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




TRENDING: MEN against FGM … strongest allies in ending it

Kameel with Award March 8, 2017

Kameel Ahmady displaying his True Honor Award 2017

It is a truth universally acknowledged, or at least one broadly held, that female genital mutilation proceeds because women believe that men want it. Many men DO in fact want it, but not because they know what it is. Rather, they go along because, for the most part, they, too, are trapped by mutual expectations of honor and shame. Defying this social pressure takes courage — whose symbol deftly appeared, then disappeared again in an interview when Dr. Pierre Foldes flicked open his shirt to reveal a knife wound on his shoulder, souvenir of an irate patriarch’s office visit in St. Germaine-en-Laye. In Burkina Faso in the late 1980s, Foldes had also been verbally abused by a powerful male nurse who, when learning about the sexual pleasure the surgeon had enabled a patient to revive — the first who revealed the joy his removal of the clitoral scar had given her— admonished the battlefield doctor to relieve pain but ‘leave that alone — or else’. Not soon after, Pierre returned to France … and the rest of the story is told by Hubert Prolongeau in Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris.

Undoing FGM cover

Another bold young man whom UnCUT/VOICES Press has the privilege to publish is Kameel Ahmady, the first writer whose book reveals the very existence of FGM in four provinces in Iran. Over ten years, a team under Ahmady’s direction gathered demographic evidence in 4000 interviews conducted in  Hormozgan, West Azerbaijan, Kermanshah and Kurdistan. His work among men is impressive, as I’m sure you’ll agree after reading this excerpt:

Although FGM happens within the female realm, the role of husbands and brothers cannot be overlooked. Some men take cover behind religion, labeling any endeavor to end FGM a Western idea derived from ‘women’s lib’.  And although they may not say it, some surely realize that the scarred vaginal entrance, tighter than when intact, increases sexual pleasure – for the male. In any case, in most conservative cutting cultures, men refuse to marry an uncut girl.

Some Iranians are convinced, moreover, that FGM dampens women’s sexual drive. Compared with Shia Persian or Turkish groups, they would brag, their community is purer, with fewer moral problems. Often Sunni men would assure us of this. If their women had been spared the blade, they said, they would be like Shia females or TV and film stars — out of control. Regarding sexual intercourse with intact partners from elsewhere in Iran, the smoother and smaller ‘circumcised’ genitalia, better for sex, were often preferred even if uncut women were superior at foreplay.

Finally, FGM was unknown to a number of respondents whose wives’ genital status was also beyond their ken. Interestingly, once we outlined the dangers and impairment of women’s sexual enjoyment (i.e. the cut partner’s delayed arousal might impede men’s marital amusement), most confirmed that, indeed, sexual relations at home could be improved. Some admitted that their women were “not hot” or “do not give us pleasure.’’ They also confessed that to stoke their own desire, they had other lovers or simply married a younger second wife.

Later they were asked whether, in light of their new knowledge of FGM, 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, they remained silent and looked away.

Kameel Order form

Of the many themes evoked here, we find research imparting “new knowledge of FGM.” Not hiding behind ‘cultural relativist’ pseudo-neutrality, these interviewers recorded opinions AND shared information about the custom’s health damage. Excision is also presented as a human rights abuse.

And finally, UnCUT/Voices’ author Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko joins this noble trio with WAAFRIKA 1 2 3. 1992. Kenya. Two Womyn Fall in Love.  I’m reproducing the announcement of my Harvard speech with a description here:

HGSE Poster Tobe Levin WAAFRIKAThe drama has enjoyed a successful debut in Berkeley, CA.


To conclude, we owe gratitude to the many  who have stepped forward to support us, confronting their (literally) fellow men. Honorees include the chair of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for endorsing our books;  Dr. Dan mon O’Dey for performing plastic surgery on the infibulated vulva; and Dexter Dias, QC, for his outspoken advocacy (note TEDxExeter presentation) 

There are MANY more: the Maasai Warriors playing cricket to end FGM; the executive director of the Inter-African Committee, Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté;  former Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon; U.S. Senator Harry Reid; NY Representative Joseph Crowley, to name only a few.  And because of their importance, FORWARD – Germany has launched a project addressing men from immigrant communities to act as change agents advising against the cut. With men’s support, the end of FGM draws near.


FGM: Tough Questions, No (‘sexy’) Answers. Call for papers on March 8, International Women’s Day

FGM in iran cover

Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, (2015) watercolor for the cover of FGM in Iran.

For an edited volume whose working title is Female Genital Mutilation: Tough Questions, No (‘sexy’) Answers (editor Tobe Levin von Gleichen) UnCUT/VOICES Press invites you to consider submitting a chapter.

About UnCUT/VOICES Press

Registered in 2009 in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, UnCUT/VOICES Press, publishing in English, is part of the global movement to end female genital mutilation, and all our books focus on that issue.  Hoping to spare girls and women the pain of this ritual abuse, we produce autobiographies, novels, poetry, plays, and other creative work including translations and academic research. Concerned to blend scholarship and advocacy, we have co-sponsored a series of colloquia and workshops at the University of Oxford, Lady Margaret Hall, in cooperation with the International Gender Studies Centre. We also consider alliances important, for instance, with FORWARD-Germany, INTEGRA, The Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund, La Palabre, the MOJATU Foundation, The Dahlia Project, Oxford against Cutting, the Oxford Rose Clinic, 28 Too Many, and l’Institut en Santé génésique, to name a few. The novel Stones by Jeanie Kortum is our first co-imprint with She Writes Press.

Stones cover as jpeg (2)

About the edited volume

“In the UK, the three topics people are afraid to talk about are race, gender, and sex, and FGM involves all three,” Leyla Hussein told The Lancet. Although FGM has attracted increasing attention, scholars and activists remain challenged by backlash and stumbling blocks. A considerable amount of action is needed in many arenas, including the pedagogical and political,  to ensure abolition. For instance, a recent headline in The Malay Mail complains about excessive concern for female genitalia as the UN Commission on the Status of Women (holding its annual meeting in NY) calls on the nation to spare girls from the blade. The headline reads: “Why focus on non-issues like FGM”? And the report goes on: “So much attention has been given to … female circumcision in terms of its medical harms and benefits, that we strongly feel more pressing issues are being marginalized.” As we bracket our scepticism regarding alleged ‘benefits’, the Malaysian Alliance of Civil Society Organisations (MACSA) involved in the UN’s consultative process claims that CEDAW “has been misled” into believing FGM is widely practiced in Malaysia. MACSA’s denial rests on making a sharp distinction between ‘mutilation’ of female genitalia and WHO’s definitions of types 1 and 4 – circumcision of the clitoral prepuce and pricking — that are, admittedly, present, but MACSA insists, no ‘mutilation’ takes place, [1] at least not according to certain influential imams.

Kimiinta Cover (2)

Can a human rights approach reasonably dialogue with such claims to religious hegemony that conflict with children’s rights? Other egregious examples of backlash and barriers include

°            interventions favouring medicalisation that have dogged anti-FGM movements for decades (key players include Dr Omar Abdulcadir in Florence, Italy; [2] Dr Arnold Groh at the Technical University in Berlin, Germany; [3] academics at the Universities of Washington and Chicago in the USA, and many more).

°            arguments around female genital cosmetic surgery, claiming a racist double standard in acceptance of alteration to the labia, clitoris and vulva of white women while criminalizing (so-called) similar manoeuvres applied to ethnic minority women in Diaspora.

°            insistence by the movement to end circumcision of the penile foreskin that FGM cannot be successfully opposed until male genital mutilation is abolished. [4]

°            hijacking of educational outreach on FGM by right wing ideologues (the so-called Alt Right, aka white supremacists or neo-Nazis) determined to demonize practitioners of FGM not out of concern for abused children but to score political points.

°            failure of government to supply sufficient funding to grassroots organizations in Africa, the Diaspora, and  other nations – the list grows almost daily – where FGM is found. Even if the present decade has witnessed a laudable increase in financial support when compared with earlier years, sums remain inadequate and too much reliance is placed on volunteerism.

°            the omerta that, like a bell jar, stifles frank if fraught discussion of female sexuality, the neural connections between brain and vulva, the positive physiological effects of jouissance, and the negative resonance far exceeding the erotic of post-traumatic stress disorder in some sufferers of FGM.

