Contestation around FGM: Activism and the Academy

Source: Contestation around FGM: Activism and the Academy

Simply click on the link above to the Proceedings of our Workshop on FGM at Lady Margaret Hall, sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre, LMH at the University of Oxford. The occasion for posting today is this afternoon’s showing of MOOLAADÉ as our contribution to International Zero Tolerance to FGM Day.

TIME: 4 p.m. 4 February 2016

VENUE: The Old Library, Lady Margaret Hall

The film:

For more information on the origin of Zero Tolerance Day, see


On Human Rights Day: Leyla Hussein (on Screen) with WAAF (Women’s Action against FGM – Japan)

“I’m 22 years old, living in Manchester, and I was cut when I was 6 years old.”
“I had my FGM done when I was about four.”
“I had FGM when I was seven …”
“I was only eleven …”
“I thought it was like baptism. …”
“The lady came, the cutter. She told me … to lie down in front of her.”
“They put a big table on the patio and there were a lot of people watching.”
“She took out the razor blade and I started to panic straight away. I started to scream. There was already blood … and little bits of skin…”
“The next thing I knew I was lying on the floor and there’s this HUGE woman, VERY big. She sat on my chest and spread my legs apart.”
“And I remember the first cut of the blade, you know, going through your skin, so sharp.”

“I didn’t stop crying and I did not stop bleeding.”
[Audible sigh] “It’s indescribable”
“… the kind of pain that never leaves you. It doesn’t matter whether you’re having a good day or a bad day. You’ll always have the image popping into your head of you standing over your own pool of blood looking at your flesh…” 1

Among WAAF's services, the group translated the UN's interagency statement on FGM into Japanese.

Among WAAF’s services, the group translated the UN’s interagency statement on FGM into Japanese.

Leyla Hussein’s prize-winning film The Cruel Cut features this powerful symphony of voices,  youthful survivors who decry an act from which they should have been immune. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, already in place when they were excised, failed to protect them. Yet, on 10 December 1948, the U.N. General Assembly had adopted this key document; 67 years later I made my second visit to WAAF (Women’s Action against FGM – Japan), the unfulfilled promise of human rights protection having brought us together.

Leyla in _The Cruel Cut_ on  screen in Tokyo

Leyla in _The Cruel Cut_ on screen in Tokyo

Welcoming their visitors with sushi, green tea, and a shared concern to live up to safeguarding ideals, Nina Raj, Mitsue Ohi and Yoko Hayashi introduced WAAF’s recent projects in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Uganda. Ten years ago in Guinea,  WAAF supported a nationwide caravan of parliamentarians who visited their constituencies to speak about FGM, an initiative of Cellule de Coordination sur les Pratiques Traditionnelles Affectant la Santé des Femmes et des Enfants (CPTAFE) in Conakry, Guinea, an IAC affiliate, as you can see on WAAF’s flyer (below left).

Our special guest is the Honorable Sophia Nangombe, Ambassador from Namibia to Japan

Our special guest is the Honorable Sophia Nangombe, Ambassador from Namibia to Japan

WAAF flyer 3

WAAF 2015 Flyer

My task was to outline advances on the left-hand side of the Eurasian landmass. Inspired by the successful reception at our workshop on FGM at the University of Oxford, I carried part of our program to Tokyo. There we screened Maggie O’Kane’s excerpts from the Guardian’s global campaign and Leyla Hussein’s The Cruel Cut. In the UK,  media  has been significant in advancing awareness of FGM while also recording the movement to stop it.

