Why are we smiling? Given the tenor of women’s news in recent times — FGM, femicide, child marriage, menstrual poverty, and widespread domestic violence — shouldn’t we rather be scowling? Or does this International Women’s Day conjure hope?
The short answer: yes. Above you find me, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen (founding president of FORWARD for Women, e.V.) and Dr. Mariame Racine Sow (managing director of FORWARD in Germany) happy last Sunday, 5 March 2023, to be answering questions in Frankfurt am Main posed by Sean Collins, creative director of a wide-ranging development documentary series focused on humanitarian projects to end FGM, early marriage, and other abuses through low-cost health and education interventions. Sean invited us to discuss Maa Feew — which means “Everything’s gonna be all right” in Fulani –, a project in Podor, Senegal, that corresponds to his film series’ criteria. We focus on health, education, and ending gender-specific abuses by engaging the community and applying local expertise and knowledge.
Training Badianu-Gokhs is a case in point. These women, already respected health visitors with worthy resumes assisting at births, attending to young brides, caring for infants, counseling on menstruation and against excision receive continuing professional training within a tri-partite effort to increase prosperity in an underserved community. Three pillars include the human right to education, health and equality of opportunity. Among other concrete measures, Maa Feew has constructed a school including a library in partnership with the Bookfeeding Project managed by Carolin von Janowski. To answer the need of young women experiencing harrowing births, in order to bring them in time to save their lives to facilities prepared for such emergencies, Frankfurt’s first aid squad donated and supported shipping a state-of-the-art ambulance.
Sean has written that a film screening of the documentary at the BAFTA is planned for Autumn/Fall 2023, and he anticipates that “the media for development documentary series will reach over 450 million viewers worldwide on premium broadcasters, generating global awareness for low-cost humanitarian interventions and sustainable development challenges (and solutions).”
We plan to meet his team in Senegal and look forward to success. For more information, see
Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, German Green Party representative to the European Parliament and co-founder of FORWARD for Women (1998) in Frankfurt am Main (opposing FGM), together with Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen (UnCUT/VOICES Press) produced an 84-page DIN-A-4 brochure — I call it a pre-book — tracing the history of movements to end FGM active in Germany, many with significant input from Pierrette and me. One hundred copies of the volume, designed by prize-winning photographer Britta Radike, were presented in September to the President of Ethiopia during a meeting with Pierrette’s European Parliamentary delegation.
At the European Parliament on February 6, 2023, as guest speakers invited by Dr. Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, MEP (German Green Party) for a meeting to encourage, learn from, and honor Men in the anti-FGM Movement. In the photo you find Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen to Pierrette’s right and former managing director of FORWARD for Women, Heidi Bezzaz, a Green party politician, Kreis Bergstrasse, Hessia, to her left.
Below please find Pierrette’s invitation on her Facebook page.
Join us on Monday, on the occasion of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation to follow the event I will host
(from 09:45 to 12:10 at the European Parliament, room 5E1)
An event organized under the patronage of the Commissioner for Equality Mrs. Helena Dalli.
Engaging men and boys on gender equality and women’s #empowerment remains a necessity.
Alongside Lessan e.V. (Germany), Femmes Entraide et Autonomie – FEA (France), and HIMILO (Holland), three partner organisations that offer counselling on gender-based violence, I am hosting this event to reflect on how men can counter gender violence, female genital mutilation and early forced marriage. (This blog has often featured men dedicated to these abuses of women and girls. See for instance earlier posts thanking Dr. Pierre Foldes, Dr. Dan mon O’Dey, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and others.)
Guest speakers in addition to Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen and Heidi Bezzaz included
*European Commissioner for Equality, Mrs. Helena Dalli (keynote)
TRIGGER WARNING. The following excerpt from Khady, similar to descriptions by dozens of other survivors — for instance, in Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation–, replaces any homogenizing descriptors or acronyms. In the webinar on terminology I participated in on 19 October, consensus held that the German word Verstümmelung — mutilation — was simply too rough, malignant, and disparaging. Its use should be minimized. What do you think? I’m of the viewpoint that Khady tells it like it IS and hence what we’re talking about. Torture?
The girls were silent, rigid with such intense fear that a few most likely wet their pants. But no one tried to run away. Unthinkable, even if we strained to find a pair of eyes belonging to someone who could spring us. Grandfather, maybe? If he had known what this act would do to me, he would have stopped it. But I don’t think he was informed. Women accuse men of instigating it, and on a certain level that’s true, but in many villages no one tells the fathers anything except when everybody knows about it anyway because excision is a collective initiation ceremony. In larger cities, they do it deep inside the house, hiding it so that not even the neighbors have any idea of what’s going on. My father wasn’t there, and no one had asked his opinion, no more than my maternal grandfather. It’s a woman’s thing and we were going to become women like them.
They rolled out two large mats, one in front of the door and one at the entrance to the shower — an indentation in the cement wall containing a jar of water. Another door led to the pantry. The room looked like all the wives’ spaces: a large bed, a small dresser and a metal trunk with each woman’s things. New clothes for afterward had already been laid out. Overcome with anxiety, I don’t know anymore who was called first. We tried to see what was happening but the grandmothers firmly forbade it.
“Get away from there! Go sit on the landing.” You had no right to observe what the others endured.
