Ending FGM – Female genital mutilation in literature and art
Research into ending female genital mutilation (FGM) – the official term espoused by the Inter-African Committee and UN agencies – has increasingly attracted attention from the academy in fields ranging from anthropology to medicine and literary studies. Grass-roots campaigns have benefited from parliamentary and European Union legislation. Inquiries have been launched, national action plans devised, and funds applied to protect girls from the blade. Yet anecdotal evidence reveals continued existence of the problem, — complex, affective, and hydra-headed–, involving historical processes, religious beliefs, financial considerations, and aesthetics. Literature, however, despite the popular appeal of memoir and fiction, has been undertheorized by advocates against customary genital abuse as a vehicle promoting positive change. Granted, the move from empathy to action has yet to be proven. Still, well-told stories are thought to make the erstwhile foreign more familiar and, hence, comprehensible. “With an antenna,” begins one study of Sudanese soap operas featuring FGM, “we can end” these harmful rites.
This webinar, a first of its kind, is intended as a catalyst for further research into relationships among reading, empathy, altruism, and media involving FGM.
Organized by MEP Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana (Green Party, Germany) with Dr. Tobe Levin Freifrau von Gleichen, Associate, Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, this webinar embraces literary and media studies to examine FGM as a theme. Understudied have been music lyrics, myth, legend, storytelling, creative writing, graphic novels, comic books, cinema, TV, theater, and art. Literary studies are poised to supplement predominant social science approaches.
Had she lived, my mother, whose 101st birthday could have been today, May 29th, would be applauding progress made toward ending FGM. Supportive from the start, — in 1977 for me-, Janice Metz Levin, trained at New York City’s Cooper Union as a ‘draftsman’ (the then designation), had been an invaluable ally.
Two memories stand out. On February 4, 2000, at the grand opening of an exhibition by Nigerian painters and sculptors protesting FGM – “Künstlerinnen und Künstler aus Nigeria klagen an” in Mannheim’s City Hall, the guest who had travelled the farthest was my mother. Normally at home in New Jersey, she spent several months in Germany for medical treatment and rehabilitation, and despite the proceedings taking place in German, her own training as an artist enabled her to appreciate the oils and offer enthusiastic praise. The pencil drawing above is her self-portrait, completed at age 19.
My thoughts turn as well to another poignant memory of Khady in my mother’s room shortly before she died. Following publication of Khady’s memoir, Mutilée, or Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights (UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010), Khady and I had completed a reading tour that included Harvard, Cornell and Monmouth University in my hometown. Mom asked how it had gone, which passages we’d read, and how we’d been received. Despite our travel-weariness, my mother saw beauty, and among her last words were, directing her gaze at Khady while addressing me, “You have a very attractive friend.”
What stands out in memoirs by FGM survivors is a strong, if challenged, mother-daughter bond, especially fraught given the role that matriarchs play in orchestrating cutting. True, many victims feel profound betrayal, especially to find their mothers in obvious cahoots with the cutters. As in Nawal el Saadawi’s clitoridectomy narrative in The Hidden Face of Eve, a “classic analysis of female oppression in the Arab world,” as Guardian reporter Rachel Cooke notes [https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/11/nawal-el-saadawi-interview-do-you-feel-you-are-liberated-not]. “Among its pages is a taboo-breaking description of El Saadawi’s circumcision at the age of six, an operation that was performed on the floor of the family bathroom while her mother looked on, laughing and smiling.” The perfidy is, however, frequently forgiven. As Leyla Hussein shows in brilliant animations hosted by Janet Fyle MBE in the House of Commons on September 12, 2017, the second in a series of three is spoken by the distraught parent describing her dilemma, the pressure to conform and conviction that, were she to rebel and not have her daughter cut, the girl would suffer nonetheless — condemned to social death or, at the very least, find no husband and hence remain childless in a culture where motherhood is revered.
So, today let’s toast the mothers – who reluctantly conform or courageously rebel, but, had patriarchy not constrained them, would have chosen to promote the health, safety, and self-confidence all of us mothers and daughters deserve.
With a tedious pandemic and lockdown fatigue, many likely awoke this morning in a less than jubilant mood. My blues, however, have a different source. I was reminded that
“Angelika Köster-Lossack and Florence Howe have their birthdays today.”
How I wish it were true, but neither is here to celebrate, only to be remembered and mourned. It had slipped my mind that these dear friends entered the world on March 17, Angelika Köster-Lossack, a former Member of the Bundestag (Parliament), born in 1947, and Florence Howe, co-founder of the Feminist Press, born in 1929. They died in October and November 2020, Angelika deceased on November 29, a mere day after my mother-in-law Anne Freifrau von Gleichen, born in 1928, who died on November 28, 2020.
I miss them. Proponents of equality, each of the three inspired and supported campaigns to end FGM. In 1998, Angelika and Anne joined me to register the NGO FORWARD in Germany, whose creation Efua Dorkenoo advised.
Also in favor of ending FGM, Florence, a frequent guest during the Frankfurt Book Fair, motivated me to start UnCUT/VOICES Press. In 2005, the Feminist Press printed my translation of a memoir penned in German by a refugee from Somalia whose infibulation caused lifelong distress. Khady’s best-seller Mutilée came out the same year, and although I urged Florence to publish it as well, the sad topic seemed risky, generating indifference, even aversion in the United States where, in contrast to Europe, a movement against FGM was yet to emerge. Despite the success of Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower in 1995, the hostility Alice Walker suffered seemed a cautionary tale. In 1992 and 1993, Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy and, in particular, her Warrior Marks were savaged, and it would take another fifteen years before rising attention to FGM would increase media concern.