°            the difficulty in bringing perpetrators to justice with France alone showing a respectable scorecard that undergirds the correlation between prosecution and abolition.

°            the scarcity of ‘country of origin’ experts to support asylum applications.

°            controversy around clitoral restoration and resources best devoted to it, and

°            economic setbacks – concerning GDP, productivity, and reaching Sustainable Development Goals – while disabling significant numbers of a nation’s citizens.

These are among the many hurdles we’ve considered at our various colloquia and workshops.Taboo front cover

The concept notes for five workshop sessions on 9 March 2018, in the context of International Women’s Day (March 8th), embroider additional patterns of complexity that may attract contributions to the proposed interdisciplinary volume of essays.

Essays, using APA or MLA documentation style, should be no longer than 5000 words excluding title, abstract and references. First drafts due 30 June 2018.


Session 1: Myth and/or History

Concept note: It has often been acknowledged that the obscure origins of FGM impede our grasp of motives that could help to end it. Various hypotheses have been advanced, but none has been confirmed. Given that the Sudanese call it ‘pharaonic’, scholars tend to favour Egypt as the source. After all, Cleopatra and Nefertiti are said to have undergone clitoridectomy, [5] and Esther Hicks in Infibulation. Female Mutilation in Islamic Northeastern Africa (1993) offers strong evidence for the custom’s spread from East to West via a camel trail across the Sahara used to transport goods, slaves, and the custom of stitching vaginas. [6] In her fiction based on these assumptions, African-American author Gloria Naylor in Bailey’s Café (1993) gives us the itinerant Mariam, [7] infibulated as in many nomadic groups along the Blue Nile in present-day Sudan. The mythic quality envelopes the factual custom reaching back beyond the dawn of written history. And because most sufferers reside in Africa, that continent has long been thought of as the birthplace of the ‘rites’ – a hypothesis recently contested by the suggestion, ripe for a feminist analysis, of spontaneous generation on many continents. Now, although in 1984, Jutta Berninghausen and B. Kerstan revealed that FGM was also widely practiced in Indonesia (Die Töchter Kartinis. Berichte und Reportagen aus dem Leben Indonesischer Frauen. Berlin: Express edition, 1984), their report failed to impact on the English-speaking West, such that only in 2016 did UNICEF, in a Press Release, catapult the worldwide estimate of victims from ca. 140,000,000, primarily in Africa, to ‘at least 200 million girls and women alive today’. [8] A statistical report, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern (2016) notes that ‘half of [them] live in three countries – Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia – and refers to … evidence [for] FGM [as] a global human rights issue … in every [populated] region’. [9] In the meantime, director Dr. John Chua, working for six years on the material, substantiates UNICEF’s findings in his full-length feature film Cut. Exposing FGM Worldwide (2017). In it he claims to ‘conclusively prove’ that ‘FGM can be found as a native practice on all inhabitable continents.’ [10]

This session focuses on ‘folk’ beliefs about origins of FGM together with the sayings threatening danger – and inducing fear – that failure to perform it presents. Borrowing from euhemerism, I see these myths as receptacles for psycho-social facts. [11] Respectfully reviewing foundational tales justifying genital ablation, we will interpret, for instance, the Somali semi-mythical, semi-historical account of Araweelo [12] (Somali: Caraweelo) in which a revered Queen’s subjugation of men leads to revenge in the form of infibulation. Moreover, the Dogon’s tale of Amma as recorded by French anthropologist Griaule and decisive in Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy (1993) shows the earth’s clitoris configured as a termite hill. It impedes rape by the sun god Amma who in turn excises the offending organ, setting a perpetual precedent for the act that continues today. We will also consider “Beliefs and Misbeliefs” – the turn of phrase borrowed from a 1991 IAC Nigerian documentary directed by Dr Irene Thomas – to understand the angst generated by certain convictions of lethal peril should a clitoris remain intact. The Yoruba, for instance, believe that an uncircumcised mother’s baby could die if the infant’s head touches the maligned organ (as recorded in 2017 and shown on YouTube); or a man could lose his penis if a clitoris brushes against it. We will ask, can science disarm terror? And if not, what can? Finally, in Uschi Madeisky and Klaus Werner’s 2000 documentary Die Drei Wünsche der Sharifa. Bei den Kunama in Eritrea (Sharifa’s Three Wishes. With the Kunama in Eritrea) Agid, a young mother who tries to spare her two-year-old, delays cutting by challenging her neighbours’ beliefs but is helpless before the village’s dread that violation of the matriarch’s last will – that FGM continue – will bring catastrophe to all. This is not unlike another driver of FGM: its presumed link to fertility. The session will catalogue such beliefs, focusing on their tenacity, no matter how seemingly distant from facts, and discuss options for dissuasion.

March 10 workshop 2Session 2. Memoir and Testimony: Use and abuse

Concept note: One by one by one: Facing the Holocaust by Judith Miller (1990) reminds us that aggregates are cold but unique human fates are not. Dealing with millions of FGM victims, individuals who suffer are the faces of the movement. Yet, given certain backlash from the community’s sense of betrayal, going public has always demanded enormous courage. ‘I have known two kinds of pain’, author and filmmaker Soraya Miré notes. ‘The first, a stabbing between my legs, the second, reliving it to tell my story’. Mustering will to confront the public can take years, however, as Khady (Koita) in Blood Stains confesses, ‘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’. [13] In 1982, that changed. The broadly publicized death of three-month-old Bobo Traoré in Paris ‘served as a wake-up call’. If ‘initially’, as Khady notes, ‘my mouth stayed shut’, she would gradually overcome the reticence she shares with many others, whether survivors of sexual violence or not. ‘No woman wants to display her sexuality’, she suggests. ‘No matter where she’s from. When the topic is so intimate, she feels squeamish when forced to open up’. Nor did early newspaper reports seem right. ‘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’.  If, as in Khady’s experience, ‘every time we raised the topic for TV debate or elsewhere, insulting phone calls followed’ [14], the chutzpah shown by an increasing number of women willing to ‘out’ themselves is laudable. Among them are filmmakers and authors whose work deserves scholarly attention, notably Leyla Hussein in her highly creative TV special The Cruel Cut (broadcast 6 November 2013); Hoda Ali who scripted the recently celebrated short animations premiered in the House of Commons (managed by Janet Fyle MBE on 12 September 2017) as well as Jaha Dukureh whose life story was filmed by the Guardian and Accidental Pictures in 2017, Jaha’s Promise (excerpted as The Girl Who Said No to FGM at But these modern s/heroes stand on the shoulders of others. In the 1990s, filmmaker and memoirist Soraya Miré produced the film Fire Eyes (1994); her memoir The Girl With Three Legs (2011) would follow. ‘Miré also discovers that speaking against FGM results in violent anger, death threats, and estrangement from the family’.[15] Defying the backlash, Waris Dirie published perhaps the most influential memoir, Desert Flower (1995), followed by a widely disseminated interview with Barbara Walters (1997) who wept on TV learning about infibulation for the first time. Dirie inspired filmmaker Sherry Hormann’s well-received full-length feature film, Wüstenblume [Desert Flower] (2009). Germany also provided a platform for Fadumo Korn (Born in the Big Rains. Trans. Tobe Levin) and Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation (2015). [16] A selection of additional acclaimed first-person narratives includes Hibo Wardere’s The Cut (2016); Nawal el Saadaawi’s chapter in The Hidden Face of Eve. Women in the Arab World (1976) describing her own experience; testimony in Awa Thiam’s La Parole aux négresses (1978), the passage dramatized by Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar in their documentary Warrior Marks (1993); and Hanny Lightfoot-Klein in Prisoners of Ritual. An Odyssey into Female Genital Circumcision in Africa (1989). While these last few were pioneers, today the topic has gained such traction that now the internet provides considerable survivor testimony, a welcome development. But it comes at a price, not only to the young women coming out, especially in Diaspora, but to policy discourse as well. Public exposure of the culture and the custom is essential, but those with intimate knowledge of both are not necessarily most effective at policy-making. A built-in conflict of interest arises when community loyalties appear in the cross-hairs of government measures. Although debate has been resolved in favour of legal solutions, I have sat through many a passionate discussion of best means for raising the issue with communities, fingering potential violators, and bringing perpetrators to justice. EU support for training Change Agents is one present method that has earned good press, but in planning, modules were included to counter the stress possibly leading to PTSD that the community workers themselves would face. This session will consider both conflicts of interest and overlapping interests, asking how memoirs and testimony can best contribute to the common aim of ending FGM.

