Female Genital Mutilation and the Arts: Rich Resource in the Fight to Stop It

Stones cover as jpeg (2)

On 10 December 1948, the United Nations general assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This key achievement gives wing to advocates who fervently aim to prevent FGM – female genital mutilation. The mission of UnCUT/VOICES Press is to accelerate this end by publishing books – eight so far – whose authors are activists, scholars, novelists, witnesses and survivors; their words deserve the broadest readership, especially in courses at colleges and universities. The absence of a field devoted to ‘female genital mutilation studies’ is a blot on the record of higher education’s concern for human rights. As an affiliate of the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, I urge introduction of the topic into college curricula taught by scholars whose ethical approach frankly desires to improve the lives and health of ‘prisoners of ritual’. Slicing off girls’ genitalia is not, as some insist, an ‘act of love’, but the fact that it happens despite the deepest bonds between mother and child shows the complexity of the abuse which needs attention from all fields in order to be understood.

Jeanie Booklaunch

On 9 September 2017, Jeanie launched _Stones_ at a gathering whose generous donations to the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK charity #1169186) we acknowledge with profound appreciation.

Even if the social sciences, medicine and law now offer extensive bibliographies on the issue (minus the welcome synergies were an actual field of study to exist), one superior source of insight has yet to be developed. Departments of English and Comparative Literature offer fertile ground for exploration of the dense causality elusive to capture in the language of reports. Let’s take Jeanie Kortum’s novel Stones, for instance. Among the latest literary efforts, this brilliant, lyrical tour de force marrying the mystical and empirical is the first tale I’ve encountered since Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy that places female sexual mutilation, as the French call it, at the heart not only of the story but also of human history. My Foreword points out how, like Flaubert’s claim that “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Jeanie’s witnessing through the imagination elicits empathy from the broadest readership. After all, so overdetermined is this ritual abuse that abstractions, as in social science and policy discourse, fail to capture the issue’s convolution with the nuance of good fiction. As Jeanie has written in the San Francisco Chronicle, an excision to which she was exposed while living with a hunter-gatherer group traumatized her – she poignantly remembers her impotence observing the girl’s effort to escape, the child’s tenacious fight, and her giving up only when forced. That was thirty years ago. The emotional turmoil stayed with Jeanie until she released it onto the finely-honed pages of Stones. This is the first co-imprint in which UnCUT/VOICES has collaborated, a cause for celebration.

Fortunately, Jeanie’s novel isn’t alone among genres addressing FGM, even if humanities scholars in the field remain rare. That’s one reason why, at the University of Oxford, we’ve held a series of collegiate encounters – two in 2017 among six since 2014 – that brought multiple disciplines together, each time focusing not only on fields of obvious concern like medicine and law but also on the arts. At the most recent workshop, “’Elephants in the Room’ — Hurdles and Hope for Ending FGM” on 17 November 2017, creative solutions were addressed.

According to the Concept Note, although political, legal and medical approaches to FGM rely heavily on facts, it can be argued that FGM’s defenders might benefit more from emotional appeals to end it. The Inter-African Committee (IAC) regularly mentions theatre. Alternative Rites of Passage show that the celebration can continue without physical assault. And research such as “If this were your face, would you leave it as it is?” or “With an antenna, we can stop FGM” – the former, a book chapter evoking the aesthetic fondness for infibulation, the latter analyzing a popular Arabic soap opera in the Sudan – suggests that story-telling holds untapped potential. The persuasive benefit in genres that social scientists tend to undervalue include memoir, e.g. Waris Dirie, Desert Flower series; Khady, Excisée/Blood Stains; Nura Abdi, Tränen im Sand; Hibo Wardere, Cut; Soraya Miré, Girl with Three Legs; novels, e.g. Jeanie Kortum, Stones; Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy; Fatou Keïta, Rebelle (Ivory Coast); comic books; soap opera; TV and radio serials (Call the Midwife); full length feature films (Ousman Sembène, Moolaadé; Sherry Horman, Desert Flower); music videos (e.g. produced by Susan McLucas and Sini Sanuman in Mali with the nation’s famous pop stars; Integrate UK’s #MyClitoris

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/06/bristol-anti-fgm-video-is-an-online-hit; also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fq6v-kIcG_Y); plays (i.e. WAAFRIKA); shadow puppets (as sponsored by Terre des Femmes in West Africa); targeted advertising (Terres des femmes, FORWARD UK), commercials in cinemas; culinary and sartorial creativity (i.e. vulva cupcakes) and pageantry. Research by Sarah Penny and Naomi Rosen into drama therapy for trauma, bringing the unspoken into the open, reinforces this hypothesis of an underutilized resource. Painting, too, is both communicative and restorative. The Guardian Global Media Campaign against FGM, Oxford against Cutting, FORWARD-Germany, and IGS, for instance, have displayed canvasses and sculpture against FGM and/or orchestrated art competitions. In NY, Lagos, and elsewhere, Leyla Hussein recently promoted Jason Ashwood’s photography featuring survivors. Posters also remain understudied, and although this list is far from exhaustive, we have few monographs focusing specifically on the humanities and arts in campaigns against FGM. This deficit should be addressed, and what better time to organize than on December 10, Human Rights Day?

If you are interested in joining a virtual group to explore FGM and the Arts, please email me: tlevin@fas.harvard.edu



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