Let’s go on talking about how to talk about it …

TRIGGER WARNING. The following excerpt from Khady, similar to descriptions by dozens of other survivors — for instance, in Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation–, replaces any homogenizing descriptors or acronyms. In the webinar on terminology I participated in on 19 October, consensus held that the German word Verstümmelung — mutilation — was simply too rough, malignant, and disparaging. Its use should be minimized. What do you think? I’m of the viewpoint that Khady tells it like it IS and hence what we’re talking about. Torture?

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The girls were silent, rigid with such intense fear that a few most likely wet their pants. But no one tried to run away. Unthinkable, even if we strained to find a pair of eyes belonging to someone who could spring us. Grandfather, maybe? If he had known what this act would do to me, he would have stopped it. But I don’t think he was informed. Women accuse men of instigating it, and on a certain level that’s true, but in many villages no one tells the fathers anything except when everybody knows about it anyway because excision is a collective initiation ceremony. In larger cities, they do it deep inside the house, hiding it so that not even the neighbors have any idea of what’s going on. My father wasn’t there, and no one had asked his opinion, no more than my maternal grandfather. It’s a woman’s thing and we were going to become women like them.

            They rolled out two large mats, one in front of the door and one at the entrance to the shower — an indentation in the cement wall containing a jar of water. Another door led to the pantry.  The room looked like all the wives’ spaces: a large bed, a small dresser and a metal trunk with each woman’s things. New clothes for afterward had already been laid out. Overcome with anxiety, I don’t know anymore who was called first. We tried to see what was happening but the grandmothers firmly forbade it.

            “Get away from there! Go sit on the landing.” You had no right to observe what the others endured.  

Inside, at that moment, three or four grown-ups had seized one little girl. Her blood-curdling shrieks jarred tears from my eyes. There was no escape; it was going to happen. The fourth or fifth in line, I was seated, legs outstretched, trembling at every howl, my whole body wracked by the others’ cries.

            Two women caught and dragged me in. One, behind me, grabbed my head and, with all the strength in her knees, crushed my shoulders to the ground; the other clutched my thighs to force the legs apart. How a girl is kept still is determined by her age and above all her maturity. If she’s big, solid and expected to struggle, more women will be there to restrain her. If the child is scrawny and small, fewer adults will be needed. The exciser uses one razor for each girl, the utensils bought for the occasion by our mothers.

            Using her fingers, the exciser grasps the clitoris and stretches that minute fragment of flesh as far as it will go. She then – if all goes well — whacks it off as though she were slicing a piece of zebu meat. Often, she can’t hack it off in one go so she’s obliged to saw.

            To this day, I can still hear myself crying, shrieking, howling.

Ablation of female genitalia: how should we talk about it?

Seated next to Efua Dorkenoo OBE for the regional Conference of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices affecting the Health of Women and Children, 17-21 November 1997 in Dakar, Senegal, I reported on efforts in Germany to end FGM. At the time, my sponsoring association was (I)ntact, headquartered in Saarbrücken, born in 1996. At the urging of Efua Dorkenoo, FORWARD in Germany would be founded in Frankfurt am Main in 1998.

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TODAY, October 19, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. CET, a webinar will find me sharing the podium with journalist Günter Haverkamp, director of FRIEDENSBAND and Round Tables in North-Rhine Westphalia that, at regular intervals, attract delegates from more than thirty anti-FGM NGOs in Germany. Our subject this afternoon? A point of incessant debate: how do we talk about FGM? What terminology is most effective? Is it mutilation in preference to circumcision, cutting, or, in any of the myriad tongues of practitioners, ‘sunna’, gudniin, tahur, bolokoli, halalays, megrez, khitan, and so forth, each term eliciting emotions, often conflicting, of accomplishment, pride, or horror, none easily conveyed in a foreign idiom.

Therefore, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Disagreement occurs in former colonizers’ languages and owes a lot to English and French terminology. For instance, ‘Beschneidung’ is ‘circumcision’ in German, the same word for women and men though the procedures obviously differ. Many German-speaking campaigners even today prefer this generic — despite its inaccuracy vis-à-vis females–, to the concept mutilation, in German Verstümmelung, judged harsh or uncharitable, especially by survivors whose feelings count.

As a non-native speaker of German (I acquired it only in my mid-twenties), I’m unprepared to comment on the affective connotations of Verstümmelung. The French avoid the dilemma by agreeing to use the medical term for ablation: excision, which means slicing off flesh. (In Khady’s words: unable to slash it off in one go, the cutter was obliged to saw.)

Khady (Koita) published Mutilée in 2005. Within months the memoir was translated into a dozen languages but would wait 4 1/2 years before becoming available in English. UnCUT/VOICES Press was founded to bring this book and its impressive fight against FGM to Anglophone readers. Khady. Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights. Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010. You can find a German version on Amazon.

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In English, ‘mutilation’, whose use I unequivocally support (i.e. in German Verstümmelung), is in fact, like the French, a medical term and is preferred by consensus of major global players, among them the UN and the IAC, even if context requires flexibility.

Concerning context(s), discussion is either private — between a survivor and her therapist, doctor or advisor — or public and formal.

In private, it should go without saying, tact dictates tone. It is recommended to use, at first, the word for the thing that comes naturally to the patient or client.

Public representations of the ‘event’ however do and, likely should, differ. Many who defer to courtesy in private wish in public to stress the resonance of medical accuracy. There is no gainsaying that amputating — chopping off, in the words of numerous survivors’ memoirs and novels — a healthy organ for cultural reasons is medically-defined as mutilation.

Here’s Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of ‘mutilation’: “deprivation of a limb or essential part especially by excision” [https://www.merriam-webster.com Accessed 18 October 2022].

Is the clitoris not an ‘essential part’?

How provocative in answering this (non-rhetorical) question is a headline in the New York Times published only two days ago. “Half the World Has a Clitoris. Why Don’t Doctors Study It?” [by Rachel E. Gross nytimes.com/2022/10/17/health/clitoris-sex-doctors-surgery.html]. For one thing, upwards of 200 million women have had theirs snatched (to use one of the less gruesome terms). The fact that such an article doesn’t mention FGM at all — has the author never heard of it? — seems to underscore the need to attract attention to an immorally-neglected transgression. Gross writes about a US physician billed as an exception to indifference: “Today, Dr. Rubin has appointed herself Washington’s premier ‘clitorologist’. The joke, of course, is that few are vying for the title — out of embarrassment, a lack of knowledge or fear of breaching propriety with patients.”  

Broadly speaking for the USA, Gross is right, but her research is dangerously narrow, even jingoistic despite a cursory glance at Australia. Had she merely looked eastward, she would have found a global movement to end FGM that includes institutions dedicated to the clitoris. Dr. Pierre Foldes and his Women Safe in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, for one; the Desert Flower Clinic in Berlin, for another; The Rose Clinic under Dr. Brenda Kelly in Oxford for a third, and the list goes on. Burkina Faso, for instance, also boasts successful clitoris restoration as does a student of Foldes, Dr. Marci Bowers, who performs reconstruction in San Francisco.

I mention these establishments under the microscope of terminology because they offer reparation for mutilation. They represent the institutional face of the debate.

My reasons for espousing, with vehemence, the accurate medical term are, however, admittedly subjective. I began working to end FGM in 1977. I therefore draw on more than four and a half decades of experience; have made many friends among campaigners over the long haul; and have been privy to private communication among experts that, to my knowledge, has yet to be made public concerning the evolution of vocabulary.

As a guest in the mid-1990s at FORWARD’s board meeting in London, I shot this photo of Adwoa Kluvitze, Efua Dorkenoo OBE, and Comfort Ottah. They advocate using the term FGM.

Briefly, in the mid-90s Efua Dorkenoo, with whom I began working in 1980, was head-hunted from FORWARD, the association against FGM she founded in 1982 (registered in 1983), by the World Health Organization in Geneva and tasked with writing the first global guidelines to end FGM. We had a long phone conversation in the late 1990s during which she told me she had left WHO (and was then working in S. Africa) in protest against pressure from an American woman of European descent at the UN in NY who threatened to cut off funding if she (Efua) persisted in using the term ‘female genital mutilation’ instead of calling it ‘cutting’. Extortion?

In 1985 at the UN End-of-Decade for women conference in Nairobi, the Inter-African Committee, newly founded in 1984, presented itself in a series of workshops. Here we see delegates (clockwise) authors Dr. Nawal el Saadawi, Awa Thiam, and Nawal again with her daughter Mona, also an author. Photo credits: Tobe Levin

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The above example of neo-colonial interference is not hearsay for it is alluded to in the wording of the Inter-African Committee’s powerful statement on terminology.

As that institution describes it, the term ‘female genital mutilation’ was adopted in 1990 by the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, and in 1991 the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that the United Nations adopt it as well.  It has now been confirmed by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.  The turning point in this debate was the Bamako Declaration of 6 April 2005, issued by the sixth General Assembly of the IAC, in Mali.

As Hilary Burrage reminds us, “it is important to acknowledge the Bamako message, an edited (abbreviated) version of which follows.” Equally of note, February 6th, now the day specifically dedicated to ending ‘female genital mutilation’, was initiated as an explicit reaction to efforts aimed at diluting terminology.

Wednesday 6 April 2005, Bamako, Mali

… An issue of concern at the 6th General Assembly … has been attempts to dilute the terminology Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and replace it with the following: “Female Circumcision,” “Female Genital Alteration,” … “Female Genital Surgery,” and more recently “Female Genital Cutting” (FGC). … Female Genital Cutting (FGC) does not reflect the accurate extent of harm and mutilation caused by all types of FGM. This terminology has been adopted by some UN specialized agencies and bi-lateral donors … influenced by specific lobby groups largely based in western countries.

These changes trivialize the nature of female genital mutilation and the suffering of African women and girls[and] … made without  consultation, [they] override the consensus reached by African women in the front line of the campaign as well as the … millions of African girls and women who suffer in silence. 

We want the world to know that in 1990 African women … adopted the term FGM at the IAC General Assembly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They took this brave step to confront the issue head on with their practicing communities.

[Why? To avoid confusion, to emphasize] the nature and gravity of the practice; to recognize that [only] a [continuing and painful] struggle [can alter] the mentality and behaviours of African people, [yet to insist] that this pain [is] integral to [empower] girls and women … to address FGM [and to take] control of their sexuality and reproductive rights. … 

Experience indicates that long-term change occurs [only] when change agents help communities to go through this painful process. Not to confront the issue is to [promote] denial of the gravity of FGM, thus resulting in mere transient change… .