Session 3. Media: The Benefits of Disclosure vs Dangers of Enabling Islamophobia and Racism. Youth and Social Media – e.g. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. to End FGM

Concept note:  By the start of the new millennium, from a deeply-guarded topic, FGM has been featured increasingly in the news. As Khady wrote, before 1982 when little Bobo bled to death in Paris, ‘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!’ [17] From that point on, the pace of survivor and activist interviews noticeably increased. [18] Although daily newspapers in Dakar, especially Le Soleil, carried front-page news of a conference on excision hosted at the university by Awa Thiam in December 1982, the West remained largely silent. Fast forward to 1993 when the New York Times joined a few other major English-language papers thanks to A.M. Rosenthal’s editorials on female genital mutilation. In one striking column he noted having been immeasurably saddened by a 398-page Human Rights Watch report ‘for what is not in it’. When asking why no one mentioned FGM, he learned that ‘colleagues from countries where F.G.M.  [sic] [female genital mutilation] is widely practiced have advised us that they should be on the front line of efforts to combat F.G.M., and a more overt role by Human Rights Watch at this time could be counterproductive to local efforts’. [19] ‘There it was’, he interjected, ‘foreign nervousness about “local sensitivities,” one major reason that the most widespread abuse of human rights is ignored by most foreign governments, treated so gingerly and ineffectively by the U.N., and that only a relative handful of women’s organizations and human rights groups have the courage to confront it. The other reason is that so many African governments have betrayed their women by permitting mutilation instead of calling for world help against it’. [20]  Rosenthal, in sum, although revealing an impediment to abolition in local governments’ rejections of Western influence, assigns responsibility in part for the tenacity of FGM to media’s failure to cover it responsibly. I agree, with one proviso: reporting hasn’t always been free of bias, nor, in the early days, prepared for an unwanted side-effect: strengthening pre-existing prejudice. I’ll offer just one egregious example. For a 1996 feature in BRAVO! Mädchen, a magazine for 14 – 17-year-olds, Petra Göttinger interviewed me and gave my address to contact. The article, ‘Awa, 17: “Ich wurde Beschnitten”,’ [21] quoted a young woman allegedly ‘circumcised’ in Germany. Sensational presentation produced an ugly response. ‘Unbelievable!’ Göttinger wrote. ‘With knives and razors, tin can tops, blunt scissors or splinters of glass, 2 million girls between 7 and 14 are hideously mutilated every year’. Appalled at her tone, I became even more aghast as hundreds of schoolchildren’s letters poured in. The teenagers empathized with a suffering peer but called for jail, extradition, even murder of her parents. For instance, “Most of all we can’t understand Awa’s relatives. That they could do such a thing. … If it was us, we could never forgive them and would run away” (Anonymous from Karlsruhe. Letter to the author 1996). A more egregious letter is signed by a Swiss high school class. “Why don’t they just shoot the girls instead, the ass-holes”. (Eine Klasse der Oberstufe Suhr … Letter to the author 1996).  [Tobe Levin. “Female Genital Mutilation: Campaigns in Germany.” Engendering Human Rights: Cultural and Socio-economic Realities in Africa. Eds. Obioma Nnaemeka and Joy Ezeilo. NY: Palgrave Macmillan at St Martin’s Press, 2005. 285-301.]

I’m not sure there’s any way I could have reigned in the fury the journalist felt, triggered by her first encounter with a shocking event and conveyed to her readers, but I wasn’t alone with the challenge. On 14 December 2002 in the Women’s Building in Rome, the European Network, AIDoS and the EU-Daphne programme sponsored a media training for FGM activists. The aim: to mitigate discourteous and largely unhelpful responses from furious but unschooled journalists by guiding activists on talking to the press. Since then, increased context helps avoid dehumanizing societies that cut, although the intention to promote Islamophobia can at times be seen in, for instance, Breitbart’s opposition to FGM. In contrast, however, the Guardian, under the leadership of Maggie O’Kane, has gone farther than any other news outlet in not only reporting on but building an effective popular movement against the custom by putting the means to both create and transmit the news in youthful hands. Already in 2010, Marie-Hélène Mottin-Sylla and Joelle Palmieri, in Excisions. Les Jeunes changent Afrique par le TIC [Confronting Female Genital Mutilation. The Role of Youth and ICTs in Changing Africa] [22] had examined in the preceding decade the increasing access of youth to information technologies applied to defeating FGM. Mottin-Sylla and Palmieri asked ‘Why, how, by whom and for whom has the digital revolution been used over the past 10 years to achieve that end? If young people – both female and male – are the big winners in the digital revolution, how were they involved in this undertaking that concerns them intimately as victims, subjects, objects, actors, citizens, leaders and family and community stakeholders? What gender issues do excision and ICTs raise? Why and how would it be appropriate and even essential to incorporate them into a strategic vision of citizen, public, private and personal development?’ [23]

Tobe Levin Khady Koita

Tobe and Khady present at the UN CSW 2012

Session 4 Money: Inadequate funding. Vested Interests. MDGs. GDP.

Concept note: When in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1998, Joy Keshi Walker conceived of an art exhibition against FGM, she called it ‘The Suffering, The Sorrow, the Setback’ whereby ‘setback’ referred to the economics of wounding a substantial portion of the population, thereby reducing their productivity, limiting their contribution to GDP and elevating healthcare costs, not to mention the price in pain and anguish of the injured. Analysis at this macrolevel is rare, though business consultants can calculate the cost in a given economy, knowledge that is urgently needed. Similarly, analyses of vested interests are scarce. One exception is Diana Kuring’s detailed study of Eritrea’s nine ethnic groups including the expense of celebrations and fees charged by ‘FGM enthusiasts’, excisers and TBA’s whose personal and economic interest is central. ‘Society grants them respect and approves their activity’, the reason they believe that what they do ‘”is good for the girls”.’ Even after sensitivity training, few acknowledge health risks, an attitude ensuring their own social status and income. [24]

Prestige and living standard are similarly twinned in other practicing groups. Let’s cross the Sahara. In Sierra Leone Kadidiatu Suma, who had been taunted for being a ‘burka’ – uncut – is forced by her grandmother when in her mid-teens to suffer the cut. So great is her anguish that she makes fighting the “rite” her life’s work, but her approach is soft. As an initiate herself, she can hold candid talks with Sowies – ‘many see it as a business’ [25] — who are defiant in their conviction, like the TBAs and cutters in the Horn of Africa, that their elevated status derives from a beneficial social service only incidentally supplying ‘a good income’. [26] Only when Kadidiatu proposes an alternative source of cash does the Sowie whom she has drawn aside grow thoughtfully silent. “Would you then give up this work?’ Kadi asks. Although hesitant, she says, ‘yes’.

In addition to cutters’ earnings, ‘the idea that FGM has [broader] economic implications is not new’, as Hilary Burrage pointed out at our last workshop. Bride price is often tied to FGM, the cut girl considered of higher value so that her father receives more from a prospective groom. ‘Patriarchy as an institution supports these practices’ Burrage adds, with significant fiscal impact on communities, and she recommends increased attention to ‘the results of inflicting harm on women and girls whose health might otherwise be better’.

