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.]

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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.

23 May, International Day to End Obstetric Fistula

In 2013, 23 May became the official UN International Day dedicated to ending obstetric fistula, one of the most harrowing childbirth injuries that affects mainly poor women without access to medical help. It results from prolonged labor, sometimes as extended as three to seven days, during which a woman, often young, endures excruciating pain with her infant stuck in the birth canal, its head pressing against her bladder or intestine causing the death of tissue, the appearance of holes and resultant incontinence. Female genital mutilation, whose scars reduce the vagina’s elasticity, is often to blame. And as though the physical suffering weren’t enough, fistula deprives its victims of the ability to control their urine and/or feces, with the odor you can imagine. These wives are often abandoned by husbands, ostracized by neighbors, and endure lives of suffocating isolation. For every woman who receives treatment – and fistulas are among the least complicated operations – 50 go without and are left to their fate. According to the WHO, “each year between 50 000 to 100 000 women worldwide are affected by obstetric fistula.” https://www.who.int/features/factfiles/obstetric_fistula/en/ Accessed 23.05.2019

Trustees of the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund l to r Hilary Burrage (founding trustee retired due to family illness); Nolan Victory, Dr Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Dr Phoebe Abe with Dianna Martin, patients’ host, at Lady Margaret Hal, University of Oxford

It is therefore appropriate that today, 23 May 2019, the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund, UK charity # 1169186, uploaded its first report, detailing activities leading up to an official fundraising launch later this year.

Along with intended support for Edna Adan Ismail’s hospital in Somaliland, whom Nicholas Kristof of the NYTimes recommended in several recent columns, the fund will also underwrite clitoris restoration undertaken by qualified practitioners, chief among them the inventor of the procedure Dr. Pierre Foldes with Frédérique Martz, Managing Director of WOMEN SAFE / Institut en Santé Génésique outside Paris in St. Germain-en-Laye. The work of Dr. Foldes has been brilliantly described by prize-winning novelist Hubert Prolongeau in Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes. The Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris. (Trans. and Afterword Tobe Levin. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2011).

We will soon detail how you can get involved in relieving not only the anguish of fistula victims but also preventing new wounds. Because those who wish to reverse what was done to them are among the keenest campaigners to see the cutting end, they richly deserve our support.



Please note the deserved endorsement by the 2004 Nobel Laureate in Literature Elfriede Jelinek and the preface by Bernard Kouchner, former Foreign Minister of France and co-founder of Doctors without Borders.
 

Mother as a verb: the ‘blame, shame and exonerate’ game

Khady, second from left, with colleagues at the Human Rights Council in Geneva
11 May 2016

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark [1]

In ‘Home’, London’s first young poet laureate Warsan Shire offers a chilling account of ambivalence haunting too many migrants today whose countries have betrayed and exiled them. [2] The depth of loss is implied by Chinese philosopher Lin-Yutang who asks, “What is patriotism but love of the good things we ate in our childhood?3 Although the concept elevates paternity by erasing the maternal, of importance is the passion for ‘home’ and ‘nation’ that appears hardwired in us, woven into our emotions, much like the love we bear, barring grievous violations, for our mothers.

Human Rights Council 17 panelists and sponsors, 1 June 2011 in Geneva. You’ll find Khady front row left.

That grievous violations have been linked to approval mothers have given for daughters’ excisions places a significant burden on victim/survivors, advocates for abolition, and unwilling matriarchs themselves. After all, despite the pain inflicted at her behest, do you / do they really want her jailed? And isn’t she between a rock and a hard place, where womanhood emerges only as constructed by the blade? Retaining the sensitive appendage perpetuates a girl’s minority, or so the culture holds, and deprives her of the honor and social acceptance maturity brings.

