On 8 November 2010, during a symposium on polygamy, Khady and I presented at Brandeis University where, yesterday, I enjoyed a board meeting of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute as it transitions to a new director in 2017. The ‘old guard’ vividly remembered Khady’s presentation, offering an opportunity to share an excerpt from her (sadly) still relevant memoir.
In addition to a chapter titled ‘Polygamy,’ Khady addresses the abuse in her conclusion focused on campaigning — and success. Here’s the passage that brings bad news but also good …
From Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny. Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights. Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010.
… GAMS always works cooperatively with local African associations. If a family in France proves unreceptive to our arguments, our colleagues in Africa take over. Some parents continue to excise girls on holiday, and, with considerable nonchalance, bring them back, thereby evading French law. They check luggage at the border but not girls. How could we handle this?
When a baby is born in France and not (yet) excised, a few judges and prosecutors may, if they so desire, subpoena parents. It’s our job to alert the authorities to suspicious cases. I want so much to guarantee to girls born into immigrant families in Diaspora treatment exactly like French girls whose heritage goes way back. Both groups must benefit from the same protective legislation which punishes neither tradition nor culture but simply the crime of mutilation. “Tradition, culture!” These were our opponents’ only arguments when our campaigns began. Every time we would bring up the topic for TV debate or elsewhere, insulting phone calls were sure to follow. Today, things are different. I’m always gratified when people tell me, “I saw you on TV, sister. It’s a good thing you’re doing. Keep up the good fight. We’ve got to stop a tradition like that!”
I’ve been hearing these kinds of remarks, however, only in the last couple of years …
I believe our struggle will end excision, but polygamy is another matter. Not only is it broadly accepted but also considered the man’s due!
Back home, a husband would think twice before abandoning his wife who, if she were rejected, would probably be “recuperated” by the family that had given her in marriage. But without financial independence, in urban housing, with distance, isolation, and multiple births, the African woman in Diaspora has a hard time surviving. Even if many men assured us: “I don’t need welfare to feed my kids,” government subsidies remain substantial.
I remember a certain family: the man had two wives and fifteen children, ten of whom were pupils when the school asked me to intervene. Both mothers told me at the time – it was 2002–: “We can’t access the money because welfare payments go directly into his account. He’s also taken a good part of it to visit his third wife in Africa where he’s been for three months. But school is starting, and we’re broke. What he left is hardly enough for the three oldest ones.”
It’s easy enough to do the math. Multiply welfare by ten plus the additional sums given for school supplies at the start of the academic year, and you can be sure that back in the village, that husband is living well.
Surely something can be done to prevent such situations. If only those polygamous men drawing money from the system would invest it in their wives’ education or simply take proper care of their kids! But no. Too many use it for a second or third wife to humiliate the first one.
I believe the government is not doing its job on this front. Then again, to achieve women’s rights all over the world, there’s just too much to do.
In July 2003, African countries signed the Maputo Protocol, an addenda pertaining to women attached to the Charter for Human Rights. It’s a magnificent document and if really applied one day will improve the lives of African women. It affirms equality, condemns violence against women and censures traditional practices damaging to health of which genital mutilation and forced marriage are two.
Regrettably, some countries that signed the Protocol still haven’t ratified it. At present five signatures are needed before it can enter into force but those hesitant nations require cultural exemptions. … I could say “to each to his own,” but opposition flies in the face of a clear international will to end women’s submission. Emma Bonino has launched a campaign to lobby not only for ratification of the Protocol but also for its application by all signatories and especially the indecisive.
I am involved in these efforts. Since 2002, I have been president of the European Network for the Eradication and Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation (EuroNet – FGM). The organization grew from a 1997 networking meeting in Sweden co-sponsored by the International Center for Reproductive Health and GAMS. Consolidation followed in 1998, thanks to the University of Ghent in Belgium, the association ATD Fourth World, and the Somali women’s organization of Gothenburg together with the city’s immigration authority. EuroNet FGM facilitates cooperation among NGOs at European level to increase efficiency and improve immigrant women and children’s health by fighting harmful traditional practices, in particular genital mutilation and forced or early marriage.
Young women regularly join our ranks. As for the old guard, we’re impatient waiting for male politicians’ good will, not to mention the good will of men, period.
Sacrificial lambs obliged to expose our private lives, we have been the first immigrant wives to suffer domestic violence and community pressure. From my experience I can assure you, I was sometimes forced to quasi-extort a husband’s permission to enroll his wife in literacy classes. Most men were opposed, and if I always succeeded, I don’t know by what miracle. We created the network to build on this kind of success.
Now, these same women campaign for themselves against excision. And some do more: the absence that stalks us leads some to seek reconstructive surgery offered by a heroic urologist who has perfected the technique. “If the clitoris had not been removed what would I feel?” many ask. But to access a time before cutting you have to face the knife again, and for this, you must be psychologically prepared. You may forget the scar from time to time, but the blade always brings back that ancient haunting ache.
It must feel very strange when the vanished part returns.
I’ve talked to some young women who have been “restored.”
The first one who came to confide in us at GAMS really made us laugh. “I’ve got a clitoris!” she declared. “It works! It goes vvvrrrrr….”
At twenty, she has a boyfriend and her whole life ahead of her. Others have come to see us since and more will follow.
But let’s beware of suggesting that restorative surgery eliminates the problem.
Reconstruction is not the answer. The answer lies in total eradication of the practice. Laws alone, however, won’t suffice even when they exist.
In the Sudan, for instance, infibulation has been outlawed since the 1940s but FGM continues today. Why? Many African heads of state fear what one called “emotional reactions from certain religious leaders or minority groups.” Such resistance must be broken. Imams and griots should join us, not oppose us.
For if God made us as we are, why destroy a perfect work?