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Introducing the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund

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World Philosophy Day: Time to Think Again about FGM

Did you know that today, 17 November 2016, is World Philosophy Day? At least the UN calls it that and, not coincidentally, 16 November 2016 commemorated the International Day for Tolerance. Both were intended to “inspire a public debate between intellectuals and civil society on the challenges confronting” our world [http://www.un.org/en/events/philosophyday/].

Nathan Oghale Okoro. The Truth Is, Both Men and Women Suffer. Oil on Canvas. 2009.Among these is surely the difficulty in ending female genital mutilation about which academics, activists, and the general public have debated for decades. In many people’s minds, excision is a custom so horrible that a first encounter with it can indeed provoke intolerance, especially in the absence of inquiry into its complexity. But to dismiss FGM as wrong – which of course it is – and not attempt to see its anchoring in fear, social pressure, conceptions of female beauty and gender identity won’t accelerate its disappearance.

To illuminate the power this gruesome tradition exerts on practicing communities, I’ve introduced a metaphor in my speeches. I ask all females in the audience to consider the case of Gregor Samsa, Kafka’s hero who awakens one morning to discover a dramatic change: he has become a bug. Now, if you’re a woman, suppose something similar happens, namely on opening your eyes, the mirror reveals you’ve grown a beard, an accessory  certain not to delight but to terrify you, and the first thing you’d do is shave. Why? Despite the elegance of Conchita Wurst’s delicate duvet, ‘real’ women don’t have beards.

In Kafka’s masterpiece, Samsa can do nothing to alter his novel condition, but, even if tragic for himself, accepting it gradually confers real benefits on his entourage. Because he is no longer able to serve them, they confront the challenge of his absence with their own initiative, and the new configuration holds out hope. With women’s hirsute chins, however, the status quo instantly resumes. The foliage is erased. In other words, to BE a woman you must APPEAR to be one, and where FGM prevails, clitoral ablation is the script. Although some few societies accept androgyny and transgender, in most places binaries remain, and if the line is crossed, transgressors face, in Orlando Patterson’s words, ‘social death’.

Thus  gender boundary policing is largely responsible for shearing, or as Simone de Beauvoir points out, women are  made, not born. A female’s facial fur, like the clitoris in a society that cuts, is extraneous; it  violates  norms and challenges aesthetic judgments. Can a bearded woman be a beauty? Can clitoris-carriers be good wives if, by definition, they are not ‘normal’ women?

On 7 March 2015, at the University of Oxford, a symposium about “Contestations around FGM” examined the role ‘normality’ plays in the tenacious hold ritual wounding of girls maintains on immigrant populations globally. Viewing FGM through the lens of various  disciplines,  our sessions included personal testimony (memoir),  law, medicine, the arts (painting, film, fiction) and activism itself.  After all, as Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General notes, “Philosophy is more than an academic subject; it is a daily practice that helps people — [that is, also girls] –to live in a better, more humane way.” [http://www.un.org/en/events/philosophyday/].

To read the 56 page symposium report with color photos,  available for €6,00 plus postage from UnCUT/VOICES Press, please contact Dr. Tobe Levin, tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com.

Gratitude to artist Okoro Oghale Nathan for The Verge of Virility. Oil on Canvas. 2007.

 

Khady’s Visit to Brandeis Remembered

On 8 November 2010, during a symposium on polygamy, Khady and I presented at Brandeis University where, yesterday, I enjoyed a board meeting of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute as it transitions to a new director in 2017.  The ‘old guard’ vividly remembered Khady’s presentation, offering an opportunity to share an excerpt from her (sadly) still relevant memoir.

In addition to a chapter titled ‘Polygamy,’ Khady addresses the abuse in her conclusion focused on campaigning — and success. Here’s the passage that brings bad news but also good …

Susan McLucas and Khady confer at Harvard

Susan McLucas of Sini Sunamen (Mali) and Khady Koita (La Palabre, Senegal) have a word in solidarity at Harvard, 10 November 2010, at a W.E.B. Du Bois Institute event.

From Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny. Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights. Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010.

… GAMS always works cooperatively with local African associations. If a family in France proves unreceptive to our arguments, our colleagues in Africa take over. Some parents continue to excise girls on holiday, and, with considerable nonchalance, bring them back, thereby evading French law. They check luggage at the border but not girls. How could we handle this?

