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Reminder: 17 October 2019: At Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, Tobe Levin on Fiction to End FGM

At Cornell University, 17 October 2019: Tobe Levin on Fiction to End FGM

Female genital mutilation thrives on authority over female bodies that has been challenged by a vibrant movement of audacious youth and seasoned authors in Diaspora and in many nations where excision prevails.  In this lecture, I’ll discuss Linda Weil-Curiel’s screenplay Bintou in Paris (1994); Klaus Werner and Uschi Madeisky’s Sharifa’s Three Wishes: With the Kunama in Eritrea (2000); cineaste Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé (2004); Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s WAAFRIKA 123 (2016), likely the first anti-FGM fiction by a Kenyan transgender playwright, and Jeanie Kortum’s novel Stones (2017), the last two from UnCUT/VOICES Press.  These works uncover a conservative demographic that fears disaster should the ’deeply anchored’ tradition be broken. What emerges as authorizing FGM is terror generated by deeply held beliefs amenable to change by innovative cultural narratives.

On the UN International Commemorative Day for Charity, September 5: with gratitude to Bernard Kouchner and Pierre Foldes in Undoing FGM

A remarkable Frenchman, an immigrant whose paternal grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz, rose to become the Foreign Minister of France. He also founded Médecins sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) as well as Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) and was honored by the Jerusalem Post in 2010 [1] as “the 15th most influential Jew in the world.” I’m talking about Dr. Bernard Kouchner who authored the Foreword to UnCUT/VOICES’ book by Hubert Prolongeau about Dr. Pierre Foldes:  Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon who Restores the Clitoris (Translation and Afterword by Tobe Levin. 2011. Original 2006. Cover design by Kaye Beth). Beyond the selflessness of both Kouchner and Foldes in their relentless  service to humanity, they have a special link to this particular UN Day, named in memory of Mother Teresa who passed away on September 5th, 1997. In deep appreciation of his friend and colleague, Kouchner reminds us that

“Pierre Foldes worked in Mother Teresa’s hospice. Influenced by the devotion of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, he, too, grew determined to shelter the dying no matter where they came from. And knowing the protective force of words, he would start to unsettle those indifferent to sexual mutilation, speaking out about the rights of man, the rights of woman, and for equality. He never fled from his responsibilities. Not in Burma as the military regime acceded to power and used forced labor while spreading AIDS by growing poppies for heroin production.  Not in Mali or in Sarajevo either, where he accepted constraints in order to serve the greatest number. But let’s stick to what we know.  Who forced him to volunteer? No one, and therein lies his power.”

Prize-winning novelist Hubert Prolongeau, commissioned first by a major French weekly to depict Foldes, approaches his subject with enthusiastic admiration in the following excerpt from the Introduction to Undoing FGM:

“Urologist, physician and humanitarian, from his earliest assignments in Africa the gentle giant witnessed ravages due to FGM. At first he failed to see the horror and, like many, saw instead another’s custom that his respect and tolerance led him to accept.  But soon he recognized the immensity of suffering that this attitude obscured, the pain that he had always found unbearable. And this particular pain was one he’d be unable to forget. He had tended wounds he hoped to soothe. Although a technician, he wanted to create and, in search of a solution, miraculously found one. Quickly, welding handiwork and genius, he discovered how to repair the damage of excision, to return a clitoris to those from whom it had been snatched, to restore the right to pleasure and offer injured women the confidence of renewed integrity. It’s enough to hear a patient talk about all that his simple gesture has given her (going well beyond sexual satisfaction), to see her eyes light up when saying his name. Then you would understand that a fundamental change has occurred in her life and that the new turn she has made is merely at its start.

“Ever since, Pierre Foldes has opposed FGM. With courage. Making light of the many threats he’s received and the economic problems that follow from his having been, for years, one of very, very few able to perform the surgery, yet accepting no payment. As activist, as witness, he has become increasingly engaged in feminist movements opposing FGM such as GAMS and Ni putes ni soumises, ‘Neither Whores nor Submissives’. He has been found alongside personalities like Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Taslima Nasreen, Simone Veil, Bernard Kouchner. … The physician held open the door and a militant emerged.”

