MEN needed, and open minds, to understand FGM: contribution to 16 Days against gender violence.

Cover pastel for FGM in Iran
“To avoid a curse from her deceased grandfather,” Florence Muthoni had her thirteen-year-old twins undergo FGM. [1] The patriarch had ordered the blade for all the family’s girls. Agid, a mother fervently hoping to prevent infibulation for her four-year-old, caved to neighbors’ harassment but even more so to fear of an ancestor’s curse. In Sharifa’s Three Wishes. With the Kunama in Eritrea, [2] the deceased matriarch, like Muthoni’s relative, also decreed the little girl’s excision. Should her last will be denied, devastation would blight the village, not solely the wrong-doer – or so it is firmly believed. And in Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s WAAFRIKA 123, “first wife Mama Mugabe … advocates fiercely for traditional values and customs.” [3] Confronted by an “unnatural” lesbian relationship between the royal Awino [4] and Bobby, she’s convinced that drought and hunger are the cosmic answer to the lovers’ transgression. She understands the women’s passion for each other as “the mark of their ancestor’s anger at Awino’s great offense to them,” the fact that the princess “has not been circumcised.” [5] And finally, in Jeanie Kortum’s Stones, ‘things fall apart’ precisely because the Great Mother’s thirst must be slaked. Neglected, she has withdrawn from nature, leaving it to wither and refuse its fruits. Famine looms, and, of a piece with  Kenya’s dread or Eritrean angst, people do not doubt that a girl’s spilled genital blood is the deity’s beverage of choice.
Waafrika 123 coverThus, one principle governing the longevity of FGM is fear. As the magnificent (late) Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond insisted, her research on FGM in Sierra Leone revealed a tie between fertility and cutting – as Jeanie Kortum captures in her novel –, and this in turn explains resistance to relinquishing the knife. If giving birth is the sine qua non of fulfilment, and babies require carved genitalia in order to emerge, then it stands to reason that most women will choose maternity despite its painful caveat, excision, so as not to risk sterility. That science can easily disprove such beliefs doesn’t help. Angst is by nature not amenable to reason even if the two – the scientific and affective — often co-exist. Therapy is possible, but it’s not for nothing that Western definitions of mental illness challenge many African epistemologies.
Thus, if emotion maintains FGM, what persuasive strategies stand a chance of working?
I propose that it’s respect accorded male authority in patriarchal cultures – esteemed by men as well as women – that can be leveraged. This deference bypasses fear by appealing to something else instead: a wish to please. Thus, male advocates of ending cutting can succeed.
Undoing FGM coverWho are these men? UnCUT/VOICES Press celebrates several.  First, Hubert Prolongeau wrote Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris (2011). In chapter 6, asking “Why?” we learn that “starting from a widespread insistence on truncating women’s sexual expression, it’s a short step to the most likely motive for FGM, rarely so explicitly stated: to reduce the exaggerated role female sexuality plays in men’s lives.” [6] Indeed, Dr. Foldes sees excision as “’the most violent expression of male domination’.” [7]
As women liberate themselves from patriarchal bodily inscriptions, many men have joined them in tempering (if not relinquishing) their privilege. Pierre Foldes, for instance, reached out to colleagues in medicine, law, and politics at the highest level, placing excision on the French national agenda. In this he was not unlike a second UnCUT/VOICES author, Kameel Ahmady, whose ten-year project to uncover and attempt to dissuade genital trimming in Iran addressed men as well – including male interviewees who offered their assessments of the practice; men in Teheran whose indifference or, worse, denial of support remains a challenge; and religious leaders who expressed both opposition and approval (in a decentralized system where each imam rules his own sphere of influence and power). Ahmady is emphatic about the role of men: he returns again and again to the regime as indispensable for abolition.
And he has recently been recognized with an honor well-deserved, first prize from the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation in Washington, DC, for his book, In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (2017). As Stéphanie Florquin notes in her review: “According to the author, [in Iran] FGM is a taboo subject … [whose existence the] Iranian government denies, … hid[ing] it from the [public]. [Ahmady] highlights that the lack of funding and … support concerns both research and awareness-raising actions on FGM in the regions concerned.” [8]
Stones cover as jpeg (2)
Compared to 40 years ago, when I first learned about FGM, the subject has emerged from under the radar. Yet exposure remains crucial, and playwright Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko is a third man with the UnCUT/VOICES imprint whose voice swells the baritone chorus denouncing the practice. As we have seen, his play “takes a hard look at FGM,” in the words of drama critic Michael V. Rodriguez assessing a performance at Berkeley’s Theatrefirst where “’WAAFRIKA 123’ transfixes with fire,”[9] literally. In response to famine, vigilantes excise Awino by force.
Whether as a gesture to appease a cosmogony of demons or as ‘merely’ conforming to tradition, FGM is challenged by a queer sensibility, one that allows for diversity beyond the prison of men’s and women’s customary roles.



With thanks to Godfrey Williams-Okorodus for the cover pastel (above), used for the cover of In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran.
  • [1] Nita Bhalla. “Kenyan woman jailed for six years for circumcising twin daughters.” Thomas Reuters Foundation. 23 November 2018. [ Accessed 26 November 2018].
  • [2] Uschi Madeisky and Klaus Werner, dir. Die Drei Wünsche der Sharifa. Bei den Kunama in Eritrea. Frankfurt am Main: Colorama Films, 2000.
  • [3] Arthur Dorman. „Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul. WAAFRIKA 123.” Talkin’ Broadway E-blast List.
  • [4] As Ginni Stern writes in the Foreword: “While most girls want to be princesses, this is the story of Awino, a princess who didn’t want to be girl.” (I’m reminded of the magnificent cover of the January 2017 National Geographic: “The best thing about being a girl is that now I don’t have to pretend to be a boy.”) Accessed 26 November 2018.
  • [5] It should be noted, however, that in reality the Luo tribe generally do not perform FGM. Mwaluko has taken an author’s liberty in his fiction.