In the meantime, the rights to translate Mutilée had been bought by publishers in 11 nations, so readers in Japan, Taiwan, Poland, and Russia, for example, could benefit from the passionate script calling forcefully to end excision — but not speakers of English. And I was impatient. Campaigning since 1977, I understood Khady’s contribution as exemplary and encouraging of needed support. Her story bracketed so many others, as Marge Piercy wrote in a poignant review. The gamut of vulnerabilities in which FGM is emmeshed finds space in the drama. Excision is followed by early, forced marriage. At 14, Khady is ‘given’ to a cousin, placed in a Parisian tenement, subject to ‘domestic violence’, — that is, beaten – and, forbidden the pill which is rumored to facilitate promiscuity. She is serially raped, impregnated and left without access to French welfare benefits deposited directly into the husband’s account. The importation of a younger co-wife is the last straw and lends Khady the strength to rebel. She does so with majesty and purpose, becoming active in immigrant and French campaigns against FGM and, despite schooling that ended in the 7th grade, she earns a degree in accountancy and supports herself. Although 3 of her four daughters were cut, she awakens to the amputations’ harm once the French press sounds the alarm. In other words, spreading the word inspires opposition and enhances lives.
Strong and outspoken, Florence, Angelika and Anne were partners in Khady’s effort to end female genital mutilation, that is, the inscription of a patriarchal wound on little girls. So, yes, we’ll light candles today. For joy — because death can’t delete the beneficence nourished by their memory.
You can read Khady’s narrative in Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010. Order from Amazon.
To all my English-speaking friends who live here or know people who do: Let’s elect my dear friend Dr. Mariame Racine Sow, born and raised in Senegal, to the Frankfurt City Council. A future author with UnCUT/VOICES Press, she and I have worked together since 1998 and I can vouch for her energy, dedication, honesty, and devotion to duty. Managing Director of FORWARD for Women, she applies her PhD in Education to promote integration and ease complex administrative paths for refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants. She’s given selflessly for years to benefit others. Frankfurt area residents with citizenship elsewhere are eligible to vote in the local election. The urns just opened and will remain so until 6 p.m. today, March 14. Let’s make it happen and celebrate together — if still virtual — this evening.
“You have a most attractive friend,” my mother told me when she first met Khady.
On a reading tour, we were spending a short time where I was born, in Long Branch, N.J. During the waning days of a long decline, Mom lay in the very hospital where she gave birth to her three kids. Khady drew from her a spark, a lively awareness and delight in the effulgence of that moment.
That’s Khady. Inspiring. Sincere. Heroic. And one of the first handful of survivors who knowingly risked their comfort, their dignity, and even their lives to improve destinies for others, and especially for little girls as they had once been.
Keep in mind, I often admonish myself, the price these first audacious voices paid. As Khady writes in her memoir Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights, no one ‘enjoys’ revealing intimate details pertaining to sex or wounded genitalia. Often, ascending a podium to speak, she’d feel panic rise and a strong impulse to flee. But for the children’s sake …
In 1987, by the time I had a daughter, I’d been active for a decade, assisting others who were passionate, even obsessed, with eliminating FGM. Anyone reading this will understand their drive. And once my own offspring arrived, my commitment deepened. Mothers of daughters – heritage indifferent –share an impulse to protect. Like Khady, we oppose FGM for scarring girls not unlike our own.
For 8 March, international women’s day, Khady posted the following on WhatsApp (I translate from the French): Having passed legislation that elevates the majesty of all, let male politicians be mindful of mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, and summon the courage to enforce the law. I wish all women a fulfilling celebration of pride, but especially those enduring bombs, or hostile words, entrapped by war of any sort. Dispelling the misery of poverty, prejudice, and discrimination, let’s ensure untrammeled access to health, education, and rights for those whom history has excluded from entitlements. Let’s fund projects dedicated to girls’ empowerment. Let them not only survive but thrive.
In 2012, I interviewed Khady for The Women’s Review of Books.
Born in Thiès, Senegal, where she runs La Palabre, Khadidiatou Koïta – known as Khady – published Mutilée with Oh! Editions in Paris in 2005. The title — meaning “mutilated” — conveys Khady’s rage at the genital excision that forever changed her world. An immediate best-seller, within the first few months of its appearance, the narrative became accessible to speakers of Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, German and 7 other languages — but not English.
Koïta, who describes herself as an ordinary “sand-bellied” African girl, was excised at seven, married off at thirteen, and exiled to a cramped Parisian tenement in a polygamous union. She allowed three of her 4 daughters to be cut before French media sounded the alarm and inspired her to reject excision. She became the founding president of the European Network against Female Genital Mutilation (EuroNet FGM).
I translated Mutilée into English for UnCUT/VOICES Press, founded in part because books of literary merit like Koïta’s and, appearing one year later, Soraya Miré’s The Girl with Three Legs (Lawrence Hill Books, 2011), which criticize the custom from an African perspective, were rare in English. Florence Howe agreed to publish my translation of a German FGM memoir – Korn, Fadumo with Sabine Eichhorst. Born in the Big Rains.A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. Trans. and Afterword. Tobe Levin. NY: The Feminist Press, 2006 – a volume that followed the bombshell revelations in Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower (1998). But another stunning memoir by Nura Abdi and Leo G. Linder, Tränen im Sand (Ehrenwirth 2003), remains inaccessible to Anglophone readers as do many more powerful autobiographies penned with courage to staunch FGM.
Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights came out in 2010 and details experience as a victim of the war against women: from clitoridectomy to child marriage to marital rape, domestic violence, serial pregnancy, poverty and polygamy in diaspora. All the horrors are there. But Koïta triumphs, too. She earns diplomas in accounting and tailoring. And despite being educated only through the seventh grade, she enrolls in university.
“’In 1967’, Koïta writes of the year of her excision, ‘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 2003, all the way to the UN’.”
The Centre Mame Diarra Diallo, in development since 2014, accommodates women and girls threatened by any type of violence and abuse, especially those fleeing female genital mutilation, early and/or forced marriage, and the consequences of a non-desired pregnancy. The educational center also sponsors literacy campaigns, language skills (French, Arabic and English) and computing.
As for my mother Janice Metz Levin, who passed away one week after Khady gave her joy, I have a special reason to think of her just now. On this day, March 9, seventy-four years ago, she and my father Morris William – known as Bill — married. Youth whose lives had been definitely ruptured by repercussions of a terrible world war, both encouraged action to improve the world. Thanks, mom and dad, for inspiring me to do what I do to help.
Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written: “What we think of as the unspeakable pain and suffering of FGM must be shouted and given voice, relentlessly. Khady’s account of this all too common practice is wrenching and necessary reading.”
On 19 February, following a webinar presentation for medical students at the University of Lübeck (Germany), I was asked to recommend FGM memoirs. Autobiography and realist fiction benefit future physicians by expanding their acknowledged technical understanding of this complex topic, and this had been the subject of my talk. A PhD in comparative literature doesn’t qualify me to explain to scientists how the biology works, but somatic mechanics — what happens when our most densely-wired organ is chopped off – cannot be understood without considering the subject’s feelings, and these in turn derive contour from context.
Below, introducing Khady are the opening passages from her book originally published in 2005 in Paris as Mutilée. Within months, 12 nations had produced translations. When I learned that, 4 1/2 years later, no English-language publisher had yet sought to buy the rights, I founded UnCUT/VOICES Press to obviate this dereliction of duty.
Given that the story proved a run-away best-seller in France and internationally, why had no US, British or Australian media shown interest?
Regarding Americans’ indifference, despite Representatives Patricia Schroeder (CO) and Joseph Crowley (NY) having proposed an anti-FGM bill in Congress in 1997, opposition to the ablation of girls’ genitals has been a hostage to history. Raising the issue at all, let’s concede, can elicit a racist response in the United States. Because FGM was at first an immigrants’ problem that only became home-grown over time, claiming lack of jurisdiction proved a popular cop-out for those hesitant to deal with it. Not that FGM was widely encouraged. Rather, protest was discouraged, even suppressed. With a significant exception.
Whose right to speak out was universally acknowledged? Whose voice would find an ear? Survivors, of whom Khady is a strident one. Her moving words will remain with you well beyond the final page.
New York, March 2005
The glacial cold is even worse for an African like me, but I walk fast, as I have all my life, so that my mother used to scold, “Why are you always running around? Slow down! The whole neighborhood is watching.”
Sometimes she’d trace an imaginary line across the threshold.
“See that? From now on, don’t cross it!”
Which is exactly what I rushed to do, dash off to play with friends, amble through the market or peer at soldiers in formation behind the wall of the caserne. For my mom who spoke Soninké, “running around” meant that I went out too much, that nowhere was beyond the pale, and that my curiosity about the world was far too in-your-face.
It’s true that I’ve “gone far” in my life, farther than anyone ever imagined. Today I’m in Zurich as a guest of UNICEF; yesterday I attended the 49th session of the United Nations General Assembly urging members to act on women’s rights. Khady in New York at the U.N.! The activist named Khady, formerly a girl with a sand-belly, like all African kids. Little Khady going to fetch water from the well, toddling along behind the boubou-clad grandmas and aunties, proudly carrying a pot on her head filled with peanuts to be ground and responsible for bringing back a beautiful glistening paste the color of amber in oil, and suddenly terrified to find it crashing to the ground.
“You dropped it? Just you wait …”
I can still see her descending the front steps, armed with the broom. How her sisters and my cousins laughed at me while the blows landed willy-nilly on my back and bottom and the awkward little loincloth tumbled to my feet! The girls rushed to the rescue but Grandma, furious, turned on them, brandishing her sheaf of straw: “You’re standing up for her? Watch out or you’ll be next!”
I took advantage of the scene to run and find shelter with Grandpa, hiding behind his folding bed where she couldn’t come and get me. Grandfather was my anchor, my security. Yet he never interfered when the women punished us. He just let them do their thing without raising his voice. Only once did he explain, “Now Khady, when you’re sent to do something, concentrate and do it right! We both know the pot broke because you were fooling around with your friends.”
After the well-deserved spanking, I’d be entitled to cuddles from grandma and the girls as well as curdled milk and couscous to console me. Despite my flayed bottom, the cheeks still smarting, I would play with my doll, seated under the mango tree with my sisters and cousins. Little Khady was waiting for September to go to school, like all her brothers and sisters. My mother insisted on it, and even if she had to go without, she saw to it that we never lacked notebooks and pencils.