Inside, at that moment, three or four grown-ups had seized one little girl. Her blood-curdling shrieks jarred tears from my eyes. There was no escape; it was going to happen. The fourth or fifth in line, I was seated, legs outstretched, trembling at every howl, my whole body wracked by the others’ cries.
Two women caught and dragged me in. One, behind me, grabbed my head and, with all the strength in her knees, crushed my shoulders to the ground; the other clutched my thighs to force the legs apart. How a girl is kept still is determined by her age and above all her maturity. If she’s big, solid and expected to struggle, more women will be there to restrain her. If the child is scrawny and small, fewer adults will be needed. The exciser uses one razor for each girl, the utensils bought for the occasion by our mothers.
Using her fingers, the exciser grasps the clitoris and stretches that minute fragment of flesh as far as it will go. She then – if all goes well — whacks it off as though she were slicing a piece of zebu meat. Often, she can’t hack it off in one go so she’s obliged to saw.
To this day, I can still hear myself crying, shrieking, howling.
TODAY, October 19, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. CET, a webinar will find me sharing the podium with journalist Günter Haverkamp, director of FRIEDENSBAND and Round Tables in North-Rhine Westphalia that, at regular intervals, attract delegates from more than thirty anti-FGM NGOs in Germany. Our subject this afternoon? A point of incessant debate: how do we talk about FGM? What terminology is most effective? Is it mutilation in preference to circumcision, cutting, or, in any of the myriad tongues of practitioners, ‘sunna’, gudniin, tahur, bolokoli, halalays, megrez, khitan, and so forth, each term eliciting emotions, often conflicting, of accomplishment, pride, or horror, none easily conveyed in a foreign idiom.
Therefore, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Disagreement occurs in former colonizers’ languages and owes a lot to English and French terminology. For instance, ‘Beschneidung’ is ‘circumcision’ in German, the same word for women and men though the procedures obviously differ. Many German-speaking campaigners even today prefer this generic — despite its inaccuracy vis-à-vis females–, to the concept mutilation, in German Verstümmelung, judged harsh or uncharitable, especially by survivors whose feelings count.
As a non-native speaker of German (I acquired it only in my mid-twenties), I’m unprepared to comment on the affective connotations of Verstümmelung. The French avoid the dilemma by agreeing to use the medical term for ablation: excision, which means slicing off flesh. (In Khady’s words: unable to slash it off in one go, the cutter was obliged to saw.)
In English, ‘mutilation’, whose use I unequivocally support (i.e. in German Verstümmelung), is in fact, like the French, a medical term and is preferred by consensus of major global players, among them the UN and the IAC, even if context requires flexibility.
Concerning context(s), discussion is either private — between a survivor and her therapist, doctor or advisor — or public and formal.
In private, it should go without saying, tact dictates tone. It is recommended to use, at first, the word for the thing that comes naturally to the patient or client.
Public representations of the ‘event’ however do and, likely should, differ. Many who defer to courtesy in private wish in public to stress the resonance of medical accuracy. There is no gainsaying that amputating — chopping off, in the words of numerous survivors’ memoirs and novels — a healthy organ for cultural reasons is medically-defined as mutilation.
Here’s Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of ‘mutilation’: “deprivation of a limb or essential part especially by excision” [https://www.merriam-webster.com Accessed 18 October 2022].
Is the clitoris not an ‘essential part’?
How provocative in answering this (non-rhetorical) question is a headline in the New York Times published only two days ago. “Half the World Has a Clitoris. Why Don’t Doctors Study It?” [by Rachel E. Gross nytimes.com/2022/10/17/health/clitoris-sex-doctors-surgery.html]. For one thing, upwards of 200 million women have had theirs snatched (to use one of the less gruesome terms). The fact that such an article doesn’t mention FGM at all — has the author never heard of it? — seems to underscore the need to attract attention to an immorally-neglected transgression. Gross writes about a US physician billed as an exception to indifference: “Today, Dr. Rubin has appointed herself Washington’s premier ‘clitorologist’. The joke, of course, is that few are vying for the title — out of embarrassment, a lack of knowledge or fear of breaching propriety with patients.”
Broadly speaking for the USA, Gross is right, but her research is dangerously narrow, even jingoistic despite a cursory glance at Australia. Had she merely looked eastward, she would have found a global movement to end FGM that includes institutions dedicated to the clitoris. Dr. Pierre Foldes and his Women Safe in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, for one; the Desert Flower Clinic in Berlin, for another; The Rose Clinic under Dr. Brenda Kelly in Oxford for a third, and the list goes on. Burkina Faso, for instance, also boasts successful clitoris restoration as does a student of Foldes, Dr. Marci Bowers, who performs reconstruction in San Francisco.
I mention these establishments under the microscope of terminology because they offer reparation for mutilation. They represent the institutional face of the debate.
My reasons for espousing, with vehemence, the accurate medical term are, however, admittedly subjective. I began working to end FGM in 1977. I therefore draw on more than four and a half decades of experience; have made many friends among campaigners over the long haul; and have been privy to private communication among experts that, to my knowledge, has yet to be made public concerning the evolution of vocabulary.
Briefly, in the mid-90s Efua Dorkenoo, with whom I began working in 1980, was head-hunted from FORWARD, the association against FGM she founded in 1982 (registered in 1983), by the World Health Organization in Geneva and tasked with writing the first global guidelines to end FGM. We had a long phone conversation in the late 1990s during which she told me she had left WHO (and was then working in S. Africa) in protest against pressure from an American woman of European descent at the UN in NY who threatened to cut off funding if she (Efua) persisted in using the term ‘female genital mutilation’ instead of calling it ‘cutting’. Extortion?