Reflections on the Armistice, the Holocaust, UNESCO’s World Science Day … And FGM?

Many of you reading this will already have seen – and rejoiced, if with reserve – at the news of ‘dramatic’ plunges in prevalence of FGM.[1] At last, statistics are leaning our way, and thousands of girls who, only a decade ago, might have been dealt life-changing assaults will remain intact. Able to pursue education, they will contribute to development, peace, and prosperity. After all, a comfortable standard of living makes conflict less likely and maintenance of social harmony (relatively) trouble-free.[2]

The relationship between genital torture and peace, an enabling sister to prosperity, has not often been explored, but on November 9th, 10th, and 11th, three commemorations blend, and placing them in dialogue can be fruitful in understanding and thus promoting an end to FGM.

Macron MerkelFirst, in Compiègne, on 11 November 1918, an armistice was signed in the train compartment toward which Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel are walking in the image on my Frankfurt living room TV. I agree with the announcers for whom the magnitude of the current French-German friendship, given European history, has a legitimate claim on our emotions. I’m tempted to use an old German adjective, rührselig with, according to Duden, 349 synonyms, suggesting conflicting nuances an event so-described can evoke. Among English translations are maudlin, mawkish and lachrymose, but touching is another option I prefer. I am moved knowing that both leaders in these troubled times stand for a certain resolve summed up in the hopeful ring of “never again.”

Elise Kaufman stumbling block

ELISE KAUFMAN lived here. Born 1902 [she was] arrested 1942, deported [to] Ravensbruck [concentration camp and from there] deported to Auschwitz [and] murdered, 1. February 1943. ‘Stumbling blocks’ like these are embedded in the sidewalk in front of victims’ homes.

What should be avoided at all costs is commemorated here in Germany on November 9, Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. Tens of thousands of Jewish men[3] were arrested – not for any wrong-doing but simply because they were Jewish – and many were sent to Dachau, the first of the concentration camps that opened on 22 March 1933, less than two months after Hitler’s ascent to power. The dictator moved quickly to cement Nazi authority, a fact that implies our present need for swift refusal of fascist views together with prolonged remembrance.

Fast forward to today. As Observer journalist Robin Lustig notes, shortly after 11 worshippers were gunned down while praying in Pittsburgh, an acquaintance sent a letter. “She wrote from Magdeburg, an ancient university town where some of my father’s family had lived, and from where three of his cousins were deported to Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. This is what she said: ‘It is 80 years since the synagogues were attacked here, and we all know that it was the prelude to millions of murders. Since 1945, and every year since then, when we remember what happened, we realise how important it is to fight back from the beginning’.”[4]

The beginning was in the Armistice, in the toxic mix of resentment (of obligations imposed by the victors and considered unfair by the vanquished), followed in the next two decades by inflation, political instability, the Weimar Republic, the stock market crash, massive unemployment, the depression … developmental skeins hard to unwind yet taken together, leading to dictatorship, nationalism, and war in Europe. And had there been no war, it’s less likely we’d be mourning genocide.[5]

What has genocide to do with FGM? And equally important, how are UnCUT/VOICES’ books working for peace?

As a Holocaust scholar, I’ve been long aware that racism is related to misogyny, defined as (unconscious, sub rosa) hatred or fear of women. Not acted upon or even present in the minds of most individual men who have been schooled in kindness, misogyny is the clearest explanation for certain sadistic historical phenomena – witch trials, for instance, which executed millions of European females, and present practices harmful to ‘the sex’, as women have been blithely called.[6] And how else to interpret the chastity belts, a homegrown northern substitute for infibulation found in continental Museums of Torture? How else to account for the fact that one in three women globally has suffered domestic violence?[7]

Anti-Semitism, a form of racism, has one foot stuck in the mud of misogyny. What was so wrong with Jewish men that they were among the first imprisoned on Kristallnacht? Yes, they were thought to be ‘rich’ – an ancient stereotype – so greed was part of it, and homes ransacked that evening were also looted. But scholar Sander Gilman has another idea. He suggests it was circumcision that caused bleeding which resembles women who … as the White House Orange has pointed out in an effort to disparage, “… Fox’s Megyn Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her wherever’.”[8]  Despite widespread taboos, menstruation should not be a problem, but when projected as emasculating on Jewish men, it becomes one. In the anti-Semitic imagination, Jews (meaning male) are feminized while the feminine itself is excoriated. Were it – the feminine — not a ‘bad thing’, the female would not be mistreated as it is.

No blog can do justice to the intricacies of this subject, but connecting the dots, I see reason to fear. Acts of anti-Semitism, expressions of Islamophobia and racism against people with ample melanin have been increasing exponentially since the fall of 2016.

Fascism is anti-female, and whatever is against women inherently favors FGM. Our cause – ending excision and infibulation — has been hijacked, it’s true, by Islamophobic forces intent on maligning populations who cut as worse than others, as, I’ll dare say, ‘lesser humans’. Now that we know what happens to “unworthy life”[9] – Beware!