Life was sweet in the big house in the suburbs of Thiès, a town whose towering trees lined broad avenues, a peaceful place in the shadow of the mosque where, at the crack of dawn, Grandfather and the men would go to pray … My father worked for the railroad so he was rarely around. As tradition prescribes, I was given over to the care of a grandmother who took charge of my education, my grandfather’s second wife Fouley who had no children of her own. It’s our custom not to let a childless woman suffer. My mother’s house sat 100 meters away so I made the rounds between the two, filching goodies from both kitchens. Grandpa had three wives: Marie, my mother’s mother, and his first; Fouley, the second, to whom I was “given” to be brought up; and Asta, the third, whom grandfather had married, also according to custom, after the death of his older brother. They were all our grandmothers, women of uncertain age who, according to their own unique styles, loved, punished and comforted us.
My immediate siblings included three boys and five girls; the tribe supplied even more girl cousins, nieces and aunts. Where I come from, people are all either cousins, aunts or nieces of someone or everyone! Impossible to count because there are so many relatives we’ve never met. My family belongs to a noble caste of Soninké, originally farmers and merchants. In ancient times we traded in cloth, gold and precious stones. Recently Grandfather worked for the railroad in Thiès and had my father join him. In addition to planters, my heritage also includes religious leaders who are the village imams. Among the aristocracy, — ‘noble’ is horé in Soninké whose meaning has nothing to do with the concept of European nobility – education is strict. Honor, loyalty, pride and the sanctity of our good word are values and principles inculcated from an early age that guide us throughout life.
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.”
When a call from FAWCO — the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas – asked Maria Jaschok and me to speak at one of their forthcoming ZOOM meetings, I was delighted, not only because they had chosen as their Target Project for 2020-2022 the Tanzanian initiative S.A.F.E. (Safe Alternatives for Female Genital Mutilation Elimination) and were thus getting involved in FGM activism, but also because of the association’s breadth and outreach. A vast network of independent volunteer clubs including 65 member units in 34 countries, it embraces a total membership of around 12,000.
In fall term 2020, our ten King’s College London FGM symposia had brought Maria and me to their attention. Running from mid-October through early December, the series interrogated Patriarchal Inscriptions on Women’s Bodies, including but not limited to excision and thus had drawn FAWCO’s executives on board. To learn more about this widespread abuse, they invited us on 26 January 2021 to consider “FGM from an inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural perspective” in order that “Well-Being and Healthy Lives for Women and Girls” be realized.
Two weeks later, Hibo Wardere’s book CUT. One Woman’s Fight against FGM in Britain Today was on the agenda. Because I had hosted Hibo at Oxford in 2015 and on page 159 she wrote about it, we thought I might enhance discussion by talking about that encounter.
What has FGM in Somalia to do with excision in Iran?
While concerned just now with UnCUT/VOICES’ author Kameel Ahmady – for reasons described in my two previous posts — but willing to briefly shift focus, I discovered that, contrary to expectations that FGM in Somalia would have little to say about excision in Iran, the two applications of patriarchal tyranny prove to be mutually illuminating.
Admittedly, differences remain conspicuous. Whereas only 8% of the total Iranian population is clitorally cropped, Somalia has a hard time dipping below 95%, and, Hibo contends, emigrés remain all too willing to continue mutilating (her term) even when resident in nations that frown on, even criminalize, the practice.
Regarding the details of what’s cut and what’s left, the visible part of the clitoris or clitoral prepuce of Iranian girls is fodder for the razors, whereas the entire vulva – labia minora, majora and clitoris — of Somali girls would be, in words used by several survivors, butchered. If you’re reading this, you know about infibulation. What may be less familiar – hopefully! — is what it feels like to be sliced and sewn. Hibo assured us, “I’m a walking wound” because girls can never forget the attack. The horror engulfs a life.
Not physical alone, but mental as well. The cataclysmic moment, the rupture of innocence and trust, branded Hibo’s encounter. “While screaming for help,” she said, “I never expected to be ignored.” But her mother turned her head away, or, when fleetingly turning back, offered not comfort but command. “Hush,” she intoned. “The neighbors will hear.”
As an empathic male, Kameel Ahmady respects the boundaries around fraught emotions likely in his female informants, so the subjective experience of amputation isn’t articulated in his study. Yet affect seeds it. “My research has its roots in 2005 when I returned after many years’ absence from Europe to my birthplace, Iranian Kurdistan. Previously, working in Africa with a number of humanitarian relief NGOs had given me the opportunity to observe UN projects to end genital ablation of girls in countries like Egypt, Somalia, Kenya and Sudan. Remembering vaguely from my childhood that cutting the clitoris (locally called sunnet) existed in some parts of Iranian Kurdistan, I decided to research first among my own family and close relations.
“The evidence shocked me. Long existing in areas of Mukriyan where I am from, sunnet had been suffered by my grandmothers, mother and sister. They had all undergone FGM.”
Thus, in In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (UnCUT/VOICES 2016) Kameel offers a section on “The Politics of FGM: Motivations, Justifications, Rationalisations”where we find significant overlap with rubrics in Somalia.
“Embedded in the social fabric of practising communities, the custom elicits a plethora of reasons to justify removing a part of women’s bodies that men do not possess. These pronouncements derive from the ideologies and histories of the groups involved, founded on gender inequalities and patriarchal control of women’s sexuality. Some theorists believe the main motive for FGM is indeed to control women’s sexuality under patriarchy. In other words, institutionalized male supremacy is the bedrock. Without it, FGM would be cut off at the root, a hypothesis that underscores the usefulness of feminist analysis.
“At the same time, motives are complicated by cultural and religious beliefs that drive individuals to ablate female genitalia, including indigenous views about sexual behavior, beauty, health, and chastity. The following passages will provide an overview of justifications that permit FGM to survive.
