Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in 2012, Plan International urged the UN to declare 11 October the International Day of the Girl Child. Only 2 months later, on 20 December, the General Assembly strengthened that organization’s position vis-à-vis the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, first designated by the Inter-African Committee in 2004 to take place every February 6. The IAC’s intention was up-front. Voices within some UN agencies disagreed with African leadership whose Bamako Declaration (2005) cautioned against euphemism when urging abolition of female genital mutilation. The IAC, at its sixth General Assembly in Mali, accused the West of hijacking the topic.
… An issue of concern at the 6th General Assembly … has been attempts to dilute the terminology Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and replace it with the following: “Female Circumcision,” “Female Genital Alteration,” “Female Genital Excision,” “Female Genital Surgery,” and more recently “Female Genital Cutting” (FGC). … Female Genital Cutting (FGC) does not reflect the accurate extent of harm and mutilation caused by all types of FGM. This terminology has been adopted by some UN specialized agencies and bi-lateral donors … influenced by specific lobby groups largely based in western countries.
…These changes trivialize the nature of female genital mutilation and the suffering of African women and girls …[and] … made without consultation, [they] override the consensus reached by African women in the front line of the campaign as well as the … millions of African girls and women who suffer in silence.
Khady was one of the earliest survivors to brave the danger in ‘outing’ herself, thereby providing a voice for the unheard millions. She tells how it feels – and how it all works together: FGM, forced and early marriage, marital rape and other bad habits …
That African kid with a sand belly has come remarkably far: from Thiès in Senegal to the United Nations via Beijing and innumerable African and European capitals. A dynamic public speaker living in the Parisian Diaspora , she founded a European Network in Brussels in 2002 to prevent and eradicate ‘harmful traditional practices’, especially excision. She dares the world to look at what it chooses to ignore — FGM.
Her tireless motivation arises from an experience of hurt poignantly told in Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICS Press, 2010). I’m Khady’s publisher and translator. In fact, UnCUT/VOICES Press was launched because you could have read Khady’s memoir in a dozen languages — Chinese, Russian, Japanese — as soon as it came out as Mutilée in 2005, but you’d have had to wait five years for it in English. One of many quality foreign-language texts that call FGM by its right name, torture, and sees it unequivocally as an abuse of human rights, the manuscript must have seemed risky to established publishers. After all, hadn’t the American Academy of Pediatrics in April 2010 revealed U.S. attitudes? The Academy supported changing the current law banning all forms of FGM in the USA. Wouldn’t it be better, the AAP urged, if physicians were enabled to “reach out” to practicing communities by offering a clitoral “nick”? Global outrage compelled the Academy’s return to an earlier uncompromised position, but a tendency in the US to condone, not condemn, had appeared. [When the Economist published “An Agonizing Choice” on 18 June 2016, arguing in support of a ‘nick’, Integrate UK came up with a smashing rebuttal that went viral on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fq6v-kIcG_Y
FGM remains a violent indignity – even when medicalized–, and Khady provides little space for ethical uncertainties. Among an intimidated troop of children, she witnesses how “three or four grown-ups snatch up a little girl” whose “blood-curdling shrieks” draw tears from her eyes. Longing but unable to escape she waits, rigid with fear. Then, two women drag her in. One seizes her head and, “with all the strength in her knees, crushes her shoulders to the ground” while the second forces the thighs apart. The clitoris now between the operator’s fingers, the elder “whacks it off like a piece of zebu meat.” Or, if unable to “hack it off in one go … she’s obliged to saw.” Do you hear Khady “howling”? (11) She says that in her mind, it has never stopped.
Can lack of empathy for targets of this widespread, systemic violation derive in part from the impotence of words? For “the pain had no name. It resembled no other. It was like they were yanking out your guts. Like a hammer in your skull, [your body] now home to a famished rat or an army of ants. I was swallowed whole by horror … from my head through my belly to my feet” (12).
First person accounts of the torture are rare. In 1978, Awa Thiam presented testimony by P.K. who described her ordeal. It took nearly a decade, however, for translation of the victim’s words. Waris Dirie was among the first in the 1990s; Ayaan Hirsi Ali reveals her trial as well. But both were prominent before their ‘coming out’. Khady’s going public as an ‘ordinary’ woman took enormous courage. Interviewed by Florence Deguen, she admits to being “prudish” and finding it “really difficult to tell the world such intimate things” (33). In early speeches as an activist, she was often overwhelmed by invasive questions about her private life that felt like “verbal rape” (203). Yet she “did it for the sake of others” (203). Among those others was Khady’s fourth daughter who was spared; for the older three, awareness and militancy came too late. “I just let it happen to my first two,” Khady tells Deguen, “but asked for it myself for the third. I was young, ignorant, lost. [She weeps.] And I’ve never forgiven myself” (33).
Tormented by what she had failed to prevent, Khady works ceaselessly to stave off future casualties. She both denounces and explains how mutilation, embedded in a web of woes, requires “constant vigilance” if it is to end. For excision is ‘merely’ the first step. The second is early marriage, the coupling of children from ten to fifteen with grown men, a violation experienced by Khady herself as a girl of thirteen. Penetrated, she blacks out, the “excruciating” act robbing her “of sight and understanding,” and resulting in self-hatred. “There’s something in me that absolutely refuses to envision what happened in that room. … I blotted out that intimate wound forever powerless to heal” (60). Her book both re-enacts and cancels multiple acts of violence for which she makes a radical and disturbing claim: excision; early ‘marriage’; repeated marital rape; domestic battery and the abuses of polygamy – all told in detail – are not her individual fate, though this is what she goes through, but violations endured by a significant number of Soninke women in Diaspora. They are encouraged by a patriarchal system designed by and for men. These architects are not only African; without French complicity, it would not pay to marry a couple of teens and bring them North. Were the French welfare system to deposit entitlements in mothers’, not fathers’, accounts, birth control would be easier to practice. Khady blows the whistle on Gallic funding of African women’s abuse.
But she also credits the French liberal democracy with facilitating escape. She succeeds in having childcare benefits diverted into her own account; she takes advantage of the professional training government offers to the unemployed and has worked as a nurse and translator. But her passion remains focused because “activism is less a duty than a calling,” (209) and Khady has been called to “keep the blades of tradition … far away from little girls” (212).
Won’t you join her?
With thanks to Hilary Burrage for disseminating the Bamako Declaration text.
A version of this article appeared in On the Issues Magazine. The Café. Fall 2011.
Deguen, Florence. “‘It’s up to us women to eradicate this practice’. Interview with Khady Koita.” Trans. Tobe Levin. In Feminist Europa. Review of Books. 5/1, ’05; 6/1, ’06. 32-33. Published with permission from Le Parisien. October 16, 2005.
Dirie, Waris. Desert Flower. NY: William Morrow, 1998.
Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. The Caged Virgin. NY: The Free Press, 2006.
Thiam, Awa. La Parole au Négresses. Paris : Denoel, 1978 ; —–. Black Sisters, Speak Out. Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa. Trans. Anna V. Adams. London: Pluto, 1986.