At Harvard Law School 1 October 2015, Leyla with Charlotte Proudman and Lisa Erickson

At Harvard Law School 1 October 2015, Leyla with Charlotte Proudman, Lisa Erickson and (photo right) Tobe Levin von Gleichen

She was expecting for the first time a much-desired child, but when the mother-to-be hooked her knees into the stirrups, an overwhelming panic seized her – assaults that would repeat at each prenatal check-up. Sometimes, she would faint. Why?
“My psychotherapist explained that although consciously, I was unaware of a connection, my body remembered the mutilation I endured at age 7 in Somalia.” Leyla Tobe Charlotte Harvard Law October 1
Speaking at Harvard Law School and at the First Church Cambridge where she aired The Cruel Cut, Leyla Hussein, herself a therapist and co-founder of Daughters of Eve, described one striking long-term effect of infibulation that Somali girls endure.
If the link between the little girl and the pregnant adult remained weak, memory of the torture was strong. As Leyla narrates in the film:
“I remember waking up … early in the morning [with] the sun beaming through our bedroom window. I heard really painful screaming. I knew it was my sister because she kept calling out for my mother, where’s my mommy where’s my mommy. I heard them say, Get Leyla, get Leyla now. It’s Leyla’s turn. All of a sudden my dress was pulled up, my legs were forced apart. My knees were literally on my shoulders. Four women held me down. I was trying to kick, punch … He grabbed my clitoris and I felt him cutting through … I felt every cut, pull, stitch. I felt the whole thing and was screaming so much I just blacked out.” (1)

Years later, in only ten minutes, a counselor reconnected the dots for Leyla, showing how what was done so long ago to that small girl continues its haunting today. The realization drives her resolve. “In the UK,” she tells us, “I want to change the discourse. The umbrella of religion and culture” shouldn’t shelter FGM. “It’s abuse. A child is a child, and if it was a white child, … the government would be doing its job.”
The Cameron administration is, in fact, the activist’s addressee.
Together with the late Efua Dorkenoo OBE, Leyla called on Home Secretary Theresa May demanding of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition accountability and coordination among ministries responsible for child protection. A petition called “Stop FGM in the UK Now” targets specific weaknesses in the government’s approach. “The multi-agency guidelines are not statutory, implementation at Local Authority and NHS level is disjointed, funding is minimal, and nobody is monitoring or holding anyone to account. As FGM falls under the Violence Against Woman and Girls (VAWG) portfolio, we believe that the Home Office should take responsibility for drawing up and [implementing] a National Strategy and Action Plan to eliminate FGM in the UK. [We need] effective leadership” the petition reads, sustained by the 110,561 signatures it had as of 16 July 2014 – enough to move it forward on the parliamentary agenda. (2)
Thus, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, chaired by Rt. Hon Keith Vaz MP, makes “the case for a national action plan.” (3) Concrete suggestions encompass prosecution, safeguarding and specific alteration in the law.
With an estimated 66,000 British women affected, and 24,000 girls at risk, “cultural sensitivity [that] is preventing any real discussion around FGM” should be re-examined, Leyla says. “It’s about time this was shaken up.”

Reflections on the film …

Leyla Hussein The Cruel CutCrafted from pliable clay in innocent pastels, the labia minora and labia majora, festooned with a clitoral bud, yield without resistance to Leyla Hussein’s garden shears. Six young Somali men who witness the destruction are not as docile. Unaware of the education that awaits them as they follow their  instructor into the spacious gallery, they DO resist and yet remain, grimacing and squirming, as Leyla demonstrates what WHO means by FGM types 1, 2 and 3: scissoring the clitoris, amputating the small lips, and sewing the large ones together. In fact, one guest at the Museum of Vaginas, as Hussein calls it, suffers such distress that he leaves. “You feel sick?” she asks him gently and follows him outside, offering comfort. In fact, not one in the masculine audience remains unmoved by the explicit torture that sexist social pressure had forced on female classmates.
Viewers first meet these youth on a playing field demonstrating fancy legwork with a football. Asked how they felt about ‘female circumcision’, all approved, citing the litany of well-known myths. It calms girls down, one avers. And another welcomes it as an antidote: he doesn’t want his own intended to resemble “a supermarket,” open to all. But you can see their nausea, shock and outrage when confronting the horrible truth. “Why do our elders do this?” they ask. “What for?”

