On FGM: UN Human Rights Council Session 17, High Level Panel, Geneva, Switzerland, 1 June 2011

On FGM and the ARTS
Dr. Tobe Levin

Good afternoon. Without doubt, this is an historic occasion and I thank the organizers, my co-panelists and especially Lois Herman for bringing us together. As a professor, a publisher and an activist, I will focus on my experience in Germany, the arts and their role in raising awareness of an egregious human rights abuse.
Fiction, poetry, memoir and film are my arsenal of choice, for FGM is, as we know, a deeply anchored practice. Where is it rooted? In the emotions, so that reasoning about it goes only so far. Let’s dwell for a moment on the passions. Those who practice FGM fear the consequences of not doing it – mockery, exclusion; and desire the benefits they see accruing from it – inclusion, respect. Those against it rage at the signals it sends of women’s weakness, and extrapolate to vulnerability like their own while empathizing with girls under the blade. We quake to acknowledge that “there but for fortune…”
Victims’ testimonies elicit a physical reaction. Consider how you feel when Khady tells you: “… the exciser grasps the clitoris and stretches that minute fragment of flesh as far as [she can]. Then – if all goes well – she whacks it off like 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 hear myself howling.” [Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny. Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights. Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt/Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010.]
What does your stomach do when seven-year-old Fadumo Korn conveys her confrontation with
A witch. She was most certainly a witch.
The old woman began to empty a pouch and spread out her utensils: a little sack of ash, a rod, a small metal container with herbal paste, thorns from a bush, and elephant hair. She broke a razor blade into two halves. Her lids hung heavy over both eyes, and I asked myself whether she could see what she was doing. She grasped the rod, trimmed the top end, and slipped the razor blade into a slit. Then she wrapped sisal cord around the instrument. It looked like a little ax.
I wanted to scream. I wanted to run away.
But I didn’t want to bring shame on my family. [Fadumo Korn. Born in the Big Rains. A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. Trans. and Afterword. Tobe Levin. NY: The Feminist Press, 2006.]
What do you feel? Terror? Admiration? Helplessness ? Entrapment? Anger? All of the above.
In 1975, Benoȋte Groult wrote, « ça fait mal au c… n’est-ce pas, quand on lit ça. On a mal au cœur de soi-même. » It hurts down there, doesn’t it, merely reading about it, and your heart aches.
Sometimes hearts do more – they stop. Once, when first confronted with the subject, a young man from East Africa fainted on the marble staircase in Darmstadt’s City Hall. FORWARD – Germany was opening an exhibition of paintings by Nigerian artists against FGM, and although none of the panels is particularly gruesome, the total impact proved overwhelming. This natural empathy should be enhanced, I suggest, as people’s feelings about the subject turn them in one of two directions: most often toward indifference – literally, torture is a subject you can’t stomach–, but some toward a commitment to act.
This sense of obligation emerged in Germany in 1977. Because the history is not well known; because it elevates the arts; and because the story is also mine, I’ll tell it here, paraphrasing now from my edited book _Empathy and Rage. Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature_. … TO BE CONTINUED …

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