The above example of neo-colonial interference is not hearsay for it is alluded to in the wording of the Inter-African Committee’s powerful statement on terminology.
As that institution describes it, the term ‘female genital mutilation’ was adopted in 1990 by the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, and in 1991 the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that the United Nations adopt it as well. It has now been confirmed by the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. The turning point in this debate was the Bamako Declaration of 6 April 2005, issued by the sixth General Assembly of the IAC, in Mali.
As Hilary Burrage reminds us, “it is important to acknowledge the Bamako message, an edited (abbreviated) version of which follows.” Equally of note, February 6th, now the day specifically dedicated to ending ‘female genital mutilation’, was initiated as an explicit reaction to efforts aimed at diluting terminology.
Wednesday 6 April 2005, Bamako, Mali
… An issue of concern at the 6th General Assembly … has been attempts to dilute the terminology Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and replace it with the following: “Female Circumcision,” “Female Genital Alteration,” … “Female Genital Surgery,” and more recently “Female Genital Cutting” (FGC). … Female Genital Cutting (FGC) does not reflect the accurate extent of harm and mutilation caused by all types of FGM. This terminology has been adopted by some UN specialized agencies and bi-lateral donors … influenced by specific lobby groups largely based in western countries.
… These changes trivialize the nature of female genital mutilation and the suffering of African women and girls …[and] … made without consultation, [they] override the consensus reached by African women in the front line of the campaign as well as the … millions of African girls and women who suffer in silence.
We want the world to know that in 1990 African women … adopted the term FGM at the IAC General Assembly in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They took this brave step to confront the issue head on with their practicing communities.
[Why? To avoid confusion, to emphasize] the nature and gravity of the practice; to recognize that [only] a [continuing and painful] struggle [can alter] the mentality and behaviours of African people, [yet to insist] that this pain [is] integral to [empower] girls and women … to address FGM [and to take] control of their sexuality and reproductive rights. …
Experience indicates that long-term change occurs [only] when change agents help communities to go through this painful process. Not to confront the issue is to [promote] denial of the gravity of FGM, thus resulting in mere transient change… .
We recognize that while it may be less threatening for non-Africans to adopt other less confrontational terminology in order to enter into dialogue with communities, it is imperative that the term FGM [be] retained.
The term FGM is not judgemental. It is instead a medical term that reflects what is done to the genitalia of girls and women. It is a cultural reality. Mutilation is the removal of healthy tissue. The fact that the term makes some people uneasy is no justification for its abandonment.
We would highlight that … FGM was adopted [by] consultation and consensus [among …] African experts [at] the first technical working group meeting held in Geneva in 1995 and gained … world-wide currency and acceptance. The Beijing conference also adopted and used … female genital mutilation. … FGM has been adopted and endorsed by the European Union [and] the African Union; [it] is currently utilized in all their documentation including the most recent Additional Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, on the Rights of Women [Maputo].
While we appreciate the efforts made in response to FGM on the continent and the Diaspora, it is patronizing and belittling to African women and girls to have outsiders define their oppression. Indeed what gives anyone but Africans the right to change a term agreed upon by the largest group of African activists on this issue in the world? This is at best paternalism and is a sad reflection of how, after many years of African women working against FGM … when FGM was a taboo, the campaign has been high-jacked by others … not involved at the beginning and who do not appreciate the nature of the struggle.
We, the participants at the 6th IAC General Assembly, demand a halt to this drift towards trivializing the traditional practice by adopting a subtle terminology.
We demand that all organizations and international bodies revert to the terminology adopted by the IAC in 1990, and reinforced in 2002.
We demand that international agencies recognize the right of NGO’s in the field to continue to use FGM and not to be denied funding because of this.
We demand that the voices of African women be heard and that their call to action against FGM [be] heeded.
The word ‘mutilation’ is, therefore, employed in formal contexts, as the World Health Organisation Interagency Statement explains, because by definition (as above) it emphasises the gravity of the act.
In sum, I have supported the IAC since its inception in 1984, and the IAC, I’m convinced, is among the world’s leading authorities on the subject. My use of their terminology acknowledges — and honors — the sacrifices their members have made and, above all, the courage they show. To do otherwise would feel like betrayal, as though I supported those they describe as applying (neo)imperial pressure, as lacking longevity in the struggle, and as ‘patronizing and belittling’ their efforts. Moreover, many of those who inspire my agreement have been subjected to harassment and violence, as, for instance, related to me by Dr. Olayinka Koso-Thomas of Sierra Leone whose office was ransacked by FGM-supporters; Berhane Ras-Work, first IAC president who has been spat upon for her engagement as was her successor, Mariam Lamizana; or Awa Thiam, author in 1978 of La Parole aux négresses, a feminist manifesto against excision, who has been insulted as well. American author Alice Walker, whose novel Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) and accompanying video (1993) also incurred opprobrium, in my view undeserved, which set the US movement back a generation — as we sense from the article in the New York Times quoted above from October 17, 2022 — and the date’s not a typo.