And Hubert Prolongeau continues:

“I first met Pierre Foldes when portraying him for Le Nouvel Observateur. From behind his tranquil confidence emerged a certain modesty and more: doubt, dedication … as well as a limitless concern for humanity, characteristics that encourage us to go beyond the simple narrative of his discovery to include witnessing, denouncing, and insisting that what we have here is something magnificent, something that augurs a new beginning and gives immense hope to one hundred and thirty million women in the world.[3] This is what he wants as well. Writing his story allowed me to meet his patients, to join them in understanding what his discovery means to them, to go to Africa to learn more in order to take a stand against a practice that should be stopped. And then, to move beyond the exemplary biography out into campaigns, supporting those men and women in the Inter-African Committee – comprised of residents in African countries and not a group of ‘whites’ hawking ‘white’ values, as militants against FGM are sometimes charged with doing – who see this practice as ‘one of the worst plagues humanity has ever known’.”

Because Dr. Foldes’ esteem for Mother Teresa expressed itself in an obituary that he read on French radio, Prolongeau cedes the page to authentic encomiums from Foldes himself. Foldes told his listening audience in 1997 (in French of course):

“India – Hindu, Buddhist, and Moslem – is mourning the loss of a mother just like it wept for Gandhi. The crowds pressing toward the Mother House are venerating a ‘saint’ in the Indian sense of the word, but also a fallen symbol whose mission had opposed all exclusions and all violence. … Having been privileged to work by her side, I received three gifts of knowledge: You can accomplish a great deal with very little by being there at key moments when humans suffer. When you reach a clinical dead-end where science reveals nothing but horror, simple gestures offered with sincerity can produce tangible results. The enormity of the task is never overwhelming; a drop of water can become a river.

“All by herself, with help from no one, Mother Teresa began her mission in the slums and rescued the most abject for fifteen years before receiving attention from the media or dons and founding her order. Her disappearance will have a profound effect on Bengal, expert in broken promises and political sterility, left to ponder the immensity of her concrete and palpable work.

“And last not least, a compelling icon has unfolded its full meaning. The same message reached three hundred castes, two hundred dialects and six religions in a province devastated by partition, exodus and war.

Where Gandhi had achieved independence but failed in non-violence, Mother Teresa revolted against poverty and rejected the seeming ineluctable. For a people whose suffering goes on, she has become a myth of refusal to abdicate, no matter how desperate the situation. She took action, always. Action:  the word sums up her life and tells us why she remains close to the nearly 1 billion inhabitants of India. It’s also the universal message addressed to us, humanitarian volunteers. At the source was what she called faith but what we understand as militant activist engagement. … In sum, at the heart of it all we find the power of will, the primacy of action and dismissal of discouragement. … I am grateful for the lesson. Namaska, Mother.”

What moves readers most in Prolongeau, Kouchner and Foldes is the globalized ecumenism splintering boundaries and conventional constraints: not gender, nationality, faith, nor language inhibits a concerted effort to ameliorate a certain kind of pain and rid the world of it. This movement beckons everyone.

You can buy Hubert Prolongeau’s Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon who Restores the Clitoris (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press., 2011) on Amazon.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Kouchner Accessed 5 September 2019.

[2] Groupes [de] femmes pour l’abolition des mutilations sexuelles, French section of the Inter-African Committee, an association founded in Addis Ababa in 1984 covering twenty-eight nations and working to improve the health of African women and children.

[3] WHO’s estimate of the number of victims [in the early 00’s].

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Deeply concerned about Kameel Ahmady

AfterWords for FGM in Iran: a Golden Anniversary reunion …

On 14 August 2019, our author Kameel Ahmady was detained by Iranian authorities and sent to Evin, the notorious penitentiary. Whom should we contact? What action should we take, always in light of the danger. We would appreciate your advice via email: tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com

UnCut/Voices Press

On 1 July 2018 at the Vine House, London, celebrating with influential author Hilary Burrage and her violinist husband Tony 50 years of solidarity and friendship, guests active to end FGM embraced the opportunity to extend further happiness to girls and women slowly but surely ‘banishing the knives of excision’, as Erica Pomerance calls her latest film documenting efforts toward that end in Mali. In the photos here you see Kameel Ahmady,  Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Linda Weil-Curiel and Dr. Phoebe Abe. Because Kameel’s IRIN initiative has recently been honored as the latest affiliate of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, I thought it appropriate to offer the AfterWords to Kameel’s book, In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran, available from UnCUT/VOICES Press. See http://www.uncutvoices.comKameel, Linda and Tobe at Hilary's 50thAfterWords

By Tobe Levin and Hilary Burrage

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

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What about the girls? On 16 June 2019, Day of the African Child

“Through the half-shattered prison window I could hear the whizzing wind and see the senseless heavy rain. … An overwhelming and profound anguish clouded my thoughts. What would life for a young African Muslim girl be like after this curse? What would become of me?”

