As tears interrupted Aminata’s story, Alice Walker gently placed her hand on the refugee’s arm. In Warrior Marks (1993), a film by Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker, the African American activist and author was interviewing the first woman to ask the government of France for asylum on grounds of FGM.
Diop’s mother had been “chased from the village,” the then 21-year-old wept, because, it is thought, “if the daughter is bad, the mother must be bad.” Aminata’s offense? Refusing female genital mutilation in her native Mali.
The year was 1991.
Due to ill health, and fearful because her best friend, “excised on a Thursday,” had died the following Sunday, Aminata had managed to evade many cutting seasons by remaining away at school. But the threat had finally caught up with her: a fiancé made marriage depend on sacrificing her appendage. He would be ashamed, he said, to take a wife who had not shed her clitoris. Despite their shared affection, “he didn’t even try to understand,” Aminata tells Alice when asked if in fact her boyfriend knew what excision was and, especially, how much pain it caused. When the reluctant bride refused the knife, “he abandoned me,” she testified. “Not once did he come to see me.”
Sneaking away at night, she convinced an aunt in Bamako to help. A Belgian airlines flight took the escapee to Paris where attorney Linda Weil-Curiel achieved a partial victory: Aminata was allowed to remain, though without asylum. She had been the first woman to claim her right of refuge; the French didn’t want to set a precedent.
As Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond OBE of the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, points out, international human rights legislation already makes gender-based violence grounds for asylum but consider, she said at our FGM Workshop at Lady Margaret Hall, how governments would respond if genital torture sent flocks of women to apply. That should be an incentive to invest in stopping FGM!
Ending excision and infibulation is of course the long-term aim. The short-term challenge is convincing a reluctant and ill-informed judiciary that individual asylum seekers are telling the truth. Credibility must be proven; proof requires arduous research undertaken by a “country of origin” expert so that a well-documented case is built up. Does the applicant’s ethnicity perform FGM? Would she be ‘captured’ and forced on return? Can she find sanctuary elsewhere in her country? How is the judge to be convinced?
Here’s where Country of Origin Information Experts come in. They usually have advanced degrees, are intimate with the ethnic groups in question, understand the applicant’s worldview and can identify strong beliefs, fears, social norms, status claims, economics and other pressures that uphold custom and hold back abolition.
But where are they?
Not readily to hand where they should be: among university faculty and researchers. Their absence results from discouragement of interest and thus a lack of attention to ablations of girls’ genitalia. Google the concept ‘female genital mutilation studies’ and, at best, suggested courses may mention ‘female genital cutting’ — which is not the same as thorough research.
Mutilation is the medical term for amputation of a healthy organ.
A different grasp of the subject informs preference for euphemism. Not necessarily backing abolition, in explicit cases ‚FGC ‘ proponents use ‚female genital surgeries‘, condone medicalization or even defend the practice.
When Alice Walker published Possessing the Secret of Joy in 1992 – the first novel by an author of world renown who placed FGM at the heart of the story– and when, with Pratibha Parmar, Walker produced Warrior Marks in 1993, she was savagely critiqued in the USA by articulate African women academics whose opposition set the US movement in the nation back two decades. Cultural relativism trumped empathy and common sense.
As a result, students have been dissuaded from studying or writing papers on FGM. More than once have I heard colleagues say, I’ve had to rule out FGM as a topic in my courses. Why? Ironically because of the amount of interest it generated while the professor felt – and was – ill-prepared. After all, professional societies accepted but rarely sought conference contributions on the theme, and few careers have been advanced by devotion to sparing little girls.
The aftermath manifests in a paucity of experts, yet asylum seekers need support – one among many reasons why the International Gender Studies Centre at the University of Oxford is promoting research on FGM and, in support of the Refugee Studies Centre, asking where existing experts are.
Are you a scholar familiar with ethnicities that practice FGM? Are you willing to offer your knowledge in support of a woman fleeing FGM? If so, please go to http://www.refugeelegalaidinformation.org or contact Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Rights in Exile Programme <firstname.lastname@example.org> and see http://www.refugeelegalaidinformation.org/female-genital-mutilation-grounds-seeking-asylum.
For historical background on the backlash against Alice Walker resulting in dissuasion from studying FGM, see the introduction in Tobe Levin, ed. Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and the Global Movement to Ban FGM (Frankfurt: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2014). (Discounted copies of the book are available directly from the publisher. Email email@example.com)