When a baby is born in France and not (yet) excised, a few judges and prosecutors may, if they so desire, subpoena parents. It’s our job to alert the authorities to suspicious cases. I want so much to guarantee to girls born into immigrant families in Diaspora treatment exactly like French girls whose heritage goes way back. Both groups must benefit from the same protective legislation which punishes neither tradition nor culture but simply the crime of mutilation. “Tradition, culture!” These were our opponents’ only arguments when our campaigns began. Every time we would bring up the topic for TV debate or elsewhere, insulting phone calls were sure to follow. Today, things are different. I’m always gratified when people tell me, “I saw you on TV, sister. It’s a good thing you’re doing. Keep up the good fight. We’ve got to stop a tradition like that!”

I’ve been hearing these kinds of remarks, however, only in the last couple of years …

I believe our struggle will end excision, but polygamy is another matter. Not only is it broadly accepted but also considered the man’s due!

Back home, a husband would think twice before abandoning his wife who, if she were rejected, would probably be “recuperated” by the family that had given her in marriage. But without financial independence, in urban housing, with distance, isolation, and multiple births, the African woman in Diaspora has a hard time surviving. Even if many men assured us: “I don’t need welfare to feed my kids,” government subsidies remain substantial.

I remember a certain family: the man had two wives and fifteen children, ten of whom were pupils when the school asked me to intervene. Both mothers told me at the time – it was 2002–: “We can’t access the money because welfare payments go directly into his account. He’s also taken a good part of it to visit his third wife in Africa where he’s been for three months. But school is starting, and we’re broke. What he left is hardly enough for the three oldest ones.”

It’s easy enough to do the math. Multiply welfare by ten plus the additional sums given for school supplies at the start of the academic year, and you can be sure that back in the village, that husband is living well.

Surely something can be done to prevent such situations. If only those polygamous men drawing money from the system would invest it in their wives’ education or simply take proper care of their kids! But no. Too many use it for a second or third wife to humiliate the first one.

I believe the government is not doing its job on this front. Then again, to achieve women’s rights all over the world, there’s just too much to do.

In July 2003, African countries signed the Maputo Protocol, an addenda pertaining to women attached to the Charter for Human Rights. It’s a magnificent document and if really applied one day will improve the lives of African women. It affirms equality, condemns violence against women and censures traditional practices damaging to health of which genital mutilation and forced marriage are two.

Regrettably, some countries that signed the Protocol still haven’t ratified it. At present five signatures are needed before it can enter into force but those hesitant nations require cultural exemptions. … I could say “to each to his own,” but opposition flies in the face of a clear international will to end women’s submission. Emma Bonino has launched a campaign to lobby not only for ratification of the Protocol but also for its application by all signatories and especially the indecisive.

I am involved in these efforts. Since 2002, I have been president of the European Network for the Eradication and Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation (EuroNet – FGM). The organization grew from a 1997 networking meeting in Sweden co-sponsored by the International Center for Reproductive Health and GAMS. Consolidation followed in 1998, thanks to the University of Ghent in Belgium, the association ATD Fourth World, and the Somali women’s organization of Gothenburg together with the city’s immigration authority. EuroNet FGM facilitates cooperation among NGOs at European level to increase efficiency and improve immigrant women and children’s health by fighting harmful traditional practices, in particular genital mutilation and forced or early marriage.

Young women regularly join our ranks. As for the old guard, we’re impatient waiting for male politicians’ good will, not to mention the good will of men, period.

Sacrificial lambs obliged to expose our private lives, we have been the first immigrant wives to suffer domestic violence and community pressure. From my experience I can assure you, I was sometimes forced to quasi-extort a husband’s permission to enroll his wife in literacy classes. Most men were opposed, and if I always succeeded, I don’t know by what miracle. We created the network to build on this kind of success.

Now, these same women campaign for themselves against excision. And some do more: the absence that stalks us leads some to seek reconstructive surgery offered by a heroic urologist who has perfected the technique. “If the clitoris had not been removed what would I feel?” many ask. But to access a time before cutting you have to face the knife again, and for this, you must be psychologically prepared. You may forget the scar from time to time, but the blade always brings back that ancient haunting ache.

It must feel very strange when the vanished part returns.

I’ve talked to some young women who have been “restored.”

The first one who came to confide in us at GAMS really made us laugh. “I’ve got a clitoris!” she declared. “It works! It goes vvvrrrrr….”

At twenty, she has a boyfriend and her whole life ahead of her. Others have come to see us since and more will follow.

