Among the first Africans to place violence against women — clitoridectomy; early, forced marriage; and patriarchal power structures — at the heart of a novel, this one published in 1998 in the Ivory Coast, Fatou Keita deserves attention from English-speaking readers. Commenting on her daring, a German description sees value emerging precisely from the complexity of themes, too often stripped of nuance and inherent equivocation by declamatory, didactic discourse. After all, mothers do this to their daughters who resent the deception and pain but love their mothers. With no singularity of approach but rather a gift for highlighting varied subjectivities, Keita serves up tropes we often find in FGM memoirs. The title, for instance, already tells us the protagonist Malimouna rebels; like Khady, she joins the women’s movement in Paris. Rejecting her husband’s non-consensual polygamy, she declares independence and is elected president of her women’s NGO that opposes domestic violence and offers shelter to battered women. These themes can be found in Khady’s Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights (2010), in Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation (2015), and Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation (2016) among many other sources. These three are published by UnCUT/VOICES Press and belong in a growing syllabus of literary texts on FGM.
When in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1980s, advertising executive Joy Keshi realized that the reason for her young neighbor’s extensive hospital stays was a botched excision, she posed a perennial question. How do we change a ‘social norm’ which really means altering behavior?
Advertisers know we can change behavior. Take cigarettes, for instance. Ubiquitous a mere twenty years ago, an indispensable prop for authors, actors or anyone wanting to project sophisticated allure, they are now frowned upon as polluting carcinogens. Expectorating has experienced a similar demise. In Parisian trams and subways in the 1970s, you found numerous ‘défense de cracher’ — spitting forbidden — signs which would not have been there had the habit not been prevalent.
So what can advertising teach us that may help to end FGM?
The medium appeals to emotion and moves viewers to act on their feelings. But which feelings? Students of empathy, looking at depictions of pain, have revealed mixed results. Portraits of suffering can have an effect opposite to the one intended, encouraging not an empathic reaching out but a turning away.
Especially when the subject is excision of a child’s clitoris and labia.
In 1998, Joy undertook to explore this issue with painters and sculptors, students and faculty, in Nigeria. She assumed that fine artistic expression, on canvas or marble, elicits admiration; the medium is dignified, especially when serving an ideal of human rights.
The works of art that emerged from her coaching have had an illustrious career, among dozens of venues, mainly in Germany, we can add a display in the British Parliament in November 2000.
Many of these canvases will illustrate my 20 May talk at Christ Church, Oxford.
Susan McLucas of Healthy Tomorrow (Somerville) and Sini Sanuman (Mali) is inviting you as a friend of the movement against FGM to join in tonight. You can still register for In the Name of Your Daughter by Giselle Portenier, screening on Tuesday, April 26 at 7 pm (Eastern time in the US).
Susan writes: “The film shows what Tanzania is doing to protect girls from female genital mutilation (FGM). Citizens cooperate with the police, the courts, and Hope for Girls and Women, an NGO, that manages a safe house and strives to convince parents to leave their daughters’ genitals intact. After watching the 45-minute version of the film and talking about it with the director, we’ll examine work performed by our partner group in Mali, Sini Sanuman, to end the practice. Part of our effort these days highlights this film and trailer in Mali to inspire its residents to pass a law against FGM.”
“Girls die every day. We are here wearing masks, aren’t we? So we don’t die of Covid. But girls die every day of FGM. Every day. Every day FGM kills girls. And who tells their story? Nobody.”
At this moment, 3:09 p.m. in Frankfurt am Main, I’m listening to Sadia Hussein at the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development telling one survivor’s story, her own, by introducing her book, Hidden Scars of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) . “Reading it enables people to understand the underlying issues, what we are living with,” she notes, and urges that the anguish be acknowledged; resources allocated; conferences understood not to replace but to complement funding communities directly. In other words, while all available means to stop a COVID pandemic are mustered, girls in the millions lose their lives without any commensurate outrage. Yet all constituencies must become involved: elders, survivors, clinicians, politicians, educators, women and men. For the real topic transcends FGM. Targeting not the ears or the nose but the genitals, it’s invisible. External appearance elicits no empathy as wounds remain unseen until we talk about them. Sub-titled the “cultural struggle of the girl child,” the memoir would put girls in charge of their bodies, as FORWARD (UK) has it in a striking animation, “My Body My Rules.”  Yes, Female Genital Mutilation is an emotional issue whose disclosure risks triggering embarrassment and pain, but this is ineluctible despite international agencies and local NGOs treating the harm as though reason alone were enough to end it (for instance, the risky ‘health approach’ that experience has shown justifies medicalization).