If you have witnessed clitoridectomy, excision or infibulation, I needn’t remind you that ‘torture’ covers it. And clearly, no matter what you call it, you want it to stop. Our disagreements concern strategy, not the end-game. But each activist must choose her (or his) alliances. Whose lead will you follow? Here are a few among my many mentors.
The fight to end female genital mutilation requires tenacity. That mood swings accompany deployment goes without saying, for witnessing via experience risks flashbacks and pain. Yet Khady, as do most articulate survivors, perseveres. She opens her narrative at the UN and circles back to a significant venue, a speech I attended in Zürich at a UNICEF conference.
Following are the closing passages from Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010. Available from Amazon.) The book is recommended for classroom use; bulk rates are available from the publisher. Khady introduces students not only to the challenging subject of female genital mutilation — making clear why ‘mutilation’ is the appropriate moniker for use in public discourse — but also embeds the particular hostility to girls’ genitalia within a web of abuses including forced, child marriage; educational discrimination, and social hierarchy controlled by men. A feminist text par excellence, Mutilée (the original title) enrages, enlightens, and draws your affection toward its endearing first person narrator. Akin to the Bildungsroman, it chronicles the emergence of a leader moving relentlessly toward justice.
Activism is less a duty than a calling. …
For nine resolute and enthusiastic months [Khady traveled] right up until that commemorative day when [she] spoke at the United Nations, modestly but proudly, about the struggle of our European Network against female genital mutilation.
In February and March 2005, I addressed the 49th session of the UN Committee on the Status of Women. There nearly 6000 NGOs greeted good news with exuberant applause: national governments, without reservation, had re-affirmed the Platform for Action on violence against women formulated ten years earlier at the Beijing plus 10 Conference. For my part, I was on a cloud, sure that now everything would change …
But that evening, on re-reading the speech I would be giving the next day at a UNICEF conference in Zurich, I fell to earth and wept.
My whole life unfolded before me like a film whose first installment had been a tale of horror.
Since 1975, when the first United Nations women’s conference took place in Mexico and I arrived in France, thirty years had passed. How many women had suffered since then, and how many were suffering now? How many women had had to put up a fight like mine? In how many countries did men still not know what a phrase like “women’s rights” means? I had just lived through a magnificent moment listening to beautiful speeches by male politicians. I was tempted to cry out who I was and why I was there. To hurl at them my suffering and anger and tell them to stop talking but go see for themselves the lives of women in whose name they made decisions that wouldn’t be applied for half a century … if ever.
Discouragement claimed me, exhaustion in this interminable combat, the same feeling I had experienced three years earlier in Italy when they awarded my activism a prize shared with a young Bangladeshi whose face had been destroyed by acid for refusing to marry. That day I also cried, seeing that woman, of rage and desire to just let it all drop, so vast did the journey seem, and male violence so oceanic.
But my courage returned in New York, Geneva, Zurich and elsewhere. I began again to march and intend to go on, carrying the message of African women, victims of torture and humiliation.
My mother no longer tells me I run around too much. I trust, — no, I believe–, she is proud of me. I dedicate this book to her in the hope of being able to translate for her, without shying away, every word.
I thank her and my father for sending me to school. Having been forbidden to think would have been worse than mutilation.
And it’s thanks to my education, as little as it was at first, that I have been able to progress, understand, and glean information I could then share with others.
In certain countries, serious imams, a source of enlightened religious ideas, correct misunderstandings of the Koran as preached by less well-educated peers. The high respect in which they are held gives their words weight, and many of these Imams are now on our side.
Renunciations of excision en masse have been undertaken by some villages with the help of healthcare workers and NGOs. This means considerable progress, because neighboring men, denied excised brides, will have to go along with change if they want to marry.
I would like this book to serve African women not as a scandal but an inspiration for reflection. I would like to see it translated and disseminated in Africa. But Africa follows an oral tradition. Griots would have to do it. At least many of them have already begun to work with us.
If I have been a griot for myself, narrating the story of my life, it’s not to sing my praises but to illustrate the obstinate march that lead me from the shadow of the mango tree to the light of international sorority, from an intimate and secret mutilation to the blaze of a public campaign trail.
Stopping violence and mutilation is our duty by keeping the blades of tradition and culture far away from little girls.
Each African woman now shares this task, and to each her manner of approaching it. But let’s not fear to tell the truth about our bodies. Neither diabolical nor impure, our sex has been from the dawn of time the only source of life.
Our author Khady is with artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus at a celebration for FORWARD for Women e.V. and UnCUT/VOICES Press at Schlosshotel Kronberg in 2018. Godfrey’s donated paintings sold at auction, raising funds to prevent FGM. Photo credit: Britta Radike
In November 2012, Alvilda Jablonko phoned me. Adjutant to Emma Bonino, prominent Italian politician whose NGO No Peace Without Justice had taken on the cause of ending FGM, Jablonko requested 65 copies of Khady’s memoir to distribute to members of the Group of African States in the UN General Assembly prior to a vote on 20 December 2012 which would make history. Having each received a copy of Blood Stains, representatives of African nations would prove key to passage of a Resolution “intensifying global efforts” to eliminate “female genital mutilations.”
Below you will find an excerpt from Blood Stains, the chapter titled ‘Combat’. Successful advocacy serves as encouragement and blueprint for continuing legislation that most movement actors view as essential but inadequate. For law’s abstraction and heavy hand address the mind but not the heart; ritual genital abuse, however, is prisoner to the Velcro of emotions. The intimacy of the personal account builds on ratio AND empathy. Khady is not a statistic but a sentient, articulate icon for a swathe of FGM survivors.
