Had you been in Soweto on June 16th, 1976, –forty years ago today –, you would have been awed by about 10,000 children, girls and boys, risking their lives in a ‘long march.’ The two-week protest to improve their schooling was disrupted by government bullets, killing hundreds and injuring far more. To enable our remembering the importance of children’s rights and especially the right to education, in 1991 the Organization of African Unity designated June 16th as the Day of the African Child.
The struggle to enhance learning goes on, and teaching about FGM is increasingly important. But how can it be taught? What curriculum promises the most? Among strategies of choice, art is a privileged medium.
Somali author and educator Hibo Wardere, for instance, encourages her pupils to draw and paint their feelings when confronted by this painful topic. Community Mediator for Waltham Forest, Wardere brings the abolition message into UK schools, sensitizing pupils and staff at primary and secondary level. Breaking the silence — FGM is never mentioned at home — Hibo highlights danger signals. Is your classmate at risk of being taken abroad for FGM? she asks. It’s getting close to holiday time. Is she nervous, fidgety? “I tell my own story in graphic detail,” Hibo told us at an FGM symposium at Lady Margaret Hall last year. “Three women come to your house and hold you so tight you can’t breathe. … I was screaming for my mum but all she said was quiet, be quiet, the neighbors will hear.” For Hibo, girls (and boys) should learn about the cutting. Why? In order to refuse. “They have the right to know and to say ‘NO’,” she insists.
But June 16th commemorates not only South African children’s courageous march to learn – their saying ‘no’ to the ill they endured. It is surely serendipity that June 16th is Bloomsday, too, the twenty-four hours in 1904 when renowned Irish author James Joyce, in Ulysses, traces his hero’s steps through Dublin into the concluding chapter ending in Molly Bloom’s bed with her famous affirmative words – “yes I said yes I will yes.” Scholars devote their lives to this ‘seminal’ text, appropriate to mention here as the nadir of genital assault. For the knowledge that sexual pleasure, — jouissance –, exists stokes the rage at its destruction.
The illuminating, liberating medium was discussed at the vernissage which took place on June 6th as artist and curator Godfrey Williams-Okorodus reported how, once he’d begun to paint symbolic scenes protesting FGM, the topic wouldn’t let him go. Holger Postulart, of Global Alliance against FGM (Geneva) told a similar tale. Not an artist himself, he and associate Elisabeth Wilson founded an association to promote use of the arts – including music and literature – to address the emotional levels of meaning attached to FGM; they brought the canvasses displayed at Lady Margaret Hall to the Human Rights Council and, in Switzerland and France, are also promoting a Chair in female genital mutilation studies. Similarly, Maggie O’Kane, recipient of British Journalist of the Year and Foreign Correspondent of the Year awards and head of the Guardian Global Campaign to End FGM, showed how media, acting on a pioneering understanding of the dialectical relationship between reporting and creating news, sponsored a poster competition among schoolgirls in Kenya whose prize-winning billboard was broadcast nationwide. Art, of course, benefits not only viewers but equally creators. Naomi Rosen, Alexander von Humboldt Fellow, described her research into trauma therapy, drama, and FGM as these unstudied but increasingly deployed approaches are implemented by healthcare and NGOs. And finally, Kaddy Touray (Oxford Against Cutting) introduced a key initiative in Oxford which, among many activities, encouraged pupils from age 13 to take up their brushes and easels. From workshops teaching the subject and relevant “campaigning skills,” a booklet emerged “to help professionals start conversations with girls at risk of FGM.” In addition to writing copy, students “ran an art competition,” determining criteria, themes, and winners. [See http://oxfordagainstcutting.org/schools-champions/cheney-school/%5D
To my knowledge, the paintings and sculpture on display at LMH represent the first of the world’s art exhibitions aimed at hastening the end of FGM.
