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 a.m.to 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   tlevin@fas.harvard.edu

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 https://theoxfordfeministepress.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/final_oxfep_workshop_report_1_fgm-workshop_11-1-16.pdf]

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. tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com or tlevin@fas.harvard.edu

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 <info@thegirlgeneration.org>”

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

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/feb/06/bristol-anti-fgm-video-is-an-online-hit; also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fq6v-kIcG_Y); 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: tlevin@fas.harvard.edu


Economics Is Why FGM Persists (Oxford Seminar On The Elephants In The Room)

Hilary, your contribution to the Workshop is ground zero for major research. Here I’d simply offer my translation from the German on the economics of FGM in Eritrea, book author by Diana Kuring, translation published in Feminist Europa. Review of Books. Special issue on FGM:
Table 6.
Economics of FGM in Eritrean ethnic groups
Ethnic group Finances associated with the practice
In this largest of Eritrean ethnic groups, it is customary that relatives, usually
grandmothers, aunts or women neighbors, perform the operation. Because they share a similar class status, they are generally not paid at all or are at times rewarded merely with enough cash to buy sugar and coffee. The ‘initiate’s’ mother prepares a meal for the cutters. The practice therefore represents a minimal financial outlay for the Tigrinya.
For the Tigre, FGM is a social event. In the northern Red Sea province, female relatives and neighbors drink coffee and eat wheat porridge. The exciseuse receives 20-80 Nakfa.
In the countryside villagers also visit the family, bringing congratulatory gifts. I don’t know whether the family offers these
visitors coffee and porridge in return. The cost of such festivities differs
between rural and urban venues. In the provincial capital Keren, the wealthy
slaughter a goat and invite the poor to eat. The exciser receives gifts, but the
available data gives no information about the value of these presents. In addition, the initiate’s mother receives gold [2] from her husband. [3]
Thus, the material outlay for the Tigre can be significant but the prestige accrues to the community rather than to the celebrants themselves.
The Hedareb pay only 20 Nakfa or six kilos of flour. [4] In comparison to other
Eritrean ethnic groups, economics plays no role here.
The NCA study discovered that the Islamic Bilen in Keren pay “three kilo [sic] of sorghum, 2 bars of soap, a kilo of sugar and coffee and transportation money.” [5]
For the Nara, a great deal of money goes into FGM. The entire village celebrates and must therefore be invited to eat and drink. Goats are slaughtered. [6] Guests give the initiate gold and jewelry. To lessen expenses, three or four girls from a single family are cut at the same time, or the surgery
is integrated into the wedding of a close relative. [7]
Thus, the economics of the event are highly significant for both the family and the village. The only missing data concerns the salary of the exciseuse: the NCA study gives no details.
The Kunama have the greatest economic investment in FGM. Festivities last anywhere from a number of days to an entire month, and a cow or ox will be slaughtered. The whole village, relatives and neighboring villagers are invited.
The girl’s maternal uncle gives her a goat or cow. According to the NCA
study, “her father also gives her a goat or a cow if she survives the operation.”

Hilary Burrage

17 November 2017: A workshop entitled Elephants in the Room: Hurdles – and Hope – for Ending Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) challenged us to consider some ‘elephants in the room’ in how we think about that particular form of gendered physical and psychological abuse.  The event, co-sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, and the UnCUT/VOICES Press, enabled those present to share thoughts on aspects of FGM which may be both blatantly obvious and difficult to discuss. My contribution, summarised below, was on the Economics of FGM.

The ‘four Es’ of Eradicating FGM are Engagement, Education, Enforcement and Economics.

But perhaps there is also a fifth ‘E’ – because in the context of this seminar Economics is the Elephant in the room….

View original post 1,432 more words

On FGM. Join us at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, 17.11.2017

Elephants in the Room:

Hurdles — and Hope —

for Ending FGM

Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

17 November 2017

A workshop on current research sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre and UnCUT/VOICES Press. Presentations and discussion 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Films from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Keynote speech: author Hilary Burrage at noon.

Sandwich lunch included. No fee but voluntary contributions appreciated.


Pierre at Woman Global PEaCE Foundation awardsThis event addresses academics, journalists, and activists interested in exploring concrete obstacles to ending FGM (female genital mutilation). Why ‘elephants in the room’?  “Elephant in the room 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.” [1]

Above, the subject of UnCUT/VOICES’ book Undoing FGM by best-selling novelist Hubert Prolongeau, Dr. Pierre Foldes and Frédérique Martz accept their awards from the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation, 21 October 2017, at the 5 K Walk against FGM. Photo credit: Tobe Levin


Issues receiving too little attention in relation to FGM include …

Hilary reading 2

Gender, ethnic identities, psycho-sexualities and masculinities

° Loyalty to ‘female circumcision’ in cultures that perform it;  ° Motivation wrapped up with desires for beauty and acceptance; ° Fraught relationships between mothers and daughters; ° Role and redefinition of masculinities; ° Sex, especially female pleasure, as a taboo topic between women and men; ° Difficulties in but importance of engaging men as advocates, both within and outside the ethnicities concerned; ° Rejection of transgender / adherence to gender-stereotypes.

Politics, power and finance

° Bullying, deprivation, and humiliation of ‘positive deviants’ and activists; ° Economic power (of patriarchs) with financial interests who impose FGM for material gain; ° Right-wing ‘hijacking’ of the issue to promote racism and Islamophobia; ° Tensions between academic researchers and activists; ° Increased opposition to asylum for risk of FGM in an era of mass exodus and growing anti-immigrant sentiment; ° Underfunding of grassroots abolition efforts managed by cultural insiders; ° Modalities of cooperation between cultural insiders and outsiders.

