May 25, Africa Day, pays tribute to the founding in 1963 of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now succeeded by the African Union (AU), whose opposition to FGM deserves applause. In Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, concluding the AU’s 17th Summit, the heads of African states approved a Declaration calling for the 66th session of the UN General Assembly to “Ban FGM worldwide” (A/RES/67/146). Proposed by Burkina Faso, the Declaration responded to efforts at persuasion led by No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC), EuroNet-FGM and the Senegalese NGO La Palabre (1).
UnCUT/VOICES’ author Khady, active in all four sponsoring organizations, narrates in her memoir, Mutilée (2005) or Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (2010) how, at the UN, she urged action against FGM. Sixty-six copies of Blood Stains were placed in GA delegates’ hands before the vote– art and politics in seamless synergy. And two thirds of the General Assembly, including the entire African Group, cosponsored the initiative. On 20 December 2012, consensus obtained among UN members who agreed to end impunity, enact legislation and enforce it to protect women and girls. (2)
But global victory is one thing; local progress is quite another and seemingly more elusive. One promising effort to move forward found expression in a venue until now generally inhospitable to discussion of FGM: the university. Too often shrouded in anthropology departments openly hostile to activist research, female genital mutilation emerged from the shadows at a daylong March 7, 2015, workshop hosted by International Gender Studies at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. The multi-disciplinary exploration of relations between activism and the academy elicited unforgettable moments of anguish and hope, torment and resolve.
Hoda Ali, Hibo Wardere, Valentine Nkoyo, and Leyla Hussein, professionals and activists whose carved flesh is their most moving inspiration, shared the similar torments they endured, albeit in different hells. Hoda, for instance, infibulated in Somalia, told us how, as a small child of seven, she had been one of the lucky ones to receive anesthetic that worked – it doesn’t always – when her labia were cut, but she remembers with intensity the feeling associated with each stitch and the relentless burning that wouldn’t let her sleep. When she turned 14, hematocolpos — accumulation of blood in the abdomen for lack of an exit–, caused pain and worse – infections, internal scarring and sterility. Despite numerous surgeries and hospital stays – five years’ worth before her period was regulated–, Hoda learned at age 31 she could never have children, a disappointment possibly worsened by her culture’s insistence on maternity as a marker of gender identity. Hoda’s plea for understanding did not fall on deaf ears. Asking why such senseless torment had been inflicted on defenseless children, she called on listeners to help end FGM.
From Somalia like Hoda, educator Hibo Wardere makes it her mission to bring the abolition message into schools, sensitizing pupils and staff at both primary and secondary level. Breaking the silence, FGM never spoken about at home, Hibo alerts to danger signals coming from classmates. Is that little girl at risk of being removed from the country to undergo FGM in her parents’ home? It’s getting close to holiday time. Is she particularly nervous, fidgety? “I tell my story in graphic detail,” Hibo says. “Three women come to your house and hold you so tight you can’t breathe. All you can do is surrender to the pain. I was screaming for my mum but all she said was quiet, be quiet, the neighbors will hear.” For Hibo, girls have a right to learn about FGM. Why? In order to refuse. “They have the right to know and a right to refuse,” she insists, for “if we DON’T talk about it, twenty-five years from now we’ll be having the same discussion.” Bringing it out in the open liberates her too, she admits, from the “mental madness over what happened” to her and intolerably high numbers of others.
As for Valentine Nkoyo, a Maasai from Kenya, (3) she longed for nothing more strongly than an education but a traditional father recognized neither her ambition nor her talent. Valentine was mutilated and, following custom to the letter, taken out of school to prepare for her wedding. She revved up her courage, however, to do what is hardly ever done: she approached her father, a remote man with many wives and children. Normally, custom and ceremony would have forbidden the lowly female child, she told us, even to address him. So what Valentine did was a recite a poem. Yes, she had been ‘circumcised’ but begged to postpone marriage and be allowed to return to school. The poetry softened her father’s heart, and not only did he agree but even wept.
The two presenters who closed the workshop, keynote speaker Maggie O’Kane who heads the present Guardian campaign against FGM in the UK, USA, Australia and Kenya; and co-founder of Daughters of Eve, Hawa’s Haven, and Dahlia’s Project, Leyla Hussein left us with indelible impressions and resolve. Maggie O’Kane showed three video clips illustrating “how a new generation of campaigners and journalists are harnessing the media”; Leyla Hussein projected “The Cruel Cut,” a TV documentary in which she teaches about FGM with unique props: a vagina tent, clitoris cupcakes, model genitalia and, most unforgettably, an audience of six Somali youth transformed from defenders of the practice into committed opponents when they observe Leyla’s garden shears trim the labia fashioned out of clay. They display their malaise as she stitches up the lips. Thus, pedagogy without euphemism, showing it as it is, (may be the only thing that) works.
Each session –there had been six, of which you find only the first described here (4) — asked presenters to respond to specific questions. Hoda, Hibo, and Valentine were answering the query, what do you survivors want the rest of us to know? The answer in brief is “Stop FGM.”
(2) Reported by No Peace Without Justice. See more at: http://www.npwj.org/FGM/UN-General-Assembly-Adopts-Worldwide-Ban-Female-Genital-Mutilation.html#sthash.ccu2SxUU.dpuf
(3) Valentine Nkoyo has contributed an autobiographical Afterword to the forthcoming Kiminta. Maasai. Speaking Out about FGM. A Memoir and Sourcebook by Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin with photographs by Britta Radike. (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015).
(4) International Gender Studies, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford is bringing out an electronic newsletter, co-edited by Tobe Levin von Gleichen and Phyllis Ferguson, with full reports on the workshop whose program is available at www.uncutvoices.wordpress.com (March 7, 2015).