“I can’t put into words what I felt at that moment. A fire burned between my legs. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I hopped about a little. You couldn’t call it dancing. I was one of those said to have a timid nature. I was puny, exhausted and distressed. During that monstrous jiggling that seemed to go on and on and on under the watchful eye of several matrons, I suddenly had the impression of a tornado swirling around me. The storm broke. And after that, I don’t remember anything. I had fainted.” (1)
The quote appears in Undoing FGM, novelist Hubert Prolongeau’s biographical account of the pioneer in clitoris restoration, Dr. Pierre Foldes. Privileging his patients’ words, Dr. Foldes stands firmly behind the theme of this year’s Zero Tolerance Day, to outline responsibilities of medical professionals. First is of course … Do No Harm. The injunction sounds straight-forward. It isn’t. Campaigns to end FGM in Africa began by appealing to logic: genital wounding, like smoking, can be devastating to your health. It can kill. Therefore, as a reasonable person, you will understand the harm and stop.
FGM hasn’t stopped. Instead, it is being medicalized, that is, imported into clinical settings, (and in some places, like Egypt, at an alarming rate), mainly in response to the trauma of FGM committed in the raw. The thinking goes, if the big OUCH is the issue, let’s use Novocain. Unsanitary instruments? Sterilize them. Accidents occur because the girl fights back? Knock her out first.
So what happens then? Less harm? Wrong. The few studies we have show a tendency to take more tissue, sew more tightly, leave the inert, torpid victim with a pretty scar — not disfigured by infection – covering over more ample amputations.
The indignity of FGM and violation of sexual rights is erased. Yet isn’t this precisely where the conversation ought to start?
FGM is an emotional issue. It is an economic, human rights and feminist issue appropriately housed in gender and masculinity studies departments. It involves a toxic mix of motivations, from respecting tradition to desiring beauty, from honoring Mother and Father to wanting community harmony – or community escape.
It is also nowhere near as foreign as you may think if you were not born into societies that cut. One of its most puzzling aspects concerns the women who perpetuate it. To understand why they do, let’s consider loveliness.
Nigerian artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus in “The Urhobo Bride” aptly associates amputations with enhancement of beauty and desire. Four elements stand out in the bust of a serene woman with harmonious sensual features: the same passionate crimson triangulates full lips, beaded necklace, and fat flower. The single discordant element is a razor that adorns her right ear – the instrument aestheticized as jewellery. The same elision of disfigurement and fashion also frames the portrait: ten palms beckon to the viewer, most tattooed with plant life but one with a blade. Here Williams-Okorodus anticipates the “truth” most challenging to advocates: women’s emotional attachment to the damage, justified as pain in the service of beauty. As the French say, “Il faut souffrir pour être belle.”
This does not make FGM resemble cosmetic surgery because the former is forced on children, but it does suggest a powerful motive for supporting it. FGM is (also) an issue of aesthetics — and gender identity. I often ask my audiences to envision the following. Tomorrow morning, each female in the class, a bit like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, wakes up with a full beard. What’s the first thing she’ll do before showing her face? Right. She’ll shave and then, if possible, she’ll high-tail it to the nearest clinic for some medical advice. An amplitude of facial hair has just destroyed her femininity, made her suddenly less of a woman according to embedded ideas with which she/ we have been brought up.
As Nura Abdi so poignantly notes as a refugee in Germany finding out for the first time that not every woman is ‘circumcised’: “In Somalia you talked about gudniin in lovely language, as you would about good fortune. Yet here I was, surrounded by people who reacted to it with horror. … They behaved as though I had been the victim of a crime, as though it were shameful to be circumcised – whereas I had always believed, circumcision made me clean.” (2) That is to say, a feminine woman. … As Simone de Beauvoir so famously phrased it, “Women are made, not born.” Fortunately, the Clitoris Restoration Fund, a project taken on board by the EuroNet-FGM, favours bodily integrity, and you can be sure, patients who get their clitoris back won’t take it off their girls. The horror really can end here…
Tax deductible contributions may be transferred to FORWARD – Germany working closely with the EuroNet FGM (please don’t forget to note Clitoris Restoration Fund): FORWARD – Germany, Frankfurter Sparkasse IBAN DE 20 5005 0201 0200 0293 98 SWIFT-BIC.: HELADEF1822 … In the USA you can contribute by check noting Clitoris Restoration Fund mailed to Healthy Tomorrow/Sini Sanuman, 14 Williams Street, Somerville, MA 02144.
And as today IS February 6, I take pleasure in sharing UnCUT/VOICES’ board member Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté’s IAC press release.
Health bodies demand zero tolerance on FGM by all health personnel and pledge to be at the forefront of the generation where FGM ends
EMBARGO: 00:00 (GMT), FRIDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2015
CONTACT: Inter-African Committee, Africa Hall, Menelik Avenue, P.O Box 3001, Addis Ababa
Dr Morissanda Kouyaté, Inter-African Committee (IAC), firstname.lastname@example.org, +251 911 8085 70
ADDIS ABABA, 6 FEBRUARY 2015. Today, as we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), spearheaded by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC), a coalition of leading health bodies are committing to mobilise their members and use their spheres of influence to accelerate an end this extreme form of violence against women and girls around the world.
FGM is an extreme human rights violation that has no medical benefits, but has dangerous health consequences. Every year, three million girls are at risk and, in some countries, FGM procedures are increasingly carried out by health personnel. This ‘medicalisation’ of FGM is one of the biggest threats to its elimination.
Health personnel are supposed to protect rather than cause harm. They are tasked with providing care and support and are usually the trusted first points of contact for women and girls. Many health personnel are already leading advocates for ending FGM and provide excellent care, but we need a final push to make sure that every single professional comes on board.
Recalling the UN General Assembly Resolution on FGM, the International Federation of Genecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM), the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) join the IAC, the Africa Coordination Centre for Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (ACCAF), The Girl Generation, Forma, FORWARD and Equality Now, to urge:
- All health personnel to fully adhere to the Hippocratic Oath and their obligation to protect the health and well-being of their patients, which includes not performing FGM.
- Regulatory bodies in all countries to ensure that health professionals do not promote the medicalisation of FGM.
- Health personnel to not only protect girls at risk of FGM, but also provide physical, psychological and emotional care and support to survivors.
- All health professional bodies to ensure that FGM care and prevention are part of their training and education programmes.
‘’During the regional workshop for health professionals, organised by the IAC in 2009 in Nairobi, a strong African Health Workers Network was created for accelerating Zero Tolerance to FGM. The commemoration of February 6, 2015 is an opportunity to further engage this important network. Fighting FGM is part of the improvement of the health of women and girls.’’
– Dr Morissanda Kouyaté, Executive Director, IAC
Also recommended: http://statementonfgm.com/
(1) Hubert Prolongeau. Undoing FGM. Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2011, 17-18.
(2) excerpt from Nura Abdi & Leo Linder. Tränen im Sand. Bergisch-Gladback: Lübbe, 2003. Trans. Tobe Levin