Opposing violence in the form of FGM, all UnCUT/VOICES books promote health, prosperity and peace. Khady, in Blood Stains (2010), urges the UN to act, which it does on 20 December 2012 when, with unanimous support from the African group, the General Assembly passed the “Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilations” resolution. In Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris, we see the battlefield surgeon at work to repair the wounds of the ‘war against women’ – as widespread systematic infliction of pain on females has been described.[10] In Nick Mwaluko’s WAAFRIKA 123, drought induces fear which in turn demands blood sacrifice – and the clitoris is the mystical/logical object of choice. Resentful men excise the Chief’s lesbian daughter. Books that quest to stop such acts of ritual onslaught — Waging Empathy, Taboo, Kiminta, Swimming in a Red Sea, and In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran[11] –, enhance prosperity and social harmony.

UNESCO commemorates Peace and Development in marking a Day for World Science. Germans remember in order to preclude (another) Kristallnacht that now appears, in hindsight, as a prelude to war. Europe celebrates the armistice because mortal enemies’ reconciliation shows progress. And elevating women’s status, dignity and independence by ending FGM hastens world peace.[12]

[1] See and

[2] Poverty doesn’t cause FGM, just as membership in a leisure class doesn’t prevent it. But tradition can dig in its heels when confronting chaos, as change can be perceived.

[3] As in society at large, men (and homosexuals) and women (and lesbians) were targeted differently by the Nazis. See Tobe Levin. “The Holocaust and Women’s Studies: An uneasy rapprochement.” Book Review. European Journal of Women’s Studies. Vol. 7, 2000: 245-255.  See also « Pouvons-nous appliquer les principes de la critique littéraire féministe aux écrits de femmes sur l’Holocauste? » [Can we apply principles of feminist literary criticism to women’s Holocaust writing?] Féminismes et nazisme. En Hommage à Rita Thalmann. Ed. Liliane Kandel. Paris: Publications de l’Université Paris 7, Denis Diderot (CEDREF), 1997. 250-259; rpt. In Féminismes et nazisme. Ed. Liliane Kandel. Paris: Odile Jacob, 2004. 250-259.


Accessed 11 November 2018.

[5] It may sound as though I support the notion that the Jewish Holocaust is singular in history. I don’t, aware of the preceding mass murder of Armenians at the close of the Ottoman Empire as well as decimation of Native American tribes in the past, of large-scale killing in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, or ‘genocide’ applied today to the expulsion of Rohingya from Myanmar. The point is not a “competition of tears,” but to draw close parallels to developments today and those that led up to the scourges of World War II.

[6] The adverb is defined as “in a way that shows a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper,” exactly the way I mean it. Accessed 13 November 2018.

[7] “Global estimates published by WHO indicate that about 1 in 3 (35%) of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.” Accessed 13 November 2018.

[8] “Trump says Fox’s Megyn Kelly had ‘blood coming out of her wherever’.”

Accessed 11 November 2018.


Accessed 11 November 2018.

[10] By Marilyn French in her novel of that name, among others.

[11] For the full titles and authors of UnCUT/VOICES books, visit All books can be order through Amazon.

[12] As Emma Batha writes, “No Women, No Progress, Development Experts Warn.”

Accessed 13 November 2018.





Bullet Hole, a three-woman play about FGM at Park Theatre, London

UnCUT/VOICES Press is proud to support a production sure to change hearts and minds, welcome at a historical moment when success in the fight to end FGM seems on the cusp of a breakthrough. I’m honored to accept an invitation from director Lara Genovese to join a panel for Q & A following the performance on 18 October of Gloria Williams’ Bullet Hole, short-listed for the Alfred Fagon Audience Award 2017. If you are in London, don’t miss it! Address:


BH_park image-sq_low res (002)

And in case you’re still in the UK the following day, on Friday, 19 October 2018, UnCUT/VOICES Press is co-sponsoring a workshop on FGM, Youth and Media at the University of Oxford, Kellogg College, together with the International Gender Studies Centre (Lady Margaret Hall), Oxford against Cutting and 28 Too Many, colleagues with whom it is truly a pleasure to work, as our coalition combines scholarship, art and activism in an optimistic spirit convinced that we can end FGM and ensure the empowerment and pleasure of the coming generations of all genders. Invitation FGM workshop 19 Oct Kellogg Oxford final

You are more than welcome to join us in Oxford. To ensure sufficient catering, however, please email Tobe Levin ASAP:

Barbara's Billboard

The Programme

VENUE: Mawby Room, Kellogg College, University of Oxford In Honour of Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond OBE

ça fait mal

9:30 – 9:50 Meet and Greet. Dr Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Dr Maria Jaschok. Thanks to assistant Kelly Benguigui.  

9:45 – 10:00  Soraya Mire, author of Girl with Three Legs and filmmaker, Fire Eyes. Testimony

10:00 – 11:00 #MyClitoris

FGM Animations

FORWARD UK Needlecraft

Warrior Marks ANIMATED VIDEOS TO PREVENT CHILD Sexual ABUSE.  Consent for Kids


11:00 – 11:45  Dr Tobe Levin von Gleichen: “The exemplary Guardian Global Campaign” plus introduction to “A Pinch of Skin” (Priya Goswami) and Jaha’s Promise. The Girl Who Said NO to FGM

11:45 – 1:00 Kate Agha, Kaddy Touray and associates in Oxford Against Cutting: youth dance workshop.* See also

*Lila Greene [] Dancer Fatoumata Bagayoko [] … Dance about FGM in Mali

Working 1:00 – 1:20 LUNCH “I abandon” [Sini Sanuman/ Susan McLucas]

1:20 – 1:30 Janet Chapman. Mapathon.