Session 5. Sex and sexuality: Crashing the omerta

Undoing FGM coverConcept note: ‘FGM aims to control the sexuality of women by subordinating it to the needs of men’, this from the founder of APDF [27] and former Ambassador from Mali to Germany, Fatoumata Siré Diakité in Erica Pomerance’s documentary Dabla! Excision (2003). Decades earlier, Awa Thiam, whose 1978 book La Parole aux Négresses launched the anti-excision movement in Francophone nations, takes a similar hard line against patriarchy as a source of FGM and strategically universalises women’s subordinate status as both cause and result of skewed power relations between females and males. Whether in Africa or Europe, Thiam writes, women – today we would say ciswomen — are subject to ‘exploitation and oppression by the same phallocratic system’. [28] She links ‘sex-mutilating practices’ [les pratiques mutilatrices sexuelles] to institutionalised polygamy, forced marriage, and betrothal of children, concluding that this ‘violence destroys … the human and it has a name: phallocratic fascism [le fascism phallocratique] and should be abolished in all societies, all social groups’. [29]

This sounds like blaming men for FGM, a strategy for abolition largely eschewed once the Inter-African Committee formed in 1984 and international governance – WHO, UNICEF, USAID – became involved. Despite most justifications for FGM circling around sexuality – ties to marriage, ‘purity’, chastity, etc. – and ample evidence that FGM is an irrational practice, early campaigns [30] took a rational approach. Once people are informed of the multiple harms to health, it was reasoned, reason would prevail. It clearly hasn’t.

The initial health approach failed not for want of rationality but for lack of a feminist vision further erased by the omerta against naming (male) sexuality and fear as a root cause. Not FGM itself but the pain of the procedure was deemed wrong. The answer: medicalisation, the solution of choice in Egypt, for instance, such that, although the proportion of cut women is falling – according to the 2014 Survey of Young People in Egypt (SYPE) we find genital wounding in ‘73.9% amongst females age 13-17 compared to 85.7% amongst those age 30-35’, [31] — an increasing number of medical personnel in comparison to traditional midwives are performing clitoridectomies, Egypt having the highest level of medicalisation among all FGM-practicing countries. [32] This is regrettable because ‘medicalization of a harmful practice such as FGM/C institutionalizes and normalizes it, making the process of complete abandonment more difficult (Askew et al., 2016)’. [33] The point remains: with a few exceptions (i.e. Kenya), most citizens who practice FGM don’t wish to stop and, in my view, one cause is the omerta that makes discussion of sexuality so difficult. ‘Who, among the hordes of tourists unfolding regularly on the Nile River to cruise between Luxor and Aswan, to run from the Museum of Cairo to the Pyramids amid the concert of horns and the dust of the capital, to plunge into the shadows of royal tombs, among all those people, who is informed?’ asks Hubert Prolongeau in Undoing FGM.  ‘In Upper Egypt, where vestiges of the past are most famous, prevalence explodes, far exceeding 90%’.[34]

As Jaha Dukureh points out, “In Washington, they don’t … talk about vaginas.” Nor about the clitoris – famously the only human organ whose only purpose is pleasure. And although Diderot in his eighteenth-century Encyclopédie wrote an entry for the appendage, both Pierre Foldes and Dr Nawal el Saadawi found little scientific knowledge. According to the latter in The Hidden Face of Eve: ‘The clitoris is an organ neglected by science’. [35] Benoîte Groult in Ainsi soit-elle (1975) claims it is ‘hatred’ that accounts for this – ‘la haine du clitoris’ – and the discourse that reduces women to their bodies. Woman is ‘sin, the source of all evil, [her vagina] a contemptible hole, a scabbard for the king of organs that alone confers her reason d’être. In a word, it’s woman. On her own she’s nothing. A hole is nothing. Concave, negative, the void.’ Hence, the world is silent. After all, what is there to say about ‘women’s genital organs’? They are ‘without importance – just as women are’. [36] In response to the not-insignificant kernel of social truth in this assertion [37] (and specifically in reaction against a notorious Economist article urging medicalisation) [38] the YouTube sensation produced by Integrate UK #My Clitoris [39] exposes the generational divide in our discussion. For sexual liberation and, perhaps more important, for expanding gender identity choices, Integrate UK has had a stunning impact, so much so that it provoked an online petition launched by The Orchid Project (ostensibly also against ritual genital abuse) condemning it.

Nonetheless, the next frontier, clitoral restoration, is sex-affirming even if orgasm isn’t the main reason for choosing it. ‘Restoring the capacity for sexual pleasure is not surgery’s principal aim but rather recapturing [a] sentiment of wholeness, of physical integrity, by taking back what had been snatched’, as Hubert Prolongeau learned from in-depth interviews with twenty of Foldes’ patients. Not that the decision to reverse the brutality is ever easy. Waris Dirie, for one, reports flashbacks in her initial medical interview. (Foldes now has protocols in place to avoid them.) Other patients must keep the change secret from their families, even lying about their whereabouts when spending 24 hours in the clinic. And they tend not to harbour overly-ambitious expectations. Recovery of sensitivity and pleasure after the clitoris has been repositioned takes months, sometimes years, and depends, of course, on finding amiable partners. 