While the powerful unholy coupling of sexual politics and economics undergirds the ‘rite’, UnCUT VOICES joins Sadia Hussein who encourages our search for memoirs, fiction, the fine arts, and music as frequently deployed but underexplored tools that can stop FGM. How? Only artistic expression is commensurate with the complexity of an over-determined tradition. African and other celebrated writers’ drama, poetry, stories, and genres of all sorts express both subjective and objective aspects of the custom, that is, desires and fears, affect, and reason. If indeed genuine works of art, they reject oversimplification and tolerate contradictions.
Here are several instances. Contradiction #1: familial love for children subjected to the blade (e.g. from Senegal, Khady (Koita). Mutilée, 2005, translated as Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights, 2010; from the Cote d’Ivoire, Fatou Keïta, Rebelle, 1998; from Guinea-Conakry and Canada, Lawrelynd Bowin, Swimming in a Red Sea, 2018).
Contradiction #2: mothers’ wish to resist but inability to do so (e.g. from Eritrea via Germany, Uschi Madeisky, dir. Die drei Wünsche der Sharifa: bei den Kunama in Eritrea, 2000; from the UK, Janet Fyle, executive dir. Our Daughters. #EndFGM animations, Woven Ink, 2018 ; and from California, Jeanie Kortum, Stones, 2018).
Contradiction #3: supply and demand, a vicious cycle for cutters: loss of honor and income in retraining; temptation in an economy of scarcity to bend to demand (e.g. from the USA, Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992; from France, Linda Weil-Curiel, Exciseuse, 2006; from Sierra Leone and Norway, Kadidiatou Suma in Mette Knudsen, dir. The Secret Pain, 2006).
Contradiction #4: initiating womanhood by disabling sexual response (e.g. from Kenya and NY, Nick Mwaluko, WAAFRIKA 1 2 3. 1992. Kenya.Two Womyn Fall in Love, 2016.)
Painting and sculpture, equally multifaceted media, offer a paradoxical advantage in their muteness. Literature uses words; the absence of explicit language from visuals stimulates altered mental activity. Confronted with an image, a viewer invents the story, making meaning from clues oppositional artists have planted, especially important where literacy is low. Avoiding pitfalls of directness, canvasses and marble convey, with dignity, all the horror of the act, encompassing humanity’s complicity in this massive, ancient and tenacious tragedy. In sum, art and artists are welcome accomplices in efforts to end FGM and should find support in universities whose curricula include them and their work.
This introduction prefaced a paper delivered during an Inter-African Committee symposium at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, on 10-11 May 2016. “Why favor and support the arts to advocate against FGM? The role of university curricula.
On April 14, 2022, in Kampala, I’ll have the great pleasure of seeing Hilda Twongyeirwe again, co-editor with Violet Barungi of UnCUT/VOICES’ book, Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation(2015). An expanded version with new contributions to FemRite’s collection called Beyond the Dance, Taboo is, in the words of Professor Joy C Kwesiga, Vice Chancellor of Kabale University, “part case study and part literary art [whose] down-to earth approach demystifies … [the] subject by representing the points of view of both victims and ‘executors'” (from the back cover).
The introduction by Rebecca Salonen (below) offers an edifying glimpse into the inspiration that led Mary Karooro Okurut, founder of FemRite and former cabinet minister (in the office of the Prime Minister), to pen an autobiographical novel devoted entirely to the excision theme. Her explicit aim? To end the ‘torture’.
The Switch is a thriller. Its Foreword by UNFPA Country Representative Esperance Fundira reminds us that “story-telling is a powerful tool … to mobilize citizens against … injustice,” (3) and FGM counts as a profound violation of human rights. A kidnapping opens the tale: Daisy, the beloved only child of Chelimo, the Minister of Culture, is seized, not for ransom, but to be excised by force in a gesture of revenge and hubris. Her captor claims leadership of a society to maintain cultural cohesion by opposing governmental efforts to stop the cutting in Kapchorwa. On learning of her daughter’s capture, the Minister grows wild with anxiety but also resolve that her offspring be spared the travails excision had visited on her, and while the search is on, Chelimo takes stock of biological facts and psychological challenges. Among her misfortunes due to the knife are a still-born child, vesico-vaginal fistula, excruciating pain of intercourse, and a broken marriage to an upright man who only gradually finds his wife’s handicaps more than he can bear.
Rebecca’s Salonen’s ‘Introduction’ to Taboo describes the real-life model for the heroine, Chelimo.