1:30 – 1:50 Silent Scream (Integrate Bristol) Discussion 

1 :50 – 2:30 ANIMATED VIDEOS TO PREVENT CHILD Sexual ABUSE.  Consent for Kids

Round-Table. “Breaking Taboo: Youth Talk about Sex.” Dr Charles Dotou. Dr Michal Moskow. Dr Brenda Kelly

2:30 – 3:15: Caroline Pinder, 28 Too Many, Home Office PowerPoint/ Tool kit

3:15 -3:30 Coffee/tea break

3:30 – 3:45 Hilary Burrage: “Brexit and Youth: Bad for the movement?” 

3:45 – 4:00 Hannah Discussion plus media suggestions from participants. 

4:00 – 5:00 IAC Beliefs and Misbeliefs  [Warning: graphic] Discussion

5:15 -5:45 Dr Anna Reading (Keynote)

5:45 – 6:00 Summary and conclusion

£15 requested for lunch and coffee break. Contact

For the International Day of the Girl Child, 11 October: Homage to Khady

Khady UN

Khady as a small girl graces the cover of her memoir _Blood Stains_. Sixty-five copies were distributed to UN GA delegates who voted on December 20, 2012, to Ban FGM Worldwide.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in 2012, Plan International urged the UN to declare 11 October the International Day of the Girl Child. Only 2 months later, on 20 December, the General Assembly strengthened that organization’s position vis-à-vis the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, first designated by the Inter-African Committee in 2004 to take place every February 6. The IAC’s intention was up-front. Voices within some UN agencies disagreed with African leadership whose Bamako Declaration (2005) cautioned against euphemism when urging abolition of female genital mutilation. The IAC, at its sixth General Assembly in Mali, accused the West of hijacking the topic.

… An issue of concern at the 6th General Assembly … has been attempts to dilute the terminology Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and replace it with the following: “Female Circumcision,” “Female Genital Alteration,” “Female Genital Excision,” “Female Genital Surgery,” and more recently “Female Genital Cutting” (FGC). … Female Genital Cutting (FGC) does not reflect the accurate extent of harm and mutilation caused by all types of FGM. This terminology has been adopted by some UN specialized agencies and bi-lateral donors … influenced by specific lobby groups largely based in western countries.

…These changes trivialize the nature of female genital mutilation and the suffering of African women and girls …[and] … made without consultation, [they] override the consensus reached by African women in the front line of the campaign as well as the … millions of African girls and women who suffer in silence.

Khady Geneva UN Book Day 24 April (3)

Celebrating action to end abuse. At the Human Rights Council in Geneva, 11 May 2016.

Khady was one of the earliest survivors to brave the danger in ‘outing’ herself, thereby providing a voice for the unheard millions. She tells how it feels – and how it all works together: FGM, forced and early marriage, marital rape and other bad habits …

That African kid with a sand belly has come remarkably far: from Thiès in Senegal to the United Nations via Beijing and innumerable African and European capitals.  A dynamic public speaker living in the Parisian Diaspora , she founded a European Network in Brussels in 2002 to prevent and eradicate ‘harmful traditional practices’, especially excision. She dares the world to look at what it chooses to ignore — FGM.

Khady at Harvard announcement

Her tireless motivation arises from an experience of hurt poignantly told in Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICS Press, 2010). I’m Khady’s publisher and translator. In fact, UnCUT/VOICES Press was launched because you could have read Khady’s memoir in a dozen languages — Chinese, Russian, Japanese — as soon as it came out as Mutilée in 2005, but you’d have had to wait five years for it in English. One of many quality foreign-language texts that call FGM by its right name, torture, and sees it unequivocally as an abuse of human rights, the manuscript must have seemed risky to established publishers. After all, hadn’t the American Academy of Pediatrics in April 2010 revealed U.S. attitudes? The Academy supported changing the current law banning all forms of FGM in the USA. Wouldn’t it be better, the AAP urged, if physicians were enabled to “reach out” to practicing communities by offering a clitoral “nick”? Global outrage compelled the Academy’s return to an earlier uncompromised position, but a tendency in the US to condone, not condemn, had appeared. [When the Economist published “An Agonizing Choice” on 18 June 2016, arguing in support of a ‘nick’, Integrate UK came up with a smashing rebuttal that went viral on YouTube:

FGM remains a violent indignity – even when medicalized–, and Khady provides little space for ethical uncertainties. Among an intimidated troop of children, she witnesses how “three or four grown-ups snatch up a little girl” whose “blood-curdling shrieks” draw tears from her eyes. Longing but unable to escape she waits, rigid with fear. Then, two women drag her in. One seizes her head and, “with all the strength in her knees, crushes her shoulders to the ground” while the second forces the thighs apart. The clitoris now between the operator’s fingers, the elder “whacks it off like a piece of zebu meat.” Or, if unable to “hack it off in one go … she’s obliged to saw.” Do you hear Khady “howling”? (11) She says that in her mind, it has never stopped.

Can lack of empathy for targets of this widespread, systemic violation derive in part from the impotence of words? For “the pain had no name. It resembled no other. It was like they were yanking out your guts. Like a hammer in your skull, [your body] now home to a famished rat or an army of ants. I was swallowed whole by horror … from my head through my belly to my feet” (12).