[1] Thanks to Zehra Patwa for bringing this to our attention. Retrieved 8 March 2018.
[2] “The proposal of a ‘harmless and symbolic’ alternative to female genital mutilation, to be practised on African women at a public hospital in Florence, has sparked strong reactions in Italy.
“The alternative ‘ritual’, consisting of a puncture of the clitoris under local anaesthesia that would let a few drops of blood out, has been proposed by Omar Abdulcadir, a Somali gynaecologist who graduated in Florence about 25 years ago and now heads the centre for the prevention and therapy of female genital mutilations at the Careggi Hospital, Florence.” Controversy surrounds proposed Italian alternative to female genital mutilation. Available from: [accessed 08 March 2018].
[3] New Strategy Against Female Genital Mutilation Intervention, 1999. Accessed 8 March 2018.
[4] I believe this position is correct, yet it sometimes homogenizes gender distinctions more usefully analyzed separately. For instance, symbolism and motivation of adult men and women responsible for subjecting offspring to these ‘rites’ differ significantly in social terms, women responding strategically to patriarchal disempowerment compared to accession of power and status that accrue to boys.
[5] “Apparently the mummies of both Cleopatra and Nefertiti show evidence of clitoridectomy.” RHD Abdalla. Sisters in affliction: circumcision and infibulation of women in Africa. London: Zed, 1982.…1420767.1425337.0.1425688.….0…1c.1.64.psy-ab..0.22.1515…0j46j0i67k1j0i46k1j0i22i30k1j33i160k1.0.c96Zv_Xw_vg Accessed 23 January 2018.
[6] One explanation for infibulation in Mali.
[7] Mariam is Jewish, a contentious authorial choice I discuss in Levin, Tobe and Augustine H. Asaah, eds. Empathy and Rage. Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature. Banbury, Oxfordshire: Ayebia Publishers, 2009; “What’s Wrong with Mariam? Gloria Naylor’s Infibulated Jew” (112-125).
[8] Not primarily slow progress of interventions for abolition but population growth is more to blame for seeming stasis in global statistics.
[9] Accessed 20 January 2018.
[10] About the trailer: ‘From war zones in the Middle-East to bucolic Middle America, the film visits 14 countries and features key interviews with FGM survivors, activists, cutters, doctors and researchers to uncover an often-secret practice shrouded in centuries of traditions, mysticisms and irrationalities’. Accessed 20 January 2018
[11] ‘Euhemerism is an approach to the interpretation of mythology in which mythological accounts are presumed to have originated from real historical events or personages. Euhemerism supposes that historical accounts become myths as they are exaggerated in the retelling, accumulating elaborations and alterations that reflect cultural mores. It was named for the Greek mythographer Euhemerus, who lived in the late 4th century BC. In the more recent literature of myth, such as Bulfinch’s Mythology, euhemerism is termed the “historical theory” of mythology.’  Accessed 20 January 2018
[12] ‘[Araweelo] was a powerful and fearsome ruler who antagonised her male subjects by castrating them right after birth to keep them from dethroning her. Dozens of versions of the tale have been recorded from Somali oral tradition, but the key elements are in sync, namely a formidable ruler and castrator despised generally by her male subjects. Legend dictates that she was ultimately killed by her grandson who escaped her campaign of emasculation after Caraweelo’s daughter interceded several times to delay the wicked process until he was of age. Somewhere in northern Somalia, a stone mound that represents her tomb became a place for both reverence and contempt. For centuries, Somali men that passed her resting place would shout obscenities and throw stones whilst Somali women, to show their respect for her memory, would tear off a small portion of their skirt or break a twig off the nearest bush and place it at her grave’. WARYA PostThe Legendary Somali Queen Caraweelo Was Actually An Ethiopian Jewish Queen’ [7 October 2014]. Accessed 20 January 2018.
[13] Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny. Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights. Trans. Tobe Levin. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press 2010. P. 187.
[14] Khady. Ibid. 198.
[16] Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation. (UnCUT/VOICES P., 2015).
[17] Khady. Ibid. 188.
[18] In tracing the history of media attention to FGM, we could begin in 1975 when the first of the UN Women’s conferences was held in Mexico City. In response to the dearth of attention there to violence against women, in 1976 in Brussels the first Women’s Tribunal on Crimes against Women was held – with a single 5-minute presentation on female circumcision in Guinea. Only in 1980, at the mid-Decade for Women conference in Copenhagen, was FGM the subject of a workshop, and a highly contentious one at that. Fran Hosken, who had been writing about the topic since she came across it in 1973, was execrated by an audience of African women intellectuals, a not infrequent reaction to Western-based writers, as A.M. Rosenthal would note thirteen years later.
[19] In 1978, my group against FGM in Munich received a similar response from UNICEF. A facsimile of UNICEF’s letter appears in Braun, I., Levin, T., Schwarzbauer, A. Materialien zur Unterstützung von Aktionsgruppen gegen Klitorisbeschneidung. Munich: Frauenoffensive, 1979.
[20] A. M. Rosenthal, ‘On My Mind; Female Genital Mutilation’. Published: December 24, 1993.
Accessed 21 Jan 2018
[21] ‘Awa, 17: I was circumcised’. pp. 10-11.
Accessed 22 January 2018.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Feminist Europa. Review of Books. Special Issue on FGM. 2010.
[25] Nina DeVries. ‘Sierra Leone Group Determined to Raise Awareness of FGM Dangers’. VOA. 6 February 2016.  Accessed 23 January 2018.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Association pour le Progrès et la Défense des Femmes maliennes.
[28] Quoted by Nguemo Ngueabou Joël et Douala Roméo in Religion et pratique de l’excision en Côte d’Ivoire’ ENSEA, Mai 2012. Accessed 23 January 2018.
[29] … «la violence engendre non pas l’humain mais plutôt sa destruction. Elle a pour nom : fascisme phallocratique. Elle est donc à abolir dans toute société, dans tout groupe social». Ibid. Trans. Tobe Levin.
[30] Diplomatic voices were also reacting against Fran Hosken’s anger and psychological hypotheses, for instance her assertion that a negative spiral emerged from specific challenges to sexual satisfaction for both men and women, especially with infibulation. Men in particular, she pointed out, had to become inured to the pain they were inflicting in sex, which hardened them – if you will pardon the pun — beyond the bedroom, enhancing their abilities as fighters. This is not that far from ‘official’ cultural justifications glorifying pain when slicing genital flesh in both women and men.
[31]  Sarah Ghattass, Nahla Abdel-Tawab, Salma Abou Hussein. ‘Ending the medicalization of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Egypt’. Population Council Policy Brief 2016. Accessed 23 January 2018.
[32] Ismail, Abdel-Tawab & Sheira, 2015 qtd. Ibid.
[33] Ibid. See also Accessed 23 January 2018.
[34] Hubert Prolongeau. Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris. Trans. And Afterword Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES P., 2011. Pp. 210-211.
[36]Quoted by Nguemo Ngueabou Joël et Douala Roméo in ‘Religion et pratique de l’excision en Côte d’Ivoire’ ENSEA, Mai 2012. Accessed 23 January 2018. Trans. Tobe Levin.
[37] In addition, without comment for lack of time but in the interests of fairness, I’d like to quote an opposing point of view. These are the opening paragraphs from Rogia Mustafa Abusharaf. ‘Virtuous Cuts: Female Genital Circumcision in an African Ontology’. differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.1 (2001) 112-140.
‘Much has been written on gender violence in Africa. In this burgeoning literature, African women are repeatedly painted as downtrodden, forlorn, helpless casualties of male dominance. Their confinement in antiquated customs and cultural practices is viewed as puissant testimony to their eternal vassalage to patriarchy and, consequently, of their subjugation within both the so-called “public” and “private” spheres. This view is exemplified in the following passage from the Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females:
[Africa] is a region where absolute patriarchy is the rule, where women are deprived of property and land rights, where polygamy and wife abuse are the rule and where male domination is absolute both in the village as well as in national governments. It is, therefore, clear that men are responsible for the worsening conditions in Africa: women and children are the abused and voiceless victims. The time to blame colonial powers is long since over–but the time for African men to take a look at [End Page 112] themselves as persons and human beings in our modern world is long overdue. (Hosken 69)
When the report discusses female circumcision, it treats it as the violent sexual mutilation of females and contends that the operation has been perpetuated by the male-dominated tribal societies of Africa to suppress women’s sexuality. To readers of Fran Hosken’s Report, Esther Hicks’s Infibulation: Female Mutilation in Islamic Northeastern Africa, or Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar’s Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, the tyranny of patriarchy and the oppressive nature of gender relations in African cultures are evidenced most dramatically in the cultural practice of female circumcision. These representations stress a notion of patriarchy in which the African woman is seen as wholly subservient, passive, “voiceless”: someone whose sexual and reproductive potential is controlled by men and whose genitals are mutilated in silence and without protest. However, as the narratives below make clear, African women, not men, insist on circumcising their daughters. Through ritual performance, these women ensure the transmission of cultural ethos within their lifetimes. As philosopher Diana Meyers argues, “many Euro-Americans might doubt that there is any basis for [End Page 113] ascribing autonomy to women whose cultures mandate [female genital mutilation]. Yet, the feminist literature on the [practice] provides ample evidence that many exercise effective agency with respect to this practice. One striking finding is that autonomy is to be found among accommodaters as well as resisters” (1). In this essay, I want to shift the emphasis from agency and autonomy to a discussion of the ideology that shapes women’s participation in the ritual.’ Accessed 23 January 2018.
[38] ‘Female Genital Mutilation. An agonising choice’ Accessed 23 January 2018.



Female Genital Mutilation: Myth, Memoir, Media, Money – and Sex — Oxford IGS Workshop Programme

You are welcome to join us for another interdisciplinary workshop on FGM sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford and UnCUT/VOICES Press.

We meet  on 9 MARCH 2018, 9:00 5:30 p.m. in the Mary O’Brien Room.

If you wish to attend and/or receive the full electronic programme including concept notes, please email Dr Tobe Levin von Gleichen

History and Aims of FGM Workshops at LMH, International Gender Studies Centre

Since 2015, the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, has welcomed experts on female genital mutilation (FGM) to network and exchange ideas. From Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Iran, Switzerland, the UK, the USA and, via skype, from Kenya, Sweden and Spain, with a significant percentage from the African Diaspora (especially Somalia), activists and academics participated in three workshops promoting cooperation among advocates for abolition. Audiences comprised faculty, students, journalists, health professionals, government and NGO representatives as well as lay people interested in the topic. The first gathering on 7 March 2015, also the IGS contribution to the Oxford International Women’s Festival, “Contestations around FGM: Activism and the Academy” featured six sessions that heard testimony and oral history; considered FGM and the law; and looked at cutting as a medical issue. We asked how the ‘health approach’ has furthered abandonment or, on the contrary, encouraged medicalisation.

March 10 workshop 2

On 10 March 2017 we gathered for the first time in the Mary O’Brien room in hopes of learning from each other how best to end FGM.

