“Five miserable looking women are huddled into the room by police officers.They have been charged with causing the death of … a 17 year old school girl. One woman is the mother, the old woman with thick glasses is the grandmother, it was she who took the razor blade, the other three are neighbours, they had come to sing and rejoice. They did not intend to kill her, the mother had loved her. She was the grandmother’s favourite grandchild named for her. That is why she wanted to do what was best for her, turn her into a woman. They said she wanted it, too.
She bled and bled, they tried to stop the bleeding but they didn’t know how, and she couldn’t stop bleeding. They ran around in panic in the village trying to find someone with a car who could take her to the distant hospital, but there was nobody and she continued bleeding. She bled until she couldn’t bleed any more. She was dead.
The state wanted a psychiatric assessment. They were sane and of sound mind.
As they turned to leave the grandmother tried to open the window instead of the door. She was called back, her vision was tested. She had undergone cataract removal, even with the glasses she could only see shadows. She was almost blind.
After they were taken away, I thought about the faceless girl whom I had never known. She was probably strong, healthy. I thought of all the things she might have done, gone happily to school with her friends, played net-ball, laughed all the way to the river as she went with other girls to fetch water. And she died such a senseless death.” (13-14)
My friend Dr. Anna Muthoni Mathai penned these insightful words that capture the entrapment and heartbreak binding unwitting actors in an infernal social script they did not write. Recording field notes in her diary, the physician and former FORWARD – Germany board member, now at the University of Nairobi, had been on loan to rural psychiatric clinics in Kenya to explore attitudes toward FGM and was reporting back to her sponsor, the German Society for Technical Cooperation, Inc., then called the GTZ (Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit).
In 1999, the GTZ published Einschnitte [Incisions] Materialband zu [Documentation on] Female Genital Cuttings (FGC), edited by F. Diaby-Pentzlin and E. Göttke [GTZ: Eschborn]. The collection, a mélange of testimony, creative writing and research results, informs German development workers about the practices comprising FGM, for despite the title’s use of the disputed term “cuttings,” “texts make no attempt to convince anyone that the practice should be stopped. On that point, general consensus reigns.” In other words, without a doubt, the human rights violation — FGM – must end.
How to end it, however, is the question. The essays answer by entering “the minds of those in favor, confronting conservatism on its own ground.” Yet caution is advised. Ethnographers tread a fine line between observation of a harmful tradition and tacit approval of it.
Sections in the documentation suggest where fine lines may lie. Part 1, “It’s only women’s pain” reflects the trivialization of women in male-dominant cultures, including of course our own; Part 2, “Why does this practice continue?” cites numerous rationalizations perpetrators offer; Part 3, “Body and Identity” explores aesthetics, femininity, and pressures to conform; Part 4, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights” finally makes claims and Part 5, “Where Good Practices Begin” shares several promising projects.
Sadly, this research from nearly two decades ago, including Mathai’s poignant account of an FGM fatality, remains relevant. Muthoni’s field notes could as easily describe an event in 2014 as they did in the mid-1990s. FGM continues endangering lives and thereby – I’m sure we agree – violates human rights.
Yet, even when life goes on, the specific abuse of girls’ genitalia falls under the aegis of today’s commemoration. Declared by the UN as International Human Rights Day, December 10 is dedicated to abuses of women (and men, girls and boys) on many fronts but certainly includes indignities incurred as a result of FGM.
On November 28,, 2014, the American Graduate School in Paris, accepting the UN’s commemorative mandate, hosted an international colloquium. My contribution “On FGM. Cause, consequence, and key to abolition” found the fulcrum in African leadership. I introduced the Inter-African Committee and the Bamako Declaration as well as UnCUT/VOICES Press to an audience nearly 200 strong. English solicitor, NY lawyer and gender advocate Lorraine Koonce Farahmand opened the event with a powerful delivery of numerous forms of violence that affect women worldwide. Having answered her invitation, “policy-makers, diplomats, international lawyers, scholars, human rights activists, and journalists” considered how best to approach, and end, the global scourge of aggression aimed mainly at women and girls. The illustrious podium seated representatives of the Council of Europe (Carolina Lasén Diaz), UNESCO (Angela Melo), CEDAW (Violeta Neubauer), the Embassy of Austria (H.E. Ambassador Ursula Plassnik), the Chief Crown Prosecutor of the UK Crown Prosecution Service (Nazir Afzal, OBE), American Graduate School in Paris faculty, The New York Times (Marlise Simons), NGOs such as CAMS (Linda Weil-Curiel), others and me.