First person accounts of the torture are rare. In 1978, Awa Thiam presented testimony by P.K. who described her ordeal. It took nearly a decade, however, for translation of the victim’s words. Waris Dirie was among the first in the 1990s; Ayaan Hirsi Ali reveals her trial as well. But both were prominent before their ‘coming out’. Khady’s going public as an ‘ordinary’ woman took enormous courage. Interviewed by Florence Deguen, she admits to being “prudish” and finding it “really difficult to tell the world such intimate things” (33). In early speeches as an activist, she was often overwhelmed by invasive questions about her private life that felt like “verbal rape” (203). Yet she “did it for the sake of others” (203). Among those others was Khady’s fourth daughter who was spared; for the older three, awareness and militancy came too late. “I just let it happen to my first two,” Khady tells Deguen, “but asked for it myself for the third. I was young, ignorant, lost. [She weeps.] And I’ve never forgiven myself” (33).

Khady Banner RomeTormented by what she had failed to prevent, Khady works ceaselessly to stave off future casualties. She both denounces and explains how mutilation, embedded in a web of woes, requires “constant vigilance” if it is to end. For excision is ‘merely’ the first step. The second is early marriage, the coupling of children from ten to fifteen with grown men, a violation experienced by Khady herself as a girl of thirteen. Penetrated, she blacks out, the “excruciating” act robbing her “of sight and understanding,” and resulting in self-hatred. “There’s something in me that absolutely refuses to envision what happened in that room. … I blotted out that intimate wound forever powerless to heal” (60). Her book both re-enacts and cancels multiple acts of violence for which she makes a radical and disturbing claim: excision; early ‘marriage’; repeated marital rape; domestic battery and the abuses of polygamy – all told in detail – are not her individual fate, though this is what she goes through, but violations endured by a significant number of Soninke women in Diaspora. They are encouraged by a patriarchal system designed by and for men. These architects are not only African; without French complicity, it would not pay to marry a couple of teens and bring them North. Were the French welfare system to deposit entitlements in mothers’, not fathers’, accounts, birth control would be easier to practice. Khady blows the whistle on Gallic funding of African women’s abuse.

But she also credits the French liberal democracy with facilitating escape. She succeeds in having childcare benefits diverted into her own account; she takes advantage of the professional training government offers to the unemployed and has worked as a nurse and translator. But her passion remains focused because “activism is less a duty than a calling,” (209) and Khady has been called to “keep the blades of tradition … far away from little girls” (212).

Won’t you join her?

With thanks to Hilary Burrage for disseminating the Bamako Declaration text.

A version of this article appeared in On the Issues Magazine. The Café. Fall 2011.


Works Cited

Deguen, Florence. “‘It’s up to us women to eradicate this practice’. Interview with Khady Koita.” Trans. Tobe Levin. In Feminist Europa. Review of Books. 5/1, ’05; 6/1, ’06. 32-33. Published with permission from Le Parisien. October 16, 2005.

Dirie, Waris. Desert Flower. NY: William Morrow, 1998.

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. The Caged Virgin. NY: The Free Press, 2006.

Thiam, Awa. La Parole au Négresses. Paris : Denoel, 1978 ; —–. Black Sisters, Speak Out. Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa. Trans. Anna V. Adams. London: Pluto, 1986.

For World Teachers’ Day: anyone have lesson plans to speed the end of FGM?

YES. Hibo Wardere has. Author of CUT. One Woman’s Fight against FGM in Britain Today, she teaches in schools that kids young enough to face the blade are mature enough to refuse.Similarly, Kate Agha, Kaddy Touray and their team at Oxford Against Cutting address primary and mid-level pupils using narrative and art. They offer for instance a unit called “Who Can You Tell?”2 Also taking action in the UK is Norbury School head teacher Ms L. Browning whose class presented a moving poster series showing paragraphs on children’s rights. Their performance delighted the audience at the Local Government Association National FGM Centre Conference in partnership with Barnardo’s in London on 12 October 2016.



In Africa, too, educational approaches to FGM are making headway. Prime among these may be the “i-Cut” APP developed by Stacy Owino  and teammates Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Mascrine Atieno, and Ivy Akinyi in 2017 and entered in the Technovation Challenge, sponsored by Google, Verizon, and the United Nations.3 Calling themselves “The Restorers,” Silicon Valley honored them with an invitation to California and although they didn’t win, they cleared a path for increased digital advocacy. Additional innovative educational initiatives in Africa include Sarah Penny’s work in Somaliland. Penny uses drama in her classes aiming to end the trauma of infibulation, while Naomi Rosen is currently drafting a handbook for UnCUT/VOICES Press on FGM, trauma and theater for use by therapists. And already published is the memoir and sourcebook by Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation (Frankfurt: UnCUT/VOICES P., 2015 with photos by Britta Radike).

Kiminta front cover

Thus, “World Teachers’ Day,” offers a fine occasion to reflect on pedagogy and FGM. On 5 October 1966, UNESCO and the ILO issued a “recommendation concerning the Status of Teachers” that, among other issues, addressed quality of instruction at all levels and continuing education for faculty. As Wikipedia notes, “World Teachers’ Day aims to focus on ‘appreciating, assessing and improving the educators of the world’ and to provide an opportunity to consider issues related to teachers and teaching.”4

Maria Kiminta, an FGM survivor who has suffered lasting physical and psychological sequelae, reawakens her painful experience only in order to teach others. As she has written in her preface, “Joy sat down with me when I first conceived of writing this book. Motivated by my own need for answers, I knew that others, too, wanted broader knowledge. Like me, they would welcome the chance to move beyond static information of the past.” And, she suggests, “communicating what I had learned … could alter African culture, both in the Diaspora, — including where I live, in Germany –, and in Africa.”5

Kiminta smiling 2

Most important in the cultural change she envisions is transparency. Within cutting cultures, what girls actually undergo continues, ironically, to pass under the radar. Men, especially, now recruited as key figures in campaigns, are often ignorant of what transpires.6 Thus, Kiminta risks revealing what she endured and still suffers, namely “an anxiety state” and “reaction depression.”