“For instance, many peoples hold a (totally erroneous) belief that FGM stimulates fertility in women, decreases sexual – including homosexual — urges, and increases loyalty to the bride’s arranged groom. Thus, it is thought, infibulation preserves the woman’s virginity and fidelity toward her husband, a warrant achieved by stitching her vagina to be unsealed exclusively by the spouse on the wedding night. Beyond ensuring the organ’s delivery in a pristine state, infibulation affords extra sexual pleasure to the man, thus serving male desire. Interestingly, those communities that integrate FGM into their initiation ceremonies reinforce the link between mutilation and the sexual intercourse that quickly follows on attaining (socially enforced) maturity and subsequent wedded ‘bliss’.
“FGM supporters who claim it empowers their daughters understand it as ensuring marriage and the girls’ ability to protect the family’s good name. Practising communities’ cultural beliefs about gender and sexuality also bolster FGM. Many associate the procedure with beauty, modesty and cleanliness in women. Still, some critics look beneath the surface to identify an underlying motive, namely as mentioned above, to limit and control women’s sexual behaviour. Where virginity is required for entering the wedded state, freedom from sexual experience is valued (though more in women). In other words, some clerics and laypeople believe that FGM minimises sexual desire outside wedlock but, by corollary, oddly ceases to do so once the vows have been exchanged. And it is true, a girl who has been subject to FGM receives a good many more proposals than the outlier who is left intact.
‘Indeed, supporting beliefs associate genital erasure with hygiene, aesthetics, and definitions of gender. In FGM-practising communities, for instance, an unmutilated woman is considered unclean and her genitalia unsightly. The fear that her clitoris will grow also enters into play, for how can a woman have an appendage to rival a man’s?’”
A census of beliefs in Somalia surrounding Gudnin – circumcision, the same word for both males and females but far from the same procedure – echoes the foregoing list of rationalizations, leading to a fraught summation: a hierarchical binary divides humanity into males with prerogatives and females with social disabilities expressed in the hostility toward women’s sexual potency that motivates FGM, whether in Somalia or Iran – or indeed, anywhere.
To date, FGM has been observed in 92 nations.
 The Greater Mukriyan region encompasses several cities such as Bukan, Piranshahr, Nagadeh, Mahabad, Sardasht and Oshnaviyeh. It is part of Iran’s West Azerbaijan province.
Amazon carries both Hibo Wardere’s CUT and Kameel Ahmady’s In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (UnCUT/VOICES 2016). Thanks for ordering and letting others know it’s available.
As noted, my comprehensive research shows that FGM is prevalent in the rural parts of three western and one southern province of Iran: West Azerbaijan (Kurdish population in the south), Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Hormozgan provinces, and close-by islands. The provinces of Kurdistan are populated by a Sunni Shafi’i majority and certain Shi’a communities. The remaining provinces have mixed Sunni, Shi’a and other ethnic and religious groups. In these regions you also find substantial minorities of Shi’a Turkish Aziri and small minorities of Turkish Ahl-e-Haq (in West Azerbaijan, between the towns of Mahabad and Miandoab), plus a minor community of Armenian Christians in Urumiye and Shi’a Kurdish Kalhor as well as Ahl-e-Haq Kurds in parts of Kermanshah who do not practice FGM. However, some Shi’a women residing near Sunni-populated areas in Hormozgan province are currently subjected to cutting; and, historically, many groups of Shi’a Kurdish women in parts of Kermanshah and Ilam province have been excised.
This variety notwithstanding, it is important to stress that FGM is mainly associated with Sunni Kurds of the Shafi’i sect who speak the Sorani dialect, and not those in the Kurdish Kermanji-speaking areas of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syrian Kurdistan, even though they are also Shafi’i Muslims. In contrast, the Ahl-e-Haq Kurds, Alevi, Yezidis or Kurdish minority of Armenia as well as the forcibly migrated Kurds of the east and north of Iran perform FGM. Thus, the practice in Iranian Kurdistan is geographically scattered.
As we have seen, the first type of FGM is prevalent in Iran. According to the World Health Organization’s classification system, it falls under type 1 which entails either cutting the tip of the clitoris, ‘merely’ pricking it, or limited circumcising of the prepuce without ablation of the organ. The latter appears most common, at least in theory, and is understood as simply following tradition. In other words, Iranian forms of the practice remove a part of the clitoral hood. Nevertheless, how this practice is executed depends on the circumciser. Her hand may tremble, for instance, and can produce a deeper cut. The child’s struggle can have the same effect.
As mentioned, it is important to highlight that genital cutting in Iranian Kurdistan is patchy and demonstrates sharp variations from one region to another, even from one village to another.
With respect to the southern part of Iran, it is unclear how FGM appeared in this location. Some argue that the custom entered the country through a naval exchange between India and Somalia (Mohajer, 2010), and to this date some small communities of Afro Iranians live in Qeshm.
In addition to southern parts of the nation, FGM exists in a few villages and rural areas in Western Iran as well as in Kurdistan, Kermanshah and West Azerbaijan provinces.
Girls are usually ‘circumcised’ between the ages of three and six with a sharp razor or a knife. Tradition then dictates that ash or cold water be applied to the wound. This is changing, however; increasingly, more hygienic materials such as Betadine and bandage pads are used.
Some locals in these parts including Hormozgan province contend that FGM came down from the Prophet Muhammad and that circumcised women who have undergone it are purified. According to these believers, FGM keeps girls chaste by decreasing their sexual desire, preserving their virginity until marriage and producing faithful wives.
