For Africa Day, less FGM …

Khady front coverMay 25, Africa Day, pays tribute to the founding in 1963 of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now succeeded by the African Union (AU), whose opposition to FGM deserves applause. In Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, concluding the AU’s 17th Summit, the heads of African states approved a Declaration calling for the 66th session of the UN General Assembly to “Ban FGM worldwide” (A/RES/67/146). Proposed by Burkina Faso, the Declaration responded to efforts at persuasion led by No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC), EuroNet-FGM and the Senegalese NGO La Palabre (1).

Khady UNUnCUT/VOICES’ author Khady, active in all four sponsoring organizations, narrates in her memoir, Mutilée (2005) or Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (2010) how, at the UN, she urged action against FGM. Sixty-six copies of Blood Stains were placed in GA delegates’ hands before the vote– art and politics in seamless synergy. And two thirds of the General Assembly, including the entire African Group, cosponsored the initiative. On 20 December 2012, consensus obtained among UN members who agreed to end impunity, enact legislation and enforce it to protect women and girls. (2)

But global victory is one thing; local progress is quite another and seemingly more elusive. One promising effort to move forward found expression in a venue until now generally inhospitable to discussion of FGM: the university. Too often shrouded in anthropology departments openly hostile to activist research, female genital mutilation emerged from the shadows at a daylong March 7, 2015, workshop hosted by International Gender Studies at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. The multi-disciplinary exploration of relations between activism and the academy elicited unforgettable moments of anguish and hope, torment and resolve.

Valentine Hoda HiboHoda Ali, Hibo Wardere, Valentine Nkoyo, and Leyla Hussein, professionals and activists whose carved flesh is their most moving inspiration, shared the similar torments they endured, albeit in different hells. Hoda, for instance, infibulated in Somalia, told us how, as a small child of seven, she had been one of the lucky ones to receive anesthetic that worked – it doesn’t always – when her labia were cut, but she remembers with intensity the feeling associated with each stitch and the relentless burning that wouldn’t let her sleep. When she turned 14, hematocolpos — accumulation of blood in the abdomen for lack of an exit–, caused pain and worse – infections, internal scarring and sterility. Despite numerous surgeries and hospital stays – five years’ worth before her period was regulated–, Hoda learned at age 31 she could never have children, a disappointment possibly worsened by her culture’s insistence on maternity as a marker of gender identity. Hoda’s plea for understanding did not fall on deaf ears. Asking why such senseless torment had been inflicted on defenseless children, she called on listeners to help end FGM.

From Somalia like Hoda, educator Hibo Wardere makes it her mission to bring the abolition message into schools, sensitizing pupils and staff at both primary and secondary level. Breaking the silence, FGM never spoken about at home, Hibo alerts to danger signals coming from classmates. Is that little girl at risk of being removed from the country to undergo FGM in her parents’ home? It’s getting close to holiday time. Is she particularly nervous, fidgety? “I tell my story in graphic detail,” Hibo says. “Three women come to your house and hold you so tight you can’t breathe. All you can do is surrender to the pain. I was screaming for my mum but all she said was quiet, be quiet, the neighbors will hear.” For Hibo, girls have a right to learn about FGM. Why? In order to refuse. “They have the right to know and a right to refuse,” she insists, for “if we DON’T talk about it, twenty-five years from now we’ll be having the same discussion.” Bringing it out in the open liberates her too, she admits, from the “mental madness over what happened” to her and intolerably high numbers of others.

As for Valentine Nkoyo, a Maasai from Kenya, (3) she longed for nothing more strongly than an education but a traditional father recognized neither her ambition nor her talent. Valentine was mutilated and, following custom to the letter, taken out of school to prepare for her wedding. She revved up her courage, however, to do what is hardly ever done: she approached her father, a remote man with many wives and children. Normally, custom and ceremony would have forbidden the lowly female child, she told us, even to address him. So what Valentine did was a recite a poem. Yes, she had been ‘circumcised’ but begged to postpone marriage and be allowed to return to school. The poetry softened her father’s heart, and not only did he agree but even wept.

Leyla and Maggie for BlogThe two presenters who closed the workshop, keynote speaker Maggie O’Kane who heads the present Guardian campaign against FGM in the UK, USA, Australia and Kenya; and co-founder of Daughters of Eve, Hawa’s Haven, and Dahlia’s Project, Leyla Hussein left us with indelible impressions and resolve. Maggie O’Kane showed three video clips illustrating “how a new generation of campaigners and journalists are harnessing the media”; Leyla Hussein projected “The Cruel Cut,” a TV documentary in which she teaches about FGM with unique props: a vagina tent, clitoris cupcakes, model genitalia and, most unforgettably, an audience of six Somali youth transformed from defenders of the practice into committed opponents when they observe Leyla’s garden shears trim the labia fashioned out of clay. They display their malaise as she stitches up the lips. Thus, pedagogy without euphemism, showing it as it is, (may be the only thing that) works.