“Originating from lack of sleep and hallucinations, my anxiety is not unlike PTSD since the trauma imposed easily compares to torture. When five adults overpower a slim ten-year-old, she reacts with panic and then, from unspeakable pain, with shock. The practice produces horror, and re-running the indelible script has led to white nights the moment the scenario flashes through my mind. Oh, how I wish I could forget that old woman lowering her knife on me, chopping something off, and inciting a torrent of blood. How I’d love to disremember! But … it hasn’t left me. Sleep leads to nightmares that wake me up to weep.”  (p. 36-37).

Valentine Nkoyo, in her “Reflections on Kiminta’s Tale,” expresses gratitude. “Kiminta’s story has given me a friend, a sister, a true African warrior with whom I not only share the experience of FGM but also the passion to defend the vulnerable and speak out openly, affirming pride in our good traditions yet agreeing to abandon the harmful. …[For] I can be Maasai even if intact! And once assured of this, I can mute the throwback to my own ‘event’ that Kiminta vividly evokes. Her description of that day squeezes the heart. So well written, it makes her kin to other girls whose detailed memories echo hers. Absolutely typical [is] the inexorable pain, stubborn and greedy” (pp. 108-109).

As Valentine confirms, most survivors never forget “what they endure, the mutilation of their genitals. Unless they cut you as an infant, you cannot forget the brutal ripping off of flesh – while robust arms pin you down, ensuring you don’t fight back, and your captors belt out ear-splitting songs, guaranteeing that no one hears you scream” (109).7

Fortunately, the world’s ears have opened, as increasing political will to end FGM makes clear. It remains for educators to take the good fight for genital integrity to all the classrooms – physical and virtual – where women’s sexuality still has reason to cower before the knife.


1Emine Saner. “From FGM victim to teacher: ‘You are always running from it. But you get tired. You have to confront it’.” The Guardian. Accessed 6 October 2018.

2Lesson Plan for “Who Can You Tell?” targeted to primary school children at Key Stage 1.  Accessed 6 October 2018.

3April Hautea. „These teen girls from Kenya invented an app to end female genital mutilation.” Mashable.  Accessed 6 October 2018.

4 “World Teachers’ Day.”   Accessed 6 October 2018.

5Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation (Frankfurt: UnCUT/VOICES P., 2015 with photos by Britta Radike. P. 7.

6In this regard, Leyla Hussein in “The Cruel Cut” uses unforgettable props in two educational scenes. The first deploys clitoris cupcakes to lure into a tent replete with seats and a screen unsuspecting pedestrians strolling along the Thames to educate them on FGM, and later, she exposes young Somali men in a museum space to the wall of vaginas and large clay models of vulvas she mutilates with garden shears to the visible distress of the unknowing youth. Accessed 6 October 2018.

7A curious trope in FGM films is recruiting Beethoven or Bach to mute the cries. As the razor bites, the orchestra booms. And it’s true. The act is hard enough to watch but impossible to hear. I’m thinking especially of the 1992 Nigerian IAC production directed by Dr. Irene Thomas called “Beliefs and Misbeliefs.”

Browning Norbury School Head Teacher

Norbury School Head Teacher L. Browning

AfterWords for FGM in Iran: a Golden Anniversary reunion …

On 1 July 2018 at the Vine House, London, celebrating with influential author Hilary Burrage and her violinist husband Tony 50 years of solidarity and friendship, guests active to end FGM embraced the opportunity to extend further happiness to girls and women slowly but surely ‘banishing the knives of excision’, as Erica Pomerance calls her latest film documenting efforts toward that end in Mali. In the photos here you see Kameel Ahmady,  Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Linda Weil-Curiel and Dr. Phoebe Abe. Because Kameel’s IRIN initiative has recently been honored as the latest affiliate of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, I thought it appropriate to offer the AfterWords to Kameel’s book, In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran, available from UnCUT/VOICES Press. See http://www.uncutvoices.comKameel, Linda and Tobe at Hilary's 50thAfterWords

By Tobe Levin and Hilary Burrage

Is female genital mutilation an African issue? A women’s problem? A religious requirement? A feminist concern?

Playing devil’s advocate, the answer in every case is that FGM shatters these limiting frames. Ablation of girls’ genitalia isn’t the unique concern of Africans, women, theologians or feminists. Ending FGM requires all people of good will.

And thanks to Kameel Ahmady and his team’s research, the facts are out. Sharp metal objects bite vulvas in Iran, thus providing certainty that FGM exceeds the confines of a continent known to have birthed our earliest recorded ancestor, the woman archaeologists named Lucy. Indeed, these facts imply excision’s spread from a Blue Nilotic epicenter to be taken up, for complex reasons, elsewhere around the globe.

Moreover, Kameel Ahmady is a man who questions male peers to reveal degrees of men’s involvement, broadening ownership and thus accountability beyond the female sphere. Regarding religion, Ahmady opens the door to Farsi discussions inaccessible to most readers of this book, and what he shows is a fascinating potpourri of clerical back and forth. Writ large in most analyses of genital excision is the custom’s absence from the Koran and indeed from the scriptures of most faiths. Yet we find the local mullahs differing as to the duties of their flocks. Some tell the devout that releasing clitoral blood is not forbidden; others recommend it; still others leave the decision to the grown-up children; many also counsel against it. Ahmady himself is sure: Islam doesn’t condone ablation of a child’s genitalia given Koranic commands to ‘do no harm’.