We recognize that while it may be less threatening for non-Africans to adopt other less confrontational terminology in order to enter into dialogue with communities, it is imperative that the term FGM [be] retained. 

The term FGM is not judgemental. It is instead a medical term that reflects what is done to the genitalia of girls and women. It is a cultural reality. Mutilation is the removal of healthy tissue. The fact that the term makes some people uneasy is no justification for its abandonment.

We would highlight that … FGM was adopted [by] consultation and consensus [among …] African experts [at] the first technical working group meeting held in Geneva in 1995 and gained … world-wide currency and acceptance. The Beijing conference also adopted and used … female genital mutilation. … FGM has been adopted and endorsed by the European Union [and] the African Union; [it] is currently utilized in all their documentation including the most recent Additional Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, on the Rights of Women [Maputo].

At the first general meeting of Terre des Femmes in the spring of 1983 in Frankfurt, another of my houseguests, Awa Thiam had been invited as keynote speaker. In the photo are, l to r, Ingrid Staehle, Terre des Femmes founder; Awa Thiam and Dr. Tobe Levin. Terre des Femmes also uses FGM.

While we appreciate the efforts made in response to FGM on the continent and the Diaspora, it is patronizing and belittling to African women and girls to have outsiders define their oppression. Indeed what gives anyone but Africans the right to change a term agreed upon by the largest group of African activists on this issue in the world? This is at best paternalism and is a sad reflection of how, after many years of African women working against FGM … when FGM was a taboo, the campaign has been high-jacked by others … not involved at the beginning and who do not appreciate the nature of the struggle.

  1. We, the participants at the 6th IAC General Assembly, demand a halt to this drift towards trivializing the traditional practice by adopting a subtle terminology.
  2. We demand that all organizations and international bodies revert to the terminology adopted by the IAC in 1990, and reinforced in 2002.
  3. We demand that international agencies recognize the right of NGO’s in the field to continue to use FGM and not to be denied funding because of this.
  4. We demand that the voices of African women be heard and that their call to action against FGM [be] heeded.

The word ‘mutilation’ is, therefore, employed in formal contexts, as the World Health Organisation Interagency Statement  explains, because by definition (as above) it emphasises the gravity of the act.

Dr. Asma el Dareer, an early pioneer against FGM with her 1983 book, predating action around preferable terminology, Woman, Why Do You Weep? Circumcision and Its Consequences (London, Zed Press) was my houseguest in Frankfurt in 1991.

In sum, I have supported the IAC since its inception in 1984, and the IAC, I’m convinced, is among the world’s leading authorities on the subject. My use of their terminology acknowledges — and honors — the sacrifices their members have made and, above all, the courage they show. To do otherwise would feel like betrayal, as though I supported those they describe as applying (neo)imperial pressure, as lacking longevity in the struggle, and as ‘patronizing and belittling’ their efforts. Moreover, many of those who inspire my agreement have been subjected to harassment and violence, as, for instance, related to me by Dr. Olayinka Koso-Thomas of Sierra Leone whose office was ransacked by FGM-supporters; Berhane Ras-Work, first IAC president who has been spat upon for her engagement as was her successor, Mariam Lamizana; or Awa Thiam, author in 1978 of La Parole aux négresses, a feminist manifesto against excision, who has been insulted as well. American author Alice Walker, whose novel Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) and accompanying video (1993) also incurred opprobrium, in my view undeserved, which set the US movement back a generation — as we sense from the article in the New York Times quoted above from October 17, 2022 — and the date’s not a typo.

If you have witnessed clitoridectomy, excision or infibulation, I needn’t remind you that ‘torture’ covers it. And clearly, no matter what you call it, you want it to stop. Our disagreements concern strategy, not the end-game. But each activist must choose her (or his) alliances. Whose lead will you follow? Here are a few among my many mentors.

While Khady speaks at the HRC in Geneva in 2012, Alvilda Jablonko, Efua, and Berhane Ras-Work listen.
FORWARD in Germany, answering the phone in 2006, found Ambassador Fatoumata Siré Diakité on the line. She joined us, becoming one of our most active members and had a profound influence on me. In Bamako, I was her houseguest. She died on 14 October 2016 — much too soon, at 64.
As guests of the Embassy of Mali in Berlin, in 2011, I am with the Ambassador (right) and Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana MEP (left), co-founder of FORWARD in Germany (now FORWARD for Women, e.V.) and another of my mentors. Pierrette has just published a brochure titled Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Human Rights, — a ‘pre-book’ I call it, since we plan to turn it into a volume on FGM in Germany — a copy of which was presented to the President of Ethiopia during the recent visit by a European Union Parliamentary delegation (September 2022).
Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté at the Commission on the Status Women, March 2013, attending the EuroNet FGM panel. Before becoming the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Guinea (he serves at present), he headed the IAC and, whenever asked to voice an opinion on terminology, he waxes eloquent in defence of calling it by its name, ‘mutilation’.
Finally, here is the EuroNet FGM General Assembly hosted by FORWARD for Women, e.V. in 2012, bringing together many of the activists who have inspired me. The German FORWARD’s managing director, also a dear mentor, is at right, kneeling in the first row, Dr. Mariame Racine Sow.

Activism: less a duty than a calling

The fight to end female genital mutilation requires tenacity. That mood swings accompany deployment goes without saying, for witnessing via experience risks flashbacks and pain. Yet Khady, as do most articulate survivors, perseveres. She opens her narrative at the UN and circles back to a significant venue, a speech I attended in Zürich at a UNICEF conference.

Following are the closing passages from Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010. Available from Amazon.) The book is recommended for classroom use; bulk rates are available from the publisher. Khady introduces students not only to the challenging subject of female genital mutilation — making clear why ‘mutilation’ is the appropriate moniker for use in public discourse — but also embeds the particular hostility to girls’ genitalia within a web of abuses including forced, child marriage; educational discrimination, and social hierarchy controlled by men. A feminist text par excellence, Mutilée (the original title) enrages, enlightens, and draws your affection toward its endearing first person narrator. Akin to the Bildungsroman, it chronicles the emergence of a leader moving relentlessly toward justice.

Activism is less a duty than a calling. …

For nine resolute and enthusiastic months [Khady traveled] right up until that commemorative day when [she] spoke at the United Nations, modestly but proudly, about the struggle of our European Network against female genital mutilation.

            In February and March 2005, I addressed the 49th session of the UN Committee on the Status of Women. There nearly 6000 NGOs greeted good news with exuberant applause: national governments, without reservation, had re-affirmed the Platform for Action on violence against women formulated ten years earlier at the Beijing plus 10 Conference. For my part, I was on a cloud, sure that now everything would change …

            But that evening, on re-reading the speech I would be giving the next day at a UNICEF conference in Zurich, I fell to earth and wept.

            My whole life unfolded before me like a film whose first installment had been a tale of horror.

            Since 1975, when the first United Nations women’s conference took place in Mexico and I arrived in France, thirty years had passed. How many women had suffered since then, and how many were suffering now? How many women had had to put up a fight like mine? In how many countries did men still not know what a phrase like “women’s rights” means? I had just lived through a magnificent moment listening to beautiful speeches by male politicians. I was tempted to cry out who I was and why I was there. To hurl at them my suffering and anger and tell them to stop talking but go see for themselves the lives of women in whose name they made decisions that wouldn’t be applied for half a century … if ever.

            Discouragement claimed me, exhaustion in this interminable combat, the same feeling I had experienced three years earlier in Italy when they awarded my activism a prize shared with a young Bangladeshi whose face had been destroyed by acid for refusing to marry. That day I also cried, seeing that woman, of rage and desire to just let it all drop, so vast did the journey seem, and male violence so oceanic.

            But my courage returned in New York, Geneva, Zurich and elsewhere. I began again to march and intend to go on, carrying the message of African women, victims of torture and humiliation.

            My mother no longer tells me I run around too much. I trust, — no, I believe–, she is proud of me. I dedicate this book to her in the hope of being able to translate for her, without shying away, every word.

            I thank her and my father for sending me to school. Having been forbidden to think would have been worse than mutilation.

            And it’s thanks to my education, as little as it was at first, that I have been able to progress, understand, and glean information I could then share with others.

            In certain countries, serious imams, a source of enlightened religious ideas, correct misunderstandings of the Koran as preached by less well-educated peers. The high respect in which they are held gives their words weight, and many of these Imams are now on our side.

                        Renunciations of excision en masse have been undertaken by some villages with the help of healthcare workers and NGOs. This means considerable progress, because neighboring men, denied excised brides, will have to go along with change if they want to marry.

            I would like this book to serve African women not as a scandal but an inspiration for reflection. I would like to see it translated and disseminated in Africa. But Africa follows an oral tradition. Griots would have to do it. At least many of them have already begun to work with us.

            If I have been a griot for myself, narrating the story of my life, it’s not to sing my praises but to illustrate the obstinate march that lead me from the shadow of the mango tree to the light of international sorority, from an intimate and secret mutilation to the blaze of a public campaign trail.

            Stopping violence and mutilation is our duty by keeping the blades of tradition and culture far away from little girls.

            Each African woman now shares this task, and to each her manner of approaching it. But let’s not fear to tell the truth about our bodies. Neither diabolical nor impure, our sex has been from the dawn of time the only source of life.

Bridging the abyss between custom and law: Khady’s memoir in the UN General Assembly

Our author Khady is with artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus at a celebration for FORWARD for Women e.V. and UnCUT/VOICES Press at Schlosshotel Kronberg in 2018. Godfrey’s donated paintings sold at auction, raising funds to prevent FGM. Photo credit: Britta Radike

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In November 2012, Alvilda Jablonko phoned me. Adjutant to Emma Bonino, prominent Italian politician whose NGO No Peace Without Justice had taken on the cause of ending FGM, Jablonko requested 65 copies of Khady’s memoir to distribute to members of the Group of African States in the UN General Assembly prior to a vote on 20 December 2012 which would make history. Having each received a copy of Blood Stains, representatives of African nations would prove key to passage of a Resolution “intensifying global efforts” to eliminate “female genital mutilations.”

Below you will find an excerpt from Blood Stains, the chapter titled ‘Combat’. Successful advocacy serves as encouragement and blueprint for continuing legislation that most movement actors view as essential but inadequate. For law’s abstraction and heavy hand address the mind but not the heart; ritual genital abuse, however, is prisoner to the Velcro of emotions. The intimacy of the personal account builds on ratio AND empathy. Khady is not a statistic but a sentient, articulate icon for a swathe of FGM survivors.