Since its inception, WAAF has been backing grassroots initiatives in Africa. To raise funds, they educate the public. One tool is film, the other simple talk. “Twenty years ago, when we set up information booths, nobody knew what FGM was. At the end of the day we were exhausted,  taking 15 – 20 minutes to describe excision and why we were against it. Today things are different. Five minutes are enough,” Nina explained. “Why?” I asked. “Well, for one thing, books, TV programs and movies. Waris Dirie’s memoirs were translated into Japanese as was Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, and the films associated with them – Desert Flower and Warrior Marks – played here. We saw Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé as well.”
Interestingly, the translator of Possessing the Secret of Joy, Yumiko Yanagisawa, was the founder of WAAF. Although in a telephone interview on 9 September 2013, Yanagisawa discouraged making any direct link between the African American novelist and WAAF’s birth shortly after the story of Tashi appeared, the book played a major role in awakening its translator’s understanding of the issue, and the group has continued privileging narrative as a teaching tool.
This accounts for  keen interest when I shared another novelty. On 20 October 2015 FORWARD UK premiered the claymation films Needlecraft and My Body My Rules (two versions of the same short, the first for teens, the second for under 12’s) which we watched in Tokyo. The London venue – Porticullis House, the office building for Members of Parliament – underscores the serious concern that the British government now gives FGM.
WAAF admired Needlecraft and My Body My Rules, the first of which shows embroidery as an innocent creative process from which flowers spring and a garden of delight results until the scissors become a weapon that snips appendages off a happy child. Audiences gasp as, wholly unexpectedly, an ear and then a nose are sliced. This dramatic visualization is left out of the film  for younger kids. In its place is the girl pleading “don’t hurt me” and insisting that her body, intact, should be left alone. That is, the cheeky child declares, “My body. My rules.”

Recently, especially with realization of Efua Dorkenoo’s dream of a government sponsored “Girl Generation” to end FGM, youth as a target audience is gaining in popularity among NGOs in the UK, Japan and African nations aiming to end FGM. WAAF for instance supports a long-term project in Liberia that in its first year addressed stakeholders, village elders and religious authorities but in the second generated workshops with young people (and FGM practitioners).
Although UnCUT/VOICES Press hasn’t yet produced materials for the youngest grades, several publications are appropriate for high school students: Khady’s Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (2010), a memoir that catalogs rights violations bracketed by its author’s heroic opposition; Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe’s Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation (2015), short stories and poetry that capture the pain and injustice of the injury; and Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin with photographs by Britta Radike, Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation (2015) which combines memoir and analysis. Designed for classroom use, Kiminta is both a personal narrative and a source book.  Khady herself had been a guest of WAAF when she visited Japan to launch the Japanese edition of her book, but review copies of Taboo, Kiminta and Waging Empathy were offered to the group’s English-speaking members.

You can get in touch with WAAF at

You can order books at 12€ each plus postage  from me:

Notes and Sources:

1 Accessed 10 December 2015

Rituals of Violence: a Maasai in Germany, Kiminta opposes FGM

Maria Kiminta in northern Germany

Maria Kiminta in northern Germany

With UN backing, November 25 draws attention to violence women endure mainly at the hands of men. Because female genital mutilation,  one form that hostility takes, often suppresses male motives because the ‘ritual’ tends to be carried out by women, Kiminta  illuminates this paradox.

First, she describes how the Maasai do it, complicity among everyone involved born of desire for ‘benefits’ that discursively outweigh harm and, second, after sharing how milk splashed on initiates to numb them doesn’t work; how legs are tied, clitoris and labia shorn, and the desire to pee great but squelched to avoid the excruciating pain of acid on an open wound, Kiminta reflects on men’s proclivities.

“I sometimes suspect that male tastes are behind hygienic and aesthetic arguments for FGM, the belief that female genitalia are ugly, malodorous and in need of enhancement by blade. If I were to take the podium, I imagine myself saying, ‘It’s unethical to think that a girl is born “ugly” and that beauty emerges only when you cut her up. … Please understand that we can clean ourselves down there without your resorting to torture. After all, the scalpel doesn’t work as well as sex education would’.”

Having spoken to peers and elders, Kiminta had already “noted with dismay their inability to explain how FGM qualifies a child to become the wife of some older man. What about maturity, responsibility and love? Shouldn’t a mate exhibit these? Do these qualities count for nothing? They certainly fade to the point of disappearing behind the one criterion that trumps all else: that the new bride must be scarred.”