But let’s beware of suggesting that restorative surgery eliminates the problem.

Reconstruction is not the answer. The answer lies in total eradication of the practice.   Laws alone, however, won’t suffice even when they exist.

In the Sudan, for instance, infibulation has been outlawed since the 1940s but FGM continues today. Why? Many African heads of state fear what one called “emotional reactions from certain religious leaders or minority groups.” Such resistance must be broken. Imams and griots should join us, not oppose us.

For if God made us as we are, why destroy a perfect work?

 

FGM Must Be Termed Female Genital MUTILATION In Formal Contexts

Hilary couldn’t be more right. Yes, courtesy will govern private conversation, and good writing, to avoid repetition, will also deploy a variety of terms, but public speech and policy deliberations should avoid language that trivializes and understates the reality best described as mutilation and, often, torture. See Kiminta, for instance … Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. _Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation_. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015. Including Tobe Levin. “Critique of anthr/apologists observing a Maasai rite.” 116-126.

Hilary Burrage

16-10-15-end-fgm-walk-dc-img_2419-9The Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Walk-A-Thon to End FGM, in Washington DC on 15 October 2016, brought together many activists from around the world – an exciting and truly inspiring experience, which I describe in more detail here.
I was privileged to attend the event as an Awardee (for my books) and I took the opportunity to deliver a very simple message: If we are serious about eradicating FGM we will call is as it is, Female Genital Mutilation. Here is the text of my brief address:

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The End FGM Walk-A-Thon, 15 October 2016, Washington DC

So proud of Hilary and all good friends who made this such a successful event. UnCUT/VOICES Press supported TEAM EFUA and will continue walking, speaking, painting, and raising awareness with images and words, digital and paper, until FGM globally has gone the way of the 19th century medical scoundrels in Europe and America whose practice of clitoridectomy lost them their licenses and their reputations. If FGM can be stopped anywhere, it can end everywhere.

Hilary Burrage

16-10-15-end-fgm-walk-dc-img_2419-75The third Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation Walk to End FGM, in Washington DC on 15 October 2016 – a beautifully sunny Saturday afternoon – brought together people from around the world, some of us already friends, others long-time connections meeting face-to-face for the first time, and others quickly to become new friends. For all this and much more we must thank Angela Peabody, the inspiration and mover behind the scenes of this globally significant and very special event.

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For the UN Day of the Girl Child: Launch at the University of Oxford, Kameel Ahmady’s FGM in Iran

Introducing the first volume on the subject in English. We were joined by several Iranian women scholars; also, Tom Randall, journalist,  and John Howarth, filmmaker.

Kameel Ahmady introduces the first volume in English on the surprising revelation of FGM in Iran. We were joined by several Iranian and Egyptian  women scholars as well as, above back row right, Tom Randall, journalist, and mid-row second from right John Howarth, filmmaker. Also pictured in the back row right Rosa von Gleichen, and in the front, Graziella Piga, Dr Maria Jaschok, Dr Kate Prendergast.

Author Kameel Ahmady entered the Deneke Common Room at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, at 2 p.m. on 10 October to mark the UN’s international day, 11 October, dedicated to a better future for girls. His mission was to inform us about  model research that has both uncovered the regrettable existence of female genital mutilation in Iran — the manner of performing it there called ‘sunnet’ — and a reduction in incidence coinciding with inquiry undertaken in the four provinces where the practice prevails: Kurdistan, Kermanshah, Hormozgan and Western Azerbaijan. Hence we celebrate the news, that long-term effort — this having been a ten-year project — can bring quantifiable results.

10 October 2016,  Kameel Ahmady presents his book on FGM in Iran at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

10 October 2016, Kameel Ahmady presents his book on FGM in Iran at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

This is especially so when not only women but also men lead. I am  honored to introduce a male scholar doing this work, investigating prevalence while explaining ill effects and introducing motives to cease even the kind of cut deemed least invasive. Sunnet is defined as WHO classification Type 1 which, though generally removing some flesh, can be as little as a prick or scratch which, when tissue heals, becomes invisible not only to laypeople but also to the physician’s trained eye. This is not to weaken the need to abolish a rite whose raison d’etre continues to damage girls. Now that Bohra Muslim and Indonesian victims are speaking out, first-person testimony brings an unequivocal message: psychological scars remain.

