“You have a most attractive friend,” my mother told me when she first met Khady.
On a reading tour, we were spending a short time where I was born, in Long Branch, N.J. During the waning days of a long decline, Mom lay in the very hospital where she gave birth to her three kids. Khady drew from her a spark, a lively awareness and delight in the effulgence of that moment.
That’s Khady. Inspiring. Sincere. Heroic. And one of the first handful of survivors who knowingly risked their comfort, their dignity, and even their lives to improve destinies for others, and especially for little girls as they had once been.
Keep in mind, I often admonish myself, the price these first audacious voices paid. As Khady writes in her memoir Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights, no one ‘enjoys’ revealing intimate details pertaining to sex or wounded genitalia. Often, ascending a podium to speak, she’d feel panic rise and a strong impulse to flee. But for the children’s sake …
In 1987, by the time I had a daughter, I’d been active for a decade, assisting others who were passionate, even obsessed, with eliminating FGM. Anyone reading this will understand their drive. And once my own offspring arrived, my commitment deepened. Mothers of daughters – heritage indifferent –share an impulse to protect. Like Khady, we oppose FGM for scarring girls not unlike our own.
For 8 March, international women’s day, Khady posted the following on WhatsApp (I translate from the French): Having passed legislation that elevates the majesty of all, let male politicians be mindful of mothers, sisters, wives and daughters, and summon the courage to enforce the law. I wish all women a fulfilling celebration of pride, but especially those enduring bombs, or hostile words, entrapped by war of any sort. Dispelling the misery of poverty, prejudice, and discrimination, let’s ensure untrammeled access to health, education, and rights for those whom history has excluded from entitlements. Let’s fund projects dedicated to girls’ empowerment. Let them not only survive but thrive.
In 2012, I interviewed Khady for The Women’s Review of Books.
Born in Thiès, Senegal, where she runs La Palabre, Khadidiatou Koïta – known as Khady – published Mutilée with Oh! Editions in Paris in 2005. The title — meaning “mutilated” — conveys Khady’s rage at the genital excision that forever changed her world. An immediate best-seller, within the first few months of its appearance, the narrative became accessible to speakers of Mandarin, Japanese, Russian, German and 7 other languages — but not English.
Koïta, who describes herself as an ordinary “sand-bellied” African girl, was excised at seven, married off at thirteen, and exiled to a cramped Parisian tenement in a polygamous union. She allowed three of her 4 daughters to be cut before French media sounded the alarm and inspired her to reject excision. She became the founding president of the European Network against Female Genital Mutilation (EuroNet FGM).
I translated Mutilée into English for UnCUT/VOICES Press, founded in part because books of literary merit like Koïta’s and, appearing one year later, Soraya Miré’s The Girl with Three Legs (Lawrence Hill Books, 2011), which criticize the custom from an African perspective, were rare in English. Florence Howe agreed to publish my translation of a German FGM memoir – Korn, Fadumo with Sabine Eichhorst. Born in the Big Rains. A Memoir of Somalia and Survival. Trans. and Afterword. Tobe Levin. NY: The Feminist Press, 2006 – a volume that followed the bombshell revelations in Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower (1998). But another stunning memoir by Nura Abdi and Leo G. Linder, Tränen im Sand (Ehrenwirth 2003), remains inaccessible to Anglophone readers as do many more powerful autobiographies penned with courage to staunch FGM.
Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights came out in 2010 and details experience as a victim of the war against women: from clitoridectomy to child marriage to marital rape, domestic violence, serial pregnancy, poverty and polygamy in diaspora. All the horrors are there. But Koïta triumphs, too. She earns diplomas in accounting and tailoring. And despite being educated only through the seventh grade, she enrolls in university.
“’In 1967’, Koïta writes of the year of her excision, ‘I had no idea of what the intimate bloody cutting would mean for the rest of my life. But it bequeathed me a hard and sometimes cruel fate that led, in 2003, all the way to the UN’.”
There on the east side of New York City, to open and close her memoir, Khady addresses the General Assembly and hence played a decisive role in passage of the resolution banning FGM: https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2012/12/united-nations-bans-female-genital-mutilation
Her commitment to victory over all forms of violence against women and girls continues. See
The Centre Mame Diarra Diallo, in development since 2014, accommodates women and girls threatened by any type of violence and abuse, especially those fleeing female genital mutilation, early and/or forced marriage, and the consequences of a non-desired pregnancy. The educational center also sponsors literacy campaigns, language skills (French, Arabic and English) and computing.
To learn more please see
Interview: Khadidiatou Koïta and the International Campaign to End Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) (pp. 18-19)
Khadidiatou Koïta and Tobe Levin
As for my mother Janice Metz Levin, who passed away one week after Khady gave her joy, I have a special reason to think of her just now. On this day, March 9, seventy-four years ago, she and my father Morris William – known as Bill — married. Youth whose lives had been definitely ruptured by repercussions of a terrible world war, both encouraged action to improve the world. Thanks, mom and dad, for inspiring me to do what I do to help.