“If it were up to me,” she goes on, “I’d teach my people about virtues to consider when choosing marriage partners – and the cut would not be one of them! If I were a man, I would want an educated wife, not a subordinate I had bought for dowry. Any man’s refusal to marry an intact girl reflects poorly on him for disrespecting children and their rights. And if he really wants her brutal mutilation, what kind of husband will he be? Will he continue his ruthless demands? Insist she obey? Make her suffer for his ego and his pleasure?

“FGM is diabolical in that it causes a child to think like a man. Convinced that he’s right, the best she can imagine is serving him in marriage; persuaded that, when at seven, or ten, or even thirteen, a body part comes off, she’s ready for wifehood. What about making her wholesome instead? Nurturing talent, intellect and skill – all that is left out.”

Academic conference on FGM, in Banjul, the Gambia, May 2009

Academic conference on FGM, in Banjul, the Gambia, May 2009

Yesterday, November 24, the Guardian praised Yahya Jammeh, president of the Gambia, for outlawing FGM. So close to an election, he could be risking votes, some have averred. Or he could be a canary in the mine, sensing that if the percentage of Gambians favoring clitoral ablations has receded, thanks perhaps to Jaha Dukureh’s campaign, he is taking a welcome lead. Good news?

Kiminta, at least, wouldn’t be surprised. Male violence can, after all, be successfully opposed by men.


Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation. Memoir and Sourcebook. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES P. 2015.

Kate Lyons. „The Gambia bans female genital mutilation”

Retrieved 25 November 2015.

Declaration of the Rights of the Child: Lessons from German History for the Fight against FGM

Von Gleichen visit to Sarajevo with Dr. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, June 2007.

Von Gleichen visit to Sarajevo with Dr. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, June 2007.

On 19 November 2015, a family friend, Prof. Dr. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, former Cabinet Minister and High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, celebrated his 85th birthday. Born in 1930, he and his household, we learned, had been marked for life by “frequent visits from the Gestapo” during the years of horror.

It was Claudia Roth (photo below), vice president of the Bundestag and leader of the Green Party, who told us that. Meanwhile, her very presence at the podium was a surprise. Our host’s affiliation with the Christian Democrats (CDU) represents in many ways a contrast. Claudia, however, was amused by the juxtaposition. “You can imagine,” she said, “what he must have thought of me before we met, that is,  if it was a mirror image of my view of him…” As it turned out, they bonded well and only grew in mutual esteem, the cement being a shared regard for human rights. Each cherishes the notion that democracy is meant to uphold the ideals inscribed by the UN in 1948 and again in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child whose anniversary, November 20, is celebrated as the International Day of the Rights of the Child.

Claudia Roth congratulates Christian Schwarz-Schilling on his human rights record

Claudia Roth congratulates Christian Schwarz-Schilling on his human rights record

Christian had in fact been a child when the Gestapo intruded, not an unlikely influence on the principled stance he took in 1992 when, Wikipedia tells us, he “resigned his post in anger at Germany’s inaction over atrocities in the then Yugoslavia — rebuffing Chancellor Kohl’s protestations that Germany’s post-war constitution barred it from stepping in. He told the Chancellor he was ‘ashamed’ to belong to such a government, saying he had entered politics in the first place to ensure that atrocities like those perpetrated by the Nazis ‘never happen again’.”

After we guests, 200 strong, had applauded the stories by the governor of the state (Hesse) and the mayor of Büdingen (Christian’s home town); and enjoyed baritone Florian Dengler with accompanist Marcelo Amaral performing a sonatine and ‘Lieder’ by Reinhard Schwarz-Schilling, Christian’s composer father, our host turned the discourse toward his mother. “You’ll hear a lot about forged passports,” he said, referring to Germany’s present response to refugees, telling us that when they save a life, he advised against harsh critique. “After my father had been dead for twenty years,” he went on, “I finally made two trips to Poland, a nation whose shroud hung mysteriously over us. What did I uncover? That my mother’s passport had not been hers; that she had, in fact, been Jewish but hid her upbringing from the moment revealing it would have meant death.” During her entire lifetime, about the mother he had known, he had never known this, and he wanted us to understand the tragedy of losing that much of who we are …

Journalist Giers' photo of Christian Schwarz-Schilling in the Büdingen Kreis-Anzeiger

