Another story-teller telling Tashi’s story: novelist Verena Stefan hears the children cry

Although no one knows the origin of FGM, few would advance that the custom dates from the era of the dinosaurs. And yet … On Friday evening, November 8, 2013, Frankfurt’s Senckenberg Natural History Museum hosted the Ingrid Gräfin zu Solms-Wildenfels Foundation’s twentieth anniversary reception. The fund rewards accomplishment in medicine and human rights, the first human rights prize in 2002 having recognized my efforts to end FGM.

At the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt am Main

At the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt am Main. 

Not far from the triceratops with a brontosaurus towering nearby, Renate von Köller, a local Zonta president, and I are discussing Sherry Hormann’s Desert Flower. The film about Waris Dirie, the Somali model and first renowned FGM victim to go public with her wounds, had attracted a full house the previous Monday to the German film museum. … Suddenly, an astonishing lack of incongruity between the venue and our subject hit me, and it seemed as if the skeletons, their longevity and size, symbolized what is most intimidating in genital assaults, hard as FGM always is to confront. But these monsters, dwarfing us, shaped my emotions  and inspired feminist discernment.

Those who perform FGM have power; those who undergo it, mainly little girls, do not, and the torture teaches them to fear. Humbling and, indeed, sexually blinding them, it happens only because they are girls. Since I, too, have been a little girl, it could have, or would have, happened to me. “There but for fortune,” Joan Baez laments, we go, witnesses to the blades we can imagine. Leyla Hussein affirms, “I have been mutilated because I am a woman … and I have to live with that for the rest of my life.”[1]

Leyla Hussein, founder of Daughters of Eve, at a panel discussion following performance of "Muted Cry" by Abdirahman Yusuf Artan in London, 9 February 2012.

Leyla Hussein, founder of Daughters of Eve, at a panel discussion following performance of “Muted Cry” by Abdirahman Yusuf Artan in London, 9 February 2012. Photo Tobe Levin

 

For years before and well into the nineties, the effects of genital torture on the mind had generally gone unheeded.[2] When Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy appeared in 1992, it had been mainly authors of novels and memoirs expressing psychological effects, less so anthropologists or, ironically, members of the medical profession.

But emotions like fear or pride motivate all sides, supporters and opponents alike. And passions such as these are the clay that creative writers shape.

In Tough, Wild and Free. Images of Girls in Literature (Original: Rauh, wild & frei. Mädchengestalten in der Literatur, 1997) Verena Stefan, who analyzes stories, includes Alice Walker’s Tashi in the company of feisty youth like Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John or Audre Lorde’s young self in Zami. Yet, in the study’s catalogue of figures from German, French, British and American fiction grouped under headings like “Eager Fire” or “Street Sisters,” only Walker’s heroine enjoys a category all her own called “Why was the little girl crying?”

The girl, now as Tashi, is crying in the novel at the death from excision of her older sister Dura; now as M’Lissa, she weeps for the exciser’s younger self; and then as Amy, a white woman from the American South, whose clitoridectomy at age five brings mourning projected onto a depressive son, his affliction recognized as really hers only after he kills himself.

Author Verena Stefan

Author Verena Stefan

In “Mutilation of the Vulva and Circumcision of other Female Freedoms — or the Perfect Vulva’s Aura and Revolt” in Waging Empathy, Stefan looks at such intergenerational trauma occasioned by FGM and  asks “why … the little girl [was] crying.” She thereby honors sensitivity to children’s pain and, like Walker, admires Tashi whose “resistance is the secret of” – we might also say, the key to—“joy.” Despite the shattering nature of her wounds, Tashi seeks wholeness through action, symbolic to be sure, but on the way birthing a movement. Goal-oriented, determined, and courageous, the heroine covers continents to eliminate cutters. “As a symbol,” Stefan writes, “her act [of murder] strikes … tradition at its core which is women’s betrayal of girls through social control. Tashi can no longer bear women’s cowardice, she says, even if she understands the exciser as merely the long arm of the village elders, a tool of the patriarchs.”

The Global Alliance against FGM with Hubert Postulart, Prof. Charles-Henry Rochat, Elisabeth Wilson and Godfrey Williams-Okorodus after a colloquium on fistula, May 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland. The team privileges art in its campaigns.

The Global Alliance against FGM with Hubert Postulart, Prof. Charles-Henry Rochat, Elisabeth Wilson and Godfrey Williams-Okorodus after a colloquium on fistula, May 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland. The team privileges art in its campaigns.

A counter image emerges from The Color Purple, not of treachery but of support. Observing Miss Celie’s sexual duress Shug teaches her anatomy, where to find the clitoris, fondly called the button, and what it’s for. Unlike cutting cultures’ pain, Celie is inducted into pleasure, and Stefan concludes: “The image of mutual sexual exploration characterized by seeing, recognizing, and passing the new knowledge on is a foil to women’s betrayal of girls. The ‘circumcision’ ritual presents an intimacy shared between [an older female generation and a younger one], but it is the intimacy of horror: women observe and touch a girl’s sex only to mutilate it.”

Concerned with this complicity, Stefan finds it in the silence smothering bereavement. Yet she also sees it challenged in Tashi’s quest to unify her warring mind. By replacing the victim’s hopelessness with psycho-therapy and art, Tashi “fights back,” heaving the brush for twelve long hours to excavate her terror. Ripping open the crust that had contained her mental illness, Tashi “holds the tool, the brush, and labors, just like the hand of the exciser had held a knife and labored.” Insufficient paper cannot support “the overwhelming cock” whose portrait soon covers her host’s entire wall. “Despite nausea, she paints herself out of schizophrenia and into integrity, retrieving the little girl who wept and with her, the shock that tears had sprung.” Finally grasping the immensity of loss, both of her sister and her soul, she is at last enabled to recover her audacity.

As new studies show, “after reading literary fiction people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”[3] If activists deploy a military lexicon, we also learn from warrior girls with the courage to reveal their trials and from stories of passion to stop FGM.

Translations from the German by Tobe Levin. See also, just in: http://www.salon.com/2013/11/10/the_cost_of_sexual_shame/?source=newsletter  

 

 

 


[1] Talking to journalist Rachel Johnson. “66,000 girls mutilated – and we’ve let them do it!” Mail Online. 9 November 2013. Web. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/columnists/article-2495861/RACHEL-JOHNSON-66-000-girls-mutilated–weve-let-it.html#ixzz2kMbmQhpJ Retrieved 12 November 2013.

[2] With exceptions. Italian researcher Pia Grassivaro Gallo authored an early study that asked infibulation victims to draw what came to mind concerning what they had endured. They drew monsters.

 

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3 responses to “Another story-teller telling Tashi’s story: novelist Verena Stefan hears the children cry

  1. Pingback: Another story-teller telling Tashi’s story: novelist Verena Stefan hears the children cry | Statement on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

  2. Thank you Tobe for this blog. I thought while I was reading that FGM belongs with the dinosaurs too- extinct! But truly you are correct that it seems there is a lot of power to give up when giving up FGM, both women and men. But I hold onto hope.

  3. Pingback: Telling Tashi’s story: Novelist Verena Stefan Hears The Children Cry | No FGM (UK)

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