And as a feminist issue?

Here, too, Kameel Ahmady stands out among students of these ‘rites’. Though in youth he had suspected it, only later in life did he learn of his own female relatives’ victimization; empathy with his mother and sisters spurred him to take up the abolition cause. He supports women’s empowerment. He understands the challenge to self-confidence resulting from the symbolic and actual infliction of a disability. He sees that clitoral attack, beyond rationalizations and even in the mildest forms that leave few or no physical scars, affects the mind. Why should female organs of sexuality and procreation be handled fiercely rather than gently? What possible psychological reality could account for such behavior as espoused by individuals and groups when the act itself is surely counter-intuitive for everyone?

Anthr/apologists have a ready answer: pain itself is valued. If, however, this explanation once sufficed, it does so no longer as human and children’s rights have, since at least World War II, presented themselves as universal standards to which Ahmady unequivocally subscribes. Thus, if we define feminism as the theory seeking to enhance the world by cleansing it of gender-based discrimination, FGM is a feminist issue par excellence.

As Verena Stefan writes, “No little girl in the world would, by herself, think up such a thing as placing clitoris and vagina in competition with one another, de- and revaluing them, creating an arbitrary conflict between two parts of her own body or, out of the blue, resolving to amputate a healthy organ.”1 Rather, “the clitoris appears as the primary threat to a phallocratic world view and to the power of individual men.”2

Ahmady never loses sight of this, reiterating (often) the challenges for him, as a man and a feminist, in trying to stop FGM in Iran. One of his most poignant scenes concerns the colloquy of males newly informed of what the custom brings women — risks and pain. “Later [the men] were asked whether, in light of their new knowledge…, they would be willing to have their daughters cut, thereby exposing them to the same agony in bed and perhaps to a husband who cheats. Our interviewees could not answer. Instead,” Ahmady writes, “silent, they looked away.”

We both agree, Kameel Ahmady’s feminist stance is well-defined.  The two years of our collaboration, editing his research report to enable publication, have revealed yet again that matters exist unconfined by national or so-called ‘cultural’ boundaries. We meet men as well as women, in every part of the world, for whom self-determination and bodily integrity are rights everyone should enjoy.  As Ahmady has consistently demonstrated in our dialogues in cyberspace, he is one of them.  The right to be free from assault and pain, ‘even’ in the name of tradition, is an entitlement guaranteed to all.

In this belief Ahmady joins an increasing number of men, each applying his prism or lens to interpret what he has observed or uncovered.  This distinguished cadre of male campaigners against FGM includes activists from many corners of the globe – Morissanda Kouyaté, the Guinean medical doctor who leads the Inter-African Committee in its work; Samuel Leadismo, Evanson Njero, Gerald Lepariyo and Tony Mwebia, all activists in Kenya; the artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus of Nigeria and Belgium; and advocates Ahmed Hassan and Ahabwe Mugerwa Michael in Somalia and Uganda respectively; Qamar Naseem of the human rights organization Blue Veins in Pakistan; the attorney Dexter Dias QC in the UK; Dr. Pierre Foldes in France; Thomas von der Osten-Sacken of WADI in Iraq, and Holger Postulart, director of the Global Alliance Against FGM based in Geneva.

The net is closing.  FGM is being called out and will be defeated by people of different genders, many traditions and creeds, or indeed of no creed at all other than the belief in the universality of human rights.

Beyond the critical significance of these inalienable rights, Kameel Ahmady’s focus, like that of his male co-activists identified here, also demonstrates another deep truth:  the world over, men as well as women can subscribe sincerely to the feminist ideal.  Feminism, they understand, is not about setting women against men; it is about revealing the grim truths of patriarchy, that system which disadvantages many women and some men in the interests of a powerful male minority.  Both women and men, they acknowledge, can co-exist more happily and safely when the tools of repression employed to subjugate women are identified and challenged.

Feminism, these thoughtful men understand, is in essence about confronting the abuse of power, and that abuse is exercised, most fundamentally, cruelly and dramatically in the form of genital assault, by some men on many women.  No matter that it is women who may execute the actual act; it is performed because the men – often culpably feigning only a vague knowledge of detail – require the erotic taming of the female.  In that sense, as Ahmady’s work confirms, this ‘rite’ is, taken literally, patriarchy incarnate, the carving of men’s power on and into women’s bodies.

The work of unveiling the cutting culture in hitherto unrevealed places, in locations in Iran and elsewhere, is only just beginning, but it could not be more important in the struggle to make FGM history.  Kameel Ahmady’s contribution to that work is enormous.


[1] Verena Stefan. (2104) “Mutilation of the Vulva and Circumcision of other Female Freedoms – or the Perfect Vulva’s Aura and Revolt.” In Levin, Tobe, ed. Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy and the Global Movement to Ban FGM. Trans. Tobe Levin.  Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES P., 69.

[2] Ibid. 68.




CONGRATULATIONS to our author Kameel Ahmady & IRIN, new member of the IAC

Kameel with Award March 8, 2017

Kameel Ahmady receiving the IKWRO True Honour Award in 2017. See:

On February 6, 1984, representatives of 26 African nations  met in Dakar to answer a call that had emerged in the 1970s. Local leadership was needed to end the scourge of female genital mutilation. Thus, the Inter-African Committee (IAC) was born. In 1985 with an impressive series of presentations at the U.N. End-of-Decade for Women conference in Nairobi, the non-profit took its place at the helm of international advocacy to stop FGM.