Journalist Giers’ photo of Christian Schwarz-Schilling in the Büdingen Kreis-Anzeiger

The arc from the Nazis to deletions of identity brings me to the usual theme of this blog, its principled stance against indifference; against inaction; against the tolerance for cultural excuses for FGM which also imposes on children an alteration, dilution or even loss of personality. Time and again we hear and read about the girl, post FGM, now subdued where she had been outspoken; now shrinking where she had been bold; now hesitant where she had been confident. But more important, it was government failure to intervene to stop atrocities that led to Christian’s humble gesture of resigning from complicity – an act that, after all, didn’t become resignation but redoubled action on an even broader scale in defense of human and thereby also children’s rights.

References:  Retrieved 20 November 2015

Portrait of Christian Schwarz-Schilling by Michael Giers in   Retrieved 20 November 2015

Photo of Claudia Roth by Tobe Levin

The British NHS (National Health Service): “FGM is not the end. There is hope.”

Hoda Ali and friend attend

Hoda Ali and friend attend “FGM is not the end. There is hope” Ealing NHS Symposium.

“No, I’d rather you didn’t take my picture,” the speaker explained. At a Speak-out in St. Germain-en-Laye where Dr. Pierre Foldes gathers his satisfied patients to talk about their experience with others exploring restoration surgery, I had requested the photo to illustrate my report. “I know I’ll be exposed,” she went on, “but hope to mute my family’s embarrassment.” This dilemma confronts  many in the courageous ‘girl generation’ now taking personal risks to uncover FGM, aiming to save others from the blade and to stop the tradition for good.

On 21 October 2015 in Ealing Town Hall, I was privileged to attend another memorable symposium around developments concerning FGM. The  London event had  been organized by Nolan Victory, Equalities, Diversity & Human Rights Manager, London North West Healthcare NHS Trust together with a team of volunteers including FGM Specialist midwife Edon Aissa and her associates Deqa Dirie (Health advocate at Imperial College Hospital/ FGM African Well Women Clinic and London North West Hospital) and Bishara Hassan. (Delegate’s take-away carry-bags were sponsored by the Vavengers community association with support from the FGM Hope Clinic.)

The gathering coincided with the start of mandatory reporting of FGM whenever found by registered professionals, i.e. physicians, educators, social workers and police.

The directive, focused on patients under 18, enters into force on 31 October. The podium informed its audience, more than sixty strong, what this meant.

Nolan Victory opens the Symposium

Nolan Victory opens the Symposium

It also did much more. Given diverse attendees – many  from practicing communities, others represented NGOs engaged in fighting FGM or appeared out of empathy and interest – presentations ranged from straightforward (and broadly available) facts about the practice to ethical and practical dilemmas posed by the new mandate that would directly affect many participants’ work and lives.

Along with Dr. Isaac John, Chair of the Health & Social Care Black and Minority Ethnic Network, I was honoured to welcome participants by introducing the ‘hope’ announced in the symposium title. I had been asked to talk about Dr. Foldes’ success with 80% of roughly 5000 patients.  The physician who invented the procedure, he repairs old wounds but, more important, renews the confidence and sense of wholeness snatched when the blade struck. Hubert Prolongeau’s Undoing FGM: Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris contains heartening testimony from survivors enthusiastically grateful for the new lease on life their regained birth anatomy brings them. The British NHS does not cover the costs of the operation, but a Clitoris Restoration Fund is in formation to enable UK residents to benefit from Foldes’ expertise.

I have attended several ‘speak-outs’ at the Institut en santé génésique in Paris where gratitude often manifests as a feeling of privilege to educate for prevention and enable others to work toward sparing little girls. Like Valentine Nkoyo (in Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against FGM. UnCUT/VOICES 2015) who spoke to her father about the pain and complications of which he had been unaware, Foldes’ patients have also convinced their  households to stop excising. They are proud to be the last ones cut.

This is wonderful news. The sad part is, the pace is unacceptable. To accelerate men’s knowledge and commitment as well as to inform healthcare professionals, girls at risk and women suffering the consequences, a series of programmes “aimed at highlighting and educating the [public] on the dangers of the practice” preceded the symposium, as Nolan Victory reminded me in his invitation letter. “The London Boroughs of Ealing, Brent and Harrow have some of the largest communities … affected by … FGM.”

