MEN needed, and open minds, to understand FGM: contribution to 16 Days against gender violence.

Cover pastel for FGM in Iran
“To avoid a curse from her deceased grandfather,” Florence Muthoni had her thirteen-year-old twins undergo FGM. [1] The patriarch had ordered the blade for all the family’s girls. Agid, a mother fervently hoping to prevent infibulation for her four-year-old, caved to neighbors’ harassment but even more so to fear of an ancestor’s curse. In Sharifa’s Three Wishes. With the Kunama in Eritrea, [2] the deceased matriarch, like Muthoni’s relative, also decreed the little girl’s excision. Should her last will be denied, devastation would blight the village, not solely the wrong-doer – or so it is firmly believed. And in Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s WAAFRIKA 123, “first wife Mama Mugabe … advocates fiercely for traditional values and customs.” [3] Confronted by an “unnatural” lesbian relationship between the royal Awino [4] and Bobby, she’s convinced that drought and hunger are the cosmic answer to the lovers’ transgression. She understands the women’s passion for each other as “the mark of their ancestor’s anger at Awino’s great offense to them,” the fact that the princess “has not been circumcised.” [5] And finally, in Jeanie Kortum’s Stones, ‘things fall apart’ precisely because the Great Mother’s thirst must be slaked. Neglected, she has withdrawn from nature, leaving it to wither and refuse its fruits. Famine looms, and, of a piece with  Kenya’s dread or Eritrean angst, people do not doubt that a girl’s spilled genital blood is the deity’s beverage of choice.
Waafrika 123 coverThus, one principle governing the longevity of FGM is fear. As the magnificent (late) Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond insisted, her research on FGM in Sierra Leone revealed a tie between fertility and cutting – as Jeanie Kortum captures in her novel –, and this in turn explains resistance to relinquishing the knife. If giving birth is the sine qua non of fulfilment, and babies require carved genitalia in order to emerge, then it stands to reason that most women will choose maternity despite its painful caveat, excision, so as not to risk sterility. That science can easily disprove such beliefs doesn’t help. Angst is by nature not amenable to reason even if the two – the scientific and affective — often co-exist. Therapy is possible, but it’s not for nothing that Western definitions of mental illness challenge many African epistemologies.
Thus, if emotion maintains FGM, what persuasive strategies stand a chance of working?
I propose that it’s respect accorded male authority in patriarchal cultures – esteemed by men as well as women – that can be leveraged. This deference bypasses fear by appealing to something else instead: a wish to please. Thus, male advocates of ending cutting can succeed.
Undoing FGM coverWho are these men? UnCUT/VOICES Press celebrates several.  First, Hubert Prolongeau wrote Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris (2011). In chapter 6, asking “Why?” we learn that “starting from a widespread insistence on truncating women’s sexual expression, it’s a short step to the most likely motive for FGM, rarely so explicitly stated: to reduce the exaggerated role female sexuality plays in men’s lives.” [6] Indeed, Dr. Foldes sees excision as “’the most violent expression of male domination’.” [7]
As women liberate themselves from patriarchal bodily inscriptions, many men have joined them in tempering (if not relinquishing) their privilege. Pierre Foldes, for instance, reached out to colleagues in medicine, law, and politics at the highest level, placing excision on the French national agenda. In this he was not unlike a second UnCUT/VOICES author, Kameel Ahmady, whose ten-year project to uncover and attempt to dissuade genital trimming in Iran addressed men as well – including male interviewees who offered their assessments of the practice; men in Teheran whose indifference or, worse, denial of support remains a challenge; and religious leaders who expressed both opposition and approval (in a decentralized system where each imam rules his own sphere of influence and power). Ahmady is emphatic about the role of men: he returns again and again to the regime as indispensable for abolition.
And he has recently been recognized with an honor well-deserved, first prize from the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation in Washington, DC, for his book, In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (2017). As Stéphanie Florquin notes in her review: “According to the author, [in Iran] FGM is a taboo subject … [whose existence the] Iranian government denies, … hid[ing] it from the [public]. [Ahmady] highlights that the lack of funding and … support concerns both research and awareness-raising actions on FGM in the regions concerned.” [8]
Stones cover as jpeg (2)
Compared to 40 years ago, when I first learned about FGM, the subject has emerged from under the radar. Yet exposure remains crucial, and playwright Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko is a third man with the UnCUT/VOICES imprint whose voice swells the baritone chorus denouncing the practice. As we have seen, his play “takes a hard look at FGM,” in the words of drama critic Michael V. Rodriguez assessing a performance at Berkeley’s Theatrefirst where “’WAAFRIKA 123’ transfixes with fire,”[9] literally. In response to famine, vigilantes excise Awino by force.
Whether as a gesture to appease a cosmogony of demons or as ‘merely’ conforming to tradition, FGM is challenged by a queer sensibility, one that allows for diversity beyond the prison of men’s and women’s customary roles.

 

NOTES

With thanks to Godfrey Williams-Okorodus for the cover pastel (above), used for the cover of In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran.
  • [1] Nita Bhalla. “Kenyan woman jailed for six years for circumcising twin daughters.” Thomas Reuters Foundation. 23 November 2018. [http://www.iol.co.za/news/Africa/Kenyan-woman-jaiiled-for-six-years-for-circumcising-twin-daughters-18241152 Accessed 26 November 2018].
  • [2] Uschi Madeisky and Klaus Werner, dir. Die Drei Wünsche der Sharifa. Bei den Kunama in Eritrea. Frankfurt am Main: Colorama Films, 2000.
  • [3] Arthur Dorman. „Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul. WAAFRIKA 123.” Talkin’ Broadway E-blast List. https://www.talknbroadway.com/page/regional/minn/minn790.html?fbclid=IwAR1dVtuABi1d_3ofn7ip9dCdfMHGcHK11ySrJKG5t1fZPgpHVovKzXXbLg
  • [4] As Ginni Stern writes in the Foreword: “While most girls want to be princesses, this is the story of Awino, a princess who didn’t want to be girl.” (I’m reminded of the magnificent cover of the January 2017 National Geographic: “The best thing about being a girl is that now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy.”) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/ Accessed 26 November 2018.
  • [5] It should be noted, however, that in reality the Luo tribe generally do not perform FGM. Mwaluko has taken an author’s liberty in his fiction.

 

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