In 1993 following the release of Warrior Marks, Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar were roundly criticized for insensitive if not defamatory depictions of respected female elders –mothers, grandmothers and excisers–, and the resentment among African immigrant insiders was strong enough to squelch an insipient movement to end FGM in the U.S., setting North American campaigns back a good 20 years compared to Europe, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Upon release of the documentary, Walker attracted audiences to presentations around the country, yet the frequently hostile reception has been described to me by prosecuting attorney Linda Weil-Curiel, who appears in the film and accompanied the cineastes to showings. Indeed, Q & A was often brutal. But despite this, Patricia Schroeder’s H.R. 941 – Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 — was directly inspired by Walker and Parmar’s work. In the introduction to Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy and the Global Movement to Ban FGM, I provide detailed sources.

waging_empathy_cover corrected 1

 

In the meantime, not a single UnCUT/Voices author fails to struggle with
this dilemma, how to divorce the cause — a mother’s acquiescence — from the effect — a young girl’s pain: because daughters want to show solidarity with well-meaning and in nearly all cases deeply beloved mothers who nonetheless permit the mutilation of their children’s vulvas; because the elders would suffer hazing, exclusion, even ‘social death’, as Orlando Patterson would call it, should they choose defiance (though more and more are doing so); because they might risk physical harm (as Ousmane Sembene courageously stages in Moolaadé’s flagellation scene); or, because of the mundane but nearly universal reason, ‘they do it because it is done’. The human species huddles, and now, as we watch the borders that include and exclude relentlessly shrinking, resistance demands more guts than ever.

In Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights, Khady refers explicitly to the need for pluck when she speaks in public, and she does it for the sake of her children, even though her own enlightenment came too late to spare her first four girls. And considering how best to accelerate abandonment, she supports application of the law despite understanding for mothers’ dilemma and the pressures to conform that they face.

Here is Khady in Blood Stains describing the first prosecutions, slow in coming but promising all the same.

 

Khady and Tobe CSW March 2012Khady for Ban FGM


Excerpt from Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights [Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010].

In 1986, legal battles continued when a couple responsible for mutilating six little girls was brought before the lower court, as before, and tried for “assault and battery”; the judge considered them “victims of their ancestral culture.” The next year, on appeal and against the magistrate’s advice, the verdict was overturned. As prosecutor Linda Weil-Curiel convincingly showed, what those girls endured was a serious offense.

Only in 1988 would the first real conviction be pronounced in criminal court: a man and his two wives received three years imprisonment although the jail time was suspended. We would have to wait until 1991 to witness an exciser sentenced to five years behind bars. Then, in 1993, a mother was condemned and, in 1996, a father for having had his daughters excised in Africa, against the will of their mother. Finally, in 1999, for the first time in judicial history, a young girl had the courage to bring charges against her exciser.

The twenty-four year old plaintiff was a law student herself. Having been excised at age eight, she decided to act just then to prevent her little sister’s pending mutilation.

Already sentenced for the first time in 1988 to a suspended prison term, the exciser had pleaded “ignorance of the law in France” and contended that her membership in the blacksmith caste obliged her to aid families of noble birth when they requested it. But she was unaware that a French judge had placed her under surveillance and discovered that her alleged free services brought in between 140 and 500 French francs per girl. The official charge listed 48 children but there were certainly more …

When African women defended the exciser, I didn’t believe a word. “She simply knocked on my door,” some contended. “I didn’t know who she was, but when she asked if my little girl needed to be cut …” said others. As far as I know, this sort of thing doesn’t happen by chance. Either the exciser is a family member, a woman of the blacksmith caste who takes the initiative without announcing her intention and without accepting payment – as was my case –, or parents go in search of her and pay, which is habitual in the immigrant community. That makes them just as guilty as she is.

I attended that trial. Attorney Linda Weil-Curiel prosecuted.  I heard the young woman give testimony, mentioning intolerable suffering, the cries of her sisters and her sex life in ruins.

I heard a pediatrician affirm that ablation of the clitoris is merely a superficial wound…

I was sorely tempted to shout him down then and there. What if a razor blade had cut something off of him? Out of courtesy, I would have left unnamed what that severed part might be, but after that he should come and talk to me.

Happily, an expert set the world to rights.

“The equivalent, on a man, would be slicing off the penis and the balls.”

