On Zero Tolerance to FGM Day: “Unbitten Tongues” — A Festschrift (book of honor) for Efua Dorkenoo OBE (1949 – 2014).

Streep etc“Many have written of genital mutilation and … denounced it … [as] an extreme abuse of human rights. Like slavery and apartheid it is unacceptable. How can we stop it? By talking about it with angry, unbitten tongues. By never forgetting about it, and by not letting the issue slide back into obscurity now that we have learned of its pervasiveness and tenacity.”

Appropriately mordant on this International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, the quote from Natalie Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography, 1999, p. 88) reminds me of a similar, uncompromising stance Efua Dorkenoo took from the moment we met in 1980. In a review of Dorkenoo’s Cutting the Rose, I wrote: “Having the same claim as European youth to bodily integrity, girls of African descent should also enjoy equal protection under the law, and Western governments’ failure to prevent … children’s genital mutilation, even if due to a misunderstood multi-culturalism, can also be seen as racist. … This insistence on prevention, monitored by anti-racist coalitions” is the backbone of Dorkenoo’s point of view. [1]

I first met Efua a couple of years after a 1977 article in the German feminist magazine EMMA triggered my ire against FGM. In the meantime, in 1978,  Awa Thiam, ‘notorious’ author of La parole aux négresses, invited me to join her for coffee on Boul’ Mich to talk about founding CAMS (Commission pour l’abolition des mutilations sexuelles, managed at present by Linda Weil-Curiel). Learning that Efua (then Graham) planned to launch FORWARD, I reached out. She introduced me to Scilla McLean (later Elworthy) co-author with Efua of Female Genital Mutilation. Proposals for Change (1980). [2] Thus, convinced that the nascent movement’s Diaspora leaders in the UK and France would benefit from each others’ ideas, I invited Efua, Awa, and several activists from Germany to meet in Paris where I served as interpreter. So here we are, youthful once again, in the photo left, l to r, Awa Thiam, Efua Dorkenoo, Dagmar Schultz [3]; and in the photo right, l to r, Awa Thiam, Efua Dorkenoo, Sigrid Peicke [3]. Photo credits: Tobe Levin.

Although the anglo- and francophone activists lacked a common tongue, the Parisian rendez-vous fed mutual regard for which my photo album provides a number of reminders. In the early 90s, for example, I stopped by fairly often to see Efua in Covent Garden’s Africa Center. Tobe Efua photo credit RosaMy then six-year-old daughter took this shot in 1993.

Later that year, Efua and I shared a room in Vienna for the World Conference on Human Rights, 14-25 June 1993, where famously if belatedly, women’s rights were recognized as human ones as well.

We met again in 1997 in Dakar at the Inter-African Committee’s triennial convention. With Efua beside me, I’m reading a statement from INTACT, in that year the only Tobe next to Efua in Dakar IAC 1997German NGO devoted solely to ending FGM. With Efua having left FORWARD to head WHO’s new global campaign, INTACT had asked her successor at the helm of FORWARD, Comfort Ottah, to keynote their 1996 inaugural event. The following year, at Efua’s unrelenting urging, I co-founded FORWARD – Germany, e.V. and a new Fatoumata Tobe Efua Schlosshotel Kronbergera began. In the photo left, Efua is our guest at FORWARD – Germany’s formal dinner welcoming the Honorable Fatoumata Siré Diakité, the Ambassador from Mali to Germany, who took office in 2006 and remained an active member of FORWARD – Germany throughout her five-year tenure in office.

Yesterday  Faith Mwangi-Powell, chief executive of  The Girl Generation, distributed an astounding report of accomplishment by Efua’s brainchild, an African-led youth movement to end FGM. The culmination of decades-long effort, the group was officially launched only one week before Efua died. She would certainly be proud of all that has taken place since. I quote:

  • The Girl Generation is now operational in ten African countries – Kenya, Nigeria, The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Somaliland, Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as working with the diaspora in the UK.
  • Our members reach over 240,000 people directly with their end FGM work
  • End FGM Ambassadors reached almost 1.5 million people with end FGM messages, through face-to-face and media engagements
  • Transforming the way people talk about ending FGM with our social change communication training, which has reached over 431 organizations across 8 countries.
  • Positive stories of change about ending FGM published in new and traditional media, reaching over 200 million people around the globe
  • $1.3 million disbursed to over 100 local groups at the forefront of end FGM activism through our flagship End FGM grants programme. [5]

Moreover, “powerful stories [showing] public demonstrations of support for the abandonment of FGM” figure as well in the campaigns’ repertoire.

Thus,  a peer-reviewed volume of essays in Efua’s honor, published by UnCUT/VOICES Press, would  preserve her legacy of influence on FGM campaigns and carry the good news on.  An exhibition and catalogue of paintings dedicated to her has already been created by artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. Needed are essays on her work, first with FORWARD, then WHO, Equality Now and the Girl Generation featuring testimony by friends and associates, readings  of her ideas and evaluation of their impact on policy, politics, and NGOs in the UK and around the world. Efua served during nearly four decades as my first port of call for guidance or encouragement against the almost inevitable lassitude that assails campaigners. She would never have given up. I hope this volume of essays will help to conclude her life’s project, ending FGM. If you’d like to contribute — a few lines to several pages to an entire chapter–, please contact me. tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com or tlevin@fas.harvard.edu

Tobe Efua Hilary at Brown's


[1] Levin, Tobe. “Maintaining the Body’s Integrity.” Rev. of Efua Dorkenoo. Cutting the Rose. Female Genital Mutilation. The Practice and its Prevention. London: Minority Rights Group, 1994. 315-318.

[2] This pioneering volume  has since seen dozens of reprints.

[3] Dagmar’s close friendship with Audre Lorde would lead to her documentary Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years.

[4] Peicke authored a book on Ngugi wa Thiong’o whose novel The River Between was the first with ‘female circumcision’ at the heart of the story.

[5] I quote from an email received 05.02.2018 “on behalf of The Girl Generation <info@thegirlgeneration.org>”


One response to “On Zero Tolerance to FGM Day: “Unbitten Tongues” — A Festschrift (book of honor) for Efua Dorkenoo OBE (1949 – 2014).

  1. Coexist Kenya

    Dear friends, Greetings from the Coexist Initiative hoping this mail finds you well. Kindly find our appeal for support toward the roll-out of the 4HER campaign. Please find it in your heart to support this life changing campaign and feel free to share it with your friends and contacts. Visit the link https://samburu4hermovement.mydagsite.com/the_story

    I remain

    *Wanjala Wafula* *Visit: http://www.coexist.co.ke * *Tel*:+254- 712653322 *Facebook* :https://www.facebook.com/coexistkenya *Twitter*: https://twitter.com/KenyaCoexist *Tumblr*: https://coexistinitiative.tumblr.com *Email*: wafula@coexist.co.ke / admin@coexist.co.ke *Skype*:coexist.initiative

    On Tue, Feb 6, 2018 at 11:19 PM, UnCut/Voices Press wrote:

    > uncutvoices posted: ““Many have written of genital mutilation and … > denounced it … [as] an extreme abuse of human rights. Like slavery and > apartheid it is unacceptable. How can we stop it? By talking about it with > angry, unbitten tongues. By never forgetting about it, and b” >

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