Khady writes:

I have been an activist in France since the 1980s. In 1986, as an interpreter, I met Koumba Touré who did similar work and was vice president of GAMS. She brought me along to a meeting and introduced me. Since then we’ve shared the same conviction and have never wavered.

GAMS was and still is a secular, multi-partisan NGO in which African and French women work together.  In addition to fighting FGM, GAMS orchestrates information campaigns against other harmful traditional practices: forced and/or early marriage and serial pregnancies. Given that we have so much to do, our mission is really better suited to a colony of ants. For instance, we educate women when they consult their gynecologists or take their infants for check-ups, telling them about complications excision can cause – gynecological and urinary difficulties as well as harrowing childbirths. We know that most excised women need episiotomies if not caesarians, and the pregnancies, coming one too close to the next for four, five, six or a dozen children, aggravate these problems. It’s a matter of dissuading mothers from perpetrating on their girls, born or coming, the barbarity they suffer for life. It’s important to explain as well that religion doesn’t impose mutilation. But to do that, we need religious leaders to assist us. They’re the ones to contradict the immense lie entertained for centuries because the texts themselves remained unknown. In reality, excision and infibulation are lauded and propagated by men and, for dubious reasons, imposed on girls by women.

An African man told me one day, “It’s done so that women won’t be raped.”

“You think a rapist will ask about that!?” I answered, astonished. “Look first and rape second?”

And another: “It’s so women won’t be tempted to go out and find another man.”

“Really? You can kill the possibility of pleasure without destroying the desire for it! And a mutilated woman’s sexuality is as sad for you as it is for her!”

I uncovered a list of reasons even worse than these: it’s done to increase the pleasure of the man, or to maintain social cohesion, or to eliminate an organ thought to be dirty, ugly and evil. Infants, beware! Better not brush against it being born. To survive, keep out of its way.

That organ, diminutive counterpart to male anatomy, must be suppressed.

A symbol of submission, clitoral ablation, like ‘barefoot and pregnant’, takes religion as its grandiose excuse.

The barbarity of it hit me full force when, in 1982 in France, excision killed a little girl from Mali, Bobo Traoré. For a long time I had simply “accepted” mutilation, including my own, to such an extent that my first three girls had been victims of it. I had even “forgotten” all about it, immersed as I was in personal problems. But the loss of that three-month-old in Paris, jumped on by the media – to their credit–, served as a wake-up call. It aroused French society and not a small number of Africans as well.

Then, the custom simply wasn’t talked about. The great majority of French were wholly ignorant of it. No well-known ethnographer or researcher had placed the issue before the public. And suddenly, on the 8 o’clock news, here were Africans applying razors to children’s genitalia!

Shortly after that affair, while I was interpreting for the Interservice Migrants, pediatricians began asking real questions. As for me, I didn’t know much about the origin of the practice but, to the extent that my private life improved, I became increasingly active in monthly meetings at the Maison des Femmes in Paris.

Initially, my mouth stayed shut. I listened, however, and little by little, the truth emerged. Physicians’ lectures had me running from library to library for follow-up research even though, at that time, very little could be found, and one question led to another. If not all Muslims are excised, FGM must not be required by religion. So why did we think it was?  In any case, the Koran didn’t mention it at all. That was certain. In Senegal, the Wolof didn’t do it, nor do certain Arab or North African nations.

And even though they had all lived through it, why had our mothers never told us about what pediatricians encountered – the physical and psychological harm?

Regarding excision’s effect on our minds, each girl had had to work through the horror alone. Most had come to accept the promised benefit because, for those few brave enough to dig deep, questioning the status quo opened wounds that were very hard to share with anyone. No woman wants to display her sexuality. No matter where she’s from, when the topic is so intimate, she feels squeamish when forced to go public. Besides, how could she possibly refer to a kind of pleasure she’d never known? Many women were embarrassed, even shocked, by media’s representation of excision and by what was now being said all around. Modesty made revelation truly distressing.

“Oh, no. We’re fine. Nothing’s wrong. No trouble giving birth, no problems with sex, nothing at all.”

Still, regarding the “legitimacy” of the practice, the alarm was salutary. The media called us barbarians concerning a tradition said to be cultural, and in fact, we had no rational explanation to offer. Why? Because there is none.

Khady’s influence

As a delegate to the BanFGM Conference < BanFGM Conference on the global ban on female genital mutilation > in Rome, Jan 30 – Feb 1, 2017, organised by No Peace without Justice and the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children,* Khady gave interviews and spoke out in the plenary, adding to the impressive list of powerful addressees she has reached, urging abolition.

As the poster in yesterday’s blog shows, Khady’s peers chose her to represent the meeting as a whole. Adopted as a figurehead, she knew that only by going to the top — to city hall, to premiers and presidents, to parliament, the UN, the Council of Europe, the African Union and more — would she influence decision-makers and, equally important, donors.

Khady in Rome, Parliament, January 2017. Photo credits: Tobe Levin von Gleichen

Never mincing words, she wants the world to know what girls endure when born where excision has, from the dawn of history, been normalized. Chapter 1, Salindé — literally, to purify for prayer — is subtitled “New York, March 2005.” Why? Because Khady opens her tale as she closes it. A courageous activist backed by Emma Bonino, later the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Khady speaks directly to the UN General Assembly. FGM is a global issue; everyone shares in the duty to condemn it.

In Mutilée/Blood Stains, Khady exceeds an objective re-enactment of events by asking who benefits. She takes a stab — if you’ll pardon the term — at explaining. Following is again a quote from Chapter 1.

*The opening paragraph shares information reported by the Council of Europe, Human Rights Intergovernmental Cooperation, accessed 13 October 2022.

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After all the mothers had decamped, an eerie feeling of abandonment hung suspended in time, but now I know that no mother, not even a strong-hearted one, can stand to see what is going to be done to her daughter, or, even worse, to hear her cries. She knows what it’s all about because she’s been there, and, the moment the knife bites her girl, her own body bleeds all over again. Still, she accepts because that’s the way it is, and she has no other option but this barbaric ritual of supposed “purification for prayer” and virginity insurance until marriage with fidelity forevermore.

            It’s a scam to have forced African women to maintain a custom that has absolutely nothing to do with religion. On our continent excision is practiced by animists, Christians, Moslems and the Beta Israel who are Jewish. It is centuries old, its origins predating the advent of Islam. But men have several bad reasons for wanting it: to guarantee their power, to believe other men won’t get their wives pregnant, and to protect the excised from enemy rape!  Other explanations, even more absurd, hold that a woman’s sex is impure and diabolical; that the clitoris, devilish in itself, can cause all kinds of harm, up to and including death if it touches the infant’s head at birth. Some have also thought that the imposture, that miniature penis, menaces virility.

            But domination is the real motive. And men have passed responsibility for execution onto women, because it was out of the question that a man should “see,” let alone “touch” that intimate part of female anatomy, even on a child.

            At age seven, like all girls, I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, let alone the purpose it served. I had never noticed it before, and now I never would. The only thing that really counted on that particular morning was the prospect of a horrifying pain whose vague echoes I had heard before but that had seemed then not to concern me. I remembered my mother and grandmother threatening a naughty little boy with a knife or a pair of scissors. Pulling on his diminutive appendage they would gesture – snip! – and utter those terrible words: “Behave or it’s the blade for you!” The kid would take to his legs as fast as he could, recalling the sting that, unlike the girl’s, would soon subside, besides real circumcision being essentially hygienic. But I spied the boys’ bizarre waddle like ducks, saw them sit with difficulty and whimper for two or three days, sometimes for a whole week, afterward. And I thought I was safe because I was a girl!      

            In 1967, I had no idea of what the intimate bloody cutting would mean for the rest of my life. But it bequeathed me a hard and sometimes cruel fate that led, in 2005, all the way to the U.N.

Aftermath: Khady, age 7, reflects on loss

At a European Network Community of Practice webinar this afternoon on effective strategies against FGM in Egypt, one participant emphatically insisted on devoting not just a single day but an entire year to campaigning against the torturous custom. Considering the facts of what continues taking place, far too often performed by medical professionals for increased income, patience seemed incongruous, unjustified.

While still a child, Khady reflects on coping strategies immediately after amputation, important because imagination and therefore empathy too easily fail readers innocent of similar trauma who yet are addressed in hopes of enlisting solidarity.

Note Khady’s reproachful eyes! This poster met participants at the entrance to a major 2017 anti-FGM conference in the Roman Parliament.

Below is another excerpt from Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010). The voice, though older now, conveys that of a small child who, without pathos or self-pity, reveals a growing awareness of what she has lost. We remain in chapter 1, Salindé. The girl has just undergone clitoridectomy.

____

Little by little, Grandfather and the other men reappeared. I suppose they waited for the shrieks and tears to abate. I remember Grandfather’s hand on my head and a prayer lasting several minutes. But then he walked out without giving further consolation.

And I said nothing. I didn’t call for his help anymore. That was over; it wasn’t worth the trouble. Still, he lacked the expression he wore on happy days. When I think about it now, it seems that maybe he wasn’t altogether at ease. … But what could he have said? It simply wasn’t in his power to prevent those women who had undergone the exact same thing from carrying it out on us.

There wasn’t anything else to do but believe what the women told us.

“Soon, you’ll forget it. Don’t worry. You’ll walk and run just like before.”

Once the pain fades, you do indeed forget. And at the end of a very long week, that’s what happened. I didn’t realize it then, but one thing had changed in me forever. It took a long time before I could peer at the wound. Was I afraid? In any case, looking was out of line with the morality the women imparted. They teach you to clean this sex which everyone ignores beyond the most indispensable hygiene. Never, ever forget to wash, our mothers repeated, or you’ll smell bad.

Three or four weeks later, once the cousins had all returned to Dakar where each took up the thread of her normal life, one day, under the shower, I became curious to see what it was they had sliced off. There was nothing but a hardened scar that I brushed with my hand because it was still painful, and I supposed that was where they had cut. But what?

During nearly a month and a half, a throbbing pressure continued inside, like a pimple unable to emerge. But then, I stopped thinking about it entirely. I didn’t pose any questions, not even to myself. The grandmothers were right. You forget. No one alerted us to the fact that our futures as women would unfold unlike those of others.

One day a Wolof from the neighborhood stopped by our house. That very morning, two of my little cousins had been salindé, and I heard the woman exclaim:

“Oh! You, Soninké. You’re still doing it? You don’t know any better? How uncivilized!  That’s downright savage!”