Each session –there had been six, of which you find only the first described here (4) — asked presenters to respond to specific questions. Hoda, Hibo, and Valentine were answering the query, what do you survivors want the rest of us to know? The answer in brief is “Stop FGM.”


(1) See more at:

(2) Reported by No Peace Without Justice. See more at:

(3) Valentine Nkoyo has contributed an autobiographical Afterword to the forthcoming Kiminta. Maasai. Speaking Out about FGM. A Memoir and Sourcebook by Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin with photographs by Britta Radike. (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015).

(4) International Gender Studies, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford is bringing out an electronic newsletter, co-edited by Tobe Levin von Gleichen and Phyllis Ferguson, with full reports on the workshop whose program is available at (March 7, 2015).

Zero Tolerance for FGM …

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

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

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

April 22, 2015

Here’s a passionate reminder of what’s at stake:  keeping girls’ genitalia intact. Hilary makes a clear case against coddling  accomplices of FGM …

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

At the University of Oxford, Contestations around FGM: Activism and the Academy

Celebrating women’s victories and challenges, a workshop, Contestations around FGM: Activism and the Academy, is taking place on March 7, 2015, from 8:00 a.m. to 8 p.m., as part of the annual Oxford International Women’s Festival, sponsored by International Gender Studies (IGS), Lady Margaret Hall at the University of Oxford.

Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

Here’s the PROGRAMME.

Saturday, March 7, 2015, in the Old Library, Talbot Hall

09:00 – 09:15  Opening Remarks. Dr. Maria Jaschok (Director, International Gender Studies, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford) & Dr. Tobe Levin (Visiting Research Fellow, International Gender Studies, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford)

09:15 – 10:30  Session 1 ROUND-TABLE on Testimony/Oral History: Addressing the academy, policy-makers, and civil society, what do survivors want us to know?

Chair:   Dr. Maria Jaschok (IGS, LMH, University of Oxford) Participants:   Hoda Ali, activist and nurse (UK/Somalia); Khady Koita, author and founder, EuroNet-FGM and la Palabre (Belgium/Senegal); Lucy Mashua, blogger and relentless ‘Ambassador’ against FGM (USA/Kenya); Hawa D. Sesay, Executive Director Hawa Trust & social worker (UK/Sierra Leone); Hibo Wardere, educator, activist (UK/Somalia) Respondent:  Valentine Nkoyo, education activist (UK/Kenya)

10:30 – 11:45    Session 2 ROUND-TABLE on LAW: Concerning prosecution, what are the benefits, the hurdles and the effects on prevention of committed implementation of the law?

Chair:   Dr. Frankie Hutton, Rose Project and NJ State Commissioner (USA9 Participants: Dexter Dias, QC (UK), Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond, OBE, Professor Emerita, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, Honorary Fellow, LMH, (UK) Lorraine Koonce Farahmand, Esq Solicitor of England and Wales, NY lawyer and gender advocate (France)  Hilary Burrage, sociologist, journalist (The Guardian/Huffington Post) blogger and book author (UK) Linda Weil-Curiel, attorney, CAMS (France) Jennifer Obaseki, Solicitor (UK) Respondent:             Charlotte Rachel Proudman, attorney (UK)

11:45-12:00                                    Coffee Break

12:00-13:15  Session 3 on Medicine (1): How has the ‘Health Approach’ promoted as well as hindered abolition by encouraging widespread medicalization? (Alternatively: how is the medical profession responding to the FGM crisis?)

Chair:  Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Visiting Research Fellow, IGS, LMH (Germany) Presenters:  Adebisi Adebayo, Ph.D. Inter-African Committee, Geneva (Switzerland) Owolabi Bjalkander, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden (Sierra Leone) Prof Dr Els Leye, Vrije Universiteit Brussel – RHEA Centre of expertise on Gender, Diversity and Intersectionality/Ghent University-International Centre for Reproductive Health (Belgium) Dr. Gillian Einstein, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Toronto (Canada) Video presentation in absentia. Respondent: Kariyo-Grâce Nyandwi, medical student, Univ. Heidelberg (Germany)

13:15 – 13:45                                 Sandwich Buffet Lunch

13:45 -15:00   Session 4 on Medicine (2): How are survivors’ needs for care/treatment being met, including clitoris reconstruction?

