A hidden weapon to end FGM? Fiction and Art

Stones cover as jpeg (2)“Girls die every day. We are here wearing masks, aren’t we?  So we don’t die of Covid. But girls die every day of FGM. Every day. Every day FGM kills girls. And who tells their story? Nobody.”

At this moment, 3:09 p.m. in Frankfurt am Main, I’m listening to Sadia Hussein at the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development telling one survivor’s story, her own, by introducing her book, Hidden Scars of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) [1]. “Reading it enables people to understand the underlying issues, what we are living with,” she notes, and urges that, just as the death toll from a pandemic galvanizes a furious response, so too should girls dying in their millions evoke a commensurate fury.  She wants to see action; resources allocated; conferences understood not to replace but to complement funding of communities. All constituencies, Sadia insists, must work together: elders, survivors, clinicians, politicians, educators, women and men. For the real topic transcends FGM.  Not about losses of noses or ears but rather genitalia, it’s invisible. External appearance elicits no empathy as wounds remain unseen until we talk about them. Thus the “cultural struggle of the girl child” aims to put her in charge of her body, as FORWARD (UK) has expressed it in a striking animation: “My Body My Rules.” (2) An emotional issue, Female Genital Mutilation calls for disclosure of recondite disfigurement with its ineluctable embarrassment and pain. Reason alone has failed to end it (for instance, by reliance on a ‘health approach’ that justifies medicalization).

Waafrika 123 cover

While the powerful unholy coupling of sexual politics and economics undergirds the ‘rite’, UnCUT VOICES joins Sadia Hussein in looking to memoir, fiction, the fine arts, and music as frequently deployed but underexplored tools that can stop FGM. How? Only artistic expression is commensurate with the complexity of an over-determined tradition. African and other celebrated writers’ drama, poetry, stories, and genres of all sorts express both subjective and objective aspects of the custom, that is, desires, fears, affect, and reason. If indeed genuine works of art, they reject oversimplification and tolerate contradictions.

Here are several instances. Contradiction #1: familial love for children subjected to the blade (e.g. from Senegal, Khady (Koita). Mutilée (2005), translated as Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (2010); from the Cote d’Ivoire, Fatou Keïta, Rebelle, 1998; from Guinea-Conakry, Lawrelynd Bowin, Swimming in a Red Sea, 2018).Swimming in a red sea cover

Contradiction #2:  mothers’ wish to resist but inability to do so (e.g. from Eritrea via Germany, Uschi Madeisky, dir.  Die drei Wünsche der Sharifa: bei den Kunama in Eritrea, 2000; from the UK, Janet Fyle, executive dir. Our Daughters. #EndFGM animations, Woven Ink 2018); (3) and from California, Jeanie Kortum, Stones, 2018).

Contradiction #3: supply and demand, a vicious cycle for cutters: loss of honor and income in retraining; temptation in an economy of scarcity to bend to demand (e.g. from the USA, Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992; from France, Linda Weil-Curiel’s Exciseuse, 2006; from Sierra Leone and Norway, Kadidiatou Suma in Mette Knudsen, dir. The Secret Pain. 2006).

Contradiction #4: initiating womanhood by suppressing sexual response (e.g. from Kenya via Tanzania, Nick Mwaluko, WAAFRIKA 1 2 3. 1992. Kenya. Two Womyn Fall in Love, 2016).

Equally multifaceted media, painting and sculpture are paradoxically advantaged by their muteness. Literature uses words; visuals’ absence of explicit language stimulates altered mental activity. Confronted with an image, a viewer invents the story, making meaning from the clues oppositional artists have planted, especially important where literacy is low. Avoiding the pitfalls of directness, canvasses and marble convey with dignity all the horror of the act, encompassing humanity’s complicity in this massive, ancient, and tenacious tragedy. In sum, artists are ideal accomplices in ending FGM whose work university curricula would do well to include.

A longer version of this introduction was delivered during an IAC symposium at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, on 10-11 May 2016. “Why favor and support the arts to advocate against FGM?  The role of university curricula.”


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVH3prkUks8 Accessed 26 June 2020.
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2IStB6Z3Vw Accessed 26 June 2020.
  3. https://www.wovenink.co.uk/endfgm-animations Accessed 26 June 2020.


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