Origins of the Exhibition and FGM in Nigeria. In the 1980s, Nkechi Nnaji, age five, underwent ‘female circumcision’. No simple ‘cut’, the damage was so severe that, while her peers attended school, she was hospitalized, time and again. Advertising executive Joy Keshi Walker met the suffering girl, then age 12, and was so moved by the ‘financial, physical and emotional torture’ she had borne that Joy ‘vowed then and there to do what [she] could’ to end the ‘rite’. A specialist in visual communication, the social entrepreneur approached Sam Ovraiti, principal lecturer in painting and drawing at Auchi Polytechnic in Auchi, Nigeria. Could he gather students to attend a seminar in which Joy would teach them about FGM? There Joy and artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus joined forces to create this exhibition.
Why art? A paradox, the aptness of the medium lies in its non-verbal, multi-sensory appeal, especially suitable in an environment where not everyone can read and while confronting a controversial issue as painful and dangerous as FGM, able to trigger flashbacks not only in the excised but also in the audience. Emotional impact can indeed be great but may also turn into constructive resolve. The first display in Lagos in October 1998, consisting of 80 artefacts hosted by the Goethe Institute, attracted politicians, diplomats, students, the press, as well as victims, by-standers, parents and girls. Its appeal to decision-makers, too, has been significant. Shortly after the exhibition travelled to a number of regions in Nigeria, two states abolished the practice, and recently, former president Goodluck Jonathan, in his last act in office, banned FGM for the nation as a whole. Given Nigeria’s 120 million people –the most populous African country–, where few of the ca. 250 ethnic groups are free of clitoral excision, Nigeria may account for as much as 25% of FGM worldwide.
When the exhibition moved to Germany, it was welcomed by Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, then Cabinet Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2000, it attracted the attention of MP Christine McCafferty preparing to welcome passage of the renewed Female Genital Mutilation Act in a joint session of the Houses of Lords and Commons. On 22 November 2000, a selection of paintings displayed here at LMH were shown in Parliament for celebration of the enhanced legislation opposing FGM.
Once returned to Germany, the artworks travelled between 4 February 2000 and 26 February 2006 to more than 65 venues. They were displayed in federal, state and local ministries of health or city halls in all major urban centres. Expo 2000 presented the pictures; the GIZ – German counterpart to DFiD – invited the exhibition twice; women’s groups and civic organizations also found the canvasses appropriate, not only in raising awareness but in stimulating commitment to act. Most adept at breaking taboos, artists share their impressions, calling on intellect, feeling and heart. As Joy Keshi Walker resumes, art ennobles. About FGM, it is also about the artist, the viewer, and a future free from a harmful traditional practice that slows development, inscribes inequality, and causes untold suffering to generations of girls. The end is overdue.
If you are in or near Oxford, join us TONIGHT at Lady Margaret Hall, first in the Chapel, then in the Deneke Common Room, where canvasses address this millennial custom, break the omerta, and confront the viewer in a complex, nuanced way with one of the key on-going scourges of our times. The pictures detail aspects of the ‘rite’ as it has been and, sadly, continues to be practiced in Nigeria.
Tonight’s program includes Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen offering a narrated tour of the artwork followed by discussants Comfort Momoh MBE, FGM/Public Health Specialist; Hilary Burrage, sociologist and author; Nolan Victory, Equalities, Diversity & Human Rights Manager, London North West Healthcare NHS; Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, OBE Rights in Exile Legal Aid; Dr Sharon Dixon, Donnington Medical Partnership in Oxford; Dr Phoebe Abe, Dr Abe Foundation and Fatou Ceesay (Oxford Against Cutting). Dr. Maria Jaschok, Director of the International Gender Studies Centre at LMH, will welcome you.
Finissage 16th June 6:30 p.m. in the CHAPEL, then in the DENEKE COMMON ROOM from 7 p.m. Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford
 Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists: Confronting Female Genital Mutilation. Exhibition Catalogue. Vernissage in the USA. 6 April – 15 June 2006. Women’s Studies Research Center. Brandeis University.
Resources include Twitter: SupportGuardian@EndFGM