Chair:  Frédérique Martz, executive director, Institut en Santé Génésique (France) Presenters: Dr. Phoebe Abe, physician treating FGM survivors (UK)Dr. Brenda Kelly, physician treating FGM survivors (UK) Dr. Comfort Momoh, MBE, FGM/Public Health Specialist (UK) Dr. Pierre Foldes, pioneer of clitoris restoration surgery (France) Respondent:   Surkhab Peerzada, public health specialist, thesis on FGM (Canada)

15:00-16:15 Session 5 ROUND TABLE on FGM, Media and the Arts: How can the arts best challenge FGM?

Chair:  Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, artist (Belgium/Nigeria) Joy Keshi Walker, MBA and curator (Nigeria/USA) Berhane Ras-Work, Co-founder & past president, Inter-African Committee and author (Geneva/Ethiopia) Chloe White, award-winning documentary filmmaker (UK) Jeanie Kortum, novelist (USA) Susan McLucas, Sini Sanuman (USA/Mali) (Music DVD in absentia). Respondent: Sarah Penny, author, academic and creative writing activist Brunel University (UK)

16:15-16:30                             Coffee Break

16:30 – 17:45  Session 6 ROUND TABLE on Activism and Research: How does research help to prevent FGM?

Chair: Dr. Phyllis Ferguson, Oxford Transitional Justice Research, University of Oxford. Participants: Professor Francisca Omorodion, Sociology/ Anthropology/Criminology, University of Windsor (Canada/Benin) Dr. Hazel Barrett, professor, Coventry University (UK) Dr. Anja Stuckert, Gender Advisor, Plan International (Germany) Ann-Marie Wilson, Executive Director/Founder, 28TooMany, Anti-FGM NGO (UK) Fatoumata Siré Diakité, founder and President, APDF (Mali) and Erica Pomerance, filmmaker (Canada) Bannir le Couteau de l’Excision (film excerpt in absentia) Dr. Adriana Kaplan Marcusan, Fundación Wassu, Universitat Autonóma de Barcelona (Spain/The Gambia) (Statement in absentia) Respondent:  Grace Mbungu, researcher and activist (Germany/Kenya)

17:45 – 18:15   KEYNOTE SPEECH by Maggie O’Kane, The Guardian “FGM and the media generation (video, community radio and the struggle): How a new generation of campaigners and journalists are harnessing the media”

18:15 – 19:15   Leyla Hussein, Psychotherapist/ Lead Campaigner and Consultant; Co-Founder of Daughters Of Eve, Hawa’s Haven and Dahlia’s Project, presents “The Cruel Cut”

19:15-19:45   LIVE PERFORMANCE. A scene from WAAFRIKA. Kenya. 1992. Two Women Fall in Love. By Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko, dramatist and author (USA/Kenya/Tanzania) Actress: Tzena Nicole

19:45-20:00  Conclusion

All day: sale at conference discount, books on FGM from UnCUT/VOICES Press (Frankfurt am Main, Germany) and Ayebia Clark Publishing (Banbury, UK). Giclée reproductions of Nigerian paintings on FGM, exhibition originally curated by Joy Keshi Walker and Godfrey Williams-Okorodus in 1998. Artwork by Diane Walsh, FPA Foreign Correspondent communication-strategy consultant (GAFGM, GWPF) (UK)

Costs: £12 per participant for two coffee breaks and lunch; additional £15 per participant for concluding reception at the Cotswold Lodge.

Gratitude to assistants Dr. Phyllis Ferguson, Roberta Staples, Dr. Selin Akyuz, Dr. Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi, Kerrie Thornhill, Emily Tifft, Rowel Leung, Karen McCallum and Dr. Angela Raven-Roberts.

February 6, Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation Day: the Hippocratic Oath


Dr. Pierre Foldes

Dr. Pierre Foldes

“I can’t put into words what I felt at that moment. A fire burned between my legs. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I hopped about a little. You couldn’t call it dancing. I was one of those said to have a timid nature. I was puny, exhausted and distressed. During that monstrous jiggling that seemed to go on and on and on under the watchful eye of several matrons, I suddenly had the impression of a tornado swirling around me. The storm broke. And after that, I don’t remember anything. I had fainted.” (1)

The quote appears in Undoing FGM, novelist Hubert Prolongeau’s biographical account of the pioneer in clitoris restoration, Dr. Pierre Foldes. Privileging his patients’ words, Dr. Foldes stands firmly behind the theme of this year’s Zero Tolerance Day, to outline responsibilities of medical professionals. First is of course … Do No Harm. The injunction sounds straight-forward. It isn’t. Campaigns to end FGM in Africa began by appealing to logic: genital wounding, like smoking, can be devastating to your health. It can kill. Therefore, as a reasonable person, you will understand the harm and stop.

