tolerance led him to accept.  But soon he recognized the immensity of suffering that this attitude obscured, the pain that he had always found unbearable. And this particular pain was one he’d be unable to forget. He had tended wounds he hoped to soothe. Although a technician, he wanted to create and, in search of a solution, miraculously found one. Quickly, welding handiwork and genius, he discovered how to repair the damage of excision, to return a clitoris to those from whom it had been snatched, to restore the right to pleasure and offer injured women the confidence of renewed integrity. It’s enough to hear a patient talk about all that his simple gesture has given her (going well beyond sexual satisfaction), to see her eyes light up when saying his name. Then you would understand that a fundamental change has occurred in her life and that the new turn she has made is merely at its start.

“Ever since, Pierre Foldes has opposed FGM. With courage. Making light of the many threats he’s received and the economic problems that follow from his having been, for years, one of very, very few able to perform the surgery, yet accepting no payment. As activist, as witness, he has become increasingly engaged in feminist movements opposing FGM such as GAMS and Ni putes ni soumises, ‘Neither Whores nor Submissives’. He has been found alongside personalities like Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Taslima Nasreen, Simone Veil, Bernard Kouchner. … The physician held open the door and a militant emerged.”

And Hubert Prolongeau continues:

“I first met Pierre Foldes when portraying him for Le Nouvel Observateur. From behind his tranquil confidence emerged a certain modesty and more: doubt, dedication … as well as a limitless concern for humanity, characteristics that encourage us to go beyond the simple narrative of his discovery to include witnessing, denouncing, and insisting that what we have here is something magnificent, something that augurs a new beginning and gives immense hope to one hundred and thirty million women in the world.[3] This is what he wants as well. Writing his story allowed me to meet his patients, to join them in understanding what his discovery means to them, to go to Africa to learn more in order to take a stand against a practice that should be stopped. And then, to move beyond the exemplary biography out into campaigns, supporting those men and women in the Inter-African Committee – comprised of residents in African countries and not a group of ‘whites’ hawking ‘white’ values, as militants against FGM are sometimes charged with doing – who see this practice as ‘one of the worst plagues humanity has ever known’.”

Because Dr. Foldes’ esteem for Mother Teresa expressed itself in an obituary that he read on French radio, Prolongeau cedes the page to authentic encomiums from Foldes himself. Foldes told his listening audience in 1997 (in French of course):

“India – Hindu, Buddhist, and Moslem – is mourning the loss of a mother just like it wept for Gandhi. The crowds pressing toward the Mother House are venerating a ‘saint’ in the Indian sense of the word, but also a fallen symbol whose mission had opposed all exclusions and all violence. … Having been privileged to work by her side, I received three gifts of knowledge: You can accomplish a great deal with very little by being there at key moments when humans suffer. When you reach a clinical dead-end where science reveals nothing but horror, simple gestures offered with sincerity can produce tangible results. The enormity of the task is never overwhelming; a drop of water can become a river.

“All by herself, with help from no one, Mother Teresa began her mission in the slums and rescued the most abject for fifteen years before receiving attention from the media or dons and founding her order. Her disappearance will have a profound effect on Bengal, expert in broken promises and political sterility, left to ponder the immensity of her concrete and palpable work.

“And last not least, a compelling icon has unfolded its full meaning. The same message reached three hundred castes, two hundred dialects and six religions in a province devastated by partition, exodus and war.

Where Gandhi had achieved independence but failed in non-violence, Mother Teresa revolted against poverty and rejected the seeming ineluctable. For a people whose suffering goes on, she has become a myth of refusal to abdicate, no matter how desperate the situation. She took action, always. Action:  the word sums up her life and tells us why she remains close to the nearly 1 billion inhabitants of India. It’s also the universal message addressed to us, humanitarian volunteers. At the source was what she called faith but what we understand as militant activist engagement. … In sum, at the heart of it all we find the power of will, the primacy of action and dismissal of discouragement. … I am grateful for the lesson. Namaska, Mother.”

What moves readers most in Prolongeau, Kouchner and Foldes is the globalized ecumenism splintering boundaries and conventional constraints: not gender, nationality, faith, nor language inhibits a concerted effort to ameliorate a certain kind of pain and rid the world of it. This movement beckons everyone.

You can buy Hubert Prolongeau’s Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon who Restores the Clitoris (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press., 2011) on Amazon.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Kouchner Accessed 5 September 2019.

[2] Groupes [de] femmes pour l’abolition des mutilations sexuelles, French section of the Inter-African Committee, an association founded in Addis Ababa in 1984 covering twenty-eight nations and working to improve the health of African women and children.

[3] WHO’s estimate of the number of victims [in the early 00’s].

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Deeply concerned about Kameel Ahmady