Breaking the Omerta on FGM. Reflections on Mothers on Mothering Sunday

Mothering Sunday, or Mother’s Day in the UK, falls three weeks before Easter. The tradition dating from the sixteenth century encouraged the dispersed young to return to villages of birth for a family meal that broke the fast for Lent. A simnel cake with marzipan icing often expressed gratitude to women who raised children.

The role of mothers in perpetuating FGM, however, is one of the thorniest aspects of the subject. How are we to understand this particular ‘act of love’, as a Dutch educational film of the early nineties famously called it? The following anecdote meanders toward an answer.

In fall 2004, had you been at Mt. Holyoke College researching FGM, you could hardly have found yourself on more fertile ground. That term prizewinning Senegalese film-maker Ousmane Sembène was on campus, invited to present the first full-length feature film against, in the cineaste’s words, “female genital mutilation,” Moolaadé, introduced by Samba Gadjigo, Sembène’s translator. That same semester, renowned Egyptian physician and novelist Nawal el Saadawi offered a 6-week colloquium at Smith. Twice in South Hadley, these two giants of African resistance to the harmful custom came together. Their message to avid attendees was unequivocal. African leaders and allies alike must break the omerta – the secrecy – that smothers action to end FGM.

Painting and Poem (on FGM)

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. Painting and Poem (on FGM) Oil on Canvas. 2011

My role as an Associate of the Five Colleges Women’s Studies Research Center included making speeches on FGM. One, on October 7, 2004, early on in the semester, attracted a trio of bright Somali students – let’s call them Amina, Nadija, and Ayan (not their real names). The three, having found my presentation “awesome,” invited me to address the African and Caribbean Students’ Association and to form a study group. Weekly we met to discuss films and readings; we also prepared to spread the word. “What would be better than peer-to-peer encounters,” Amina proposed, “the three of us college students visiting local high schools?” Great idea, I thought. They would bring their cultural sensitivity to the theme. Soon, Northfield Mount Hermon invited us; Amnesty International’s campus group would sponsor.

On December 3, 2004, in Northfield, I gave the speech alone. What had transpired in the meantime? Thanksgiving intervened. The girls, having gone home to Minneapolis, returned with a message from their mothers. “They don’t want us working on this issue,” they told me with considerable regret, “and they forbid us to make any speeches.” “Why?” I asked, though assuring them we wouldn’t – couldn’t – go against their parents’ wishes. “The community is tight-knit,” Nadija explained. “Word would get back and embarrass them.”

Embarrassment is one reason why, in Diaspora, the theme is hushed, though no discomfort accompanies revealing it ‘back home’. In Somalia and other cutting cultures, if performed but NOT disclosed, mortification ensues. Why? For the many reasons the custom prevails. An over-determined behavior, genital ablation is policed by overlapping insistent beliefs, feelings, and fears.

Which beliefs? One rarely discussed but important motive behind mothers’ actions is aesthetic. “Il faut souffrir pour être belle,” the French contend, and any number of constraining customs, advocated and advanced by women, come to mind. Simply glance out the window at the four to five-inch spikes and think not of footwear embroidered to encase the Chinese lotus, for instance, but of sartorial genres closer to home, like corsets or, though not quite as bad yet not known for comfort, the bindings of my adolescence, girdles.

This is beauty in the service of utility, a means to the end of attracting a spouse.

But beyond utilitarian, the judgement – what is beautiful? — is emotional, not rational; and the difficulty lies in that the lovely is defined by culture.

In Aman. The Story of a Somali Girl, amanuensis Virginia Lee Barnes describes the protagonist having inadvertently observed a white woman giving birth. “When I saw that,” Aman notes, “I thought, they’ve got a lot of cow pussy…” (1)

The notion of scalpels slicing the genitals of children should upset us; but a boom in the services of Harley Street surgeons – or visiting a German sauna – tells us that attractive vulvas are domestic, not foreign, ‘exotic’ desires, and mothers who want them for their girls aren’t unlike us. After all, as Simone de Beauvoir notoriously wrote, women are made, not born, and gender identity includes an ideal beauty.cropped-uncut-logo-godfrey.jpg

Consider the following analogy. Inspired by Kafka’s Gregor Samsa who fell asleep as a human being and awoke to find himself a bug, suppose you slumber through the darkness to awaken – if you had lain down a woman- fully bearded. Think a youthful Santa Claus. The ensuing gender dysphoria would be overwhelming, and before leaving the house, you would shave. … After all, a full-furred face obliterates the gendered self. Whiskers aren’t womanly. Nor in cutting cultures is a clitoris.

As Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf notes, “As far as adherents of the practice are concerned, an uncircumcised female is not a woman. Because of the nature of this belief, its effects on consciousness cannot be underestimated.” (2) Or as Fadwa El Guindi phrases it in an essay about “Female Circumcision Among Nubians in Egypt”: “’Had This Been Your Face, Would You leave It as It Is?’” (3) Cultures where the contours of private parts are public may be challenging to some of us, but feelings for ugliness or beauty that fuel support for FGM can resonate.

To quote another  French author, Madame de Stael: “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” To fully understand is to forgive.

Not quite, but the dilemma of the mothers should be seen for what it is: coercion under patriarchy and emotional attachment to concepts of beauty their cultures gave them in their youth.


1 Virginia Lee Barnes, Janice Boddy. Aman. The Story of a Somali Girl. NY: Random House, 1995. P. 280.

2 Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, ed. Female Circumcision. Multicultural Perspectives. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania P., 2006.

3 Fadwa El Guindi. “’Had This Been Your Face, Would You leave It as Is?’ Female Circumcision Among Nubians of Egypt.” In Female Circumcision. Multicultural Perspectives. Ed. Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania P., 2006.

THANKS to Godfrey Williams-Okorodus for the paintings above.



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