Should anyone doubt the urgency, clinical specialist nurse,  head of the African Well Woman’s Service for Waltham Forest, London, and my decades-long colleague in the EuroNet-FGM, Jennifer Bourne gave details from case studies illustrating long-term harm. One patient, for instance, presented in Jennifer’s practice with recurring panic attacks: suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of asphyxiation, her distress was traced to a flashback of the huge adult who descended upon her, crushing the six-year-old’s chest as her clitoris was cut. Similarly, de-infibulation, a service offered to sewn women by Well Woman Clinics in the UK, either under local anaesthesia or referral to a hospital, is not without its shadow side. “The term ‘reversal’ for opening the scar is incommensurate with the initial abuse,” Jennifer said, “since things will never be the same.”

De-infibulation was, however, the mandate of speaker Juliet Albert’s Acton African Well Woman Centre, the first midwifery-led community based institution outside a hospital setting to offer the service.  Juliet regretted that too many of her colleagues had received insufficient – and in many instances, no – training that would have prepared them for the crisis situations in which professionals often first become aware of FGM.  My friend Comfort I. Ottah, midwife and former managing director of FORWARD, once told a story like theirs. Without prior knowledge of FGM, she found herself facing an infant’s crowning skull impounded against a solid wall of sewn flesh – a life-threatening event – without a clue as to the cause or response. “Cut it! Cut it!” the panicked parturient shrieked, and when Comfort obeyed, the infant was hurled from the womb with such force that the midwife, who caught it, was propelled across the room.

To prevent scenes like the foregoing, reported as occurring with some regularity at Birmingham hospitals when untrained staff encounter excised birthing women, and in response to urging by campaigning groups of FGM survivors, the Department of Health is sponsoring FGM Prevention Programmes. To better assess community needs, however, data is required. To this end, an obligation to contribute to an “FGM Enhanced Dataset,” Juliet Albert informed us, will begin.  According to The Guardian, “Under the new law, health and social-care professionals and teachers in England and Wales will be obliged to report all cases of known FGM in under-18s, whether it is disclosed by the victim or seen by the professional.  Failure to report cases within a month, unless there are ‘exceptional’ safeguarding issues, could result in the professionals facing internal disciplinary action or referral to regulators, which could bar them from practice.” (1)

Though there appears to be little dissent regarding the capture of children’s data, the obligation to report adults’ cases is less clear, although, as Juliet reminds us, for adults “mandatory recording of data” is not the same as “mandatory reporting to police” even if it is, under the “Serious Crime Act” of 2015, for girls. And from the gynaecologist’s perspective, a questionnaire specifically asking about FGM will obviate some abuses in the doctor/patient interview. For instance, a general practitioner failed to ask anything about a woman’s infibulation scar although she suffered from recurrent urinary tract infections – evidence of the medical profession ignoring the issue, likely for being ignorant of it.Jennifer Bourne and Tobe Ealing Town Hall

Left, EuroNet-FGM colleagues’ reunion: Jennifer Bourne and Tobe Levin

Thus, given the mandate to report, education of health professionals will improve. For instance, girls having undergone FGM will be entered in a Risk Indicator System (RIS), an electronic health record, whose notation, however, will be removed when the child turns 18. Health Education England has also made available e-learning modules. (2) And the NHS Choices FGM webpage for professionals is worth consulting []. The site is rich in guidance for the consultation that is ethical, frank, and courteous – despite the continuing taboo nature of the topic.

This sub rosa feature suggests an additional benefit of mandatory reporting, taking the onus of introducing the topic off of clinicians and passing it on to the government — where it belongs. The symposium revealed, for instance, the extent of secrecy surrounding FGM. Two sisters presented in the clinic, one having undergone clitoridectomy (type 1), the other infibulation (type 3). Even in their sibling intimacy, each remained ignorant of the other’s wound, assuming instead their vulvas were the same.