Finally, the exciser’s counsel argued that “knowing something is forbidden” is not the same thing as understanding the reason why …

Now, in neighborhoods where GAMS had been active, the community knew very well why, and in communities our PMI served, the practice had nearly disappeared. Still, some feeble PMIs in Paris supported a cultural exemption. We really shouldn’t upset African immigrant women, now, should we? As that gynecologist once said — and I’ve never forgotten: “Why don’t you just leave African women’s clitorises alone for a change?”

It’s so much easier and simpler to say if you still have yours. [pp.193-195]

NOTES

[1] https://genius.com/Warsan-shire-home-annotated
 Accessed 14 February 2019.

[2] Edward Said. The
Mind of Winter. Reflections of Life in Exile
. https://de.scribd.com/doc/46534694/Mind-of-Winter-Reflection-on-Life-in-Exile-1984-Edward-Said Accessed 14 February 2019.

[3] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Lin_Yutang Accessed 14 February 2019.

[1] https://genius.com/Warsan-shire-home-annotated Accessed 14 February 2019

FGM in Germany: Kiminta, Maasai, and a traumatic rite

In Kiminta, a Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation, co-authored by Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin, you will meet an expert partisan of genital integrity, bold in speaking out for excised girls. A Maasai subjected to female genital mutilation, Kiminta tells her personal story to encourage abandonment of the harmful tradition. Now resident in Germany, she espouses a human rights position, arguing for government accountability and application of international conventions to stop the disability and pain in her homeland, Kenya. Her memoir is amplified by source material, making the book suitable for classroom use.

An EXCERPT from the book

From the start, Kiminta makes her opposition clear but also addresses readers whose limited familiarity with her culture challenges their understanding of the issue’s complexity. Yes, Kiminta is the first to agree, amputation of girls’ genitalia is “horrible …

no one seemed to care about our feelings.” But then, why the seemingly widespread complicity? Why, in other words, is the harmful tradition so tenacious? These questions and others are addressed in the following passage.

You can purchase Kiminta from Amazon.

I am a Maasai, and I was subjected to female genital mutilation.

Although commonly called “circumcision” by people not (yet) ready to abandon the practice, the rite involves slicing off parts of the visible female genitalia or otherwise injuring sexual organs for reasons other than malignancy, malformation or illness.  Not medically prescribed, the ‘surgery’ answers cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic mandates. Recent reports observe a shift – minor among the Maasai — towards medicalization of the process, now increasingly offered by trained personnel ostensibly to limit side effects and pain. But in case you are tempted to smile, this is not a positive development and is, in fact, strongly opposed by, among others, the Inter-African Committee.1

A long-standing cultural practice, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not limited to my community but prevails equally in other pastoral ethnic groups. Although girls between four and ten are its most frequent victims, it takes place at any age from infancy through adolescence. Although thirteen to sixteen years had been preferred where I grew up, now, to avoid detection by authorities, clitoridectomy is often performed on babies.

As children, we were meant to believe that FGM is a ‘good tradition’. This would be elaborated to us by the old women and grandparents during evening story-telling where values and morals were imparted. Then we also learned that the smooth flow of a girl’s whole life depended entirely upon her undergoing FGM so that refusing became as unthinkable as the dire future predicted for the child left unshorn. Indeed, no one ever talked about what could go wrong – and certainly not the extreme pain that segues into torture. Instead everything was meant to encourage us to accept the knife, abandoning resistance or fear. And so we, too, celebrated these amputations, viewing them as bestowing on initiates increased respect and enhanced status. Showered with numerous gifts, the graduate, no longer a child, would have become a woman and an asset to the group.

Festivities for kids

During the ceremonies, we young children would be allowed to eat, feast and dance to the traditional jig whose text lauded and praised the courageous who have just been cut. Ironically, beforehand, we were never permitted anywhere near the ‘circumcision’ rooms where screams would surely have frightened us away. Nor were we allowed to visit the victims. Only after they had healed would we see them again. Otherwise, we would have known how inhumanely they had been treated. In fact, the older girls would be isolated on a different homestead far from uncircumcised children, to remain there until their bodies had mended and resumed normal function. To limit our interactions, the elders warned us that because these girls had now been turned into ‘adults’, they had become off limits to us kids. We were forbidden to mingle or play with them.

