Activism: less a duty than a calling

The fight to end female genital mutilation requires tenacity. That mood swings accompany deployment goes without saying, for witnessing via experience risks flashbacks and pain. Yet Khady, as do most articulate survivors, perseveres. She opens her narrative at the UN and circles back to a significant venue, a speech I attended in Zürich at a UNICEF conference.

Following are the closing passages from Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010. Available from Amazon.) The book is recommended for classroom use; bulk rates are available from the publisher. Khady introduces students not only to the challenging subject of female genital mutilation — making clear why ‘mutilation’ is the appropriate moniker for use in public discourse — but also embeds the particular hostility to girls’ genitalia within a web of abuses including forced, child marriage; educational discrimination, and social hierarchy controlled by men. A feminist text par excellence, Mutilée (the original title) enrages, enlightens, and draws your affection toward its endearing first person narrator. Akin to the Bildungsroman, it chronicles the emergence of a leader moving relentlessly toward justice.

Activism is less a duty than a calling. …

For nine resolute and enthusiastic months [Khady traveled] right up until that commemorative day when [she] spoke at the United Nations, modestly but proudly, about the struggle of our European Network against female genital mutilation.

            In February and March 2005, I addressed the 49th session of the UN Committee on the Status of Women. There nearly 6000 NGOs greeted good news with exuberant applause: national governments, without reservation, had re-affirmed the Platform for Action on violence against women formulated ten years earlier at the Beijing plus 10 Conference. For my part, I was on a cloud, sure that now everything would change …

            But that evening, on re-reading the speech I would be giving the next day at a UNICEF conference in Zurich, I fell to earth and wept.

            My whole life unfolded before me like a film whose first installment had been a tale of horror.

            Since 1975, when the first United Nations women’s conference took place in Mexico and I arrived in France, thirty years had passed. How many women had suffered since then, and how many were suffering now? How many women had had to put up a fight like mine? In how many countries did men still not know what a phrase like “women’s rights” means? I had just lived through a magnificent moment listening to beautiful speeches by male politicians. I was tempted to cry out who I was and why I was there. To hurl at them my suffering and anger and tell them to stop talking but go see for themselves the lives of women in whose name they made decisions that wouldn’t be applied for half a century … if ever.

            Discouragement claimed me, exhaustion in this interminable combat, the same feeling I had experienced three years earlier in Italy when they awarded my activism a prize shared with a young Bangladeshi whose face had been destroyed by acid for refusing to marry. That day I also cried, seeing that woman, of rage and desire to just let it all drop, so vast did the journey seem, and male violence so oceanic.

            But my courage returned in New York, Geneva, Zurich and elsewhere. I began again to march and intend to go on, carrying the message of African women, victims of torture and humiliation.

            My mother no longer tells me I run around too much. I trust, — no, I believe–, she is proud of me. I dedicate this book to her in the hope of being able to translate for her, without shying away, every word.

            I thank her and my father for sending me to school. Having been forbidden to think would have been worse than mutilation.

            And it’s thanks to my education, as little as it was at first, that I have been able to progress, understand, and glean information I could then share with others.

            In certain countries, serious imams, a source of enlightened religious ideas, correct misunderstandings of the Koran as preached by less well-educated peers. The high respect in which they are held gives their words weight, and many of these Imams are now on our side.

                        Renunciations of excision en masse have been undertaken by some villages with the help of healthcare workers and NGOs. This means considerable progress, because neighboring men, denied excised brides, will have to go along with change if they want to marry.

            I would like this book to serve African women not as a scandal but an inspiration for reflection. I would like to see it translated and disseminated in Africa. But Africa follows an oral tradition. Griots would have to do it. At least many of them have already begun to work with us.

            If I have been a griot for myself, narrating the story of my life, it’s not to sing my praises but to illustrate the obstinate march that lead me from the shadow of the mango tree to the light of international sorority, from an intimate and secret mutilation to the blaze of a public campaign trail.

            Stopping violence and mutilation is our duty by keeping the blades of tradition and culture far away from little girls.

            Each African woman now shares this task, and to each her manner of approaching it. But let’s not fear to tell the truth about our bodies. Neither diabolical nor impure, our sex has been from the dawn of time the only source of life.


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