Difficult to believe, but one mother of eight really did present with an introitus very much the size of the infibulated sister. Because she had laboured outside the country (presumably in Somalia) where re-infibulation is routine, it was strongly recommended to give birth in the UK where this surplus stitching-up would be far less likely. (3)

Hence, to the public and practicing communities must be added the medical profession’s instructional needs. The mandatory reporting questionnaire helps here. Specific questions allow risk assessment. Have you been cut?  Have family members? Do you know about plans to cut others? Naturally children are reluctant to indict their parents because “99% of them,” Joy Clarke tells us, “come from loving families.”

Joy, an FGM specialist midwife who runs the FGM clinic at Whittingdon Hospital notes that all women she examines are asked about FGM, regardless of skin colour or national origin. “Two Portuguese sisters presented with infibulation.” Their mother had been Portuguese, father Somali.

Clearly, the father had it done, but increasing numbers of fathers refuse, as more men – like Pierre Foldes – come on board. In Q and A, one male member of the audience advised, “You should include more men.” “Where have you been?” the podium responded. “I’m here now,” he replied — and hopefully to stay.

Finally, targeting this ephemeral aspect of the fight to end FGM, a Somali filmmaker noted how the movement seemed to proceed “only from project to project, funder to funder, and when the funding ends, so does the project.” Aissa responded: “For me, it’s not a project. It’s my life.” … Just as the symposium foresaw: “FGM is not the end. There is hope.”

Fear, Force, Betrayal and Anguish, Diaspora Hands from Sierra Leone defy group censure to show it as it is ...

Fear, Force, Betrayal and Anguish, Diaspora Hands from Sierra Leone defy group censure to show it as it is …

In gratitude to Nolan and Cheryl-Ann Victory for inviting me to participate in an effective and inspiring event.

1 Karen McVeigh. “FGM. Reporting of Cases among Children becomes Mandatory.” Retrieved 25 October 2015.

2 FGM open access presentation now available via the programme page. Alternatively please visit For further information on the programme and how to access the e-learning please visit

3 It is therefore ironic that the first physician formally accused of performing FGM would be an “NHS doctor in a London maternity unit” (Sandra LaVille in The Guardian). Yet, confirming an egregious lack of preparation as the Ealing Symposium pointed out, “until that moment [Dr. Dhanuson] Dharmasena had never seen a woman who had undergone FGM, had never been given training on the subject in his undergraduate or postgraduate studies and had no experience of how to carry out a deinfibulation procedure to help women who have undergone FGM give birth safely. He was handed the mother’s notes, in which midwives had stated she was presenting with type 1 or 2 FGM. Hospital policy dictates that the mother should have been picked up by antenatal teams much earlier in her care, in order to be seen by a specialist team, and referred for a deinfibulation procedure in the months before her due date. But midwives had failed to pick up her condition and instead the doctor had to intervene surgically within minutes, with the birth progressing fast and the baby showing signs of distress.” The single, long figure-eight stitch he then inserted to stop the bleeding also united the labia, an act which, according to Comfort Momoh OBE, is legally FGM although she stresses the need for increased training of medical personnel. See Sandra LaVille, “First FGM Prosecution. How the Case Came to Court.” The Guardian. 4 February 2015. accessed 25 October 2015.

Day of the Girl Child October 11: Asylum sought on grounds of FGM … Where are the Country of Origin Information Experts?

Imonikebe Menassah.

Imonikebe Menassah. “What If I Refuse?” Oil on Canvas, 1998.