Rebecca Salonen, Introduction to Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation
Even if you are involved in international female genital mutilation activism, you probably have not heard much about FGM in Uganda. Among the 28 African countries where female ‘circumcision’ is performed, Uganda stands near the bottom of the FGM-prevalence list, around 5 % or less. This does not mean that female genital mutilation in Uganda is not a problem, but only that the Pokot, Tepeth, and Sabiny (Sebei), out of Uganda’s 50-plus indigenous ethnic groups, practice FGM. These three groups live in remote and seasonally inaccessible regions on the eastern border with Kenya, where there are few casual visitors. Until recently, FGM was the lot of every girl in these societies, however, and the type of excision was very severe. Depending on the inspiration, ability, or eyesight of the circumciser, all of the external genitals are traditionally cut away. Most other Ugandans are horrified by the practice, and Parliament enacted the Prohibition of FGM act in 2010, so the public ‘circumcision’ ceremonies are disappearing, and the cutting is now being done secretly, in the dark.
I learned about female genital mutilation in Uganda almost by accident. In 1998, while I was visiting Kampala, a friend introduced me to Hon. Jane Frances Kuka, a Sabiny who was then Minister of Gender. She had famously escaped being circumcised by staying in school. When her opposition to the practice became too troublesome, in 1988 the elders bought rope and planned to tie her up and mutilate her by force. She escaped to Kampala and returned by helicopter with the Minister for Women, who suggested the elders give up compulsory FGM. Later, Hon. Kuka was elected to the women’s seat for Kapchorwa in Parliament.
Hon. Kuka invited me to visit her home town of Kapchorwa during the 1998 ‘circumcision’ season to attend Culture Day, a festival created by Uganda’s Reproductive, Educative and Community Health (REACH) project which had been launched in 1996 by the United Nations Population Fund to combat female genital mutilation. In 1998, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, arrived by helicopter at the mountaintop town. Standing in the bed of a truck, he delivered a speech to the thousands of Sabiny people gathered at the Boma Grounds for Culture Day, urging them to abandon their fiercely defended practice of female ‘circumcision’. Others spoke as well, including leading elders, some of whom stood in front of the president and, to our surprise but apparently not to the president’s, announced their determination to continue their traditional practices. Later that evening, visitors and Kapchorwa dignitaries gathered at a celebration dinner. After listening to some congratulatory speeches, a community leader rose. Looking squarely at the visitors, he said forcefully that the Sabiny did not need anyone from New York or London to come to Kapchorwa and tell them what to do about female ‘circumcision’.
That night, locked into our compound near Sipi, we lay awake in our beds hearing the sounds of ‘circumcision’ in the darkness: Feet marching on the roads, bells and whistles, singing and drumming that lasted all night long. At breakfast the next morning, as we looked out at the magnificent Sipi Falls plunging into the chasm below our lodge, our hosts told us how many girls had been cut at dawn. We wondered if any had died. The same ceremonies would continue for weeks, long after we had returned to our safe homes in the West. There was nothing we could have done. We were the people from New York and London whose views were irrelevant.
After returning home, a few of us formed the Godparents Association. We raised the funds to pay school fees for Sabiny girls (later also for Pokot girls, who are also at risk for ‘circumcision’) to help them stay in school and avoid being cut, as Hon. Kuka had done. Over the years, we have sponsored hundreds of girls in secondary schools, and a number have completed university studies and master’s degrees. All of them have avoided FGM, defied cultural expectations, and taken new paths in life that do not require them to be cut. These are the young women who will help to transform their culture.
The book you are reading is a collection of the stories of girls and women who have firsthand knowledge about female ‘circumcision’ in Kapchorwa and elsewhere. Each story is valuable because it is authentic and unique. Although FGM is no longer the secret that once seemed unbelievable to people in the West, there are many hidden aspects that underlie the persistence of the practice. Some of these are revealed by the women who speak in these pages – witchcraft, coercion, intoxication. Unlike the young women we have sponsored, most of whom have hair-raising tales about escaping forced ‘circumcision’, many of the women in these pages (and even the circumcisers) did not have a choice and were forced into FGM.
We do not know exactly how many Ugandan women have suffered female genital mutilation or how many hundreds of girls are being cut every year. No census taker goes door to door in the mountains or pursues the migrating Pokot pastoralists to count the ‘circumcised’ women in their households. Eventually, once the aid funding is exhausted and the papers are written, the people from New York and London always go home. But the Sabiny will remain on Mt. Elgon, coping with the divisions and differences among them since their ancient practice became of interest to outsiders. Only they can stop female genital mutilation on the mountain.
WOMEN’S ACTION AGAINST FGM, JAPAN (WAAF) 2–4–12 Rokkodai, Matsudo, Chiba 270–2203, Japan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org URL: http://www.jca.apc.org/~waaf/
THANK YOU to Mitsue Ohi, Nina Raj and the members of WAAF for their welcome recognition of Khady’s humanitarian initiative.
