Bridging the abyss between custom and law: Khady’s memoir in the UN General Assembly

Our author Khady is with artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus at a celebration for FORWARD for Women e.V. and UnCUT/VOICES Press at Schlosshotel Kronberg in 2018. Godfrey’s donated paintings sold at auction, raising funds to prevent FGM. Photo credit: Britta Radike


In November 2012, Alvilda Jablonko phoned me. Adjutant to Emma Bonino, prominent Italian politician whose NGO No Peace Without Justice had taken on the cause of ending FGM, Jablonko requested 65 copies of Khady’s memoir to distribute to members of the Group of African States in the UN General Assembly prior to a vote on 20 December 2012 which would make history. Having each received a copy of Blood Stains, representatives of African nations would prove key to passage of a Resolution “intensifying global efforts” to eliminate “female genital mutilations.”

Below you will find an excerpt from Blood Stains, the chapter titled ‘Combat’. Successful advocacy serves as encouragement and blueprint for continuing legislation that most movement actors view as essential but inadequate. For law’s abstraction and heavy hand address the mind but not the heart; ritual genital abuse, however, is prisoner to the Velcro of emotions. The intimacy of the personal account builds on ratio AND empathy. Khady is not a statistic but a sentient, articulate icon for a swathe of FGM survivors.

Khady writes:

I have been an activist in France since the 1980s. In 1986, as an interpreter, I met Koumba Touré who did similar work and was vice president of GAMS. She brought me along to a meeting and introduced me. Since then we’ve shared the same conviction and have never wavered.

GAMS was and still is a secular, multi-partisan NGO in which African and French women work together.  In addition to fighting FGM, GAMS orchestrates information campaigns against other harmful traditional practices: forced and/or early marriage and serial pregnancies. Given that we have so much to do, our mission is really better suited to a colony of ants. For instance, we educate women when they consult their gynecologists or take their infants for check-ups, telling them about complications excision can cause – gynecological and urinary difficulties as well as harrowing childbirths. We know that most excised women need episiotomies if not caesarians, and the pregnancies, coming one too close to the next for four, five, six or a dozen children, aggravate these problems. It’s a matter of dissuading mothers from perpetrating on their girls, born or coming, the barbarity they suffer for life. It’s important to explain as well that religion doesn’t impose mutilation. But to do that, we need religious leaders to assist us. They’re the ones to contradict the immense lie entertained for centuries because the texts themselves remained unknown. In reality, excision and infibulation are lauded and propagated by men and, for dubious reasons, imposed on girls by women.

An African man told me one day, “It’s done so that women won’t be raped.”

“You think a rapist will ask about that!?” I answered, astonished. “Look first and rape second?”

And another: “It’s so women won’t be tempted to go out and find another man.”

“Really? You can kill the possibility of pleasure without destroying the desire for it! And a mutilated woman’s sexuality is as sad for you as it is for her!”

I uncovered a list of reasons even worse than these: it’s done to increase the pleasure of the man, or to maintain social cohesion, or to eliminate an organ thought to be dirty, ugly and evil. Infants, beware! Better not brush against it being born. To survive, keep out of its way.

That organ, diminutive counterpart to male anatomy, must be suppressed.

A symbol of submission, clitoral ablation, like ‘barefoot and pregnant’, takes religion as its grandiose excuse.

The barbarity of it hit me full force when, in 1982 in France, excision killed a little girl from Mali, Bobo Traoré. For a long time I had simply “accepted” mutilation, including my own, to such an extent that my first three girls had been victims of it. I had even “forgotten” all about it, immersed as I was in personal problems. But the loss of that three-month-old in Paris, jumped on by the media – to their credit–, served as a wake-up call. It aroused French society and not a small number of Africans as well.

Then, the custom simply wasn’t talked about. The great majority of French were wholly ignorant of it. No well-known ethnographer or researcher had placed the issue before the public. And suddenly, on the 8 o’clock news, here were Africans applying razors to children’s genitalia!

Shortly after that affair, while I was interpreting for the Interservice Migrants, pediatricians began asking real questions. As for me, I didn’t know much about the origin of the practice but, to the extent that my private life improved, I became increasingly active in monthly meetings at the Maison des Femmes in Paris.

Initially, my mouth stayed shut. I listened, however, and little by little, the truth emerged. Physicians’ lectures had me running from library to library for follow-up research even though, at that time, very little could be found, and one question led to another. If not all Muslims are excised, FGM must not be required by religion. So why did we think it was?  In any case, the Koran didn’t mention it at all. That was certain. In Senegal, the Wolof didn’t do it, nor do certain Arab or North African nations.

And even though they had all lived through it, why had our mothers never told us about what pediatricians encountered – the physical and psychological harm?

Regarding excision’s effect on our minds, each girl had had to work through the horror alone. Most had come to accept the promised benefit because, for those few brave enough to dig deep, questioning the status quo opened wounds that were very hard to share with anyone. No woman wants to display her sexuality. No matter where she’s from, when the topic is so intimate, she feels squeamish when forced to go public. Besides, how could she possibly refer to a kind of pleasure she’d never known? Many women were embarrassed, even shocked, by media’s representation of excision and by what was now being said all around. Modesty made revelation truly distressing.

“Oh, no. We’re fine. Nothing’s wrong. No trouble giving birth, no problems with sex, nothing at all.”

Still, regarding the “legitimacy” of the practice, the alarm was salutary. The media called us barbarians concerning a tradition said to be cultural, and in fact, we had no rational explanation to offer. Why? Because there is none.


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