Our ambulance having arrived safely in Podor, and being quickly put to use, we turned attention to the Badianu-Gokhs, traditional counselors well-versed in issues surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and complications attending girls who are married off too young, with immature bodies not yet ready for safe motherhood. These women, instructed in the aims of Maa Feew to end FGM and stem child marriage, enjoy the trust of their communities; they hold authority in matters pertaining to sexuality and birth.
Talking about excision, its risks and sequelae, these Badianu-Gokhs remind me of a cutter from Mali whose extraordinary story, available only in French, is not widely known to English-speaking activists. Told in Exciseuse (CityEditions, 2007) by Natacha Henry and Linda Weil-Curiel, the “conversations with Hawa Gréou” open a window of possibility, for this exciser, sentenced by a French criminal court to five years in prison, took a remarkable step on her release. She called on attorney Linda Weil-Curiel, the prosecutor who had put her behind bars, sat down in her office and announced, “You were right. May I campaign with you to end FGM?”
I’m abbreviating a longer process of coming-to-awareness, but the starting point hardly prefigures such an outcome. The cutter’s story opens with the following poignant description by a white French neighbor of Gréou’s.
“I’d noticed that when the first wife was present, they’d receive numerous African visitors who then left carrying their young children wrapped in cloth and crying bitterly. Sometimes the line would extend the whole length of the staircase. I was moved by the shrieks of those kids; they were truly piercing howls. And since I have heart problems that I feared might be triggered by their screams, I’d leave and stay away all afternoon” (7-8. My translation).
Now, Hawa Gréou had been quite popular in Paris among immigrants from Mali. Similar in prestige to the Badianu-Gokhs of Senegal, she exercised authority. When she emerged to offer help in ending FGM, she and Linda Weil-Curiel held the following conversation narrated in Exciseuse (my translation):
Linda: “… Tell me frankly: do you think you’d be able to go and talk to families to tell them it’s not a good tradition and that times have changed? That for the good of the children they ought to stop excision? Would you have the guts to say it? Would they listen to you?”
Hawa: “I tell them already that I used to do, that I had problems and that I’ve stopped. But I can’t tell whether they’re listening or not.”
Linda: “It’s not a matter of stopping because you had trouble with the law! It’s because a woman is not intact if she’s been excised! If you cut off my finger, I’ll still have four left, but it won’t really be my hand. If you cut the clitoris off a girl, she’s no longer really a complete woman. Do you know how many women have gone to Dr. Foldes* to have their clitoris restored? He repairs it. They get the operation without letting their parents know. Some patients have even come here from Africa to have it done.”
Hawa: “I saw it on the TV but I don’t believe it.”
Linda: “If you’d like, I can introduce you to some girls who have had the operation. They can tell you how they felt before and how much better it is since they regained wholeness. You really should advise parents to stop excising.”
Hawa: “You’re asking me if I want to talk to the women? If I don’t do it, who will? They’ll come around and finally understand. It took me some time, after all. In prison, the first year, I thought about nothing but going back to Africa and excising every Frenchwoman I could find – in the Congo, in Mali, in the Ivory Coast, everywhere! Today, I would call the police myself if I heard that an excision was about to happen. Do you believe me?”
Linda: “What do you think is the best way to approach families to dissuade them from mutilating their kids?”
Hawa: “I know some Soninké who never listen to anybody. I would say, ‘My daughter, my sister, excision has existed for a very long time. But we live here now. We have the right not to go through with it. So let’s stop. And not do it in Africa either.’”
Linda: “They’re going to tell you you’re talking white…”
Hawa: “Yes, they are. But the whites are telling the truth! I’m not asking them to forget about Ramadan or stop praying! The only thing I want them to do is stop excising their girls. Older people don’t like to talk about it at all. You know there’s this man who recently called me to excise his wife. But I said no. And the other day, after studying the Hadiths, the marabout said I was right. ‘It’s true. We should stop!’”
Naturally, if you’re reading this, you agree too.
- Dr. Foldes’ story is told in a publication by UnCUT/VOICES Press: Hubert Prolongeau. Undoing FGM: Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris. Trans. and Afterword Tobe Levin. 2011. Original title: Victoire sur l’Excision.