Moreover, we understood excision as a wound in need of curative attention, including clitoris restoration, a topic addressed, for instance, by Dr Brenda Kelly of the Oxford Rose Clinic, Comfort Momoh MBE, and Dr Pierre Foldes, the surgeon who developed the procedure. Further, via media and the arts, the workshop explored genital assault, exposing tensions and celebrating synergies between activism and research. Keynote speakers Maggie O’Kane, director of the Guardian Global Campaign against FGM, and Leyla Hussein, among the UK’s most prominent spokeswomen, showed clips and passionately defined the role each of us has in ending FGM. [See]

Two more workshops followed in 2017. On 10 March, “Four Specific Challenges to Ending FGM: Medicalisation, Female Genital Cosmetic Surgery, Asylum, and (Lack of) Education (about FGM)” narrowed the focus to concentrate on these four dimensions, just as attention at the third gathering on 17 November illuminated “’Elephants in the Room’. Hurdles – and Hope – for Ending FGM.” The ‘elephants’ comprised discourse – such as feminism — which may presage successful abolition but tends to remain sub-rosa. An ‘elephant in the room’, Wikipedia notes, ‘is an English-language metaphorical idiom for an obvious problem or risk no one wants to discuss, or a condition of groupthink no one wants to challenge’. As Jaha Dukureh told the Guardian, ‘In Washington, they don’t want to talk about vaginas’, an observation also advanced by Leyla Hussein who pointed out in the Lancet, ‘In the UK, the three topics that people are afraid to talk about are race, gender, and sex, and FGM involves all three’.Undoing cover

Our workshop identified the pachyderms as sexuality, gender identity, inadequate resources (too little money flowing from government to grassroots NGOs and states’ reluctance to invest in girls and women), and the untapped goldmine of influence in creativity and the arts – ‘advertising, social media, and pageantry’ as persuasive conduits apt to change minds and behaviour. We heard two papers: Mohamed Abdinasir, transmitting by Skype, whose MSc University of Leicester, ‘Review of Attitudes, Beliefs, Perceptions of Somali Men towards FGM’, surveyed available studies, and a keynote by Hilary Burrage titled ‘Follow the Money: The Economics of FGM’. Yet, enabling enriching dialogue, workshop chairs and respondents limited prepared remarks to approximately ten minutes.

Finally, knowledge gained at workshops in 2017 and 2018 will be included in a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary publication – FGM: Hard Questions, Few Answers (working title) — a volume in preparation. The CALL FOR PAPERS remains open and will soon appear in detail at this site.


Graziella Piga and Dr Maria Jaschok


Summary Programme

FGM: Myth, Memoir, Media, Money – and Sex.

Welcome. 9:00 a.m. – 9:15 a.m. Dr Maria Jaschok, IGS Director + Dr Tobe Levin von Gleichen, UnCUT/VOICES

Session 1. 9:15 – 10:45. Myth and/or History

Networking coffee break 10:45-11:00

Session 2. 11:00 – 12:30. Memoir and Testimony: Use and abuse

Networking LUNCH 12:301:15 [A £15 contribution for lunch & coffee breaks would be appreciated.]

Session 3. 1:15 – 2:30. Media: The Benefits of Disclosure vs Dangers of Encouraging Islamophobia and Racism. Youth and Social Media – Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. to End FGM

Session 4. 2:30 – 3:45. Money: Inadequate funding. Vested Interests. MDGs. GDP.

Networking coffee break 3:45 – 4:15

Session 5. 4:15 – 5:30. Sex and sexuality: Crashing the omerta and conclusion


Supporting protest against trivializing rape, i.e. adult males’ ‘marriage’ to children

My good friend and sister campaigner against FGM asked me to help amplify the reach of this open letter protesting leniency on the part of French courts regarding so-called ‘non-coercive’ sexual intercourse between grown men and children. Because FGM is as much a matter of patriarchal definitions, power and privilege as is the ‘cultural’ approval of marriage to legal minors — i.e. penile penetration of girls below 18–, I’m happy to oblige. If you agree, please help disseminate this petition.

My gratitude to Lorraine Koonce Farahmand for energetic action on this issue.


Re: Urgent Change in the Law defining Rape

We write to express our deep concern, abhorrence and outrage following the outcome of 2 cases in France where perpetrators raped two girls aged 13 and 11 respectively. In both cases the perpetrators were not convicted. The galling revelations and recent warped legal verdicts effectively sanction sexual contact with a child and highlight the lax attitude by the government that enables predatory sexual behaviour to carry on.

Twice, French courts have failed to prosecute men for rape after they had sex with 11-year-old girls because authorities could not prove coercion. In 2009, a 30-year-old man from the Seine-et-Marne district of Paris who lured an 11-year-old Congolese girl into sexual intercourse was acquitted after prosecutors failed to prove that the sex was non-consensual. Unfortunately, the young girl also became pregnant and subsequently gave birth to a baby that was placed in foster care due to complications and fear of being outcast by their community.


Again in September 2017 an 11-year-old girl was also lured by a 28-year-old man to his flat in the north of Paris in order to teach her how to kiss. Allegedly she performed oral sex in the hallway. In the flat he had sexual intercourse repeatedly with the child.  Afterwards, he told her not to talk to anybody about it, kissed her on the forehead and asked to see her again.  Despite her mother’s claims that her 11-year-old child was unable to defend herself and surmise what was going on, the rape charge was dropped. Instead the man was charged with sexual assault of a minor below the age of 15.


In both cases, there was an erroneous and shocking inference from the court that there was sexual relationship rather than paedophilic grooming. Paedophilic grooming occurs when the perpetuator targets vulnerable children, building a communication to gain the child’s trust to exploit them in many ways but mainly sexually. The paedophile, after choosing a target, sometimes offers the child attention, sweets, alcohol, drugs etc.

Equally troubling is the dubious and almost always vexing issue of full and free consent, and whether or not the young girl knew or has received all the facts and information about sexual intercourse.  It is difficult to ascertain whether an eleven-year-old girl is truly consenting to sexual intercourse when she is in a man’s room?  Can she actually ‘consent’ at all? What is the age in France for other sorts of consent, e.g. criminal, financial or legal responsibility?  Equally it is impossible for a young girl to refuse when he is on top of her. These young 11-year-old children were targeted, groomed, lured, did not have full knowledge about sexual intercourse and therefore could not and did not give full and free consent.  It is wrong and unrealistic to expect an 11-year-old girl or boy to stop a 30-year-old man from penetrating them after being lured to a secluded place?  It is the obligation and responsibility of the State to have effective Legislation to criminalise and punish individuals who lure and penetrate children – because that is Child Rape.


Both cases have the common core issue of no consent. Both girls were of African origin. At minimum this court decision shows little regard for vulnerable girls who may come from impoverished backgrounds and girls from migrant families.


Under the current French law, only sexual acts committed with the use of “violence, coercion, threat or surprise” are considered to be rape, regardless of the victim’s age. Penalties are tougher if the victim is under the age of 15, as the young age is an aggravating factor, but there is no minimum age of consent for sexual acts. Thus the charge of rape in France is only satisfied when there is sexual penetration and 1. Violence 2. Coercion, 3. Threats and or 4. Surprise.  If there is no violence and the child is below 15 years of age, only a sexual assault – not rape — is deemed to have taken place, punishable with a fine and sentencing to a mere 6 months in prison. The very fact of a grown man having sex with a child is inherently violent.

Even under these insurmountable if not outright impossible conditions required to satisfy the French definition of rape, this verdict suggests that if a man lures a child back to his flat, and later warns the child not tell anyone, there has not been coercion. Was it that inherently complicated for the court to find credible that the 11-year-old was unable to defend herself and was unable to surmise what was going on?  This essentially means that Paedophiles who groom children and vulnerable people will have a legitimate defence as the government has implicitly sanctioned paedophilia.

We are dismay at the eyebrow-raising, ludicrous suggestion by Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet that the age for consent be set somewhere between 13 and 15. This erroneous approach, which is not victim centred, is fundamentally wrong. The approach should be one of protection and to make the law robust by defining rape and including a specific age that automatically translates as a child is deemed unable to give consent. Belloubet’s suggestion also blatantly reneges from France’s international obligations and protection of children from the risk of exploitation.

Equally, we are dismayed at the distorted logic that France (as a signatory to the Minimum Age Convention 1973 that prevents children under 14 from being economically engaged and working) does not have effective legislation protecting children from sexual grooming and exploitation. Nor does France have effective punishment for sexual predators or laws robust enough to act as a deterrent. Rather than the Court being a beacon of justice and   protecting girls in France, we would argue these verdicts have inadvertently encouraged the rape and molestation of children by producing a legitimate defence.   Ironically this very same government has recently passed Legislation protecting women from harassment in public, does not ensure protection of children with clear robust legislation on when a child is not able to give consent. To most people this makes no sense at all. The French government and policy makers must galvanise propitiously against rape of children, rather than tacitly ignoring it. The priorities are protection and deterrents.

The fact that criminal courts in France are very congested often means there are no preliminary hearings for serious charges. Meaning rape, including child rape, is often re-categorised into a sexual assault which is a much less serious offence. This less serious charge is heard in a lower court and can only be punished by five years of imprisonment, as opposed to fifteen years for rape.