In the memoir Swimming in a Red Sea, the young teen Lawrelynd Bowin, in Guinea-Conakry, muses on her fate, having inadvertently rebelled against the authority of the patriarchs, in this case her uncle and father. What had landed her in jail? Being caught out at night with a neighbor, Clay, who transgressed not only by his maleness but also by his Christianity. And the kids had been enjoying a mild flirtation – over a game of Scrabble! Nonetheless, leaving the room, dancing in the downpour, missing a last ‘decent’ option for Lawrelynd to return home, she’s captured by the jackhammer of masculine control, for if she’s with a boy, the sexist logic goes, it’s for one thing only: to lose her virginity in a society that values female sexual inexperience, i.e. ‘purity’ above much else. The seeds of human rights abuses against girls are firmly planted in this soil. Hence, to punish her, she (and, in fairness, the boy as well) are delivered by her uncle and father to the local lock-up where, in fact, she is raped by the female warden’s husband. “He likes young virgin girls … [and] dislikes women with wide holes,” the devastated jailkeeper, deeply saddened by what had occurred, tells the prisoner.

One reason frequently given for FGM is the (male) obsession with virginity. Obliterate female desire with excision; create male peace of mind. And marrying off a girl when still a child answers to the same fear. If she’s, say, only 14 years old, as Khady was (in Blood Stains), chances are far better that she arrives at the wedding ‘unspoiled’. The stories from Uganda, in Taboo, frequently recycle this motif: to dispel the ‘urge’, girls are cut.

Now, in 2019, the Day of the African Child has been themed “Humanitarian Action in Africa: Children’s Rights First” and calls specifically for reinforced protection in crisis situations, distinguishing vulnerability occasioned by state-authored aggression from the everyday where FGM takes place. And they apply a gendered lens. In their pamphlet, the African Union and African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) call on member nations to take  action against “Violations [that] include failure to provide education, health or an adequate standard of living for children to enjoy their rights, and … may affect boys and girls differently. For example, boys may, to a great extent be subjected to arbitrary detention, torture and other inhuman treatment and forced recruitment; while girls often suffer slavery, sexual exploitation like forced marriages, physical and sexual violations like rape and forced prostitution during or after a crisis.” [https://www.acerwc.africa/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Concept-Note-Day-of-the-African-Child-DAC-2019_Final.pdf Accessed 16 June 2019]

I commend UNICEF and the UNHCR for their concern. I see a problem, however, in the on-going ‘crisis situation’ facing African girls threatened by or having undergone FGM, often under the aegis of anticipatory ‘protection’ from their own waywardness and the danger to elders’ reputation, not to the girls’ bodily harm, incurred in defloration, especially when the young woman is an underaged child. I’ve searched the official document issued for the Day of the African Child and found neither FGM nor any of its possible, if unsatisfactory, synonyms. Yes, I admit, war, expulsion, and forced migration are crisis situations of heightened magnitude, but UN agencies are derelict in their duty when failing to urge protection for girls at risk of FGM.

At least a young generation of African activists is looking after the interests of girl children and assuring that they grow up free from genital assault. As Oulimata Sarr has tweeted, today is the “ouverture du Sommet Africain sur l’excision et le marriage des enfants à Dakar. Les jeunes et les survivantes ont la parole” [Oulimata Sarr @OulimataSarr] Today marks the opening of the African Summit on FGM and Child Marriage in Dakar where youth and survivors take the floor. And Nimco Ali applauds, noting how she is “crying with pride,” on seeing for the first time “so many incredible activists in one room.” She praises @JahaEndFGM and her association @SafeHands4Girls. What accounts for the present success? After Dukureh launched a petition calling on President Obama to undertake a demographic survey of FGM survivors and at risk girls in the USA, Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian took notice. The Guardian newspaper had become the first such entity in the world to offer comprehensive coverage to campaigns against FGM, trekking to Africa often in order to train budding journalists and encourage action. Dukureh, a Gambian immigrant to the USA with a forceful and courageous demeanor, was chosen as spokesperson for what has since become the Global Media Campaign against FGM. In preparation, O’Kane played a major role in organizing and sponsoring the First U.S. FGM Summit in Washington DC, December 1st and 2nd, 2016, at which I represented UnCUT/VOICES Press.