I have been an activist in France since the 1980s. In 1986, as an interpreter, I met Koumba Touré who did similar work and was vice president of GAMS. She brought me along to a meeting and introduced me. Since then we’ve shared the same conviction and have never wavered.
GAMS was and still is a secular, multi-partisan NGO in which African and French women work together. In addition to fighting FGM, GAMS orchestrates information campaigns against other harmful traditional practices: forced and/or early marriage and serial pregnancies. Given that we have so much to do, our mission is really better suited to a colony of ants. For instance, we educate women when they consult their gynecologists or take their infants for check-ups, telling them about complications excision can cause – gynecological and urinary difficulties as well as harrowing childbirths. We know that most excised women need episiotomies if not caesarians, and the pregnancies, coming one too close to the next for four, five, six or a dozen children, aggravate these problems. It’s a matter of dissuading mothers from perpetrating on their girls, born or coming, the barbarity they suffer for life. It’s important to explain as well that religion doesn’t impose mutilation. But to do that, we need religious leaders to assist us. They’re the ones to contradict the immense lie entertained for centuries because the texts themselves remained unknown. In reality, excision and infibulation are lauded and propagated by men and, for dubious reasons, imposed on girls by women.
An African man told me one day, “It’s done so that women won’t be raped.”
“You think a rapist will ask about that!?” I answered, astonished. “Look first and rape second?”
And another: “It’s so women won’t be tempted to go out and find another man.”
“Really? You can kill the possibility of pleasure without destroying the desire for it! And a mutilated woman’s sexuality is as sad for you as it is for her!”
I uncovered a list of reasons even worse than these: it’s done to increase the pleasure of the man, or to maintain social cohesion, or to eliminate an organ thought to be dirty, ugly and evil. Infants, beware! Better not brush against it being born. To survive, keep out of its way.
That organ, diminutive counterpart to male anatomy, must be suppressed.
A symbol of submission, clitoral ablation, like ‘barefoot and pregnant’, takes religion as its grandiose excuse.
The barbarity of it hit me full force when, in 1982 in France, excision killed a little girl from Mali, Bobo Traoré. For a long time I had simply “accepted” mutilation, including my own, to such an extent that my first three girls had been victims of it. I had even “forgotten” all about it, immersed as I was in personal problems. But the loss of that three-month-old in Paris, jumped on by the media – to their credit–, served as a wake-up call. It aroused French society and not a small number of Africans as well.
Then, the custom simply wasn’t talked about. The great majority of French were wholly ignorant of it. No well-known ethnographer or researcher had placed the issue before the public. And suddenly, on the 8 o’clock news, here were Africans applying razors to children’s genitalia!
Shortly after that affair, while I was interpreting for the Interservice Migrants, pediatricians began asking real questions. As for me, I didn’t know much about the origin of the practice but, to the extent that my private life improved, I became increasingly active in monthly meetings at the Maison des Femmes in Paris.
Initially, my mouth stayed shut. I listened, however, and little by little, the truth emerged. Physicians’ lectures had me running from library to library for follow-up research even though, at that time, very little could be found, and one question led to another. If not all Muslims are excised, FGM must not be required by religion. So why did we think it was? In any case, the Koran didn’t mention it at all. That was certain. In Senegal, the Wolof didn’t do it, nor do certain Arab or North African nations.
And even though they had all lived through it, why had our mothers never told us about what pediatricians encountered – the physical and psychological harm?
Regarding excision’s effect on our minds, each girl had had to work through the horror alone. Most had come to accept the promised benefit because, for those few brave enough to dig deep, questioning the status quo opened wounds that were very hard to share with anyone. No woman wants to display her sexuality. No matter where she’s from, when the topic is so intimate, she feels squeamish when forced to go public. Besides, how could she possibly refer to a kind of pleasure she’d never known? Many women were embarrassed, even shocked, by media’s representation of excision and by what was now being said all around. Modesty made revelation truly distressing.
“Oh, no. We’re fine. Nothing’s wrong. No trouble giving birth, no problems with sex, nothing at all.”
Still, regarding the “legitimacy” of the practice, the alarm was salutary. The media called us barbarians concerning a tradition said to be cultural, and in fact, we had no rational explanation to offer. Why? Because there is none.
As a delegate to the BanFGM Conference < BanFGM Conference on the global ban on female genital mutilation > in Rome, Jan 30 – Feb 1, 2017, organised by No Peace without Justice and the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children,* Khady gave interviews and spoke out in the plenary, adding to the impressive list of powerful addressees she has reached, urging abolition.
As the poster in yesterday’s blog shows, Khady’s peers chose her to represent the meeting as a whole. Adopted as a figurehead, she knew that only by going to the top — to city hall, to premiers and presidents, to parliament, the UN, the Council of Europe, the African Union and more — would she influence decision-makers and, equally important, donors.
Never mincing words, she wants the world to know what girls endure when born where excision has, from the dawn of history, been normalized. Chapter 1, Salindé — literally, to purify for prayer — is subtitled “New York, March 2005.” Why? Because Khady opens her tale as she closes it. A courageous activist backed by Emma Bonino, later the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Khady speaks directly to the UN General Assembly. FGM is a global issue; everyone shares in the duty to condemn it.