Helpfully, FGM was embedded among many forms of violence. Speakers offered alarming statistics, in one case from the CDC which mentions upwards of 66,000 annual cases of rape in South Africa measured against 1000 convictions; or Russia where domestic violence kills 14,000 women each year. Germany, we heard, reveals one-third of girls physically abused before age 16. And the list goes on. Fortunately, the Istanbul Convention is an agreement with teeth, holding its signers accountable for government preventive action, and although cultural norms require respect, “they never excuse a crime” (Farahmand). As Nazir Afzal OBE insisted, “Prosecution must be used” to counter “gender terrorism.” And, the Crown prosecutor added, “The state should not let women down” where ethnic sensitivity competes with rights.
This is Khady’s position in Mutilée as well. Translated into English as Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (2010), Khady undergoes excision and then, having just turned fourteen, is forced to marry an immigrant sanitation worker who brings her to Paris. Facing marital rape night after night, she gives birth to five children in as many years. And then her husband imports a second teenaged wife. Fortunately, Khady had completed the 7th grade and knows how to write but most of her friends from Senegal are illiterate. Nearly all are also without private means, dependent on the generosity or meanness of spouses who control the purse-strings. Many men disapprove of birth control and beat wives they discover taking the pill, creating intolerable living conditions.
These abuses – FGM; forced child marriage; marital rape; economic dependency and lack of reproductive rights – were, indeed, deplored and denounced. As abstract nouns, however, they appealed to reason, not anger. But rage is surely reason where child abuse is concerned. As Khady reveals:
The fourth or fifth in line, I was seated, … trembling at every howl, my entire body strained by the agony behind the wall. Then two women caught me and dragged me inside. One took hold of my head, her knees crushing my shoulders. The other clasped me firmly by the thighs and spread my legs … Using her fingers, the exciser grasp[ed] the clitoris and … whacked it off like a piece of zebu meat. … Often, she can’t hack it off in one go she’s obliged to saw. (10)
Having felt like her “frame had been hacked in two,” Khady laments, years later she still hears herself howling.
Multiple variants exist, of course, but basically, this is what FGM is. This is what critics prefer not to discuss. This is even what timid – some might say, cautious–, advocates of abolition want to hide – because, you agree, it is just too terrible.
An emotional issue par excellence, female genital mutilation remains a neglected human rights abuse partly because it is so distasteful, the memory suppressed by victims, the facts too vile for outsiders to grasp, and the fear that revealing them will incite latent racists.
None of these, however, can excuse inaction, and certainly not on the part of scholars trapped by reverence for an illusory neutrality.
For what Khady and Muthoni’s girl suffered was wrong, and the academy, with the rest of the world, should no longer fail to acknowledge it.
Photo credit: Alyssa Barylotti
 You can find them online in a special issue of Feminist Europa. Review of Books on FGM: http://www.ddv-verlag.de/issn_1570_0038_FE%2009_2010.pdf Search Anna M. (Muthoni) Mathai …
 The name was changed to the GIZ, Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, like US AID or the UK’s DFiD (Department for International Development).
 FE FGM p. 68. http://www.ddv-verlag.de/issn_1570_0038_FE%2009_2010.pdf
 “It’s only women’s pain” contains a mélange of poetry, field notes, interview and straight-forward reporting, thereby mustering the fullest range of language choices, from the strictly scientific to the emotional. To start, Somalian Dahabo Elmi Muse’s famous poem on the three feminine sorrows introduces a female perspective followed immediately by Ahmed, speaking for Sudanese men. “The thought of hurting someone I loved so deeply caused me great discomfort,” he admits (11, back translation). Ahmed charges most husbands with indifference to wives’ pain and their own. The morning after the wedding night not infrequently sends the couple to the hospital, both wounded. “A friend’s penis had been rubbed raw…” (11).