Discussion of Leyla's presentation, l to r Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Susan McLucas, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Charlotte Proudman

Discussion of Leyla’s presentation, l to r Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Susan McLucas, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Charlotte Proudman

They really had not known! But now that they have been taught, several wish to be part of the movement. ‘Yes’, they answer when Leyla invites them to join. ‘We’re with you. You can count on us’.
Psychologist Leyla Hussein, whose Channel 4 show The Cruel Cut (first aired on 6 November 2013) was nominated for a BAFTA prize, showed her potent documentary at the First Church Cambridge Congregational after the Law School talk. It portrays her as an educator who understands that people of good will in the UK, once FGM becomes real to them, will support effective measures to stop it and protect its victims.
But an awareness deficit exists. Leyla’s eyes swell after she has gathered evidence of this. To test British attitudes, she requests random passers-by to approve a multi-cultural exemption for ‘female circumcision’. In half an hour, only one person refuses to sign on. Nearly two dozen others easily offer their complicity, likely wishing to be agreeable and not offend, but equally clearly without knowing precisely what they were agreeing to – the amputation of girl children’s genitalia.
To instruct the public, Leyla and sister activists from the NGO Daughters of Eve set up a vagina tent on the Thames promenade. Enticing pedestrians to enter by offering frosted clitoris cupcakes, she then explains the distressing reality as the camera once again captures audience malaise. One young woman clenches her thighs; another cannot stop shaking; a third looks queasy. And just as the young men did, many female attendees claim a readiness to work for the end of such abuse.
You can, too …

The Cruel Cut can be viewed at

With appreciation to the hosts: for the speech and clip at Harvard Law School, the Human Rights and Gender Violence Program directed by Mindy Jane Roseman, J.D., Ph.D., moderated by Caroline Pridgeon and Elizabeth Erickson; and for The Cruel Cut at the First Church Cambridge Congregational, with thanks to the Missions and Social Justice Committee of the church with Susan Redlich; International Gender Studies Centre, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford with Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen of UnCUT/VOICES Press; and Healthy Tomorrow/Sini Sanuman with Susan McLucas.


1 <http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-cruel-cut/videos/all/stop-fgm&gt; Retrieved 3 October 2015.

2 <https://petition.parliament.uk/archived/petitions/52740&gt; Retrieved 3 October 2015.

3 <http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/home-affairs-committee/news/140703-fgm-rpt-pubn/&gt; Retrieved 3 October 2015.


Leyla and ComfortIn the photo I took in February 2011 in London, midwife and author Comfort Momoh sits to the left of Leyla Hussein who had just acted in Muted Cry, a play about FGM dramatizing debate among generations of Somali immigrants. Movement veterans, Comfort and I had been friends for years, but having had the first opportunity to admire Leyla, I knew she would become the powerful voice of change – against FGM – from within that we have seen over the last few years.

LEYLA HUSSEIN, psychotherapist and social activist, co-founded Daughters of Eve [http://www.dofeve.org/leyla-hussein.html]; Hawa’s Haven (‘Safeguarding Somali Women and Children’) [https://hawashaven.wordpress.com/] and Dahlia’s Project [http://www.mayacentre.org.uk/dahlia-project-survivors-fgm/]. Leyla also won the Cosmopolitan Ultimate campaigner Women of the Year Award in 2010 and the Emma Humphrey Award in 2011

YOU CAN HEAR HER SPEAK AND SEE HER STUNNING FILM on October 1 at Harvard, in part sponsored by UnCUT/VOICES Press. Please click on the flyer.

Leyla Harvard Cambridge Congregational IGS LMH

For Africa Day, less FGM …

Khady front coverMay 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).

Khady UNUnCUT/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.

Valentine Hoda HiboHoda 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.

Leyla and Maggie for BlogThe 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.”


(1) See more at: http://www.npwj.org/FGM/AU-Summit-NPWJ-welcomes-African-Union%E2%80%99s-decision-support-adoption-a-UNGA-resolution-Ban-FGM-worl#sthash.G4YpCUNG.dpuf

(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).

Zero Tolerance for FGM …

L to r: Tobe Levin, the late Efua Dorkenoo OBE, Hilary Burrage, London August 2013. We still mourn the loss in October 2014 of our mentor Efua whose spirit speaks through Hilary's post.

L to r: Tobe Levin, the late Efua Dorkenoo OBE, Hilary Burrage, London August 2013. We still mourn the loss in October 2014 of our mentor Efua whose spirit speaks through Hilary’s post.

KUDOS to  Hilary Burrage for clarity, courage, and compassion in “Anthr/Apological Studies Of FGM As Cultural Excuses For ‘FGC’”

April 22, 2015

Here’s a passionate reminder of what’s at stake:  keeping girls’ genitalia intact. Hilary makes a clear case against coddling  accomplices of FGM … http://hilaryburrage.com/2015/04/22/anthrapological-studies-of-fgm-as-cultural-excuses-for-fgc/

Readers may also want to see my  coinage of the concept, published significantly at the University of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Tobe Levin. “’Highly valued by both sexes’: Activists, Anthr/apologists and FGM.” in the Journal on Female Genital Mutilation and Other Harmful Traditional Practices. Scientific Organ of IAC. IAC 25th Anniversary Commemorative Issue. Vol. 3, No. 1, 2010 (including Vol. 2 No. 2). 52-61. See, too, http://www.accmuk.com/fgm_factsheet_1.pdf  & Feminist Europa. Review of Books.  Special on FGM. 9/2009 & 10/ 2010. http://www.ddv-verlag.de/issn_1570_0038_FE%2009_2010.pdf

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) 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), morissanda@gmail.com, +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: http://statementonfgm.com/


(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?