For you see, the ‘circumcised’ now belonged to a different, advanced ‘age set’. Only after we too had confronted the razor would we be permitted to fool around, hang out, or take care of chores together. Our elders told us that girls who have been ‘circumcised’ now had a special ‘status’ and deserved to be treated differently — better than the way we were treated. During recovery, they were prepared special meals, treats also promised to us once we had become candidates ourselves. Of course, this made us jealous. The favor showered on that season’s ‘chosen’ made every child long for the blade.

All these efforts that shielded us from the harsh realities of the procedure pushed us to admire and even desire it. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the elevated social status that came with it? 

To understand the psychology here, you must be aware that, as kids, we were systematically humiliated in ways I now know to have gone against children’s rights. We were deceived by all means possible, tricked into loving a so-called ‘good practice’ because of its artificial ‘positive’ change.  No one ever mentioned long-term negative effects. Only afterward did reality dawn on me, and I realized that, for the girl child, adverse consequences far outweigh anything good. 

Whilst an adult is free to submit herself to the ritual, a child without formed judgment never ‘consents’. She simply undergoes the mutilation (which in this case is irrevocable) while she is totally vulnerable.

TABLE OF CONTENTS ° Preface by Maria Kiminta ° Kiminta, a Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation. ° “Defining Womanhood as Pain: On FGM” (guest poem) by Airyn Lentija-Sloan ° The Sourcebook ° “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.

For International Women’s Day: Honor to Authors Confronting FGM

Lawrelynd welcomes her little brother.

The latest in the UnCUT/VOICES family of scholars and novelists is Lawrelynd Bowin.

Her memoir Swimming in a Red Sea tells the story of 39-year-old Lawra Linda Bawman, an African Canadian who grew up in Port Kamsar, Guinea; studied politics in Moscow; married a Dutchman; moved to Vancouver, resided in Brussels, and has now returned to North America. Multiple migrations are merely part of the search for identity of a young woman whose youth was marred by gendered ordeals. Jailed as a girl by her uncle for flirting with a boy, she is raped, subjected to FGM, and, at age twelve, compelled to witness her mother’s fatal experience in childbirth. Facing eternity, the grand multigravida – defined as a woman who gives birth six times or more-, extracts a promise from her daughter to assume responsibility for the new-born.

Life chronicles penned by immigrant women are rare; Bawman’s narrative adds significantly to the genre. Captive to her African past, the protagonist seeks escape and solace in the West only to discover that trauma follows. She mistakenly assumes that rejecting Africa will enable her to thrive. On the contrary. Her origins insistently intrude. Suppressed memories erupt and disrupt daily life, returning the heroine to Guinea, both physically and psychologically, by somatic mimicking of her mother who bled to death. Whenever upset – by the Brussels terrorist attack, for instance–, Lawra Linda suffers spontaneous bleeding, a reminder of loss never overcome but at least assuaged by devotion to the health of her sons, husband, and self. She continues questioning the justice of existence while subduing fear of dying and confronting, for her children’s sake, a troubled world.

Smiles greeted publication of the book.

The multilingual author and actor offers scenes of brutality tempered by resistance flowing into love. A Preface by Dr. Fabienne Richard, Executive Director of GAMS Belgium and midwife at the FGM Clinics, CeMAViE, University Hospital St. Pierre, Brussels; and an Afterword by Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, associate of the Hutchins Center for African and African American research at Harvard, locate Bowin’s achievement in the context of creative writing in which migration, women’s identity, benevolent action and trauma associated with FGM are major themes.

