What may be the secret to ending FGM? Memoir, fiction and the arts

Nick Mwaluko WAAFRIKA Blog Criminal Queerness Festival

“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 the anguish be acknowledged; resources allocated; conferences understood not to replace but to complement funding communities directly. In other words, while all available means to stop a COVID pandemic are mustered, girls in the millions lose their lives without any commensurate outrage. Yet all constituencies must become involved: elders, survivors, clinicians, politicians, educators, women and men. For the real topic transcends FGM. Targeting not the ears or the nose but the genitals, it’s invisible. External appearance elicits no empathy as wounds remain unseen until we talk about them. Sub-titled the “cultural struggle of the girl child,” the memoir would put girls in charge of their bodies, as FORWARD (UK) has it in a striking animation, “My Body My Rules.” [2] Yes, Female Genital Mutilation is an emotional issue whose  disclosure risks triggering embarrassment and pain, but this is ineluctible despite international agencies and local NGOs treating the harm as though reason alone were enough to end it (for instance, the risky ‘health approach’ that experience has shown justifies medicalization).

While the powerful unholy coupling of sexual politics and economics undergirds the ‘rite’, UnCUT VOICES joins Sadia Hussein who encourages our search for memoirs, 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 and fears, affect, and reason. If indeed genuine works of art, they reject oversimplification and tolerate contradictions.

Stones cover as jpeg (2)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 and Canada, Lawrelynd Bowin, Swimming in a Red Sea, 2018).

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, Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992; from France, Linda Weil-Curiel, Exciseuse, 2006; from Sierra Leone and Norway, Kadidiatou Suma in Mette Knudsen, dir. The Secret Pain, 2006).

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

Painting and sculpture, equally multifaceted media, offer a paradoxical advantage in their muteness. Literature uses words; the absence of explicit language from visuals stimulates altered mental activity. Confronted with an image, a viewer invents the story, making meaning from clues oppositional artists have planted, especially important where literacy is low. Avoiding 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, art and artists are welcome accomplices in efforts to end FGM and should find support in universities whose curricula include them and their work.swimming-in-a-red-sea-cover-2

This introduction prefaced a paper delivered during an Inter-African Committee  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. My Body My Rules. (2915) FGM Animation. 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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