The IAC describes its objectives as, first, to “prevent and eliminate traditional practices that are harmful to or impede the health, human development and rights of women and girls and advocate for care for those who suffer the health consequences.” It also wishes “to promote and  support those traditional practices that improve and contribute to … [females’] health, human development and rights.” [1] In a commanding film from 1991 produced by Dr. Irene Thomas with the Nigerian section of the IAC, you find founding president Berhane Ras-Work advocating for baby massage and breast-feeding, unquestionably good child-rearing customs. In contrast, ritual amputation of girls’ genitalia — which the IAC insists be properly named as female genital mutilation [2] — should be rigorously opposed.

From its headquarters in Addis Ababa and liaison office in Geneva, the Inter-African Committee unites chapters in 29 African nations while linking to Diaspora populations through affiliates in Belgium, France, the UK, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Canada, USA, New Zealand, Japan — and now also in IRAN.

16 June, the International Day of the African Child, offers ample motivation to celebrate not the discovery of yet another venue in the world where FGM occurs but of our ability to bring it out into the open and to welcome a voice for change. Yes, advances in communication make the ubiquity of genital maiming increasingly evident. Did you know, for instance, that Dagestan and Colombia, not exactly next-door neighbors, are among recent additions to the list along with Iran, Iraq, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia? What’s good in all this is the rise of resistance and a growing awareness that FGM is itself a symptom, not of local animosity to female genitalia, but of global negativity inherent in a patriarchal order.

And most welcome are the men putting their own convenience and well-being on the line, risking the backlash of peers and governments in standing up for women and girls. Kameel Ahmady has done this in his book with UnCUT/VOICES Press and a second study on early and child marriage.

Congratulations to the IAC for acquiring such a noble ally and to Kameel Ahmady for unflinching effort to create a safer and more just world for girls.

Ahmady FGM in Iran Book Launch Oxford 1

On 10 October 2016, we celebrated the launch of Kameel Ahmady’s book at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre and UnCUT/VOICES Press. The book was also hailed by The Guardian.

[1] Accessed 17 June 2018

[2] See the Bamako Declaration.

Kameel Order formExcerpts on the history and epidemiology of FGM from Kameel Ahmady. In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran. AfterWords Tobe Levin and Hilary Burrage.  (UnCUT/VOICESS Press, 2016).

Historical Roots of FGM

Despite considerable research by historians and anthropologists, the historical roots of FGM remain unknown. Several sources that have traced it back more than 2000 years generally point to ancient Egypt, specifically around the Nile, as the geographic heartland of its spread.

More precisely, several historians claim it to be a Pharaonic practice dating from the 5th century BC. “Pharaonic circumcision,” an expression prevalent in popular discourse, is sometimes considered as proof of the claim. Several researchers suggest that the early Egyptians infibulated women to prevent pregnancy, especially among slaves. Others mention the practice as an African Stone Age method of “protecting” young females from rape (Lightfoot-Klein, 1983; Iweulmor and Veney, 2006). Early Roman and Arabic civilisations linked FGM to virginity and chastity; in ancient Rome female captives were subjected to it to repress sexual activity and to raise their market value (Iweulmor and Veney, 2006).

Despite its obscure origins, FGM extended throughout the world where it can be found to this day. Not limited to Africa and the Middle East, ablation of female genitalia was performed by Australian Aboriginal communities, the Phoenicians, the Hittites, the Ethiopians, and ethnic groups in Amazonia, some parts of India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia as well as in the Philippines. As late as the 19th and into the twentieth century, FGM was also known in Europe and the US, where some physicians prescribed clitoridectomy to prevent masturbation or counteract female homosexuality and some mental disorders such as hysteria (Brown, 1866). In fact, FGM sporadically continued in the USA until the 1970s in one form or another. (Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Alice Walker included FGM performed on US soil in her pioneering novel against female mutilation, Possessing the Secret of Joy [1992].)

FGM: global prevalence

UNICEF confirms that FGM is most common in 29 countries in Africa as well as in some nations in Asia and the Middle East. No evidence exists for it as indigenous to southern Africa or in the Arabic-speaking nations of North Africa, except Egypt. Increased migration from practising nations, however, has brought FGM to other parts of the world including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, and Europe (Boyle and Preves, 2000). To a lesser extent, clitoridectomy continues to occur in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India, Iraq and Iran as this research will show.

In Iraq, Sunni Kurds, some Arabs and Turkmens subject girls to the blade. A 2005 survey by a German NGO suggests 60% FGM prevalence among Kurds in Iraq (Ghareeb and Dougherty, 2004, 226). Later studies from the same area, however, following the launch of local and regional campaigns, show a lower figure, suggesting success. According to the Kurdish regional government, UNICEF and local NGOs, FGM rates have indeed been going down (UNICEF, 2014).

Reliable data on the prevalence of FGM is increasingly available. The statistical review by UNICEF mentions that national numbers have now been collected in the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) for six countries: the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Eritrea, Mali and Sudan. In these nations, the rate among reproductive-age women varies from 43% to 97%. The data also subdivides rates among different ethnic groups. However, the statistics are silent about its presence in the US and a few other western nations …. Iraq, at 8%, has amongst the lowest rates of FGM (UNICEF, 2013).  Nonetheless, that nation has now found its place on the list.”


At Oxford’s Cotswold Lodge after the launch  with l to r: Kameel Ahmady, Comfort I. Ottah (former executive director of FORWARD – UK), Dr Tobe Levin,  Nolan Victory (NHS), and Haldi Sheahan