In Mutilée/Blood Stains, Khady exceeds an objective re-enactment of events by asking who benefits. She takes a stab — if you’ll pardon the term — at explaining. Following is again a quote from Chapter 1.
*The opening paragraph shares information reported by the Council of Europe, Human Rights Intergovernmental Cooperation, accessed 13 October 2022.
After all the mothers had decamped, an eerie feeling of abandonment hung suspended in time, but now I know that no mother, not even a strong-hearted one, can stand to see what is going to be done to her daughter, or, even worse, to hear her cries. She knows what it’s all about because she’s been there, and, the moment the knife bites her girl, her own body bleeds all over again. Still, she accepts because that’s the way it is, and she has no other option but this barbaric ritual of supposed “purification for prayer” and virginity insurance until marriage with fidelity forevermore.
It’s a scam to have forced African women to maintain a custom that has absolutely nothing to do with religion. On our continent excision is practiced by animists, Christians, Moslems and the Beta Israel who are Jewish. It is centuries old, its origins predating the advent of Islam. But men have several bad reasons for wanting it: to guarantee their power, to believe other men won’t get their wives pregnant, and to protect the excised from enemy rape! Other explanations, even more absurd, hold that a woman’s sex is impure and diabolical; that the clitoris, devilish in itself, can cause all kinds of harm, up to and including death if it touches the infant’s head at birth. Some have also thought that the imposture, that miniature penis, menaces virility.
But domination is the real motive. And men have passed responsibility for execution onto women, because it was out of the question that a man should “see,” let alone “touch” that intimate part of female anatomy, even on a child.
At age seven, like all girls, I didn’t even know I had a clitoris, let alone the purpose it served. I had never noticed it before, and now I never would. The only thing that really counted on that particular morning was the prospect of a horrifying pain whose vague echoes I had heard before but that had seemed then not to concern me. I remembered my mother and grandmother threatening a naughty little boy with a knife or a pair of scissors. Pulling on his diminutive appendage they would gesture – snip! – and utter those terrible words: “Behave or it’s the blade for you!” The kid would take to his legs as fast as he could, recalling the sting that, unlike the girl’s, would soon subside, besides real circumcision being essentially hygienic. But I spied the boys’ bizarre waddle like ducks, saw them sit with difficulty and whimper for two or three days, sometimes for a whole week, afterward. And I thought I was safe because I was a girl!
In 1967, 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 2005, all the way to the U.N.
At a European Network Community of Practice webinar this afternoon on effective strategies against FGM in Egypt, one participant emphatically insisted on devoting not just a single day but an entire year to campaigning against the torturous custom. Considering the facts of what continues taking place, far too often performed by medical professionals for increased income, patience seemed incongruous, unjustified.
While still a child, Khady reflects on coping strategies immediately after amputation, important because imagination and therefore empathy too easily fail readers innocent of similar trauma who yet are addressed in hopes of enlisting solidarity.
Below is another excerpt from Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010). The voice, though older now, conveys that of a small child who, without pathos or self-pity, reveals a growing awareness of what she has lost. We remain in chapter 1, Salindé. The girl has just undergone clitoridectomy.
Little by little, Grandfather and the other men reappeared. I suppose they waited for the shrieks and tears to abate. I remember Grandfather’s hand on my head and a prayer lasting several minutes. But then he walked out without giving further consolation.
And I said nothing. I didn’t call for his help anymore. That was over; it wasn’t worth the trouble. Still, he lacked the expression he wore on happy days. When I think about it now, it seems that maybe he wasn’t altogether at ease. … But what could he have said? It simply wasn’t in his power to prevent those women who had undergone the exact same thing from carrying it out on us.
There wasn’t anything else to do but believe what the women told us.
“Soon, you’ll forget it. Don’t worry. You’ll walk and run just like before.”
Once the pain fades, you do indeed forget. And at the end of a very long week, that’s what happened. I didn’t realize it then, but one thing had changed in me forever. It took a long time before I could peer at the wound. Was I afraid? In any case, looking was out of line with the morality the women imparted. They teach you to clean this sex which everyone ignores beyond the most indispensable hygiene. Never, ever forget to wash, our mothers repeated, or you’ll smell bad.
Three or four weeks later, once the cousins had all returned to Dakar where each took up the thread of her normal life, one day, under the shower, I became curious to see what it was they had sliced off. There was nothing but a hardened scar that I brushed with my hand because it was still painful, and I supposed that was where they had cut. But what?
During nearly a month and a half, a throbbing pressure continued inside, like a pimple unable to emerge. But then, I stopped thinking about it entirely. I didn’t pose any questions, not even to myself. The grandmothers were right. You forget. No one alerted us to the fact that our futures as women would unfold unlike those of others.
One day a Wolof from the neighborhood stopped by our house. That very morning, two of my little cousins had been salindé, and I heard the woman exclaim:
“Oh! You, Soninké. You’re still doing it? You don’t know any better? How uncivilized! That’s downright savage!”
She was laughing when she said it, trying to make a kind of joke as we do in Africa so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings. And I paid it no mind until a dozen years later, once I began to understand that my destiny as a Soninké woman had had its origin there in that intimate amputation that cut me off forever from normal sexuality. What might have been mine at the start, an unknown bloom, would now never have a chance to flower.