FGM hasn’t stopped. Instead, it is being medicalized, that is, imported into clinical settings, (and in some places, like Egypt, at an alarming rate), mainly in response to the trauma of FGM committed in the raw. The thinking goes, if the big OUCH is the issue, let’s use Novocain. Unsanitary instruments? Sterilize  them. Accidents occur because the girl fights back? Knock her out first.

So what happens then? Less harm? Wrong. The few studies we have show a tendency to take more tissue, sew more tightly, leave the inert, torpid victim with a pretty scar — not disfigured by infection – covering over more ample amputations.

The indignity of FGM and violation of sexual rights is erased. Yet isn’t this precisely where the conversation ought to start?

Speaking at the American Graduate School of Paris to attentive, sympathetic students. Photo credit: Corentine Chaillet

Speaking at the American Graduate School of Paris to attentive, sympathetic students. Photo credit: Corentine Chaillet

FGM is an emotional issue. It is an economic, human rights and feminist issue appropriately housed in gender and masculinity studies departments. It involves a toxic mix of motivations, from respecting tradition to desiring beauty, from honoring Mother and Father to wanting community harmony – or community escape.

It is also nowhere near as foreign as you may think if you were not born into societies that cut. One of its most puzzling aspects concerns the women who perpetuate it. To understand why they do, let’s consider loveliness.

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, The Urhobo Bride, Oil on Canvas, 2007

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, The Urhobo Bride, Oil on Canvas, 2007

Nigerian artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus in “The Urhobo Bride” aptly associates amputations with enhancement of beauty and desire. Four elements stand out in the bust of a serene woman with harmonious sensual features: the same passionate crimson triangulates full lips, beaded necklace, and fat flower. The single discordant element is a razor that adorns her right ear – the instrument aestheticized as jewellery. The same elision of disfigurement and fashion also frames the portrait: ten palms beckon to the viewer, most tattooed with plant life but one with a blade. Here Williams-Okorodus anticipates the “truth” most challenging to advocates: women’s emotional attachment to the damage, justified as pain in the service of beauty. As the French say, “Il faut souffrir pour être belle.”

With student Linnette Vélez Defendini at AGS

With student Linnette Vélez Defendini at AGS

This does not make FGM resemble cosmetic surgery because the former is forced on children, but it does suggest a powerful motive for supporting it. FGM is (also) an issue of aesthetics — and gender identity. I often ask my audiences to envision the following. Tomorrow morning, each female in the class, a bit like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, wakes up with a full beard. What’s the first thing she’ll do before showing her face? Right. She’ll shave and then, if possible, she’ll high-tail it to the nearest clinic for some medical advice. An amplitude of facial hair has just destroyed her femininity, made her suddenly less of a woman according to embedded ideas with which she/ we have been brought up.

As Nura Abdi so poignantly notes as a refugee in Germany finding out for the first time that not every woman is ‘circumcised’:  “In Somalia you talked about gudniin in lovely language, as you would about good fortune. Yet here I was, surrounded by people who reacted to it with horror. … They behaved as though I had been the victim of a crime, as though it were shameful to be circumcised – whereas I had always believed, circumcision made me clean.” (2) That is to say, a feminine woman. … As Simone de Beauvoir so famously phrased it, “Women are made, not born.”  Fortunately, the Clitoris Restoration Fund, a project taken on board by the EuroNet-FGM, favours bodily integrity, and you can be sure, patients who get their clitoris back won’t take it off their girls. The horror really can end here…

Professor Lorraine Koonce Farahmand will manage the Clitoris Restoration Fund for the EuroNet in France

Professor Lorraine Koonce Farahmand will manage the Clitoris Restoration Fund for the EuroNet in France

Tax deductible contributions may be transferred to FORWARD – Germany working closely with the EuroNet FGM (please don’t forget to note Clitoris Restoration Fund): FORWARD – Germany, Frankfurter Sparkasse IBAN DE 20 5005 0201 0200 0293 98  SWIFT-BIC.: HELADEF1822  … In the USA you can contribute by check noting Clitoris Restoration Fund mailed to Healthy Tomorrow/Sini Sanuman, 14 Williams Street, Somerville, MA 02144.

And as today IS February 6, I take pleasure in sharing UnCUT/VOICES’ board member Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté’s IAC press release.

Health bodies demand zero tolerance on FGM by all health personnel and pledge to be at the forefront of the generation where FGM ends


CONTACT: Inter-African Committee, Africa Hall, Menelik Avenue, P.O Box 3001, Addis Ababa

Dr Morissanda Kouyaté, Inter-African Committee (IAC),, +251 911 8085 70

ADDIS ABABA, 6 FEBRUARY 2015. Today, as we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), spearheaded by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC), a coalition of leading health bodies are committing to mobilise their members and use their spheres of influence to accelerate an end this extreme form of violence against women and girls around the world.