And behind  proactive symbolic wounding is fear of female sexuality  whose imagined malevolence — or voracious, irresistible force — is nearly everywhere inscribed among reasons for clitoral blood-letting in the first place. Clearly, men choosing to advocate against FGM deserve  applause, for they  risk what other men think of as ‘honour’ but do so convinced that their inconvenience melts beside humiliation imposed on girls when their legs are spread and ‘illicit’ parts cut.

Graziella Piga and Dr Maria Jaschok

Graziella Piga and Dr Maria Jaschok

Here are excerpts from the Prologue.

“Although analysts emphasize the challenge of eradicating a custom that has survived for millennia, ending Female Genital Mutilation[1] is considered imperative by feminists, human rights campaigners and social activists as well as responsible governments and international organisations (such as UNICEF). I join them.

“Thus, the project culminating in this book started 10 years ago. Since then considerable energy has nourished the effort to learn more about the practice in Iran and to launch pilot interventions to stop it. Admittedly, where the complicated custom lurks beneath the surface, FGM is difficult to comprehend and even harder to eliminate.

“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[2] where I am from, sunnet had been suffered by my grandmothers, mother and sister. They had all undergone FGM.

“In fact, within Iran, the number of people from non-FGM-practising provinces with any awareness at all of the tradition’s existence is exceedingly low. As a male with an ‘unusual’ background, in the sense that I had lived abroad, in Africa and Europe, my detailed questions about this sensitive topic—concerning cutting the private part of a woman’s body— created resistance and bewilderment. Moreover, the research was belittled by some locals, especially men. Not a few with whom I spoke, including a number of my relatives, felt that the project would dishonour me. No educated man would want to deal with a topic incompatible with masculine ‘pride’, they felt. Here I would like once again to thank my late father. Despite the pressure of ‘neighborly’ viewpoints shared at times by the federal government, he supported me throughout.

Nigerian artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus provided the cover pastel for In the _Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran_.

Nigerian artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus provided the cover pastel for In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran.

“As the scope of the investigation gradually grew, I began looking at other regions in Iran. On this journey, I enjoyed much assistance in fieldwork as well as in analysis and assembly of data. My research results appear here in book form for the first time. While focused on areas most affected by FGM in the western part of the country, namely West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces, and some areas of southern Iran, namely Hormozgan province and its islands, I provide a comprehensive overview of the prevalence of FGM in the nation as a whole.

“At the same time that my study anticipated book production, I also filmed research activities such as interviews and talks, providing material for the internet [available at <http:/kameelahmady.com/fgm-in-iran>]. The first and so far only documentary about FGM in Iran, In the Name of Tradition captures the views of residents in various Kurdish villages and neighborhoods of the city of Mahabad as well as others from the nearby Kurdistan province and Hawraman, a region located where Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces meet (http://kameelahmady.com/fgm-in-iran). A later edition of this anthropological documentary contains footage and interviews from regions and villages of Kermanshah and Hormozgan province, including islands such as Qeshm, Hormuz and Kish. [3] In addition to featuring local women and bibis, i.e. women cutters, the documentary collects opinions from local men, medical staff and clerics and provides an eloquent illustrative record of FGM in some of the less-visited and infrequently reported rural areas of Iran.

“In my view, sunnet and the hidden beliefs behind it violate human rights in general and women and children’s rights in particular. Hence it is incumbent upon everyone to eradicate the custom.  The great news is that FGM rates are declining, albeit slowly, across the globe, including in the secret pockets in Iran.  However, a lot of work remains to be done there.”

At the Cozswold Lodge after the launch to celebrate the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK Charity Commission # 1169186) with l to r: Kameel Ahmady, Comfort I. Ottah (former executive director of FORWARD), Trustee Dr Tobe Levin, Trustee Nolan Victory (NHS), and Haldi Shoshan

At the Cotswold Lodge after the launch to celebrate the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK Charity Commission # 1169186) founded 14 September 2016 with l to r: Kameel Ahmady, Comfort I. Ottah (former executive director of FORWARD), Trustee Dr Tobe Levin, Trustee Nolan Victory (NHS), and Haldi Sheahan.

[1] You will find that some authors refer to ablation of female genitalia by a euphemism, calling it Female Genital Cutting or FGM/C. Throughout this study unless otherwise stated, FGM will refer to both female genital mutilation and female genital ‘cutting’.

[2] 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.

[3] The documentary can be accessed through the author’s website http://kameelahmady.com

With gratitude to Lady Margaret Hall for an attractive venue, and to the International Gender Studies Centre with Director Dr Maria Jaschok for active encouragement of this book launch event.