Another local custom in limited areas is cheheltigh (forty razors) believed to ablate girls’ sexual urges, sweeten their aroma, and thereby increase their sexual allure for men. In the south and west of Iran, some bibis make a small razor cut in the girl’s thigh for those parents who cannot bear to see their child suffer worse. This practice is called Tighe Muhammedi (Mohajer, 2010).
While Tighe Muhammedi and cheheltigh appear limited to Hormozgan province, beliefs elsewhere justify further varieties of excising. In various villages in Kermanshah and Kurdistan provinces, for instance, some women defend circumcising or at least cutting girls to rid them of dirty blood, even if only a small amount exits the child’s body. Both religious and health reasons are given as motivating factors for this practice which locals call Pajela.
Similarly, some residents of Bandar Kang believe that women are evil creatures who can be saved from the reach of the devil only by ‘circumcison’ (Jalali, 2007). Bandar Kang is located five kilometers from Bandar Lengeh in the south of Iran. In Bandar Kang a shaving razor cuts the clitoris when infants are 40 days old or older. According to Parisa Rezazadeh Jalali’s study, 70% of girls in this port city have been ‘circumcised’.
As noted, faith plays a motivating role vis-à-vis FGM in Iran, as most groups that practice it call on religion to justify their actions. Many believe that FGM emerged during the early years of the Islamic Kingdom and that the Prophet’s and Imams’ wives and daughters were ‘circumcised’. (This is not, true, however; at least the Prophet’s daughters and wife went genitally unscathed, but the belief, even if erroneous, motivates the cut to the present day.) Others argue it is both a religious duty and local tradition, and because their mothers and grandmothers did it they will continue. It should be acknowledged as well that most are unaware of FGM’s medical consequences and health hazards (Jalali, 2007).
In sum, FGM remains a taboo issue in Iran even after the nation was included on the FGM-practicing list (Alawi and Schwartz, 2015). Government ministries either deny it exists or conceal its existence from the general population.
In Chapter Three, an argument will be made for the legitimacy of the claim that FGM is not totally an Islamic belief, or more specifically that it should be associated only with the Shafi’i sect, because FGM is found neither in Kurdish Kermanji-speaking areas nor in large swathes within mainland Iranian Kurdistan where there has been no evidence of FGM for the last three generations.
In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran by Kameel Ahmady is available through Amazon.
“There is no sense of ease like … we felt in those scenes where we were born, where objects become dear to us before we had known the labor of choice, and where the outer world seemed only an extension of our personality.”
These words by 19th century novelist George Eliot, a female who, like the Bronte sisters, chose a male pseudonym in a dystopic patriarchal system that disparaged women’s talent, amplify the sacrifice Kameel Ahmady made, and the honour he earned even before setting out on his irreversible trek.
Rare ingredients unite in a recipe for exile, especially courage. When anthropologist Kameel Ahmady, an aid worker in Africa, first encountered the suffering FGM inflicts, he was innocent of a fact that would strike him with force on return to his homeland. A Kurd in Iran, he discovered that in specific ethnic groups, one of which was his, the clitoris was also felled by the same inexorable phallocratic lumberjack rampaging elsewhere in the world – to date, identified in 92 nations. His grandmothers, mothers, and sisters had had their pleasure points erased. That made the harm his own.
Outraged, Kameel dared to invest his life in airing the secret. Orchestrating a team, his research grew into a book, a documentary, and, soon to appear with UnCUT/VOICES Press, a sequel. Having received government permission to investigate sensitive issues, bracketing child, forced and ‘temporary’ marriage with homophobia and an epidemiology of FGM, the dual-national attracted the regime’s negative attention when geopolitical events made it expedient. The plot thickens. US sanctions and stalled tankers haunt the canvas that foregrounds Evin prison where, for months, Kameel would be placed in isolation, tried, and sentenced to more than nine years. … For what? For having the audacity to oppose FGM and to stand for women’s bodily integrity. A male feminist in the genealogy of John Stuart Mill, he understood that liberty depends on justice due the women in his family — and the world.
On 4 February 2020, in time for Zero Tolerance to FGM Day, I received from Hilary Burrage the following message.
Subject: Kameel Ahmady – an upbeat update
“I have some news which I hope will brighten your day: Our friend and colleague Kameel Ahmady is now living in London, having decided he simply could not stay in Iran after the appeal against his sentence was rejected by the court in Tehran. This ‘development’ is being broadcast widely, but I thought you might like to see the information which illuminates Kameel’s story. He and I have prepared English versions of the court judgement and of his appeal, and he has written a very interesting statement which explains how he feels about the situation.
Kameel Ahmady writes: The main parts of my verdict and summary of my defence can be accessed on my website through the links at the end of this statement. I decided to make these public in order for people to know how and why I was sentenced, accusations I have countered with real evidence that I believe will prove my innocence. Let them be recorded in history, which is the best judge.
I am sure that you, like me, will be enormously relieved that Kameel no longer faces the imminent prospect of many years in an Iranian prison, and I am very grateful to the many and various people who have helped to make him safe. Let’s look to the future, and keep in touch.
Very best wishes as ever,
Here in his own words is a description of the quest for freedom.
03 February 2021
In late December 2020 I fled Iran, in order to escape a judgement by the revolutionary court that I should be imprisoned for nine years and three months.
Eventually, I … decided to escape. It was a move I had to make under enormous pressure without many options although I had always felt a strong responsibility to stay on and continue my work.