She was laughing when she said it, trying to make a kind of joke as we do in Africa so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. And I paid it no mind until a dozen years later, once I began to understand that my destiny as a Soninké woman had had its origin there in that intimate amputation that cut me off forever from normal sexuality. What might have been mine at the start, an unknown bloom, would now never have a chance to flower.

And we were a whole bouquet of African women who believed that normality was simply that, to make ourselves submissive for the sole pleasure of men who had nothing else to do but pluck the young bud sheered just for them and watch it prematurely die.

In one corner of my head I am always sitting beneath the mango tree at my grandparents’ house, that spot where I was happy and physically intact. Ready to become an adolescent, then a woman, ready to love because of course I would have felt desire …

They forbade it.

Homage to Khady on the UN Day of the Girl Child

In the few months after Khady’s memoir Mutilée appeared in France in 2005, it was translated into 12 languages. By 2009, it would appear in 4 more but wouldn’t be in English until I founded UnCUT/VOICES Press, thereby making the remarkable story accessible to anglophones. Other memoirist-survivors of female genital mutilation have published since Khady, and even a few admirable voices, like Soraya Miré and Waris Dirie, a decade before. But Khady’s leadership remains exemplary, and her advocacy a blueprint to emulate.
Khady is standing, fifth from the left. The photo taken in 2012 shows attendance at the EuroNet-FGM meeting in Frankfurt am Main (with appreciation to Dataforce for our venue).

When the international movement to end FGM was relatively young — in the 1990s–, an intrepid leader arose in France. Urged by many to publish her story, Khady Koita hesitated. It’s hard, she would write, for anyone to expose their private lives and, in this case, sheltered body parts. But she had begun to speak out, to organize, encourage, and inspire. In 1995 in Beijing, she toured the plenitude of Inter-African Committee booths at the NGO conference parallel to the official UN gathering. One evening, she found herself in the center of activists resident in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or North America whose conversation focused on the need for a network. In 2000, Khady co-founded the EuroNet-FGM, first among many associations advocating for the interests of girls and women, cut or at risk, in the Diaspora. The EuroNet-FGM was registered officially in Brussels in 2002 with Khady Koita as president and Tobe Levin as secretary.

Below is an excerpt from Khady’s memoir, titled simply Mutilée in the original French, and in English Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010).

   I was born just before Independence, in 1959, and would have been seven years old in October 1966 on first entering school. To that point, I had led a happy life, cushioned by kindness, taught how to garden, cook, and identify the spices the grandmothers sold at the market. At about four or five, I received my first little bench. Grandmother Fouley gave it to me because each child must have one. We sit on it to eat our couscous and put it away either in our mother’s room or in our grandma’s, the one who brings us up, washes, dresses, feeds, fusses over and punishes us. These little benches are a constant source of squabbles among the children. “You took my bench!” “Give him his bench. He’s the oldest!” You keep that bench for a long time, until the wood cracks or you get a bigger one. At that point, you can pass yours on to a younger child.

            Grandmother had it made for me and paid for it. With dignity, I carried it on my head: it symbolizes leaving behind the status of a baby on the ground to become a child who sits and walks like the big kids. And did I ever walk! In the fields, in the aisles among the market stalls, among the flamboyant trees, the baobabs and mangos in the courtyard, from grandma’s to the well, from grandma’s to my mom’s, I walked safely and protected through a life of tenderness soon to be brutally ended.

            I have paraded, since I was seven years old, from Thiès to New York by way of Rome, Paris, Zurich and London, never ceasing to march since the time my grandmothers came and said, “Today, daughter, you’re going to be purified.”

            The night before, my cousins had arrived from Dakar for the school holidays. There was my sister Daba, six years old; Lélè, Annie and Ndaié, cousins on my father’s side, and other cousins less closely related whose names I don’t remember. A dozen or so little girls between six and nine sat with legs outstretched on the steps in front of one of the grandmother’s rooms. You’d be just as likely to find us playing house with dolls made of wood and rags, making believe we were going to market for spices to cook with the little metal utensils our parents had fashioned for us.

            That night, we fell asleep as usual in the care of a grandmother, aunt or mother.

            The next morning, very early, they woke me up and showered me. My mother put me in a flowered, sleeveless dress made of African cloth but cut in a European style. I remember the colors: russet, yellow and peach. I slipped my feet into rubber sandals, my flip-flops. The morning was still young. Nobody else in the neighborhood was up.

            We took the path past the mosque where men were already at prayer, their voices spilling out of the gaping door. The sun had not yet arisen but the heat was already intense. The rainy season had begun, but it wasn’t raining. In a few hours, the thermometer would hit the high nineties.

            My mother took me and my sister to the large house where my grandfather’s third wife lived. Around fifty, she was short, slim, kind and very gentle. My cousins stayed with her during vacations and, like us, they were already washed, dressed and waiting, a proper little covey assembled there, innocent and mildly ill at ease. My mother departed, leaving us. I watched her walking away, slender and fine-boned – a mixture of Mauritanian and Peul.  My mom is an admirable woman, and although I wasn’t aware of its importance at the time, she raised her children, girls and boys, without discrimination: school for all, chores for all, punishment and tenderness for all. But she had vanished without telling us a thing.

            We sensed something unusual though because the grandmothers kept bustling back and forth, murmuring among themselves with an air of mystery and making sure to keep us out of earshot. Without any idea of what was to come, I knew that these whispers meant trouble. Suddenly, one of them called the girls because the “lady” in a voluminous indigo and midnight blue boubou had arrived. I recognized the petite visitor with large dangling earrings as one of my grandmothers’ friends who belonged to the blacksmith caste. Male members of this caste do metalwork and “cut” little boys while females “cut” the girls. Two more women accompanied her, heavy-set matrons with solid arms whom I didn’t know. My cousins, the bigger ones, might have been aware of what awaited us, but they didn’t say anything to anybody either.

            Speaking Soninké, one of the grandmothers announced that we were going to be “salindé” which means, in our language, “to be purified for access to prayer.” In French: “excised.” You could also say “cut up.”

            The shock was brutal. Now I knew what I was in for, that thing the mothers would mutter about from time to time at home as though it meant acceding to some sort of mysterious dignity. And I remembered, in that instant, becoming aware of things I had previously suppressed. Our older sisters had already gone through it, instructed by the grandmothers privileged to run households and educate children. When a girl is born, after baptism on the seventh day, it’s the grandmothers who have her ears pierced with a needle, sliding the black and red thread through the hole to prevent its closing up again. They are the ones in charge of weddings, births, and newborns. And it is they who decide when we’re going to be “purified.”

The exciser: muted protagonist in FGM memoirs

On 15 October 2020, King’s College, University London, hosted the first in our 10-part webinar series devoted to Patriarchal Inscriptions on Women’s Bodies, especially FGM. In the first session you find here, clockwise from upper left, Dr Comfort Momoh MBE, Dr Maria Jaschok, Dr Leyla Hussein OBE, and Dr. Ghada Khan. Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen and Dr Maria Jaschok moderated. Also presenting were Chiara Cosentino and Mariya Taher.

____

Visiting Professors at King’s College London before the COVID-19 pandemic, we — Dr Jaschok, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen with FGM Specialist Midwife Comfort Momoh MBE — would have preferred an in-person event but, impossible given the lethal virus, technology permitted our meeting nonetheless, and our fruitful encounters, available on YouTube, inspired a call for papers. Thus a book is taking shape, one of whose chapters I was editing yesterday. It examines a muted, undertheorized protagonist, the perpetrator of FGM, a concept — perpetration — borrowed with both trepidation and hope from studies of women’s complicity in harming fellow women as, for instance, camp guards in the Holocaust, or in the Rwandan genocide. As Dr. Daniela Hrzán explains, sustained analyses of perpetrators are rare and understandably so, with most attention devoted to the wounded given the serious sequelae of knives in the vicinity of vulvas. Still, focusing on perpetrators reveals motives for amputating genitalia and reasons for the custom’s tenacity today. Razors, moreoever, supply the demand from co-conspirators, thus making agents of anyone who promotes and abets excision – mothers, aunties, neighbors. (Nor are ‘circumcisers’ exclusively female.) 

     “Because feminist theorists and FGM scholars tend to shy away from thematizing this complicity,” Daniela notes, she confronts a paradox at its root. Clearly within the genre of women’s penchant toward disruption (Eve) — in masculinist legends brilliantly inventoried by H.R. Hays in The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil (1964) — the exciser is viewed by many cuttees as a ‘witch’. But mainly she is not. Witches were individuals who defied cultural dictates, rebels who dispensed with gender rules, and the phallocracy murdered them as a result. (Some estimates mount to 9 million over 6 millennia in Europe.) In constrast, excision, infibulation, or clitoridectomy — defined by Leyla Hussen OBE in our webinar as criminal violence – reproduce the status quo. “The offending women are therefore not those who violate social norms, but those who perpetuate them, subjecting minors to structural violence often despite anti-FGM laws.” Thus, women demand, carry out and refuse to stop the cut although (because?) they have been cut themselves. Yes, patriarchy rewards subservience but the “token torturers” (Mary Daly 163) remain agents in their own right. In sum, to dismantle the social norm, the gain from cutting must become the prize for stopping.

In Taboo edited by Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe, we find one of the rare instances in which an exciser — who has indeed stopped — details her motives, feelings, pride, and regrets. The following is a short excerpt from Betty Kituyi’s oral history, “Do Not Count on Me.” In Taboo she describes how her early ambivalence — should she or shouldn’t she follow in her grandmother’s footsteps? — turned into torment and hallucinations that only subsided once she began, with great reluctance, to brandish the knife.

“Amina Buraimu is a tall, sixty-something-looking woman with a stoop and a wrinkled face that seem to cover her past. She abandoned her culturally revered role as a circumciser of girls in 1996 when the REACH (Reproductive, Educative and Community Health) programme identified her as the most dangerous person (“Amina Atare”) in the district and talked her out of it. She was considered dangerous because, as the most experienced circumciser in Kapchorwa, she was as swift as Moses Kipsiro, the Kapchorwa-born Olympic athlete, scampering from village to village, and from hill to hill in her red ‘circumcision’ dress, as if possessed, cutting an average of 100 girls in each village. According to what they said in the villages, if ‘circumcision’ is harmful, then she was the one who harmed the greatest number of girls.

“’When our own women ministers from Sipi Sub-county, Kuka and Chokomondosi, stand up and speak against the cutting, who is Amina Braimu to continue doing it? They must be right when they say it is wrong because they have the experience’, she reflects. The ministers said that the tradition of cutting girls to make them fully women is no longer acceptable or honourable. Amina was told that times have changed and, with them, so have a lot of the things once considered culturally important. New diseases like ‘slim’ (HIV/AIDS) are killing the young before the old. The knife no longer makes girls ‘clean’ as believed in the past but frequently transfers the AIDS virus. If one girl in the line has the virus and the same knife is used to cut all who follow her, the disease may be passed to everyone.  