FGM is an extreme human rights violation that has no medical benefits, but has dangerous health consequences. Every year, three million girls are at risk and, in some countries, FGM procedures are increasingly carried out by health personnel. This ‘medicalisation’ of FGM is one of the biggest threats to its elimination.

Health personnel are supposed to protect rather than cause harm. They are tasked with providing care and support and are usually the trusted first points of contact for women and girls. Many health personnel are already leading advocates for ending FGM and provide excellent care, but we need a final push to make sure that every single professional comes on board.

Recalling the UN General Assembly Resolution on FGM, the International Federation of Genecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) join the IAC, the Africa Coordination Centre for Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (ACCAF), The Girl Generation, Forma, FORWARD and Equality Now, to urge:

  • All health personnel to fully adhere to the Hippocratic Oath and their obligation to protect the health and well-being of their patients, which includes not performing FGM.
  • Regulatory bodies in all countries to ensure that health professionals do not promote the medicalisation of FGM.
  • Health personnel to not only protect girls at risk of FGM, but also provide physical, psychological and emotional care and support to survivors.
  • All health professional bodies to ensure that FGM care and prevention are part of their training and education programmes.

‘’During the regional workshop for health professionals, organised by the IAC in 2009 in Nairobi, a strong African Health Workers Network was created for accelerating Zero Tolerance to FGM. The commemoration of February 6, 2015 is an opportunity to further engage this important network. Fighting FGM is part of the improvement of the health of women and girls.’’

– Dr Morissanda Kouyaté, Executive Director, IAC

Also recommended:


(1) Hubert Prolongeau. Undoing FGM. Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2011, 17-18.

(2) excerpt from Nura Abdi & Leo Linder. Tränen im Sand. Bergisch-Gladback: Lübbe, 2003. Trans. Tobe Levin

Egypt’s First FGM Conviction …

“Egyptian Is Convicted of Genital Mutilation” Merna Thomas tells us on January 26, 2015, in the New York Times. This first conviction is stunning, and Equality Now deserves credit for appealing the original acquittal of physician and father who ordered amputation of thirteen-year-old Suhair el-Batea’s clitoris. Equally remarkable is that the New York Times has at last called what happens to the female vulva, –not ‘cutting’, the paper’s previously favored term–, but “mutilation.” Check out earlier reports. According to the NYTimes, not dismemberment, damage, injury, maiming but mere cutting, a kitchen-knife ouch, had been taking place – not death, not (soul) murder.

If you are reading this, you already know about FGM, but possibly not how high a rate saturates the most populous Arab state. Hubert Prolongeau, writing about Dr. Pierre Foldes, anticipates this information gap and dedicates the final chapter in Undoing FGM to the ancient civilization. “We’re in Egypt,” Prolongeau exclaims. “Why would we finish this book in that country?”

“First because Pierre Foldes has had high-level contact and his discovery has attracted attention there, but above all because … Egypt is one of those nations where excision stubbornly persists. It’s omnipresent yet at the same time taboo and a pretext for confrontation between a relatively moderate but rapidly expanding Islamist milieu; a government in denial that nonetheless tries to oppose it; and strong-minded militants, too few, who fight as they can. Ninety-seven percent: 97% of Egyptian women who have ever been married and are aged 15 to 45, as often Christian as Islamic, are excised. This number, which dates from 2000, is official. It is stupefying. Most specialists on FGM consider it exaggerated: the questionnaire that produced it was the first to use the word “circumcision” and because “circumcision” is thought to be an Islamic practice, not admitting it would make oneself appear a bad Muslim. OK, let’s accept the argument. That doesn’t obviate the fact that, even if inflated, the figure speaks to a reality that according to other sources touches 80% of Egyptian women. Who, among the hordes of tourists unfolding regularly on the Nile River to cruise between Luxor and Aswan, to run from the Museum of Cairo to the Pyramids amid the concert of horns and the dust of the capital, to plunge into the shadows of royal tombs, among all those people, who is informed? In Upper Egypt, where vestiges of the past are most famous, prevalence explodes, far exceeding 90%” (p. 210).

These statistics horrify. They shriek for action.

An animated discussion among Khady, Dr. Adriana Kaplan and Naana too-Oyortey in Brussels, European Commission

An animated discussion among Khady, Dr. Adriana Kaplan and Naana Otoo-Oyortey in Brussels, European Commission

And measures are being taken. Also on January 26, as guest of the European Commission, I attended a follow-up to the “Communication” called “Towards the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.” “What still needs to be done?” we experts had been asked. My response: 1) fund European-wide networks such as the EuroNet-FGM launched in 2002 by UnCUT/VOICES Press author Khady; 2) Focus on African youth and especially the remarkable young women courageously leading a movement that, strategically, also includes young men; 3) Underwrite holistic institutions serving affected populations modeled on Dr. Foldes’ Institut génésique; 4) Anchor female genital mutilation studies in universities like efforts being made at Oxford and Harvard; and 5) sponsor the arts and social media against FGM.