And we were a whole bouquet of African women who believed that normality was simply that, to make ourselves submissive for the sole pleasure of men who had nothing else to do but pluck the young bud sheered just for them and watch it prematurely die.
In one corner of my head I am always sitting beneath the mango tree at my grandparents’ house, that spot where I was happy and physically intact. Ready to become an adolescent, then a woman, ready to love because of course I would have felt desire …
When the international movement to end FGM was relatively young — in the 1990s–, an intrepid leader arose in France. Urged by many to publish her story, Khady Koita hesitated. It’s hard, she would write, for anyone to expose their private lives and, in this case, sheltered body parts. But she had begun to speak out, to organize, encourage, and inspire. In 1995 in Beijing, she toured the plenitude of Inter-African Committee booths at the NGO conference parallel to the official UN gathering. One evening, she found herself in the center of activists resident in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or North America whose conversation focused on the need for a network. In 2000, Khady co-founded the EuroNet-FGM, first among many associations advocating for the interests of girls and women, cut or at risk, in the Diaspora. The EuroNet-FGM was registered officially in Brussels in 2002 with Khady Koita as president and Tobe Levin as secretary.
Below is an excerpt from Khady’s memoir, titled simply Mutilée in the original French, and in English Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010).
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.”
The night before, my cousins had arrived from Dakar for the school holidays. There was my sister Daba, six years old; Lélè, Annie and Ndaié, cousins on my father’s side, and other cousins less closely related whose names I don’t remember. A dozen or so little girls between six and nine sat with legs outstretched on the steps in front of one of the grandmother’s rooms. You’d be just as likely to find us playing house with dolls made of wood and rags, making believe we were going to market for spices to cook with the little metal utensils our parents had fashioned for us.
That night, we fell asleep as usual in the care of a grandmother, aunt or mother.
The next morning, very early, they woke me up and showered me. My mother put me in a flowered, sleeveless dress made of African cloth but cut in a European style. I remember the colors: russet, yellow and peach. I slipped my feet into rubber sandals, my flip-flops. The morning was still young. Nobody else in the neighborhood was up.
We took the path past the mosque where men were already at prayer, their voices spilling out of the gaping door. The sun had not yet arisen but the heat was already intense. The rainy season had begun, but it wasn’t raining. In a few hours, the thermometer would hit the high nineties.
My mother took me and my sister to the large house where my grandfather’s third wife lived. Around fifty, she was short, slim, kind and very gentle. My cousins stayed with her during vacations and, like us, they were already washed, dressed and waiting, a proper little covey assembled there, innocent and mildly ill at ease. My mother departed, leaving us. I watched her walking away, slender and fine-boned – a mixture of Mauritanian and Peul. My mom is an admirable woman, and although I wasn’t aware of its importance at the time, she raised her children, girls and boys, without discrimination: school for all, chores for all, punishment and tenderness for all. But she had vanished without telling us a thing.
We sensed something unusual though because the grandmothers kept bustling back and forth, murmuring among themselves with an air of mystery and making sure to keep us out of earshot. Without any idea of what was to come, I knew that these whispers meant trouble. Suddenly, one of them called the girls because the “lady” in a voluminous indigo and midnight blue boubou had arrived. I recognized the petite visitor with large dangling earrings as one of my grandmothers’ friends who belonged to the blacksmith caste. Male members of this caste do metalwork and “cut” little boys while females “cut” the girls. Two more women accompanied her, heavy-set matrons with solid arms whom I didn’t know. My cousins, the bigger ones, might have been aware of what awaited us, but they didn’t say anything to anybody either.
Speaking Soninké, one of the grandmothers announced that we were going to be “salindé” which means, in our language, “to be purified for access to prayer.” In French: “excised.” You could also say “cut up.”
The shock was brutal. Now I knew what I was in for, that thing the mothers would mutter about from time to time at home as though it meant acceding to some sort of mysterious dignity. And I remembered, in that instant, becoming aware of things I had previously suppressed. Our older sisters had already gone through it, instructed by the grandmothers privileged to run households and educate children. When a girl is born, after baptism on the seventh day, it’s the grandmothers who have her ears pierced with a needle, sliding the black and red thread through the hole to prevent its closing up again. They are the ones in charge of weddings, births, and newborns. And it is they who decide when we’re going to be “purified.”
Visiting Professors at King’s College London before the COVID-19 pandemic, we — Dr Jaschok, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen with FGM Specialist Midwife Comfort Momoh MBE — would have preferred an in-person event but, impossible given the lethal virus, technology permitted our meeting nonetheless, and our fruitful encounters, available on YouTube, inspired a call for papers. Thus a book is taking shape, one of whose chapters I was editing yesterday. It examines a muted, undertheorized protagonist, the perpetrator of FGM, a concept — perpetration — borrowed with both trepidation and hope from studies of women’s complicity in harming fellow women as, for instance, camp guards in the Holocaust, or in the Rwandan genocide. As Dr. Daniela Hrzán explains, sustained analyses of perpetrators are rare and understandably so, with most attention devoted to the wounded given the serious sequelae of knives in the vicinity of vulvas. Still, focusing on perpetrators reveals motives for amputating genitalia and reasons for the custom’s tenacity today. Razors, moreoever, supply the demand from co-conspirators, thus making agents of anyone who promotes and abets excision – mothers, aunties, neighbors. (Nor are ‘circumcisers’ exclusively female.)