You can order Swimming in a Red Sea at amazon.com

Alice Walker, Soraya Miré, Khady Koita — and Zora Neale Hurston: Zero Tolerance for FGM

At the London premiere of Pratibha Parmar’s film “Beauty in Truth” about Alice, March 2013

From 30 January through 2 February, 2019, the ZORA! Festival in Eatonville joined with the University of Central Florida and CAAR (Collegium for African American Research) to host a nourishing and memorable gathering, attracting an international cohort of scholars to honor a famous but undeservedly neglected writer, Zora Neale Hurston. My contribution consisted of drawing Zora into the same orbit with Alice Walker, Soraya Miré and Khady Koita, the latter three having wielded their pens against FGM as fierce, unrelenting campaigners for the genital integrity of girls. Privileged to present in session 14, “Zora Neale Hurston in Conversation with Other Writers,” chaired by Claire Oberon Garcia, I was joined by panelists John Gruesser (Sam Houston State University, USA) who has a chapter in my book on Alice Walker; Arlette Frund (l’Université de Tours, France), with whom I attended the first CAAR conference in Tenerife more than two decades ago; and Anne Adams (Cornell University), who published my first essay on FGM novels in her anthology, edited with Carole Boyce Davies, Ngambika. Studies of Women in African Literature (1986). Conversely, Anne Adams critiqued a Ghanaian youth novel against excision in my book Empathy and Rage.

So the sister (and brother-) hood I conjured among our authors was in evidence among presenters, too. Even if, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes it, Zora’s “is a rhetoric of division, rather than a fiction of psychological or cultural unity.”

He is characterizing the complexity of Zora’s multiple selves – anthropologist, autobiographer, short-story writer, novelist and entertainer – negotiated under patriarchal white supremacy but guided in research by the father of cultural relativism, Franz Boas.

Renowned for “sharpening her oyster knife,” expressing astonishment that anyone would wish to deny themselves the pleasure of “her company,” Zora throws the gauntlet down to racism, flamboyant in defiance of its aim to shame.

The spirit and confidence exhibited by the “genius of the South” are inflected throughout Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, and, I will argue, in two representative memoirs by Miré and Khady whose protagonists, like Tashi, have endured genital wounds, protested publicly, and published excruciating yet poetic tales condemning FGM.

Khady was literally the poster child in Rome for a major colloquium on FGM sponsored by No Peace without Justice and Emma Bonino, former Foreign Minister of Italy.

That Zora grew up in Eatonville, the first registered all-black town, likely contributed to her “unshakeable sense of identity” (Valerie Boyd). This in turn lay the foundation for absorbing her mother’s encouragement. “Jump at the Sun,” the matriarch advised, a metaphor for successful agency in a broader world. An undogmatic “folklorist who insisted on black pride,” Zora inspired reverence in Alice Walker who helped ensure the older artist’s legacy.

These four authors – Hurston, Walker, Miré, and Khady (Koita)– adhere to one another by virtue of their courage. Despite infibulation, excision and clitoridectomy designed to produce somatic and psychological inferiority, — in Simone de Beauvoir’s sense that “women are made, not born”  and here subject to assaults literally cutting them down to size –, Khady Koita in Mutilée (2005)* and Soraya Miré in Girl with Three Legs (2011) reclaim and perform, like Zora, an integrity of character that permits them to take enormous risks in ‘coming out’ as cut in the Diaspora.

Thus, far from withered, they jump from the page as larger than life.

Today, the sexism that insists on genital wounding harvests increased opprobrium, often with defaming xenophobic intent in Western cultures that are, by the way, not without their own clitoridectomy outbreaks. History notwithstanding, currently right-wing rhetoric coopts and distorts both the meaning of ‘female circumcision’ to indigenous practitioners and the internal opposition.  Indeed, although December 2016 witnessed the very first, long overdue ‘Summit’ of activists in the US, many of them first generation immigrants who had been subjected to the blade, that gathering came twenty years after other host nations had begun acting with and on behalf of girls. Zora’s confidence and Alice Walker’s advocacy can be detected in this US response.

A chronicle of Walker’s influence and reception, my book presents the fraught history of a US movement to end FGM. And Alice approved.

Thus, despite the present nadir of racist discourse condoned outrageously by governments, concern for girls’ and women’s health and rights appears defiant with increasing numbers of self-confident, outspoken advocates for genital integrity. As Walker notes, “Zora is a great inspirer. She gives people permission to be themselves,” a clear rejection of definitions that would limit the humanity of others.

* [Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights. Trans. Tobe Levin. Orig. 2005]