If steps are not taken the girl child in France may be seen as “Fair Game” ripe for exploitation and sexual use. Thus, the young girl, briefly befriended, now penetrated, can perhaps be filmed for later use in pornographic material and passed on. This will be the legacy of France’s erroneous legal stance.

The sexual abuse of all children is repugnant; the repercussions are harrowing and dire ranging from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections to psychological trauma that often stays with children for life.  The rape of vulnerable little girls impacts them disproportionately and with more intensity with the stark additional brunt of pregnancies, as with one of the girls in these tragic cases.  The burden of her unwanted pregnancy with all the added physical and psychological issues attached to it cannot be underestimated.


The World Health Organization (WHO) defines childhood as experienced when a person is under 15 years of age. Age acts as a barrier in which sexual intercourse is considered unacceptable. It is important for a young girl to have a degree of emotional and intellectual maturity. Sexual intercourse by a stranger signals the tragic end of childhood and the abrupt entry into adulthood. Tragically for some, they are thrust into the full burden of domestic responsibility and motherhood. Rather than allowing victims to experience the normal milestones in child and adolescent development, child rape brutally distorts and in some cases eradicates normal childhood.  This act of forced sexual intercourse destroys childhood. These facts give an impression of how heart-rending it is when a child, who is physically immature, is introduced into the world of sexual intercourse but cannot give meaningful consent. One of the girls who was raped later became pregnant.

The permissive rape of a child is a setback to the fulfilment and maintenance of human rights, development, equality and the health and education of children. The rape of a child unleashes a cascade of recognised Human Rights violations as set forth in a multiplicity of international agreements. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) promotes the dignity and worth of the human being and equal rights of men and women.  It specifies gender as an impermissible ground of differentiation and provides an equal protection clause. The rape of a child is a Human Rights violation as held by the 1948 UDHR and contradicts the principles enshrined in the UDHR and numerous international treaties. It has been addressed in several international and regional treaties and in many human rights forums that have emphasis this important principal.   It has been frequently addressed both by the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and CEDAW.   Equally rape has been identified by the Pan-African Forum against the Sexual Exploitation of Children as a type of commercial sexual exploitation of children.  France is a signatory to all the aforementioned treaties.

This clear failure by the French government not to have robust legislation, specifically to protect children from sexual exploitation, is a breach of their obligations under the Istanbul Convention, U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, Various European Conventions and Directives (including Convention on the Exercise of Children’s Rights 1996) and the Vienna Convention under the law of treaties compelling signatories to comply with their obligations.  France’s abstract rubber stamp perfunctory signature to numerous treaties has not translated into concrete backing. Instead, the government has chosen to remain impervious against a recognised and obvious landscape that grown men do not have sex with little girls!  The failure by the French government to comply with their obligations and enact legislation that protects female children, means that they are assisting child predators. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties states categorically that a state that ratifies an international treaty” establishes on the international plane its consent to be bound by a treaty.  Rape of a child is a serious human rights crisis.


More importantly this demonstrates lack of uniformity in Europe and the need for a uniform minimum legal age of consent. A criminal that preys on children cannot be a paedophile in one state and a sexual partner in another. There cannot be legitimacy of paedophilia in any part of the EU or anywhere in the World.  We confirm and stand shoulder to shoulder by the conclusions stated in The Terminology of Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation 2016. To avoid any ambiguity:  the age of consent and definition of child rape in France must be made clear; across Europe the laws must be made uniform and the definition of statutory rape against children must be properly defined and ensure the protection of the girl child.

We applaud the UK Professionals against GBV Organisation who has been staunchly vocal about this lack of universal definition of child rape and need for uniformity across Europe. Equally we applaud President Emmanuel Macron’s recent announcement of an initiative to address violence and harassment against women in France, with plans aimed at erasing the sense of shame that breeds silence amongst victims and changing what he said is France’s sexist culture. Amongst the changes he is proposing is to rush legal complaints through the system, and the statute of limitations for suspected sexual crimes against minors would be moved to 30 years from 20 currently as part of a bill to be presented in 2018.  More importantly in lieu of this glaring troubling finding from the court that there was no coercion, France is now considering something long ago adopted in other Western nations: setting a minimum age of consent for having sex at 15. We also share the sentiments expressed by Catherine Brault, a lawyer who defends child victims in Paris, that there is an irrefutable presumption that a minor cannot agree to engage in sex with an adult. In our view there needs to be strict liability for an offence of penile penetration of a child under the age of 16 whether or not the victim gave consent and irrespective of the perpetrator’s belief regarding the victim’s age.

As mothers, lawyers, human and child rights advocates and most importantly as human beings, we are collectively stunned at France’s unacceptable stance. This is heart breaking.There is something inherently wrong when the law fails to protect young children from rape. It boggles the mind.

These girls were not sexually assaulted. They were raped.



Yours sincerely

Kameel Ahmady

Alex Amicarelli PhD

Hilary Burrage

Bogaletch Gebre

Niki Konstantinidou

Lorraine Koonce-Farahmand

Jeanie Kortum

Dr Tobe Levin von Gleichen

Isabella Micali Drossos

Jennifer Obaseki , Obaseki Solicitors

Professionals against GBV

Cheryl Pegues

Katha Pollitt

Dr Charlotte Proudman

Neelam Sarkaria

Cherrelle Salmon



On Zero Tolerance to FGM Day: “Unbitten Tongues” — A Festschrift (book of honor) for Efua Dorkenoo OBE (1949 – 2014).

Streep etc“Many have written of genital mutilation and … denounced it … [as] an extreme abuse of human rights. Like slavery and apartheid it is unacceptable. How can we stop it? By talking about it with angry, unbitten tongues. By never forgetting about it, and by not letting the issue slide back into obscurity now that we have learned of its pervasiveness and tenacity.”

Appropriately mordant on this International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, the quote from Natalie Angier (Woman: An Intimate Geography, 1999, p. 88) reminds me of a similar, uncompromising stance Efua Dorkenoo took from the moment we met in 1980. In a review of Dorkenoo’s Cutting the Rose, I wrote: “Having the same claim as European youth to bodily integrity, girls of African descent should also enjoy equal protection under the law, and Western governments’ failure to prevent … children’s genital mutilation, even if due to a misunderstood multi-culturalism, can also be seen as racist. … This insistence on prevention, monitored by anti-racist coalitions” is the backbone of Dorkenoo’s point of view. [1]

I first met Efua a couple of years after a 1977 article in the German feminist magazine EMMA triggered my ire against FGM. In the meantime, in 1978,  Awa Thiam, ‘notorious’ author of La parole aux négresses, invited me to join her for coffee on Boul’ Mich to talk about founding CAMS (Commission pour l’abolition des mutilations sexuelles, managed at present by Linda Weil-Curiel). Learning that Efua (then Graham) planned to launch FORWARD, I reached out. She introduced me to Scilla McLean (later Elworthy) co-author with Efua of Female Genital Mutilation. Proposals for Change (1980). [2] Thus, convinced that the nascent movement’s Diaspora leaders in the UK and France would benefit from each others’ ideas, I invited Efua, Awa, and several activists from Germany to meet in Paris where I served as interpreter. So here we are, youthful once again, in the photo left, l to r, Awa Thiam, Efua Dorkenoo, Dagmar Schultz [3]; and in the photo right, l to r, Awa Thiam, Efua Dorkenoo, Sigrid Peicke [3]. Photo credits: Tobe Levin.

Although the anglo- and francophone activists lacked a common tongue, the Parisian rendez-vous fed mutual regard for which my photo album provides a number of reminders. In the early 90s, for example, I stopped by fairly often to see Efua in Covent Garden’s Africa Center. Tobe Efua photo credit RosaMy then six-year-old daughter took this shot in 1993.

Later that year, Efua and I shared a room in Vienna for the World Conference on Human Rights, 14-25 June 1993, where famously if belatedly, women’s rights were recognized as human ones as well.