As tears interrupted Aminata’s story, Alice Walker gently placed her hand on the refugee’s arm. In Warrior Marks (1993) a film by Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker, the African American activist and author was interviewing the first woman to ask the government of France for asylum on grounds of FGM.
Diop’s mother had been “chased from the village,” the then 21-year-old wept, because, it is thought, “if the daughter is bad, the mother must be bad.” Aminata’s offense? Refusing female genital mutilation in her native Mali.
The year was 1991.
Due to ill health, and fearful because her best friend, “excised on a Thursday,” had died the following Sunday, Aminata had managed to evade many cutting seasons by remaining away at school. But the threat had finally caught up with her: a fiancé made marriage depend on sacrificing her appendage. He would be ashamed, he said, to take a wife who had not shed her clitoris. Despite their shared affection, “he didn’t even try to understand,” Aminata tells Alice when asked if in fact her boyfriend knew what excision was and, especially, how much pain it caused. When the reluctant bride refused the knife, “he abandoned me,” she testified. “Not once did he come to see me.”
Sneaking away at night, she convinced an aunt in Bamako to help. A Belgian airlines flight took the escapee to Paris where attorney Linda Weil-Curiel achieved a partial victory: Aminata was allowed to remain, though without asylum. She had been the first woman to claim her right of refuge; the French didn’t want to set a precedent.
As Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond OBE of the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, points out, international human rights legislation already makes gender-based violence grounds for asylum but consider, she said at our FGM Workshop at Lady Margaret Hall, how governments would respond if genital torture sent flocks of women to apply. That should be an incentive to invest in stopping FGM!
Ending excision and infibulation is of course the long-term aim. The short-term challenge is convincing a reluctant and ill-informed judiciary that individual asylum seekers are telling the truth. Credibility must be proven; proof requires arduous research undertaken by a “country of origin” expert so that a well-documented case is built up. Does the applicant’s ethnicity perform FGM? Would she be ‘captured’ and forced on return? Can she find sanctuary elsewhere in her country? How is the judge to be convinced?
Here’s where Country of Origin Information Experts come in. They usually have advanced degrees, are intimate with the ethnic groups in question, understand the applicant’s worldview and can identify strong beliefs, fears, social norms, status claims, economics and other pressures that uphold custom and hold back abolition.
But where are they?
Not readily to hand where they should be: among university faculty and researchers. Their absence results from discouragement of interest and thus a lack of attention to ablations of girls’ genitalia. Google the concept ‘female genital mutilation studies’ and, at best, suggested courses may mention ‘female genital cutting’ — which is not the same as thorough research.

Mutilation is the medical term for amputation of a healthy organ.
A different grasp of the subject informs preference for euphemism. Not necessarily backing abolition, in explicit cases ‚FGC ‘ proponents use ‚female genital surgeries‘, condone medicalization or even defend the practice.
When Alice Walker published Possessing the Secret of Joy in 1992 – the first novel by an author of world renown who placed FGM at the heart of the story– and when, with Pratibha Parmar, Walker produced Warrior Marks in 1993, she was savagely critiqued in the USA by articulate African women academics whose opposition set the US movement in the nation back two decades. Cultural relativism trumped empathy and common sense.
As a result, students have been dissuaded from studying or writing papers on FGM. More than once have I heard colleagues say, I’ve had to rule out FGM as a topic in my courses. Why? Ironically because of the amount of interest it generated while the professor felt – and was – ill-prepared. After all, professional societies accepted but rarely sought conference contributions on the theme, and few careers have been advanced by devotion to sparing little girls.

Khady as a small girl graces the cover of her memoir _Blood Stains_. Sixty-five copies were distributed to UN GA delegates who voted on December 20, 2012, to Ban FGM Worldwide.

Khady as a small girl graces the cover of her memoir _Blood Stains_. Sixty-five copies were distributed to UN GA delegates who voted on December 20, 2012, to Ban FGM Worldwide.

The aftermath manifests in a paucity of experts, yet asylum seekers need support – one among many reasons why the International Gender Studies Centre at the University of Oxford is promoting research on FGM and, in support of the Refugee Studies Centre, asking where existing experts are.
Are you a scholar familiar with ethnicities that practice FGM? Are you willing to offer your knowledge in support of a woman fleeing FGM? If so, please go to or contact Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Rights in Exile Programme  <> and see
For historical background on the backlash against Alice Walker resulting in dissuasion from studying FGM, see the introduction in Tobe Levin, ed. Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and the Global Movement to Ban FGM (Frankfurt: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2014). (Discounted copies of the book are available directly from the publisher. Email


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 <; Retrieved 3 October 2015.

2 <; Retrieved 3 October 2015.

3 <; Retrieved 3 October 2015.