“In Amina’s time, girls were virgins when they were cut. Today, modern habits and practices lead many of them into having sex before marriage. It was also uncommon years ago to circumcise married women – they had all been cut before marriage – but now it is the trend. This is very risky, because in the Kapchorwa region the infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases are higher among married couples than among single people since many married people are not faithful to each other. The young women no longer keep the tribal secrets. Some circumcised women are now admitting they feel pain when they have sex with their husbands. When Amina was still a thin girl with a flat chest and her mother was breast-feeding her younger siblings, it was taboo to reveal what was going on in the bedroom. But now that people are talking, she acknowledged it could be true that ‘circumcision’ of girls is harmful. 

****

“Still, Amina relishes the memory of the days when she was the most skilful and powerful cutter in the land. She had a lot of money to spend and was able to afford almost anything she wanted. Circumcising girls earned her a lot of money and gifts from the girls’ families. In fact, Amina was one of the richest women in her community. In a single ‘circumcision’ season, she would collect close to ten million shillings (about $5,000) as payment for her services. Her current circumstances, however, give no hint of her former wealth. As she talks, her sunken eyes and dry, cracked lips confirm her ill health, which she blames on the poverty that has attacked her like locusts on a cassava garden since she stopped excising girls. She tells me that she cannot afford any medicine and that her granaries have long been empty of maize and millet because she is too weak to tend the gardens and too poor to hire people to lend her a hand in cultivating them. 

“’Are you one of those government officials who always come to ask me about my experience?’ Amina asks, patting my hand lightly. She continues, ‘Over the past few years, strange people from government have come here, driving their big vehicles, condemning the ‘circumcision’ of girls. They have tried to persuade me and my four colleagues to stop doing it. But only two of us have quit. Others still do it, deep in places like Bukwo. They are still circumcising — for the money, especially. Look at me! I have nothing now! Those government people make promises that they never fulfil. Some people visited my home two years ago and promised to give me money to start a chicken-rearing project. They said they would build me a mabati, an iron-roofed house. But they have not honoured their promises, even though I told them that I did not have any other means of making a living’.

“As if her poverty had choked out any logical thought, Amina’s sentiments seem to contradict the reasons she has earlier given for stopping her ‘circumcision’ of girls. She seems to say that she was forced to stop circumcising, and that if she does not get any other means of livelihood, she can very easily slip back into the practice of cutting girls.” 

You can purchase the book on Amazon.

Engaging anthropology — without apology

In response to my blog on 8 June, 2022, my friend and colleague Dr. Diana Fox, professor and chair of the anthropology department at Bridegwater State Universty, responded:

“Tobe, this is such a powerful piece. I do believe that feminist anthropologists have changed their relativism and Geertzian views, although honestly, since The Female Circumcision Controversy, tragically misnomered, I haven’t followed closely my own discipline’s approach outside of my close colleagues. In general, relativism today is regarded not as a moral philosophy that excludes ‘outsider/insider’ anthropological possibility of condemnation but a methodology for understanding and documentation as you have done and continue to do. The embrace of human rights by anthropology (moving beyond early Herskovitzian ‘western imposition’ narratives in a skewed effort to break away from our discipline’s colonial past) employs relativism to better understand transformational intervention. And influenced by Black feminist scholar-activism we need to ask, what have we learned from this to ramp up these kinds of interventions so that the finish line doesn’t keep disappearing? How can we draw parallels with broader violence against girls and women, challenges that never seem to end in the face of persistent misogyny while also being attuned to disrupting local narratives that normalize widespread misogyny through cultural processes?”

I answered: “THANK YOU! You won’t mind if I quote your response in another blog? I came across at least one letter to the editor of an anthropology peer-reviewed journal deploring the appearance of wishy-washy ethics among members of the guild. But that was a long time ago. What you’ve given me is good news!”

See profile for Fox, Diana

“Yes, of course,” Diana wrote back. “My brother is an international human rights lawyer and there is an enduring perception among his colleagues that Anthro remains where it was decades ago. I’m glad to be able to offer some news. My own colleague, at BSU from Senegal, who teaches about FGM through the lens of human rights in her global health and African ethnomedicine courses and shows Sembene’s film, is a good example of how that false dichotomy (interrogated in your piece) between academics and activists is being disrupted. Share away!”

So — here we are, thrust into a potentially heated discussion.

And because a post is incomplete without a visual, here is the reason I’m concluding this blog in Berlin. We are mourning the passing of Ika Hügel-Marshall whose benefit to and influence on the movement to recognize Afro-Germans and fight bias cannot be overstated. As Dr. Dagmar Schultz’s partner, — both women were close friends of Audre Lorde–, Ika also supported our work against FGM. (You’ll find Dagmar in earlier posts about the baby steps of German activists to end excision and infibulation. In 1982, she joined me in Senegal at perhaps the very first African university conference on ‘harmful traditional practices’, especially FGM, organized by Awa Thiam, author of La Parole aux négresses published in 1978.)

“‘Highly valued by both sexes’?”: Book Reviews on FGM

A unique resource for scholars and activists, this is Feminist Europa. Review of Books. Special Issue on FGM (DDV-Verlag, 2010), available free of charge. See
http://www.ddv-verlag.de/issn_1570_0038_FE%2009-2010.pdf

Co-edited by Dr. Waltraud Dumont du Voitel of the German Foundation for Gender Studies (Heidelberg) and Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, the journal was launched in 1998 as a project of the WISE Division on Communication and Cultural Practice and over a ten-year period produced 7 substantial issues available here: http://www.ddv-verlag.de

The publication emerged from WISE, one of the first European-wide initiatives uniting women’s and gender studies departments in universities across the continent. Among the cofounders were Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen and the late Dr. Angelika Köster-Lossack (formerly MdB) who, at the behest of the late Efua Dorkenoo OBE, also co-founded (with others) FORWARD – Germany, e.V. in 1998. Women’s International Studies Europe (WISE), founded in 1990 at a conference in Driebergen, The Netherlands, remained active until the late ’00s when key members were welcomed to blend into a more securely-financed European-wide consortium, ATHENA (Advanced Thematic Network in European Women’s Studies, presently ATGENDER, The European Association for Gender Research, Education and Documentation at the University of Utrecht.) ATHENA’s annual meeting at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, on 31 May 2007 witnessed invited leaders of WISE sharing their expertise and preparing to lend support to the new association.
On 20 May 2022, Oxford PhD candidate Saarrah Ray (standing third from the left) invited students, activists, and scholars to an event called “The Four College Rose against Female Genital Mutilation” at Christ Church, co-hosted by Corpus Christi, Oriel, and University colleges at Oxford. Most attendees being young students who expressed their desire for movement history dating back four or five decades, I thought it important to oblige. Thus, this post looks back by introducing Feminist Europa and especially a book review reprinted many times. Promoted by Hilary Burrage (in the photo above, standing far right) on her blog, it is among my most popular entries in Academia.

_____

Tobe Levin. “’Highly valued by both sexes’: Activists, Anthr/apologists and FGM.”

Rev. of Hernlund, Ylva and Bettina Shell-Duncan, eds. Transcultural Bodies. Female Genital Cutting in Global Context. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2007. In 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 also http://www.accmuk.com/fgm_factsheet_1.pdf & Feminist Europa. Review of Books. 9/2009 & 10/ 2010. http://www.ddv-verlag.de/issn_1570_0038_FE%2009_2010.pdf

Reprinted in Al-Raida. The Pioneer. Issue 128. Winter 2010. Pp. 58-61. Lebanese American University/ Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World. http://www.alraidajournal.com/index.php/ALRJ/article/view/73/72

One advocate’s judicious reading of Transcultural Bodies. Female Genital Cutting in Global Context. HernlundYlva and Bettina Shell-Duncan, Eds. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2007.[1]

On the back cover of Trancultural Bodies. Female Genital Cutting in Global Context, Richard Shweder praises the volume for taking “us a huge step beyond the global activist and first-world media (mis-) representation of FGM” that fails to acknowledge “genital surgeries … [as] highly valued by both sexes.” Strongly implied is that the “highly valued” is, in fact, worthwhile. This characteristic complicity with a decidedly harmful traditional practice makes the book ineffectual for activists; of limited use for journalists; and downright dangerous for intellectuals who already prefer passivity. In an attempt to condone, Shweder points out, where genitals are altered, most people approve.[2] But of course, in ethnicities that cut, the majority conforms. Who knows this better than NGOs do?

Yet this book, assigned to students, goes beyond a single (possibly forgivable) instance of ‘talking-down’ to activists: its designated adversary is “the global movement to ‘eradicate FGM’” (1). Were you aware, for instance, that “the global eradication campaign itself … violate[s] several human rights” (26)? Perhaps sensing the fragility of such a charge, the editors warn us not “to draw up overly simplistic dichotomies between ‘Western activists’ on the one hand and ‘African women’ on the other – as such identities often coincide – nor to trivialize the powerful and committed engagement of … ‘insiders’ with a true stake in the practices who are working for their elimination” (26). Seemingly apposite, on deeper reading this passage reveals a perilous distinction between the “insider” stake holders who can only hail from FGM-practicing cultures [‘’’insiders’ with a true stake in the practice”] and other volunteers whose fervor is nourished by empathy alone. Such a triage can only be based on ignorance (or worse, deliberate suppression)[3] of anti-FGM work as not only honorable but indispensable.

Yet, the recurring dismissal of courageous efforts by African, African-American, Afro-European and European activists together, however deeply disturbing, is still only a hint of what is wrong with the tone of this collection. More serious are repeated expressions of disdain for (most) NGOs that oppose FGM; consistent misunderstanding of the challenging relationship between advocacy and journalism;[4] and, ultimately, the gauntlet thrown to activists by that portion of the academy in anthropology departments, mainly and significantly based in North America, who claim the issue for their discipline as best suited to pontificate about it. Let me be clear: writing this review during a teaching stint in China, resident in Germany, active in Europe, I see in this volume a U.S.-based export that has already had a corrosive influence on some European university approaches to the subject (fortunately less so in Africa). Close textual analysis reveals a consistent unhelpful undercurrent: the issue is too fraught to touch! Such a hands-off message paralyses the academic conscience and may well end in depriving NGOs of active support and research funds.