Khady, Tobe, Alvilda Jablonka from No Peace Without Justice in Brussels

Khady, Tobe, Alvilda Jablonka from No Peace Without Justice in Brussels

This last point is crucial. A girl died a needless death in Egypt. Emotion is appropriate. Anger. Mourning. Anxiety. Regret. Take policy directives – dry, abstract – and ensure they reflect the appropriate feelings. We haven’t done enough. Our response has been too weak, our dedication faulty. What might Suhair have become? How many lives might she have touched? How might Egypt prosper had so many Suhairs not been maimed?





Scholars Ending FGM: A Tribute to Engagement on International Human Rights Day

Lorraine Koonce Farahmand moderates Crimes against Women at the AGS in Paris

Lorraine Koonce Farahmand moderates Crimes against Women at the AGS in Paris

“Five miserable looking women are huddled into the room by police officers.They have been charged with causing the death of … a 17 year old school girl. One woman is the mother, the old woman with thick glasses is the grandmother, it was she who took the razor blade, the other three are neighbours, they had come to sing and rejoice. They did not intend to kill her, the mother had loved her. She was the grandmother’s favourite grandchild named for her. That is why she wanted to do what was best for her, turn her into a woman. They said she wanted it, too.

She bled and bled, they tried to stop the bleeding but they didn’t know how, and she couldn’t stop bleeding. They ran around in panic in the village trying to find someone with a car who could take her to the distant hospital, but there was nobody and she continued bleeding. She bled until she couldn’t bleed any more. She was dead.

The state wanted a psychiatric assessment. They were sane and of sound mind.

As they turned to leave the grandmother tried to open the window instead of the door. She was called back, her vision was tested. She had undergone cataract removal, even with the glasses she could only see shadows. She was almost blind.

After they were taken away, I thought about the faceless girl whom I had never known. She was probably strong, healthy. I thought of all the things she might have done, gone happily to school with her friends, played net-ball, laughed all the way to the river as she went with other girls to fetch water. And she died such a senseless death.” (13-14)

Tobe Levin introducing the IAC and Bamako Declaration

Tobe Levin introducing the IAC and Bamako Declaration

My friend Dr. Anna Muthoni Mathai penned these insightful words[1] that capture the entrapment and heartbreak binding unwitting actors in an infernal social script they did not write. Recording field notes in her diary, the physician and former FORWARD – Germany board member, now at the University of Nairobi, had been on loan to rural psychiatric clinics in Kenya to explore attitudes toward FGM and was reporting back to her sponsor, the German Society for Technical Cooperation, Inc., then called the GTZ (Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit).[2]  

In 1999, the GTZ published Einschnitte [Incisions] Materialband zu [Documentation on] Female Genital Cuttings (FGC), edited by F. Diaby-Pentzlin and E. Göttke [GTZ: Eschborn]. The collection, a mélange of testimony, creative writing and research results, informs German development workers about the practices comprising FGM, for despite the title’s use of the disputed term “cuttings,” “texts make no attempt to convince anyone that the practice should be stopped. On that point, general consensus reigns.” In other words, without a doubt, the human rights violation — FGM – must end.

How to end it, however, is the question. The essays answer by entering “the minds of those in favor, confronting conservatism on its own ground.” Yet caution is advised. Ethnographers tread a fine line between observation of a harmful tradition and tacit approval of it.[3]

Tobe Levin speaking at the American Graduate School in Paris on FGM

Tobe Levin speaking at the American Graduate School in Paris on FGM

Sections in the documentation suggest where fine lines may lie. Part 1, “It’s only women’s pain”[4] reflects the trivialization of women in male-dominant cultures, including of course our own; Part 2, “Why does this practice continue?” cites numerous rationalizations perpetrators offer; Part 3, “Body and Identity” explores aesthetics, femininity, and pressures to conform; Part 4, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” finally makes claims and Part 5, “Where Good Practices Begin” shares several promising projects.

Sadly, this research from nearly two decades ago, including Mathai’s poignant account of an FGM fatality, remains relevant. Muthoni’s field notes could as easily describe an event in 2014 as they did in the mid-1990s. FGM continues endangering lives and thereby – I’m sure we agree – violates human rights.

Yet, even when life goes on, the specific abuse of girls’ genitalia falls under the aegis of today’s commemoration. Declared by the UN as International Human Rights Day, December 10 is dedicated to abuses of women (and men, girls and boys) on many fronts but certainly includes indignities incurred as a result of FGM.