“Because feminist theorists and FGM scholars tend to shy away from thematizing this complicity,” Daniela notes, she confronts a paradox at its root. Clearly within the genre of women’s penchant toward disruption (Eve) — in masculinist legends brilliantly inventoried by H.R. Hays in The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil (1964) — the exciser is viewed by many cuttees as a ‘witch’. But mainly she is not. Witches were individuals who defied cultural dictates, rebels who dispensed with gender rules, and the phallocracy murdered them as a result. (Some estimates mount to 9 million over 6 millennia in Europe.) In constrast, excision, infibulation, or clitoridectomy — defined by Leyla Hussen OBE in our webinar as criminal violence – reproduce the status quo. “The offending women are therefore not those who violate social norms, but those who perpetuate them, subjecting minors to structural violence often despite anti-FGM laws.” Thus, women demand, carry out and refuse to stop the cut although (because?) they have been cut themselves. Yes, patriarchy rewards subservience but the “token torturers” (Mary Daly 163) remain agents in their own right. In sum, to dismantle the social norm, the gain from cutting must become the prize for stopping.
In Taboo edited by Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe, we find one of the rare instances in which an exciser — who has indeed stopped — details her motives, feelings, pride, and regrets. The following is a short excerpt from Betty Kituyi’s oral history, “Do Not Count on Me.” In Taboo she describes how her early ambivalence — should she or shouldn’t she follow in her grandmother’s footsteps? — turned into torment and hallucinations that only subsided once she began, with great reluctance, to brandish the knife.
“Amina Buraimu is a tall, sixty-something-looking woman with a stoop and a wrinkled face that seem to cover her past. She abandoned her culturally revered role as a circumciser of girls in 1996 when the REACH (Reproductive, Educative and Community Health) programme identified her as the most dangerous person (“Amina Atare”) in the district and talked her out of it. She was considered dangerous because, as the most experienced circumciser in Kapchorwa, she was as swift as Moses Kipsiro, the Kapchorwa-born Olympic athlete, scampering from village to village, and from hill to hill in her red ‘circumcision’ dress, as if possessed, cutting an average of 100 girls in each village. According to what they said in the villages, if ‘circumcision’ is harmful, then she was the one who harmed the greatest number of girls.
“’When our own women ministers from Sipi Sub-county, Kuka and Chokomondosi, stand up and speak against the cutting, who is Amina Braimu to continue doing it? They must be right when they say it is wrong because they have the experience’, she reflects. The ministers said that the tradition of cutting girls to make them fully women is no longer acceptable or honourable. Amina was told that times have changed and, with them, so have a lot of the things once considered culturally important. New diseases like ‘slim’ (HIV/AIDS) are killing the young before the old. The knife no longer makes girls ‘clean’ as believed in the past but frequently transfers the AIDS virus. If one girl in the line has the virus and the same knife is used to cut all who follow her, the disease may be passed to everyone.
“In Amina’s time, girls were virgins when they were cut. Today, modern habits and practices lead many of them into having sex before marriage. It was also uncommon years ago to circumcise married women – they had all been cut before marriage – but now it is the trend. This is very risky, because in the Kapchorwa region the infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases are higher among married couples than among single people since many married people are not faithful to each other. The young women no longer keep the tribal secrets. Some circumcised women are now admitting they feel pain when they have sex with their husbands. When Amina was still a thin girl with a flat chest and her mother was breast-feeding her younger siblings, it was taboo to reveal what was going on in the bedroom. But now that people are talking, she acknowledged it could be true that ‘circumcision’ of girls is harmful.
“Still, Amina relishes the memory of the days when she was the most skilful and powerful cutter in the land. She had a lot of money to spend and was able to afford almost anything she wanted. Circumcising girls earned her a lot of money and gifts from the girls’ families. In fact, Amina was one of the richest women in her community. In a single ‘circumcision’ season, she would collect close to ten million shillings (about $5,000) as payment for her services. Her current circumstances, however, give no hint of her former wealth. As she talks, her sunken eyes and dry, cracked lips confirm her ill health, which she blames on the poverty that has attacked her like locusts on a cassava garden since she stopped excising girls. She tells me that she cannot afford any medicine and that her granaries have long been empty of maize and millet because she is too weak to tend the gardens and too poor to hire people to lend her a hand in cultivating them.
“’Are you one of those government officials who always come to ask me about my experience?’ Amina asks, patting my hand lightly. She continues, ‘Over the past few years, strange people from government have come here, driving their big vehicles, condemning the ‘circumcision’ of girls. They have tried to persuade me and my four colleagues to stop doing it. But only two of us have quit. Others still do it, deep in places like Bukwo. They are still circumcising — for the money, especially. Look at me! I have nothing now! Those government people make promises that they never fulfil. Some people visited my home two years ago and promised to give me money to start a chicken-rearing project. They said they would build me a mabati, an iron-roofed house. But they have not honoured their promises, even though I told them that I did not have any other means of making a living’.
“As if her poverty had choked out any logical thought, Amina’s sentiments seem to contradict the reasons she has earlier given for stopping her ‘circumcision’ of girls. She seems to say that she was forced to stop circumcising, and that if she does not get any other means of livelihood, she can very easily slip back into the practice of cutting girls.”