Although Japan may seem distant to both Africa and Europe, we’ve had each other’s backs for more than a decade. An early member of WAAF, Sachiko Mitsumori joined FORWARD in Germany where she was active for several years before returning to Hiroshima. She met Khady, president of the EuroNet FGM, when our 2012 annual meeting took place in Frankfurt and then introduced me to her group in Tokyo. In fact, at the Inter-African Committee triennial conference in Dakar, Senegal, in 1997, I had first been made aware of a Japanese delegation, but it would be another fifteen years before our friendship bloomed. In the meantime, professional links have evolved. For instance, Sachiko Mitsumori, who has published the first book on Alice Walker in Japanese, contributed a chapter to my book Waging Empathy on Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992). Walker’s translator into Japanese, Yumiko Yanagizawa is also a member of WAAF and provided an interview for my preface. Khady, meanwhile, was translated into Japanese — and 17 more languages.
Founded in 2006 by Khady Koita and Els Leye, La Palabre, the awardee, aims to defend the human rights of vulnerable populations, especially children and women, with emphasis on education and training. It opposes inequality, racism, and violence including FGM.
Among its first moves on the route to equality, it founded a school in 2007 and, to assure street children a better future, it welcomed them to the Mame Diarra Diallo centre, launched in 2008. Mame Diallo Centre also shelters women and girls who have suffered violence, thereby joining a growing number of safe houses for those courageous souls who flee excision. Its residents benefit not only from refuge but also psychological and legal counseling as well as professional training. In 2016, AIME, L’Association International de Mobilisation pour l’Égalité enhanced its support. Visit <aime-ong.org>
Keep up the good work, Khady! You’re an inspiration to us all.
I’ve seen In the Name of Your Daughter at least four times in various venues, including at Harvard and in London. Invited by Sarah Champion MP and Preet Gill MP, the cineaste Giselle Portenier introduced her film in the Jubilee Room of the House of Commons on 7 February 2019. Announcing the event as a “Parliamentary Screening of ‘Defying the Cutting Season’,” Westminster attracted prominent NGOs in the UK whose representatives were exhilarated by the visual history of a challenging and successful intervention. I highly recommend it. The April 26, 2022, online screening, hosted by Susan McLucas of Healthy Tomorrow and Sini Sanuman in Mali, includes a discussion afterward with ample time for Q & A.
When I first lectured on FGM in 2006 as a Visiting Scholar at Brandeis, Susan McLucas attended my presentation. I was then in the planning stage before launching UnCUT/VOICES Press which has enjoyed Susan’s total support since its founding. She notes about Portenier’s film: “In the Name of Your Daughter is inspiring and thoughtful and we would love your help letting people know about it.”
Healthy Tomorrow is a local group that supports the work of Sini Sanuman, an NGO in Mali that fights FGM. You are cordially invited to contact Susan if you’d like to participate in her group’s activities to stop FGM. You can be assured of a hearty welcome.
But I ask: can anyone resist? Can a child refuse marriage? Can a girl evade ablation? Only with unusual courage, at significant cost, and a wellspring of maturity far beyond her years.
After all, even if insisting on delayed consummation until the first menses, societies that permit pre-pubertal female marriage don’t believe in childhood, not unlike medieval Europe where childhood didn’t exist either, nor did rape. We need only remember the “droit du seigneur” or “the right/rite of the first night” when the baron could ‘deflower’ brides before serf-grooms could. I mention this to obviate Entfremdung, that is, alienation impeding empathy that requires similarity. To be clear: customs in phallocratic African societies resemble patriarchal traditions elsewhere.
Thus, childhood, the concept of an innocent, protected, and naïve phase of life, is a modern invention that emerged in embryo post-Renaissance in Europe. Boys, too, remained under the patriarch’s thumb, and all the more so, girls.
Why? Due to the gift of a vulva and its ability to create life. In my view, the patriarchy’s fear of autonomous female sexuality magnified by conflation of females with property under the usurped governance of males underwrites both customs – child marriage and FGM.
INFIBULATION STONEevokes in no certain terms a European ‘tradition’ whose remnant can be seen in official Museums of Torture, namely the ‘chastity belt’. The whiteness of the stone highlights gender as a concept while it mutes race, thereby striving to include all women independent of differing hue. Classified by WHO as type 3 FGM, infibulation is the most severe form of genital assault and makes sense only in a context of gender inequality. Although vaginal stitching is the dominant form of FGM in the Horn of Africa, it is practiced by certain minorities in Nigeria.