101 years: reflections on mothers with daughters ending FGM

Janice Metz Levin (29 May 1920 – 21 November 2010)

Had she lived, my mother, whose 101st birthday could have been today, May 29th, would be applauding progress made toward ending FGM. Supportive from the start, — in 1977 for me-, Janice Metz Levin, trained at New York City’s Cooper Union as a ‘draftsman’ (the then designation), had been an invaluable ally.

Two memories stand out. On February 4, 2000, at the grand opening of an exhibition by Nigerian painters and sculptors protesting FGM – “Künstlerinnen und Künstler aus Nigeria klagen an” in Mannheim’s City Hall, the guest who had travelled the farthest was my mother. Normally at home in New Jersey, she spent several months in Germany for medical treatment and rehabilitation, and despite the proceedings taking place in German, her own training as an artist enabled her to appreciate the oils and offer enthusiastic praise. The pencil drawing above is her self-portrait, completed at age 19.

My thoughts turn as well to another poignant memory of Khady in my mother’s room shortly before she died. Following publication of Khady’s memoir, Mutilée, or Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights (UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010), Khady and I had completed a reading tour that included Harvard, Cornell and Monmouth University in my hometown. Mom asked how it had gone, which passages we’d read, and how we’d been received. Despite our travel-weariness, my mother saw beauty, and among her last words were, directing her gaze at Khady while addressing me, “You have a very attractive friend.”

Khady in 2008, at a reception in the Schlosshotel Kronberg for the Honourable Ambassador from Mali to Germany, Fatoumata Siré Diakité

What stands out in memoirs by FGM survivors is a strong, if challenged, mother-daughter bond, especially fraught given the role that matriarchs play in orchestrating cutting.  True, many victims feel profound betrayal, especially to find their mothers in obvious cahoots with the cutters. As in Nawal el Saadawi’s clitoridectomy narrative in The Hidden Face of Eve, a “classic analysis of female oppression in the Arab world,” as Guardian reporter Rachel Cooke notes [https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/11/nawal-el-saadawi-interview-do-you-feel-you-are-liberated-not]. “Among its pages is a taboo-breaking description of El Saadawi’s circumcision at the age of six, an operation that was performed on the floor of the family bathroom while her mother looked on, laughing and smiling.” The perfidy is, however, frequently forgiven. As Leyla Hussein shows in brilliant animations hosted by Janet Fyle MBE in the House of Commons on September 12, 2017, the second in a series of three is spoken by the distraught parent describing her dilemma, the pressure to conform and conviction that, were she to rebel and not have her daughter cut, the girl would suffer nonetheless — condemned to social death or, at the very least, find no husband and hence remain childless in a culture where motherhood is revered.

So, today let’s toast the mothers – who reluctantly conform or courageously rebel, but, had patriarchy not constrained them, would have chosen to promote the health, safety, and self-confidence all of us mothers and daughters deserve.

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