“Oh, dear,” you may think by now, “this book has reached the unintended reader.” Perhaps. Not an anthropologist, I have little patience for co-opting (and subordinating) FGM to illuminate “wider discourses and ensuing debates” (Johnson 203) on allied topics, an approach shared by these essays.  But I am credentialed: an Associate of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and a thirty-two year veteran in advocacy to eradicate FGM, my activism embraces the EuroNet FGM, FORWARD-Germany,[5] and Feminist Europa (Heidelberg) which, since 1998, has carried my reviews of books on FGM published in German, French, Italian and Spanish.[6] The dearth of attention in U.S.-based writing to other-language sources deserves mention, for Africa and Europe offer alternative approaches. Finally, a pioneering collection of essays co-edited with University of Ghana’s Augustine H. Asaah called Empathy and Rage. Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature (Oxfordshire: Ayebia, 2009; distributed in the U.S. by Lynne Rienner) shows that what Trans-cultural Bodies refuses to do can indeed be done: advocacy and academia can join hands IF we want to see FGM end. This, however, is not what Transcultural Bodies aims to achieve.

Despite lip-service to hopes of the rite’s demise, hardly a chapter in the Rutgers UP publication is likely to speed eradication (a word, by the way, that its editors dislike). From terminology that refuses to see the amputation of girls’ genitals as a mutilation to multiple framings of the issue that neglect international consensus on human and children’s rights, the book reveals the serpentine nature of its discourse in seemingly acceptable (if repetitive) statements such as this by contributor Aud Talle: “Writing about female circumcision cannot be anything other than a blend of rigid scholarship and ‘sympathy’ writing” (Hernlund and Shell-Duncan 106). But “female circumcision” is not the issue! “Circumcision” means surgical removal of the clitoral prepuce, hardly the kind of ablation to which most girls are prey.

THIS is what FGM victims confront:[7]

As soon as the circumciser began cutting her flesh, the [fourteen or fifteen-year-old Maasai] girl started to fight back. … The women [who thronged around her] … did not manage to hold her down. Finally, the elder brother and guardian … told the women … to use ropes to bind her. … The operation had to be executed immediately because the cattle were restlessly waiting to get out to … pasture[], and all the guests who had gathered were eager to begin … feasting. (94)

As a result, the assistants attempted to lasso “the [girl’s] ankles [as she] … tried desperately to kick … off [the restraints]. The struggle continued for a while before [she] tired” enough to permit bondage. But without room in which to wrench her thighs apart, the actors needed outside intervention. It was soon forthcoming. “One of the men watching the scene … and waiting for the women to … finish[] … approached the house to offer his [help. He] forced his stick through the mud wall…, made a hole, and pulled out one of the rope ends. The other rope was fastened to a roof beam at the entrance to the house” (94-95). 

This narrative, not yet at its climax, covers one entire page in Talle’s chapter, for attention is deliberately diverted from the action by interventions explaining each step from the perpetrators’ point of view, so that what is happening shall not appear to be what it is: violence, and quite specifically a form of violence criminalized by most nation’s laws and international covenants. But to get to the point:

At last, the circumciser could proceed with her work. With tiny movements she carved away the clitoris and the labia minora, while the women in loud voices instructed her how to cut. The blood rushed forward, and for us outside the actual scene, it was as if the excited voices of the women and the heavy breathing of the girl would never … end. (95)

Wait a moment. If the observer is outside, how does she know about these “tiny movements”? How can she discern what’s cut? In fact, she “peeped through [an] opening in the roof that the women had made beforehand to lighten up the room” (95). Spying with her are any number of children of both sexes as well as the volunteer male who is “all the time holding tightly on to the rope [while gazing] into the narrow room to check that the women did a proper job” (95). 

By this time, you, too, feel your stomach clench and, as intended, your sympathies may well have shifted from the teen to the anthropologist who, almost by accident, has found herself ethically compromised. I respect the integrity that leads Talle to admit: 

The smell of blood and sweat forced itself through the wall and incorporated us into what was happening inside. My own pulse beat more quickly than normal. Instantly, I understood what a personal challenge anthropological fieldwork could be. I was witnessing ’torture’, [distancing quotation marks glaring in the original] and the fact that I remained standing with the others outside somehow sanctioned what happened inside the house (95).

My point exactly, with one proviso: anthropologists don’t “somehow sanction” such an event. They give legitimacy to it and thereby vitiate activists’ urgent appeals. For FGM IS torture – sans quotation marks. And even when performed in clinics under general anesthesia, the amputations remain medically pointless and a violation of human rights. 

More than a few authors in the collection sustain similar distortions, with Talle singled out for being so typical of much that is dubious here. If, admittedly, some chapters rely on objective data and even contain intriguing new data on sexuality after FGM, many also share faults with the above passage where emotional withdrawal abrogates scientific rigor. For example, Talle scripts like a creative writer in attributing thoughts and motives she could not possibly know to various actors and, in her effort to mediate the violence, abandons objectivity. She notes that “the nervousness of the women who executed the operation [how does she know they feel nervous?] had spread to the observers [who, we have been told before, were, if anything, hungry], and it was as if we sought support in each other’s glances and presence” (95). Support? Why? Is there something untoward going on? Something, perhaps, thought to be wrong? Procedurally, certainly, as the victim was expected to cooperate, but by now she has been subdued and the usual ululations are, presumably, covering her screams, notwithstanding the “heavy breathing” curiously audible despite the reiterated loudness of in-hut attendants. Given our common understanding of the English language, the author can only be projecting her own malaise, — her own sense that indeed, she is witness to a crime–, onto those whose behavior shows no sense of wrong-doing whatsoever. Yet, in the end, like others in the guild, the anthropologist holds to a creed that pardons what she sees.

Evidence of the author’s ambivalence and thereby her honesty is, to her credit, shared with us, emerging from a repeated disclaimer that prefaces this scene: her Maasai informants told her that this time, things “did not proceed ‘normally’” (93) and she wishes her readers to believe this too – despite a dearth of scientific data in support. The research question is: given a statistically relevant sample of girls subjected to the cut, how many buck? How many grit their teeth in silence?[8] While told what is supposed to happen, what actually takes place, and how often, we simply don’t know. And while I, too, lack the hard facts, having read testimonies and talked to victims, I have good reason to believe that girls’ opposition is hardly uncommon. They do fight back.[9]

Before the halaleiso had even touched her, Yurop cried out. At once, one of the women slapped her. … The general consensus held that this was no time to exercise forbearance … but in Yurop’s case [nothing] quiet[ed] her down. She went right on screaming so they [gagged her with the cloth] ready for that purpose. … [And when] it was Ifra’s turn, … like all the others, she [too] lit out of there. …. So first [they] had to catch her and, with fanatical violence, threw her onto the box. Then, repeat performance: Ifra screamed and tried to free herself, and again the women fought and gagged her. And so it went with Fatma, Muna, Suleiha and Nasra. All shrieked, all were gagged, the halaleiso never slowed down. Between girls she wiped blood off the box and with her foot kicked sand over the puddle on the floor. And now there was only one left, and that was me. (173-174)

Nura Abdi, in this excerpt from Tränen im Sand, presented as Desert Tears in the last chapter of Empathy and Rage, is, admittedly, not scientific. We see only five girls who resist but in ways that seem both believable and representative.

Representing the challenge that anthropologists face when confronting scenes like the above, Talle has come to terms with an early admitted distaste she eventually sheds. Because “female and male circumcision” were “the order of the day,” as a 

cultural phenomenon [they] no longer raised feelings of anxiety or indignation. In Geertzian terms I could remain ‘experience-distant’ to that sort of bodily intrusion (Geertz 1983). Particularly when confronted with this piece of ethnography, it felt safe to repose in the cognition of cultural differences (93).

Such a monumentally unsafe stance – vulnerable to ethical scrutiny – makes even the editors queasy. Hoping to shroud complicity, they evoke a “dual” among “FGC” scholars who oppose “rights and culture,” enabling them to mediate by applying a “’prorights anthropology’” and Marie-Bénédicte Dembour’s “’pendulum’” theory. As Hernlund and Shell-Duncan present her, Dembour sees in universal human rights one ‘extreme’ influence on society and in cultural rights (including misogyny) an equal and opposite ‘extreme’. These concepts mark two ends of an arc. However, once one tendency ascends, the pendulum swings back toward the other. 

Agreeing that human rights and cultural rights signify extremes, Hernlund and Shell-Duncan write:

It is our ambition that this volume add to the growing number of voices in the field of FGC studies and activism that call for a move ‘to the middle’. (2)

If you are, like me, unsure of what “the middle” means when the topic is ablation of a five-year-old’s genitals, the editors clarify by quoting Elvin Hatch, an “extremist” with whom they disagree. He exemplifies the ‘questionable’  tendency to see excision as a “’test case’” for the limits of cultural relativism by “group[ing] FGC with political executions, genocides, and honor killings as ‘situations in which ethical relativism is untenable’” (Hatch 1997, 372 qtd. in Hernlund and Shell-Duncan 7).

Now, am I correct to understand that whereas political executions, genocides and honor killings really are ethically reprehensible, FGM is not? And if FGM is not reprehensible, that is because the non-anthropologist fails to distinguish among more harmful and less harmful, that is, not reprehensible, types? The answer is yes.

While some scholars “wrestl[e] with … alleged and real health effects of FGC” (1) others “casually lump  together under the label FGM/FGC/FC … diverse practices with varied consequences,” thereby causing “confusion” with regard to “the effects that FGC can indeed have on health and well-being” (2). Yes, as this wording suggests, more than a few contributors imply that some forms of FGM aren’t all that bad, an argument whose legitimacy should, at the very latest, have ceded to the Lancet whose findings have not guided editorial choices but have merely been acknowledged in a footnote about “the World Health Organization[‘s taskforce] … on female genital mutilation and obstetric outcome [that] released a six-country study” (44). The first such investigation based on a statistically relevant sample, it “did find that women with [any form of] FGM, compared to uncut women, experienced an elevated risk of certain complications such as postpartum hemorrhage, stillbirth, or early neonatal death (WHO 2006)” (44). One can, I think, conclude, supported by the impeccable authority of one of the world’s leading medical journals, that reducing risk of “postpartum hemorrhage, stillbirth, or early neonatal death” means FGM is not a good idea for anyone.

Now, in June 2006, when Lancet appeared, “the manuscript was going to press,” so that, we are given to understand, it was too late for changes. Untrue!  After all, the footnote is there. Decisive for inaction was rather the fact that Lancet’s results make invalid not only considerable amounts of text but even entire chapters based on the idea that FGM’s damage to health had not yet been measured and hence could not be known. Or as Shweder would have it, “lack of evidence of harm is equivalent to evidence of lack of harm” (14). So why not err on the side of those who cut? Granted, adapting the text to new knowledge would have been a Herculean task, but allowing misinformation not only to remain but keep its place at the heart of the project vitiates the credibility of the book as a whole by revealing it to be even more strongly in thrall to ideology. 

More important, though, than the medical journal’s inconvenient timing is the option the editors neglected that could have avoided this embarrassment altogether. Had they only relied on activists, and in particular the study’s principal collaborator Efua Dorkenoo, they would at least have known the work was underway and what it intended to uncover. They then could have anticipated outcomes. This is not to say that Dorkenoo wasn’t discrete; even when speaking with insiders, confidentiality was strictly observed.  Nonetheless, simply talking to her or another of the activist investigators, one of whom is at Harvard Law School, might have prevented faulty scholarship[10] occasioned by the idée fixe that cultural majorities are, if not somehow in the right on this specific issue, also not entirely wrong.

As to the ethics here, if ending the practice brings clear advantages, continuing it does not, a state of affairs recognized by Ousmane Sembène, the pioneer Senegalese cineaste, whose Moolaadé prefigured Lancet’s findings. In 2004 in Cannes, the movie took first prize in the category “un autre regard,” and both Sembene and starring actress Fatoumata Coulibaly[11] told me in private conversations that, without a doubt, it is against FGM. Nonetheless, in another egregious example of its sleight of hand, Transcultural Bodies reads Moolaadé quite differently – as not primarily about FGM at all. 

Really? Here’s our synopsis of the film:

The storyline revolves around Collé Gallo Sy, an excised mother, who had freed her only daughter from the so-called purification rites, or ‘salindé’, organized every seven years. In this particular season, [six] little girls run away; [two drown themselves in the well while four others] seek protection – called Moolaadé – from Collé, whose defiance is known. She protects the children but [in doing so] revolts against her husband, his family, and the village as a whole. In conflict are the right to [protection] and attachment to tradition that approves excision. For her opposition, Collé is subjected to a brutal public whipping, her enraged husband trying to [compel] her to recant. His efforts elicit rapturous applause. ‘Break her! Break her!’ the crowd shrieks. But the forces of change are too strong. Increasingly, women join Collé to triumph over male-authored repression symbolized by the edict to burn all radios, a source of enlightened ideas. (Empathy v)

This quote, from Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana’s dedication in Empathy and Rage, honors Sembène for being the first to produce a “full-length feature film contesting FGM” (v).

Now, in her contribution to the Hernlund and Shell-Duncan volume, L. Amede Obiora provides further evidence of the book’s ideology-driven perspective as she takes Sembène and vitiates his forthright message. Interpreted not as a film against FGM, in Obiora’s hands, its 

Important lesson … is that to respect the autonomy of individuals and the significance of their membership in local cultural worlds is to empower them to engage in critical deliberations of their positioning and commitments. This lesson is, arguably, subverted by the tenuous but relative expansion of the menu of options achieved for African immigrants by promoting female circumcision as evidence of persecution in the U.S. immigration process. (71)

According to my explication de texte this means, (a) ‘female circumcision’ should not be construed as persecution; and (b) should not be (mis)used by women to gain asylum in the United States because (c) doing so counters Sembènes main purpose in Moolaadé, to (d) reveal through a chronotope[12] that break-through need not be imposed from without but can emerge from within. This, in turn, is important, as (e) a “fresh alternative” for all of us activist outsiders in our “narratives that typically construe the practice as overdetermined [sic] by the vested interests of the elite and portray African women as monolithically condemned to slavish conformity” (Obiora 70). 

Now, I agree that Sembène wanted to show what Obiora saw – the positive deviant deploying indigenous options — but did not wish to exclude what she covers up. When she writes that he “referee[d] the struggles surrounding female circumcision” (70) the reader automatically places him at neutral, as referees must of necessity be. At risk of redundancy, this is not so. The film and film-maker oppose FGM, even if the means to do so, as Stephen Bishop argues in Empathy and Rage, draw on an “oppositional narrative” that works from within the culture. For Obiora, the fact that an opponent is permitted to emerge at all  –and, presumably, is merely thrashed, not killed– trumps all else. She extols “women … act[ing] as change agents” (70) in contrast to an asylum discourse that reduces them to passive victims. This activity, in turn, is what counts, making the object of protest – FGM – almost superfluous:

… the film best animates the possibilities for change that inhere in a culture and illustrates the reality of indigenous transformative paradigms that often lie latent, even as arguably less efficient and effective reform aspirations are pursued. At once depicting culture as a surrogate for oppression and culture as a spontaneous zone of empowerment and resistance, the film extols knowledge as power, tracing how the culturally competent deploy the rich repertoire of cultural knowledge to fund radical change. (70)

Now, in light of my discussion with Coulibaly, herself an activist who suffered from excision as did the character she played, I’m disinclined to limit the protagonist to one of the “culturally competent deploying the rich repertoire of [indigenous] knowledge” (70), especially because the thematic shift in popular opinion, from women supporting to women opposing the ‘rite’, reaches fruition only once their catalyzing radios are ordered burned, and these had urged that excision be stopped.[13] Thus, in language better suited to the cinema screen, what Collé does is fight FGM; reveal the disfigurement resulting from numerous crude C-sections occasioned by her genital wounds; nearly amputates her finger by biting it in pain following a symbolic superimposition of FGM on intercourse, and shows enormous courage in not succumbing to the lash.[14] That Obiora defends these several scenes of torture – both by failing to censure them and by ennobling them under the mantel of culture – is, to say the least, ethically suspect.

A heavy charge, I know, given that, like most contributors to this volume, her aim is not only not to oppose FGM but to attack its critics who (a) perpetuate negative stereotypes of Africans, (b) supply “demonizing narratives” (73), (c) present “circumcision-as-persecution,” (d) “ratif[y] … Orientalist discourses [that] ultimately subvert a paradigm of inclusion sensitive to multiculturalism and [(e)] reinforce reactionary gatekeeping [sic]” (73). To my companion militants in the European Network and the IAC, I say: take heed!

Lest I give the impression that direct interaction with activists takes place nowhere in this text, that isn’t the case either, but activism’s possible successes are explained away. For example, when visiting the London Black Women’s Health Action Project, Aud Talle spies FGM [female genital mutilation] is a worldwide issue, a pamphlet that provides the occasion to communicate her feelings about its terms: 

[Because] the publication uses “FGM” in the title, [she] commented to Sarah that [she] preferred the more relativistic “circumcision” for the practice. Sarah turned against [her] and said, “But it is mutilation!” Her sharp answer surprised [Talle who] could do nothing but agree. [99-100]

This leads the author to consider the relationship between anthropologists’ Weltanschauung and Sarah’s concrete situation. Sarah, she notes, had been against FGM even before she left Somalia. In a British environment that values resistance, Sarah is assumed unable to comprehend a relativistic point of view. So, for the time being, Talle refrains from trying to convince her.

Talle continues, however, trying to convince herself that relative values remain valid. One informant, for instance, proud of the courage she showed as a girl, now admits that the schmerz “came afterward, when she married and had children. ‘This was an experience of agony’, she added” (101).  And goes on

without bitterness that she had suffered “in vain,” while she pointed to her four-year-old daughter, noting that she “at least” should be spared from being “sewn.” This woman had an unusual clarity when she spoke; it was as if she had been exposed to a sudden revelation – as if her present resistance had just waited to be awakened. (101)

Had Talle read Nura Abdi, she would not have been taken by surprise. This type of epiphany does indeed take place.

In Abdi’s chapter called “Am I even a woman?” the Somali has asked for asylum in Germany and spends the first few weeks sharing housing with other refugees where “nothing” in the experience “rocked [her] as much as learning that not all women in the world are circumcised” (260). The discovery, to be sure, is far from amusing. A rumor having been set in motion that Nura “was the only one who wouldn’t sleep around,” an Ethiopian friend challenges her:

“What’s the matter with you? Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” Hanna wanted to know. … Then she looked at me as though a light had turned on and said, “Oh, right, you’re Somali.” I was taken aback. “What do you mean by that?” “You’re circumcised,” she said. An awful premonition shook me. “And you’re not?” I asked, doubt in my voice. … So out it came. 

And I learned that there are two kinds of women. (260)

Soon the asylum colony, composed of pre-fabricated ‘containers’ housing newly-arrived Afghanis, Africans from East and West, Balkan refugees and Iraqis, was, despite the language barrier, abuzz with the news.

And from all sides I was met by shocked, disbelieving, pitying glances. Above all the Yugoslavian women couldn’t contain themselves. “How can anyone do a thing like that to such a pretty girl?” they wailed, shook their heads and felt obliged to offer comfort. As for me, I’d fallen into a nightmare. It appeared that not even the Afghan women had been circumcised! O.K., Ethiopians are Christian, I thought, so that might be [why]. But Afghanis are Moslems like me, and they don’t do it? I felt myself hurled into hell.

But the worst of it was, they appeared to consider me a cripple, half a woman incapable of any feeling. 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! 

I wasn’t going to stand for that. It came to verbal blows between Hanna and me. “You’re running around with all your filth,” I hammered into her, “and proud of it?! Maybe you think it’s better to stink like the uncircumcised? At least … I don’t smell!” I was angry. “Aren’t you ashamed to be like a whore down there?” And Hanna, scornfully: “You’re as smooth as a wall between your legs. They killed your sensitivity. They’ve destroyed you.” I was shaking with rage. “Look at me!” I screamed. “I’m every bit as much a Mensch as you are! I have feelings just like you! And I’ll bet I can love even better than you can!” … Didn’t I have to defend myself?

But to tell the truth, I didn’t know what I was talking about. As a matter of fact, I knew nothing at all. Nothing about my body and nothing about sex. I’d wound up in a situation [unimaginable even] in my worst nightmare. 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. But putting two and two together, I drew the same conclusion as everybody else: There was something wrong with me. I became foreign to myself. (260-263)

Like Fadumo Korn in Born in the Big Rains. A Memoir of Somalia and Survival, Nura brings to exile her pride in purity, only to discover that what she prized was scorned, and what she scorned is praised – the canonical experience of the ‘circumcised’ woman in Diaspora. Fortunate to meet a gynecologist sensitive to the infibulated woman’s needs, she begins to explore her body, and when her mentor tells her, “What you’ve suffered affects not only your body, but also your soul” (299) she accepts his counsel. After long delays, she seeks defibulation, recovers a kind of wholeness, and concludes: “Circumcision is barbarity, mutilation without anesthesia, and we should put an end to it. Of course not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d write a book about it.  But I often thought I’d someday want to help other women [prey to the practice]” (347).                

What is my point in offering this lengthy excerpt? To refute charges against us activists.  Contrary to Hernlund and Shell-Duncan’s viewpoint, advocacy rarely lacks context nor deals in stereotype. Nor does it fail to acknowledge that, indeed, facing up to the loss of both genitalia and value is a trial of considerable magnitude. As the Bamako Declaration regrets, at least one generation – those cut and then displaced, literally or ideologically – will have it hard, as Abdi and Korn, among others, do. Yet their voices, though rare, are also representative. They do not, in sum, fit the description of campaigners readers find again and again in Transcultural Bodies portrayed as creators of “hegemonic FGM discourse” (Talle 101), fomenters of “’moral panic’” (Johnsdotter 20), authors of “traveling narrative [that] is thoroughly fetishized, in both Marxian and Freudian senses of that term” (Piot 164), “borrow[ing] racist, imperialist and missionary images of Africa that are centuries old” (Piot 164), or – by far the most serious charge – not only ineffective in ending the practice but responsible for slowing its demise by raising the issue in public at all.  Why all the fuss, some contributors ask, if the ‘rite’, at least in Europe, is dying of its own accord? Talle and Johnsdotter, among others, hold this view.

The answer is simple: too little research shows this to be so. It wasn’t until September 2007 that primary investigator Efua Dorkenoo released, at a ceremonial occasion in the House of Lords, the very first epidemiological study of FGM in England and Wales. Similar studies in other European countries are rare, with figures generally extrapolations based on estimated numbers of migrant daughters from excising cultures. And just as France proves with Exciseuse[15] that operators have either been flown in or are resident in Europe, a German hidden camera in 1999 (Schlaglicht) showed an Egyptian physician’s willingness to perform a clitoridectomy. The doctor, disbarred but never prosecuted (as no crime took place), admitted he knew it would have been against the law but, among us, you know, we’ll keep it all hush-hush. Waris Dirie, in Desert Children, a book all about the mutilation of African girls in Europe, also sees mutilation going on, as does the EuroNet.

Hernlund and Shell-Duncan, however, and, above all, Johnsdotter, a major proponent of the self-vanishing school, claim to have more reliable sources to argue that not only is the number of affected girls diminishing – in spite of FGM advocacy — but will likely continue to do so without any public attention at all. Just look at Israel, Johnsdotter points out. The Beta Israel have stopped. Indeed they have, but theirs is a very special case based on immigrants’ desire to be Israeli and specifically not to preserve but to shed the ‘culture’ of their homeland in which their very name– Falasha, or stranger – meant they did not belong. This motivation is decisive and not shared by other migrant groups who have unwillingly left. 

Unwilling migrants do indeed tend to honor aspects of culture that preserve rather than dilute identity, and FGM is indisputably one of those practices. Yet Johnsdotter, in one of the contributions which, I admit, angers me most, generalizes from her dissertation based on interviews conducted with an interpreter among fewer than 100 Somali immigrants in Malmo that the practice has as good as disappeared. The implication is, therefore, that national governments, the EU, NGOs and private donors are wasting their money funding advocacy groups to fight a phantom. How does she know it’s an apparition, FGM performed in the EU? Because Sweden, as well as most other nations, has yet to prosecute even a minimal number of charges. 

In a few [trials] there was a possibility that illegal female circumcision had been performed but no way to prove it. The large share of unfounded suspected cases shows that the level of alertness is high in Sweden. It is unlikely that there is a substantial, but hidden, incidence of female circumcision, since most cases handled by the authorities turn out to be groundless. (132)

Here the abyss between academics and advocates appears at its most chilling. Activists know why this is so, because the problem lies at the very heart of advocacy work. Not because the charges are unfounded do cases escape the purview of the law, but because we NGOs wring our hands, clutch our hearts, and tax our minds when faced with the two untenable options: denounce parents and alienate communities – but go to court, or plod along in educational efforts that strive to include, not alienate, immigrant communities while at the same time risking girls’ health and ourselves being charged with facilitating mutilators. In meetings lasting hours and hours, activists dissect these options to reach what is anything but a globalized, hegemonic response and, I admit, I resent the presumed superiority of ivory tower ideologues who research and report but far less often ACT.

As you can see, this anthology has, to risk being unacademic about it, gotten my goat, and the screed you have just read is, in fact, the first negative review I’ve ever written, preferring in most cases to let unhelpful books simmer in silence.[16]  But here I felt the gauntlet had been too clearly and insistently hurled, and, if anything, I regret not having penned this sooner. For Martha Nussbaum is right:

We should keep FGM on the list of unacceptable practices that violate women’s human rights, and we should be ashamed of ourselves if we do not use whatever privilege and power that has come our way to make it disappear forever. (qtd in Hernlund & Shell-Duncan 26).

            By this time you know what the editors of Transcultural Bodies have to say about this. They ask, “Who exactly is ‘we’?” Quite! We are dedicated activists. They are not. Instead, they denounce “denunciations of foreign traditions as morally retrograde,” (26) a quality that the traditions, in turn, are obviously not. Or are they? You decide.


[1] The editors’ first volume dealt with the issue in Africa. Shell-Duncan, Bettina and Ylva Hernlund, eds. Female “Circumcision” in Africa. Culture, Controversy, and Change. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000. Levin’s review together with a modified version of this essay will appear in December 2010 in Feminist Europa. Review of Books, special issue on FGM. See www.ddv-verlag.de. Click on Feminist Europa.

[2] Michelle C. Johnson notes that “After nearly ten years of working with Mandiga in Guinee- Bissau, I have not yet met a Mandiga woman who opposes female circumcision” (210). This statement is intended to defend if not to ennoble the preference.

[3] Search in vain in Transcultural Bodies for the watershed Bamako Declaration, a key manifesto issued by the Inter-African Committee in 2005 that insists the term “female genital mutilation” be consistently deployed – emphatically not cutting, circumcision, surgeries or modification. Failure to acknowledge this document amounts to dismissal of its authors and strikes me as an egregious lack of respect, for it is impossible that a competent peer-reviewer would not have brought its absence to the editors’ attention. And note the omission of the real name of the big day. The editors attended in “2004 [the] USAID-sponsored Washington, D.C., conference commemorating the first anniversary of ‘Zero Tolerance Day’” (ix). It is officially, and deliberately, called International Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation Day, the reason being to ‘enforce’ as far as possible acceptance of the idea that clitoral amputation and infibulation are, despite denials, medically mutilating acts. Later in the text, the real title is given, but only after the editors have rejected the wording.

[4] Well aware of pitfalls in speaking to the media whose interest naturally lies in sensationalism – if it bleeds, it leads –, activists often attend workshops designed to circumvent negative reporting to the extent that it can be done. The EU DAPHNE Program, for instance, included media training for EuroNet members.

[5] Modeled after one of the world’s premier NGOs, FORWARD – UK (founded 1983) by Efua Dorkenoo, O.B.E.

[6] Typically, U.S.-based academics betray little or no awareness of studies published in German. With regard to Germany and Austria the deficit is particularly grave, as each energetically debates the issue and, since 1977, has been pioneering ways to deal with FGM. Although it is now outdated, I recommend for historical background Tobe Levin. “Female Genital Mutilation: Campaigns in Germany.” Engendering Human Rights: Cultural and Socio-economic Realities in Africa. Ed. Obioma Nnaemeka. NY: Palgrave Macmillan at St Martin’s Press, 2005. 285-301. At present the nation hosts more than thirty NGOs against FGM, most united in INTEGRA which maintains a committee consisting of federal government (ministry) representatives, state and municipal envoys and NGOS. It is perhaps not inappropriate to remind readers of Germany’s present influence on both the European Union and, by virtue of its place in the global economy, on the world.

[7] In some instances the brackets contain quotes from the text that I have rearranged to improve narrative flow.

[8] A good number of first person narratives in English, German, Dutch and French are not short on rebellious victims. One well-known example is P.K. from Awa Thiam’s La Parole aux Négresses (1978), popularized in Alice Walker’s Warrior Marks (1993). Please note the time lag.

[9] Acknowledgement that girls resist is easily deduced from often cited reductions in age of cutting and elimination of womanhood instruction. We see this resistance in Moolaadé as well.

[10] Suspect scholarship is also involved when, for instance, in a volatile field like this one, a wildly outdated U.N. document from 1986 is cited (see p. 12).

[11] I attended three events at Mt. Holyoke in the fall of 2004 with Sembene, who showed his film and, one afternoon, participated in a podium discussion about FGM with Nawal el Saadawi who had been a guest at Smith that semester. I spent an evening with Fatoumata Coulibaly at Mali’s national holiday celebrations on 21 September 2007 in the Embassy of Mali in Berlin, both of us guests of the Ambassador, Fatoumata Siré Diakité.

At the Embassy of the Republic of Mali in Berlin, 21 September 2007, in conversation with Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana and the Honorable Ambassador, the late Fatoumata Siré Diakité.

[12] Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term “chronotope,” meaning a simultaneous time-space whose combined dimensions facilitate a leap forward, in this case rebellion exploding from the culture’s heart.

[13] The radio’s influence on the change of heart in Moolaadé cannot be over-emphasized, and it should be openly acknowledged: commercials and programming designed by local NGOs are frequently funded by international associations. Sini Sanuman in partnership with Healthy Tomorrow in Mali is a good example.

[14] When I complimented Coulibaly on her acting in the thrashing scene, she explained that of course the duration was cinematically manipulated but the pain of the lash was real.

[15] Linda Weil-Curiel, Natasha Henry. Exciseuse. Entretiens avec Hawa Gréou. Normandy: CityEditions, 2007. To appear in English as The Exciser. Hawa Gréou Speaks Out. [working title] Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010.  NOTE added in 2022: the contract that had been signed at the time of writing in 2010 was opposed not by the French publishers but by the authors’ agent who suceeded in assuring that, to this day, the book remains untranslated.

[16] I have passed up at least two requests for this reason: The Journal of Mind and Behavior, after publishing an article of mine in 1980, asked for a write-up on Esther Hicks’ Infibulation which I refused to do once I understood the author was not advocating against the practice, and the second concerned a good friend’s edited volume.  After wringing with my conscience, I knew that the friendship meant more than whatever ‘rewards’ might follow a diplomatic but therefore less than honest review.