We met again in 1997 in Dakar at the Inter-African Committee’s triennial convention. With Efua beside me, I’m reading a statement from INTACT, in that year the only Tobe next to Efua in Dakar IAC 1997German NGO devoted solely to ending FGM. With Efua having left FORWARD to head WHO’s new global campaign, INTACT had asked her successor at the helm of FORWARD, Comfort Ottah, to keynote their 1996 inaugural event. The following year, at Efua’s unrelenting urging, I co-founded FORWARD – Germany, e.V. and a new Fatoumata Tobe Efua Schlosshotel Kronbergera began. In the photo left, Efua is our guest at FORWARD – Germany’s formal dinner welcoming the Honorable Fatoumata Siré Diakité, the Ambassador from Mali to Germany, who took office in 2006 and remained an active member of FORWARD – Germany throughout her five-year tenure in office.

Yesterday  Faith Mwangi-Powell, chief executive of  The Girl Generation, distributed an astounding report of accomplishment by Efua’s brainchild, an African-led youth movement to end FGM. The culmination of decades-long effort, the group was officially launched only one week before Efua died. She would certainly be proud of all that has taken place since. I quote:

  • The Girl Generation is now operational in ten African countries – Kenya, Nigeria, The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Somaliland, Egypt and Ethiopia, as well as working with the diaspora in the UK.
  • Our members reach over 240,000 people directly with their end FGM work
  • End FGM Ambassadors reached almost 1.5 million people with end FGM messages, through face-to-face and media engagements
  • Transforming the way people talk about ending FGM with our social change communication training, which has reached over 431 organizations across 8 countries.
  • Positive stories of change about ending FGM published in new and traditional media, reaching over 200 million people around the globe
  • $1.3 million disbursed to over 100 local groups at the forefront of end FGM activism through our flagship End FGM grants programme. [5]

Moreover, “powerful stories [showing] public demonstrations of support for the abandonment of FGM” figure as well in the campaigns’ repertoire.

Thus,  a peer-reviewed volume of essays in Efua’s honor, published by UnCUT/VOICES Press, would  preserve her legacy of influence on FGM campaigns and carry the good news on.  An exhibition and catalogue of paintings dedicated to her has already been created by artist Godfrey Williams-Okorodus. Needed are essays on her work, first with FORWARD, then WHO, Equality Now and the Girl Generation featuring testimony by friends and associates, readings  of her ideas and evaluation of their impact on policy, politics, and NGOs in the UK and around the world. Efua served during nearly four decades as my first port of call for guidance or encouragement against the almost inevitable lassitude that assails campaigners. She would never have given up. I hope this volume of essays will help to conclude her life’s project, ending FGM. If you’d like to contribute — a few lines to several pages to an entire chapter–, please contact me. or

Tobe Efua Hilary at Brown's


[1] Levin, Tobe. “Maintaining the Body’s Integrity.” Rev. of Efua Dorkenoo. Cutting the Rose. Female Genital Mutilation. The Practice and its Prevention. London: Minority Rights Group, 1994. 315-318.

[2] This pioneering volume  has since seen dozens of reprints.

[3] Dagmar’s close friendship with Audre Lorde would lead to her documentary Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years.

[4] Peicke authored a book on Ngugi wa Thiong’o whose novel The River Between was the first with ‘female circumcision’ at the heart of the story.

[5] I quote from an email received 05.02.2018 “on behalf of The Girl Generation <>”

Female Genital Mutilation and the Arts: Rich Resource in the Fight to Stop It

Stones cover as jpeg (2)

On 10 December 1948, the United Nations general assembly adopted The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This key achievement gives wing to advocates who fervently aim to prevent FGM – female genital mutilation. The mission of UnCUT/VOICES Press is to accelerate this end by publishing books – eight so far – whose authors are activists, scholars, novelists, witnesses and survivors; their words deserve the broadest readership, especially in courses at colleges and universities. The absence of a field devoted to ‘female genital mutilation studies’ is a blot on the record of higher education’s concern for human rights. As an affiliate of the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, I urge introduction of the topic into college curricula taught by scholars whose ethical approach frankly desires to improve the lives and health of ‘prisoners of ritual’. Slicing off girls’ genitalia is not, as some insist, an ‘act of love’, but the fact that it happens despite the deepest bonds between mother and child shows the complexity of the abuse which needs attention from all fields in order to be understood.

Jeanie Booklaunch

On 9 September 2017, Jeanie launched _Stones_ at a gathering whose generous donations to the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK charity #1169186) we acknowledge with profound appreciation.

Even if the social sciences, medicine and law now offer extensive bibliographies on the issue (minus the welcome synergies were an actual field of study to exist), one superior source of insight has yet to be developed. Departments of English and Comparative Literature offer fertile ground for exploration of the dense causality elusive to capture in the language of reports. Let’s take Jeanie Kortum’s novel Stones, for instance. Among the latest literary efforts, this brilliant, lyrical tour de force marrying the mystical and empirical is the first tale I’ve encountered since Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy that places female sexual mutilation, as the French call it, at the heart not only of the story but also of human history. My Foreword points out how, like Flaubert’s claim that “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Jeanie’s witnessing through the imagination elicits empathy from the broadest readership. After all, so overdetermined is this ritual abuse that abstractions, as in social science and policy discourse, fail to capture the issue’s convolution with the nuance of good fiction. As Jeanie has written in the San Francisco Chronicle, an excision to which she was exposed while living with a hunter-gatherer group traumatized her – she poignantly remembers her impotence observing the girl’s effort to escape, the child’s tenacious fight, and her giving up only when forced. That was thirty years ago. The emotional turmoil stayed with Jeanie until she released it onto the finely-honed pages of Stones. This is the first co-imprint in which UnCUT/VOICES has collaborated, a cause for celebration.

Fortunately, Jeanie’s novel isn’t alone among genres addressing FGM, even if humanities scholars in the field remain rare. That’s one reason why, at the University of Oxford, we’ve held a series of collegiate encounters – two in 2017 among six since 2014 – that brought multiple disciplines together, each time focusing not only on fields of obvious concern like medicine and law but also on the arts. At the most recent workshop, “’Elephants in the Room’ — Hurdles and Hope for Ending FGM” on 17 November 2017, creative solutions were addressed.

According to the Concept Note, although political, legal and medical approaches to FGM rely heavily on facts, it can be argued that FGM’s defenders might benefit more from emotional appeals to end it. The Inter-African Committee (IAC) regularly mentions theatre. Alternative Rites of Passage show that the celebration can continue without physical assault. And research such as “If this were your face, would you leave it as it is?” or “With an antenna, we can stop FGM” – the former, a book chapter evoking the aesthetic fondness for infibulation, the latter analyzing a popular Arabic soap opera in the Sudan – suggests that story-telling holds untapped potential. The persuasive benefit in genres that social scientists tend to undervalue include memoir, e.g. Waris Dirie, Desert Flower series; Khady, Excisée/Blood Stains; Nura Abdi, Tränen im Sand; Hibo Wardere, Cut; Soraya Miré, Girl with Three Legs; novels, e.g. Jeanie Kortum, Stones; Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy; Fatou Keïta, Rebelle (Ivory Coast); comic books; soap opera; TV and radio serials (Call the Midwife); full length feature films (Ousman Sembène, Moolaadé; Sherry Horman, Desert Flower); music videos (e.g. produced by Susan McLucas and Sini Sanuman in Mali with the nation’s famous pop stars; Integrate UK’s #MyClitoris; also; plays (i.e. WAAFRIKA); shadow puppets (as sponsored by Terre des Femmes in West Africa); targeted advertising (Terres des femmes, FORWARD UK), commercials in cinemas; culinary and sartorial creativity (i.e. vulva cupcakes) and pageantry. Research by Sarah Penny and Naomi Rosen into drama therapy for trauma, bringing the unspoken into the open, reinforces this hypothesis of an underutilized resource. Painting, too, is both communicative and restorative. The Guardian Global Media Campaign against FGM, Oxford against Cutting, FORWARD-Germany, and IGS, for instance, have displayed canvasses and sculpture against FGM and/or orchestrated art competitions. In NY, Lagos, and elsewhere, Leyla Hussein recently promoted Jason Ashwood’s photography featuring survivors. Posters also remain understudied, and although this list is far from exhaustive, we have few monographs focusing specifically on the humanities and arts in campaigns against FGM. This deficit should be addressed, and what better time to organize than on December 10, Human Rights Day?

If you are interested in joining a virtual group to explore FGM and the Arts, please email me: