Female Genital Mutilation: aren’t the HUMANITIES the answer?

Olubunmi Temitope Oyesanya. The Scourge. Oil on Canvas. 2008. Chosen for the cover of the exhibition catalogue, Vrouwen, een Leven vol Pijn. Genitale verminking; Een kunstzinnige confrontatie.

Olubunmi Temitope Oyesanya. The Scourge. Oil on Canvas. 2008. Chosen for the cover of the exhibition catalogue, Vrouwen, een Leven vol Pijn. Genitale verminking; Een kunstzinnige confrontatie.

As activists, social scientists and, especially, donors concerned with FGM agonize over casualty counts whose numbers, over decades, remain unconscionably high, they may be overlooking something obvious that holds great promise: creativity in the arts. That means stories, drama, film, poetry, song, dance, personal (experiential) narrative, novels, radio plays, soap opera, even ‘real’ opera and the visual arts – painting, drawing, and sculpture. Given how central expressive arts are to daily life in many parts of Africa, this knowledge gap is truly alarming.

Waging Empathy, on one level an academic book of literary criticism, devotes itself to explicating the fifth novel by one of America’s most distinguished authors (namely Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy); on a second level, however, it celebrates this very special fiction for breaking new ground in  indexing the subject – FGM — in (nearly) all its aspects: political, ethical, medical, economic, psychological, somatic, aesthetic and more. Taken together, the creative product of professional writers and laypeople alike, mainly in Africa but also outside, is popular and widespread, but its precise use in the struggle to alter awareness has been severely under-researched.

Now, scratch any one of the thousands of opponents of FGM and you’ll find an educator. There is no doubt that the mantra, education, is the default position of the movement. But what works better to reach a target audience than the marriage of education and entertainment, or edutainment, the coinage that best expresses what we should be doing, addressing the emotions in aesthetic forms  designed (like advertising) to persuade.  Indeed,  already happening widely in African grassroots’ efforts to stop FGM, where is the funding for creation, performance and research in the arts?

Olubunmi Temitope Oyesanya. The Young Prey. Oil on canvas. 2008.

Olubunmi Temitope Oyesanya. The Young Prey. Oil on canvas. 2008.

If the emerging field that is named on the back cover of Khady’s Blood Stains – Female Genital Mutilation Studies – reaches maturity, its heart would be creative writing, and financial support would back those initiatives in Africa and the Diaspora that are producing plays, telling stories, publishing memoirs, making films, and thereby feeding our thirst for a potent brew of ethics and suspense. Literature works, after all, by generating personal involvement and sustaining empathy.

The Chinese character for reading or reciting 念 is inspiring these comments. Comprising the present 今, itself composed of a roof and a hand, and the heart 心, it is generally explained in terms of bringing back or preserving the past, but to me it means something more. Rather, it tells me how the act of reading a good book, seeing a gripping drama, or studying an expressive painting functions: you are secured, embraced, cushioned, held tight, seduced by the spell of immediacy into a sense of the fullness of life and of your dwelling therein. With your soul in the creator’s palm, you are comforted – even when terrified– because proxy emotions are under your control. You can close the book, flip the switch, leave the theater – or the market square –, but you have at least learned, with both heart and mind, to understand, in the specific case of Walker’s novel, what FGM is all about.

In her chapter in Waging Empathy, “Walker’s Traumatized Woman Warrior in Possessing the Secret of Joy,” Elisabeth Bekers writes: “By expounding Tashi’s lifelong struggle to come to terms with her infibulation, Walker documents more extensively than any of the other works in my broader study [Rising Anthills: African and African American Writing on Female Genital Excision, 1960-2000] the physical and psychological devastation” that female genital mutilation inflicts. One of  few literary critics to have researched the ablation of girls and women’s genitalia in creative writing, Bekers has uncovered how the image evolved over the last four decades of the twentieth century “in response to changing attitudes about ethnicity, nationalism, colonialism, feminism, and human rights. [She] discerns a gradual evolution in fiction— novels, plays, and poetry.” In the 1960s, blades against girls were often deliberately obscured, embedded in lovely language (e.g. Flora Nwapa’s “the bath”) but emerged to the forefront of awareness in the 1990s, abetted by “a much broader,  international context of women’s oppression and the struggle for women’s rights” (Review of Anthills in Feminist Europa p. 95-96).

There is indeed a dearth of psychological studies. Scholars that come to mind include Dorin Strenge and Alice Behrendt in Germany and Gillian Einstein in Canada. Einstein has compared brain scans of FGM victims, patients surgically treated for cancer of the vulva and Multiple Sclerosis sufferers and found similar disruptions in neural pathways. Strenge and Behrendt focus on violence. Although a sample of 47 Senegalese women is small, Behrendt with Steffen Moritz conducted a study in Dakar over three months in the spring of 2003 – a decade ago – and uncovered shocking results:  “All but one circumcised participant remembered the day of her circumcision as extremely appalling and traumatizing. Over 90% … described feelings of intense fear, helplessness, horror, and severe pain, and over 80% were still suffering from intrusive reexperiences [sic] of their circumcision. For 78% of the subjects, the event was performed unexpectedly and without any preliminary explanation.”  To reach a psychiatric diagnosis, Behrendt and Moritz used the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview. Their findings? That “almost 80% of the circumcised women met criteria for affective or anxiety disorders. PTSD was particularly highly presented (30.4%). In the group of uncircumcised women, only one subject fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for an affective disorder.” Should anyone be surprised?

This clinical idiom is rendered in sensual human terms by Walker’s pen. Readers of Possessing the Secret of Joy empathize with the protagonist; she becomes ‘real’ in the imagination so that her mental illness and recovery find a place in memory and thus become part of our knowledge about FGM. As Bekers points out, Tashi’s trajectory resembles that of other heroines in novels concerning excision, especially Calixthe Beyala’s Tu t’appelleras Tanga (1988) and Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero (1983), who tell their tales. “The act of narration positively contributes to Tashi’s psychological development, particularly her recovery from partially repressed traumas. By narrating her story, verbally and through painting, Tashi is not just, as El Saadawi describes her own writing process, retrieving ‘the missing parts’ of her memory and ‘making it more holistic’ (1999, 9); she is also effecting a ‘psychological catharsis’, as is not uncommon in trauma narratives (Henke 1998, xix), and restoring her own personal health or wholeness.”

As Giulia Fabi counters elsewhere in Waging Empathy, Tashi’s choice to die does not lend itself to seamless approbation. To set an example of personal extinction is of questionable use when a leader is called for. Yet the blend of impotence and agency in a woman facing the firing squad creates a striking symbol deciphered by the waiting crowd that acts by unfurling a banner to translate Tashi’s gesture into words: Resistance is the secret of joy.

If, as Bekers points out, “Tashi’s recovery through narration is made difficult by the fact that a deaf ear is turned to women’s suffering, on both sides of the Atlantic,” an execution is surely one striking way to command attention. A newsworthy event, it inevitably calls for an explanation, one that a trial also affords. Thus, as Bekers notes, Walker situates “female genital excision in a context of worldwide misogyny,” so that the truth of what was done to Tashi, and what Tashi did, reverberates beyond the borders of a single nation, or a single book.

Postscript:  In allegiance to positions on FGM taken by the Inter-African Committee, No Peace Without Justice, and the EuroNet-FGM, the only published book in the field of literary studies that surveys a broad range of creative writing about female genital mutilation to analyze and discuss the role of the arts in ending the practice is Levin, Tobe and Augustine H. Asaah, eds. Empathy and Rage. Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature. Banbury, Oxfordshire: Ayebia, 2009. (I base the following claim on the fact that, in several university library catalogs but most significantly in the Hollis catalog at Harvard University, ONLY Empathy and Rage comes up when “female genital mutilation” AND literature are entered as subject search terms in a quest for books — not dissertations —  in all languages. See http://hollis.harvard.edu/?itemid=|library/m/aleph|012001311. Moreover, sadly, other literary studies that look at ‘female circumcision’, ‘excision’  or ‘cutting’ – not the same topic as FGM – can also be counted on the fingers of one hand.) One additional text on female genital mutilation in literature is devoted to Walker’s book alone: Schneider, Marion. Alice Walkers Possessing the Secret of Joy. Eine Auseinandersetzung mit der weiblichen Genitalverstümmelung. Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag, 2008. It has not been translated into English.

Finally, the recently published play by Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko with a Foreword by Ginni Stern. WAAFRIKA. 1992. Kenya. Two Women Fall in Love (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES, 2013) exemplifies creativity in the interest of a world free from FGM. In enacting the complexity of this issue, Mwaluko’s chef-d’œuvre, like Walker’s, leaves no stone unturned.


Behrendt, Alice and Steffen Moritz. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Memory Problems After Female Genital Mutilation.” Am J Psychiatry 2005;162:1000-1002. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.162.5.1000. Web. Retrieved 21 September 2013.

Bekers, Elisabeth. Rising Anthills: African and African American Writing on Female Genital Excision, 1960-2000. Madison: U. of Wisconsin, 2010. Print.

Henke, Suzette A. Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing. NY: St. Martin’s P., 1998. Print.

http://www.learnchinesewebsite.com/learn-chinese-characters-read-recite/ Web. Retrieved 21 September 2013.

Rev. of Bekers, Elisabeth. Rising Anthills: African and African American Writing on Female Genital Excision, 1960-2000. Madison: U. of Wisconsin, 2010. Pp. 95-96 in Feminist Europa. Review of Books. Special Issue on FGM. http://www.fpz-berlin.de/uploads/Feminist%20Europa_2011.pdf Web. Retrieved 21 September 2013.


4 responses to “Female Genital Mutilation: aren’t the HUMANITIES the answer?


    I have enjoyed reading this. I am a Prof. of Literature in Kenya and i am researching on FGM as depicted by African male writers


    One of my Ph. D students has just completed her thesis on Drama as therapy for FGM trauma. As a promoter of performed arts for edutainment, i do agree the humanities are a great solution.

  3. Dear Professor Wangari Mwai, Thank you so much for your supportive comment. I am looking for literature professors in Kenya (Nigeria and Ghana) who would like to teach Khady’s Blood Stains, making it part of their syllabus, in high school or university. Donors are paying for the books in batches of ten. I’d also make the offer for the play WAAFRIKA though you would need to consider carefully on what level of education it might be appropriate. It is certainly a good choice for your graduate Student! Please Keep in touch. Best wishes, Tobe Levin

  4. Professor Wangari Mwai, Do you know my essay (book chapter) on Ngugi? If not, I can scan and attach to an email. And I wouldlove to learn about the results of your research. Best wishes, Tobe

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