On November 28,, 2014, the American Graduate School in Paris, accepting the UN’s commemorative mandate, hosted an international colloquium. My contribution “On FGM. Cause, consequence, and key to abolition” found the fulcrum in African leadership. I introduced the Inter-African Committee and the Bamako Declaration[5] as well as UnCUT/VOICES Press to an audience nearly 200 strong. English  solicitor, NY lawyer and gender advocate Lorraine Koonce Farahmand opened the event with a powerful delivery of numerous forms of violence that affect women worldwide. Having answered her invitation, “policy-makers, diplomats, international lawyers, scholars, human rights activists, and journalists” considered how best to approach, and end, the global scourge of aggression aimed mainly at women and girls. The illustrious podium seated representatives of the Council of Europe (Carolina Lasén Diaz), UNESCO (Angela Melo), CEDAW (Violeta Neubauer), the Embassy of Austria (H.E. Ambassador Ursula Plassnik), the Chief Crown Prosecutor of the UK Crown Prosecution Service (Nazir Afzal, OBE),  American Graduate School in Paris faculty, The New York Times (Marlise Simons), NGOs such as CAMS (Linda Weil-Curiel), others and me.

Helpfully, FGM was embedded among many forms of violence. Speakers offered alarming statistics, in one case from the CDC which mentions upwards of 66,000 annual cases of rape in South Africa measured against 1000 convictions; or Russia where domestic violence kills 14,000 women each year. Germany, we heard, reveals one-third of girls physically abused before age 16. And the list goes on. Fortunately, the Istanbul Convention is an agreement with teeth, holding its signers accountable for government preventive action, and although cultural norms require respect, “they never excuse a crime” (Farahmand). As Nazir Afzal OBE insisted, “Prosecution must be used” to counter “gender terrorism.” And, the Crown prosecutor added, “The state should not let women down” where ethnic sensitivity competes with rights.

This is Khady’s position in Mutilée as well. Translated into English as Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (2010), Khady undergoes excision and then, having just turned fourteen, is forced to marry an immigrant sanitation worker who brings her to Paris. Facing marital rape night after night, she gives birth to five children in as many years. And then her husband imports a second teenaged wife. Fortunately, Khady had completed the 7th grade and knows how to write but most of her friends from Senegal are illiterate. Nearly all are also without private means, dependent on the generosity or meanness of spouses who control the purse-strings. Many men disapprove of birth control and beat wives they discover taking the pill, creating intolerable living conditions.

These abuses – FGM; forced child marriage; marital rape; economic dependency and lack of reproductive rights – were, indeed, deplored and denounced. As abstract nouns, however, they appealed to reason, not anger. But rage is surely reason where child abuse is concerned. As Khady reveals:

The fourth or fifth in line, I was seated, … trembling at every howl, my entire body strained by the agony behind the wall. Then two women caught me and dragged me inside. One took hold of my head, her knees crushing my shoulders. The other clasped me firmly by the thighs and spread my legs … Using her fingers, the exciser grasp[ed] the clitoris and … whacked it off like a piece of zebu meat. … Often, she can’t hack it off in one go she’s obliged to saw. (10)

Having felt like her “frame had been hacked in two,” Khady laments, years later she still hears herself howling.

Multiple variants exist, of course, but basically, this is what FGM is. This is what critics prefer not to discuss. This is even what timid – some might say, cautious–, advocates of abolition want to hide – because, you agree, it is just too terrible.

An emotional issue par excellence, female genital mutilation remains a neglected human rights abuse partly because it is so distasteful, the memory suppressed by victims, the facts too vile for outsiders to grasp, and the fear that revealing them will incite latent racists.

None of these, however, can excuse inaction, and certainly not on the part of scholars trapped by reverence for an illusory neutrality.

For what Khady and Muthoni’s girl suffered was wrong, and the academy, with the rest of the world, should no longer fail to acknowledge  it.


Photo credit: Alyssa Barylotti

[1] You can find them online in a special issue of Feminist Europa. Review of Books on FGM: Search Anna M. (Muthoni) Mathai …

[2] The name was changed to the GIZ, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, like US AID or the UK’s DFiD (Department for International Development).

[3] FE FGM p. 68.

[4] “It’s only women’s pain” contains a mélange of poetry, field notes, interview and straight-forward reporting, thereby mustering the fullest range of language choices, from the strictly scientific to the emotional. To start, Somalian Dahabo Elmi Muse’s famous poem on the three feminine sorrows introduces a female perspective followed immediately by Ahmed, speaking for Sudanese men. “The thought of hurting someone I loved so deeply caused me great discomfort,” he admits (11, back translation). Ahmed charges most husbands with indifference to wives’ pain and their own. The morning after the wedding night not infrequently sends the couple to the hospital, both wounded. “A friend’s penis had been rubbed raw…” (11).