Special pleasure derives, however, from the present Summit being “African-led,” the very dream Efua Dorkenoo had when, one week before she died on 18 October 2014, funding came through for her ‘baby’, The Girl Generation.  UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is attending the gathering in Dakar, acknowledges broad sponsorship by “the governments of Senegal and Gambia in partnership with the Big Sisters movement and the NGO @SafeHands4Girls led by UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador Jaha Dukureh, UN Women, UNFPA, UNICEF, and the World Bank.” [http://africa.unwomen.org/en/news-and-events/stories/2019/06/un-women-executive-director-to-attend-the-1st-african-summit-on-fgm-and-child-marriage-in-senegal Accessed 16 June 2019].

From 10-15 February 1979, the passionate if at times gruff investigator whose life mission was to end FGM, Fran Hosken (1920-2006), invited by the office of WHO in the Eastern Mediterranean, gave the keynote speech for the World Health Organization: Seminar on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, another first on FGM in Alexandria, Egypt. She looked forward to precisely the kinds of cooperation and linkages among governments, civil society, survivors, donors, and media across generations that is being enacted today in Dakar.

With thanks to Hilary Burrage. See https://hilaryburrage.com/2016/12/02/first-u-s-fgm-summit-washington-dc-december-1st-and-2nd-2016/ Accessed 16 June 2019.]

Chancellor Angela Merkel: FGM and hope

5 June 2019 in Frankfurt am Main, Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel

A mere few hours had passed on June 5, 2019, when, fresh from her gracious appearance in the D-Day ceremonies at Portsmouth, Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel glided with tranquil confidence down the aisle in Frankfurt am Main, heading toward the podium where she would address the 60th anniversary celebration of the Hessischer Kreis, a group founded by Kurt Freiherr von Gleichen to encourage networking and discussion of current affairs among leading citizens. On this particular evening the Chancellor didn’t mention FGM but her emphasis on Africa and the three successive trips she has made to the continent easily allow the good news to emerge. “Africa is not a problem but an opportunity,” she insisted. Its dynamic, youthful demographic warrants attention, cooperation, and development. Of the thirty nations topping the list of populations under 18 – exceeding 50%–, all but 3 are in Africa, and the majority of those countries excise girls.

Were it not for the Chancellor’s confidence in political will to deal successfully with this explosive situation, i.e. the toxic mix of youth, poverty, and unemployment–, the figure would be alarming. Not only inadequate education but also discrimination against women, widespread excision, and lack of birth control fuel the exodus that wealthier nations now face. Therefore, as the UN and many European agencies for foreign aid acknowledge, women’s empowerment opens the door to a better future, not only for inhabitants of the ‘global South’ but for aging populations in the ‘North’ as well.

Behind Merkel’s remarks was of course concern for the integrity of borders and encouragement toward unity in hospitality among the 26 nations bound by the Schengen Agreement which, on 14 June 1985, created “Europe’s Schengen Area, in which internal border checks have largely been abolished” among the 26 nations that signed on [https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/schengen-agreement/ Accessed 7 June 2019].

The ‘free movement concept’, however, despite a long history in Europe, has sadly been hijacked by fascist, racist and anti-Semitic elements – labels, I hasten to add, that the Chancellor herself did not use but certainly gestured toward – to cultivate hostility to foreigners who include, it appears, not only economic and political migrants but internal minorities as well, in particular those historic ‘intruders’, Roma, Jews and people of African descent. That this development is unacceptable to the German government represented by Chancellor Merkel is incontrovertible. She gave the impression that the arsenal of options at hand to defend democracy – the “freiheitliche demokratische Grundordnung” in Merkel’s words, the free liberal democratic system – would be deployed.

And regarding efforts to end FGM, from the earliest days of the present movement dating from the 1970s, Bonn and Berlin have been active underwriters. The patron of INTEGRA, for example, the umbrella organization whose members include more than thirty NGOs against FGM in Germany, has from its inception been the German President, a largely ceremonial position distinct from that of the Chancellor but with high visibility and respect in the nation. Starting in the 1990s, the GTZ,  now GIZ, or German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH, has financed initiatives against FGM in Africa and cooperated with volunteer associations, such as FORWARD-Germany (recently renamed FORWARD for Women), to educate newly-arrived immigrants and coach affected communities residing here.

In Hamburg just this week for the Rotary International Convention, I met UnCUT/VOICES’ author who penned with me the ‘Memoir and Sourcebook’ titled Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation. (2015). Together with actor Dorothea Hagena, Maria Kiminta and I explored avenues beyond the paper pages for engaging a broader audience in our movement. An audiobook perhaps? And a German translation? Beyond individuals, however, the call goes out strongly to government, and we’re happy to note that the German regime has our back.