I knew that my departure would take me far away from the location of my mission and my field of work. It would mean leaving behind whatever I have achieved until now. But those in Iran who have an iron fist left me no option but to pack my bag for my decisive journey. Despite the fact that as a fighter I had learned to stay until the last moment and preserve my hopes and dreams, the judge’s over-ruling of my appeal and approval of my conviction by the appeal court was the last straw. It was the proof that reason, conscience and justice do not exist here and it is politically motived.
Now although the sorrows of separation are wounding my soul, I am proud that my humble achievements have led to an awareness and the subsequent modification and reduction of harmful traditions practices (HTP) such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early child marriage (the research studies which led to my conviction) in and nearby Iran. My independent research brought to the surface social problems and miseries such as temporary marriage, white marriage (cohabitation), child labour and child scavenging, as well as illustrating the depravation of vulnerable groups such as lesbian, gay and bi- people (LGB), and unrepresented minorities and ethnicities in Iran. These are subjects that the system and narrow-minded groups still do not have the tolerance to deal with or even consider.
Along my journey I have endured immense pain and suffering, wounds that came to my heart and soul because they were from some previously close colleagues, and hidden tortures which the system inflicted on me in order to repress me. They did whatever they could in order to suffocate and silence me. Their harassment led to the restriction of my presence in seminars and universities, cancelling permissions for the publication of my new books and the elimination of my essays from newspapers, journals and scientific and academic websites. The most painful of all was labelling me as an infiltrator and subsequently accusing me of “infiltration”.
Pressures increased and amounted to censuring my interviews, snatching and stealing my mobile phone, hacking my emails and social networking accounts, invading my privacy, forcing people to confess and act against me and ultimately my arrest and imprisonment which was the last straw of these already unbearable pains.
After receiving the sentence for my detention and enduring one hundred days in prison and isolation, and also after long, extrajudicial interrogations and false accusations, my case was finally sent to branch 15 of the revolutionary court presided by Judge Salavati who has no independence and expertise to deal with matters concerning scientific research. In the end, after two staged, farcical court sessions full of legal flaws, they issued a sentence for nine years and three months in prison charging me with, among others, siding with the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. This sentence was based on the recipe of my interrogators, the group in charge of fighting the ‘soft war’. There is no doubt that I am proud to be considered the possible composer of the 2030 Agenda, but I am surprised to be accused of implementing it through my research. The reason is that The United Nations Agenda was composed several years after my research and could therefore have no possible connection with it.
What I have been through for the past one and a half years, is the story of a sad tragedy whose sequence, although real, is unbelievable. The Revolutionary Guard security system intended to introduce me as one of the main tools of the “infiltration scenario”. The story of my life from childhood to the time I was a student and my social activities were all a tool in their hands.
They had come to the conclusion that I had been trained as a teenager for the purpose of infiltration and overthrowing the system. My accusations were, among others, learning, in the British universities, how to lobby, in charge of youth and human rights branches of, for instance, The Labour Party, being in charge of the media section of the labour rights and the human rights section of The Amnesty International and being the senior advisor to The British Royal Court of Justice.
My trip to Palestine 15 years ago as a student visit was interpreted as a BBC mission in Israel. According to my accusers, I was the founding promoter and theorist of a rising age for child marriage, a man who advertised the rights of LGB groups through his research, modified and enacted laws in order to change the Islamic way of living and even did research about ethnic disintegration of Iran.
The research salary that I received from an NGO was called indecent, illegal income which now I have to return a hundred-fold to them. Infiltration in the parliament and government’s body for changing laws was my other accusation. As if, according to my chief interrogator, I had the potential for being a valuable asset, having all the elements: being a Kurd, coming from a Sunni background, being also British national, and doing research on sensitive social subjects, as well as being an activist in my own field of research. I had everything on me. “I was the full package”
I know for sure that my prison term is a tool for the Iranian security services and the justice ministry to intimidate and pressure the remaining few people who are working on social issues such as civil activists, NGO and other researchers. I am fully aware that my departure will be claimed as a winning card for them. It will allow them to justify themselves to legitimise their accusations and harass people as part of their planned so called “scenario of the third infiltration”. But I decided to leave because I was unable to be indifferent to the fate of my only child. I could not allow them to silence a voice that had cried out about social problems for 10 years. My stay in a system that is opposed to any dialogue and concession would have given them a chance to take another human being as a hostage.
I know from the kind thoughts and encouragement over past two arduous years of my many friends and colleagues around the world that my research is valued, and that we who work in these fields must never give up or be silenced.
Eventually, in a bitterly cold, dark night, I embarked on a journey. Every hour of that unforgettable night, with every path that opened before me through the tough route, I wondered whether there are any roads more impassable than prejudice, ignorance, tyranny and isolation from the rest of the world.
Kurds are known to have no friends but mountains; on the night of my departure, with no lantern to light my path but the white snow, I realized again that the mountains were giving me a shelter and aiding me to start a new beginning with even stronger determination.
It’s really lovely being back in the UK in such beautiful multi-cultural society where I found myself and learned so much about tolerance and respect for human rights. It’s been an incredibly difficult time for me and my family and now it’s an opportunity to get on, settle down and rebuild our lives in peace.
I am not gone and will never be gone. I will undoubtedly return to the field of my research and studies, even if it be in a land which is so many miles away from my desired target groups. I will not put my social, scientific and civil responsibilities down. I will love more, hope more and learn more and do my best to realise the dreams I have for peace and prosperity.