[5] See and

Female Genital Mutilation as Violence against Women. At the Institut en Santé Génésique with Dr. Pierre Foldes, Frédérique Martz, Linda Weil-Curiel, and satisfied patients

When Fatoumata gave birth to her first child, a girl, she devoured the newborn with a hungry mother’s eyes and found her perfect — until her gaze rested on the child’s lower body, on something untoward between her legs. Suddenly grasped by anxiety, she thought of hermaphrodites and asked the midwife, “Is my daughter ok?” “What do you mean?” her helper replied. Pointing at a prominent outcrop, the new mother said, “Look. What’s that? She’s not like me…” “Oh,” the clinician replied. “That’s because you’ve been excised.” “Excised?” “Yes. You’ve had a clitoridectomy. What you are seeing is a clitoris, and yours has been cut off.”

Dr. Pierre Foldes teaching in Düsseldorf about his method of restoration. February 5, 2014.

Dr. Pierre Foldes teaching in Düsseldorf about his method of restoration. February 5, 2014.

I heard this story yesterday at the Institute for Genital and Sexual Health in St. Germain en Laye. To celebrate 25 November, the International Day of Violence against Women, the Institute near Paris held a press conference on domestic violence, FGM, and other abuses targeting mainly females.

Although the majority of speakers were victims of wife-beating, four women talked about FGM. Most striking in their testimony was that three of the four, like Fatoumata, acceded to their traumas only in adulthood. Their narratives expressed the shock incurred when they learned, almost accidentally, that their vague sense of bodies being not quite right could be explained. The knife met them in their very early years, well before memory formed. “I can’t remember being cut,” Bintou exclaimed. “And therefore never thought about what I did or didn’t have. Still, I always felt uneasy, as though something was wrong that I couldn’t quite place. It was my first boyfriend who asked…”

25 November 2014 at the Institut génésique for the International Day against Violence against Women

25 November 2014 at the Institut génésique for the International Day against Violence against Women

Since the 80s, the age at which FGM is carried out has been sinking, a sure sign, in the words of Institut génésique board member Linda Weil-Curiel, that people are aware the procedure is forbidden. Whereas clitoridectomy had routinely been faced by teens and considered a rite of passage to adulthood, recent decades have witnessed excisions in toddlerhood or even infancy. Why? Because the smaller the victim, the less likely she is to squeal, leading to arrest and conviction.

Bintou was not the first to tell me that, despite having been too young to remember, identifiable damage had been done.

Speaking Out against FGM on the International Day against Violence against Women

Speaking Out against FGM on the International Day against Violence against Women

Sinidou, for instance, back in Frankfurt, came to sit in my living room day after day for  weeks to watch my videos on FGM – this was in the early nineties before widespread access to the internet. She was searching for something, the source of a general malaise about her body. One day she said, “I’ve found the answer.” And only then could we talk about it

The November 25 event in St. Germain en Laye showcased the benefits of articulating what had happened and how it felt. “Des mots pour des maux” – a pun in French meaning, as the Chinese might state it, talking bitterness – expressed the idea behind the “cercle de parole” or speak-outs during which Dr. Foldes’ patients share tales of surgery and healing. “You had to have patience,” Awa said, “because, if you were older when they mutilated you, the operation sends you back, and even anticipating it can be upsetting. Then, when you’re still sore, and the discomfort can last for weeks, you doubt whether this miracle is really plausible. Only after several months does your heart begin to sing …”

Maimouna agreed. “I felt enormous relief — I’d even call it liberation –, on finally finding I wasn’t alone but among many others full of questions. And whereas before I was shy, now I even have the confidence to address a group and to tell my friends they’d better not do it to their daughters …”

In other words, the feeling of wholeness, after restoration, isn’t merely sexual. Over and over the audience heard, not only was it now conceivable to speak out about FGM but also possible and even appealing to speak up about other things as well. Witnesses agreed, self-confidence replaced timidity.

“May I take your picture?” I asked as our quarter hour conversation during the lunch break wound down. “I’d like to put you in my blog.” “I’m sorry,” my witness replied, shaking her head. “At home, they’re not supposed to know I’m here.”

A good many hurdles remain …

To respect anonymity, all names have been changed.

You can contribute to the Clitoris Restoration Fund whose first beneficiary is well on her way to recovery with a significant waiting list keen to follow. In the United States, send CHECKS in dollars drawn on US Banks with the notation “Clitoral Restoration Fund” to Susan McLucas, Healthy Tomorrow/Sini Sanuman, 14 William St. Somerville, MA 02144. See

For information on tax exemption in Germany, email Tobe Levin or

You can also contribute directly to the Institut en santé génésique in France.