You can take advantage of the pre-order discount for

Kameel Ahmady. In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran. “AfterWords” by Tobe Levin and Hilary Burrage. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2016. ISBN 978-3-9813863-7-0

by writing me at tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com

FGM in Iran? Yes, as a new book shows

Is female genital mutilation an African issue? A women’s problem? A religious requirement? A feminist concern?

Playing devil’s advocate, the answer in every case is that FGM shatters these limiting frames. Ablation of girls’ genitalia isn’t the unique concern of Africans, women, theologians or feminists. Ending FGM requires all people of good will, as Kameel Ahmady and his research team convey in the just published volume, In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2016).

Sharp metal objects bite vulvas in Iran, thus providing certainty that FGM exceeds the confines of a continent known to have birthed our earliest recorded ancestors. … Indeed, these facts imply excision’s spread from a Blue Nilotic epicenter to be taken up, for complex reasons, elsewhere around the globe.

Kameel Ahmady photo

Kameel Ahmady

Moreover, Kameel Ahmady is a man whose questioning of male peers reveals degrees of men’s involvement, broadening ownership and thus accountability beyond the female sphere. Regarding religion, Ahmady opens the door to Farsi discussions inaccessible to most readers of his book, and what he shows is a fascinating potpourri of clerical back and forth. Writ large in most analyses of genital excision is the custom’s absence from the Koran and indeed from the scriptures of most faiths. Yet we find the local mullahs differing as to the duties of their flocks. Some tell the devout that releasing clitoral blood is not forbidden; others recommend it; still others leave the decision to the grown-up children; many also counsel against it. Ahmady himself is sure: Islam doesn’t condone ablation of a child’s genitalia given Koranic commands to ‘do no harm’.

And as a feminist issue?

Here, too, Kameel Ahmady stands out among students of these ‘rites’. Though in youth he had suspected it, only later in life did he learn of his own female relatives’ victimization; empathy with his mother and sisters spurred him to take up the abolition cause. He supports women’s empowerment. He understands the challenge to self-confidence resulting from the symbolic and actual infliction of a disability. He sees that clitoral attack, beyond rationalizations and even in the mildest forms that leave few or no physical scars, affects the mind. Why should female organs of sexuality and procreation be handled fiercely rather than gently? What possible psychological reality could account for such behavior as espoused by individuals and groups when the act itself is surely counter-intuitive for everyone?

Anthr/apologists have a ready answer: pain itself is valued. If, however, this explanation once sufficed, it does so no longer as human and children’s rights have, since at least World War II, presented themselves as universal standards to which Ahmady unequivocally subscribes. Thus, if we define feminism as the theory seeking to enhance the world by cleansing it of gender-based discrimination, FGM is a feminist issue par excellence.

As Verena Stefan writes, “No little girl in the world would, by herself, think up such a thing as placing clitoris and vagina in competition with one another, de- and revaluing them, creating an arbitrary conflict between two parts of her own body or, out of the blue, resolving to amputate a healthy organ.”1 Rather, “the clitoris appears as the primary threat to a phallocratic world view and to the power of individual men.”2

Ahmady never loses sight of this, reiterating (often) the challenges for him, as a man and a feminist, in trying to stop FGM in Iran. One of his most poignant scenes concerns the colloquy of males newly informed of what the custom brings women — risks and pain. “Later [the men] were asked whether, in light of their new knowledge…, they would be willing to have their daughters cut, thereby exposing them to the same agony in bed and perhaps to a husband who cheats. Our interviewees could not answer. Instead,” Ahmady writes, “silent, they looked away.” …

The work of unveiling the cutting culture in hitherto unrevealed places, in locations in Iran and elsewhere, is only just beginning, but it could not be more important in the struggle to make FGM history.  Kameel Ahmady’s contribution to that work is enormous.

From “AfterWords” by Tobe Levin and Hilary Burrage in Ahmady, Kameel. In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran. 146-149.

Notes

[1] Verena Stefan. (2104) “Mutilation of the Vulva and Circumcision of other Female Freedoms – or the Perfect Vulva’s Aura and Revolt.” In Levin, Tobe, ed. Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy and the Global Movement to Ban FGM. Trans. Tobe Levin.  Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES P., 69.

[2] Ibid. 68.

FGM in iran cover

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. FGM in Iran. Watercolor. 2015.