I believe that with such an approach one can pass through the most adamant prejudice, tyranny and the most impassable ignorance. I will continue firmly to believe that dialogue will be a bright lantern on the dark path of ignorance opening ways to salvation. We must never step on this road alone allowing hope to wither and die in people’s hearts.
PS: The main parts of my verdict and summary of my defence can be accessed on my website through the links andfilesat the end of this statement. I decided to make these public in order for people to know how and why I was sentenced accusations I have countered with real evidence that I believe will prove my innocence. Let them be recorded in history, which is the best judge.
My gratitude to Hilary Burrage for permission to include the above passage here. Hilary is an Adjunct Professor, Buehler Center for Health Policy and Economics, Feinberg School of Medicine Northwestern University, Chicago and an awardee of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E.Foundation 2016 for authoring ERADICATING FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION (Routledge, 2015).
In What Will My Mother Say? a memoir and ethnography, Dympna Ugwu-Oju, having left for the U.S. after the war in Biafra, describes how “a tribal African girl comes of age in America” by confronting a raft of contradictions challenging motherhood, girl- and womanhood. Arcing among conflicted definitions of gender, all justified as potentially enhancing a woman’s life – such as chastity, marriage, and motherhood – the narrator judges some prescribed behaviors as incompatible with equal rights, mental health, and national development. Emblematic of the driving themes, the opening chapter features an eleven-year-old romping with her brothers on the living room floor; her emigré father isn’t pleased and berates her, not for wrestling but for neglecting chores. When asked why she has more to do at home than her brothers, he offers the essentialist response. “Because they’re boys and you’re a girl, and it’s time you learned that.” Surprised by her own sororal partiality, mother Dympna – acutely aware of traditional norms –, defends her daughter Delia. “This is California, not Nigeria,” she reminds her husband. “She’s an American child … [and] girl or not, she’s as able as anyone else to accomplish whatever she wants” (3).
Over-optimistic? Perhaps, but too many girls in the world face a barrage of obstacles to empowerment. The Day of the Girl, October 10th, initiated by Plan International a decade ago and passed as a Resolution by the UN in 2011, encourages individuals and institutions concerned with girls’ welfare to bring to public awareness the disadvantages they face. For instance, we read in Wikipedia, in 2014, “more than 62 million girls around the world had no access to education.” Moreover, 5 to 14-year-old girls spend ca. 160 million hours more on household chores than their male agemates do. One in four girls is married before age 18, and an unconscionable number is subjected to female genital mutilation.
For the Day of the Girl in 2020, UnCUT/VOICES Press gives the floor to Kiminta, who, together with Tobe Levin created a memoir and sourcebook whose purpose echoes that of the Girls’ Day founders, describing an egregious wrong in the hope of increasing public and political will to correct it.
Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin with Photos by Britta Radike. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation. Memoir and Sourcebook. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES, 2015.
PREFACE by Maria Kiminta
Joy sat down with me when I first conceived of writing this book. Motivated by my own need for answers, I knew that others, too, wanted broader knowledge. Like me, they would welcome the chance to move beyond the static information of the past. And even if immediate success eluded me (would I find a publisher? would my writing hit the mark?), communicating what I had learned, I was bold enough to think, could alter African culture, both in the Diaspora, –including where I live, in Germany–, and in Africa. For traditions responsible for FGM and the risk it poses to girls’ health are cultural, and therefore stubborn, but culture and destiny can change. Written and spoken words, sincerity and conscientious action can realize African people’s aspirations for their children.
If coming generations are to become innovative, resourceful leaders, they need role models. I dared to use my education to become such a leader, at least insofar as memoir reaches out, explaining in this text which fixed beliefs permit the use of razors against girls and why my desire to see those girls escape the shadow of those blades can be realized after all.
When I was growing up in Kenya, I had a single option, to become someone’s wife. It was drilled into me that we are Maasai (or, speaking for my friends, Kikuyu) and, even if we didn’t brew traditional beer like other Maasai, we were still a people apart. The past remained present and the present – its encroachments – were resisted. At times, these constant comparisons to the ways of life now slowly invading our domain made us feel that we were better than, although often enough less than, those practicing another culture.
But the other culture’s benefits –computers, cures for diseases, kidney transplants –have made me thankful, as an African woman, for the new technology, and gratitude trusts in change.
It is the source of my yearning to liberate children, above all, from the emotional and cultural bondage that molded us and affected our whole lives. I would say to my people, please focus on today and let go of the past. Choose to alter – culture and yourselves.
Rooted as it is in the past, FGM must end.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Preface by Maria Kiminta
Kiminta, Maasai. Speaking Out against FGM.
“Defining Womanhood as Pain: On FGM” (guest poem) by Airyn Lentija-Sloan
“Myths of the Maasai: FGM Engagement, Postcolonial Lens” by Noel Ciqi Duan
“FGM amongst the Maasai in Kenya” by Equality Now Nairobi via IRIN News
“The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011 of Kenya: Challenges Facing its Implementation in Kajiado Central Sub-County, Kenya”* by Geofrey Towett, Peter Gutwa Oino, and Audrey Matere
“Reflections on Kiminta’s Tale” by Valentine Nkoyo
“Critique of Anthr/apologists observing a Maasai rite” by Tobe Levin
“Afterword” by Maria Kiminta
Notes on Contributors
*With gratitude to the International Journal of Innovation and Scientific Research. This chapter is an excerpted adaptation, condensed and edited for style, used here under provisions applying to an “open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.” Proper citation accompanies the chapter.