Medicine and lawMarch 10 workshop 2

° Calls to differentiate between so-called clitoral ‘nicks’ and FGM in Germany, Italy, the USA and elsewhere; ° Distinctions between campaigns in Diaspora and at national (tribal, ethnic) points of origin; ° Controversial responses to the role of government in enforcing laws against FGM; ° Skepticism surrounding clitoral restoration.

Photo above, Hilary Burrage reading at the workshop and photo left, l to r, Hilary Burrage, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Dr. Phoebe Abe, Sadia Adam, and Annagrazia Faraca, at Lady Margaret Hall, the 10 March 2017 Workshop sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre.

Advertising, media, language and the arts

° Underfunded artistic approaches to abolition, i.e. imaginative literature, film, music, painting, dance, poetry, drama; ° Understudied but increasing role of survivor/victims’ autobiography, autobiographical novels and memoir; ° Appropriate visuals in advertising and other media campaigns; ° Benefit and pitfalls of social media – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

Open to a general audience, the workshop will stress discussion among participants and invited experts whose remarks, ideally limited to TEN minutes, will address these issues (among others). To illustrate, “fondness for the custom  in most cultures that perform it” has produced concrete global counter-movements that claim the right to continue FGM: for instance, Bohra Muslim women and a Sierra Leonean’s ‘“Ain’t I a Woman” campaign [that wants] to raise seed money … to increase awareness about the negative impact of anti-fgm campaigns… [and]  to celebrate and teach … unique traditions of female (and male) initiation – [that is, clitoridectomy] — in sub-Sahara Africa and other parts of the world’).[2]

A second illustration, the difficulty in “determining appropriate visuals in advertising and other media” pits advocates for images that expose the full horror — see, for instance, “Now that you know, say NO to FGM — Young Men” at http://www.safehands.org — against others who hesitate to subject viewers to pictures as likely to generate disgust as to ensure engagement. The Inter-African Committee (IAC) advocates close-ups of the act for African viewers, showing what FGM really is – as in the 1991 IAC Nigeria film Beliefs and Misbeliefs under the direction of Dr. Irene Thomas. In contrast, in 1982, Belgian filmmaker Patrizia van Verhaegen screened Le Secret de leurs Corps (1981), including footage of an infibulation shot in the Sudan. At the 1982 University of Dakar colloquium on FGM organized by Awa Thiam, Senegalese academic female participants agreed that such a film should never appear in Europe. The risk of encouraging racism rather than gathering support to end FGM, they felt, was just too high.[3]

Regarding hope in accelerating abolition, representatives of praiseworthy initiatives are invited to report. These include …

° Guardian Global Media Campaign, executive director Maggie O’Kane; ° The Royal College of Midwives (animations against FGM); ° The Girl Generation (continuing the legacy of Efua Dorkenoo); ° Oxford Against Cutting; ° Equality Now; ° 28 Too Many; ° The Oxford Rose Clinic in John Radcliffe Hospital; ° FORWARD (London), film Needlecraft; ° The Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK); ° Daughters of Eve and Hawa’s Haven; ° The Mojatu Foundation (Nottingham): ° FORWARD – Germany, AWAT immigrant women’s project; ° Dr. Abe Foundation; ° Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation (USA); ° Samburu Girls Foundation (Kenya); ° I.A.C. Norway; ° CAMS (France); ° L’Institut génésique (Dr. Pierre Foldes); ° Global Alliance against FGM (Geneva); ° Somali Family Services, Minneapolis, MN, USA & Garowe, Puntland, Somalia; ° Memoirists Khady Koita, Maria Kiminta, Hibo Wardere and dramatist Charlene James (Cuttin’ It); ° Integrate UK (Bristol); ° EU-DAPHNE Sponsored CHANGE projects (Hazel Barrett, Coventry University, and Terre des Femmes); Rights in Exile / Refugee Legal Aid Programme.

Barbara Harrell-Bond in discussion with Kameel Ahmady

Photo right, at the March 10 IGS Oxford FGM Workshop, Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond of the Rights in Exile / Refugee Legal Aid Programme in discussion with UnCUT/VOICES author Kameel Ahmady, In the Name of Tradition. FGM in Iran.


Films feature three 3 ½ minute animations launched on 12 September 2017 in the House of Commons, hosted by Janet Fyle MBE and sponsored by the Royal College of Midwives, and Jaha’s Promise, premiered at the Copenhagen film festival, March 2017, by the Guardian Global Media Campaign against FGM.

Finally, UnCUT/VOICES Press envisions an edited volume on Hurdles and Hope in Ending FGM: Research Reports from the Workshop (working title). Participants will be invited to contribute.

REGISTER (by 16.11. requested for catering): Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen

tlevin@fas.harvard.edu    or    tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com

UnCUT/VOICES’ books featured:

Undoing FGM cover

Kameel Ahmady cover

[1] Wikipedia. https://www.google.de/search?q=Elephants+in+the+Room+defined&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-b&gfe_rd=cr&dcr=0&ei=9ZbcWeWTEM-F8QfPx6zwBw  Retrieved 10/10/2017.S

[2] https://www.gofundme.com/7jsnenf8 Retrieved 10/10/2017.

[3] In fact, the film DID appear on primetime German TV with the excision scene EXCISED, encouraging precisely the opposite impression, making the custom seem benign. See Tobe Levin. 1983. ‘Solidarische Rassistinnen’. EMMA.  http://www.emma.de/lesesaal/45205#pages/pageId-0047788cd53dbf523d044a5a6908636f0ff41bb

International Day of the Girl: Toward Ending FGM with Dr. Josephine Kulea at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford

Kulea Poster corrected

AS you will note, I have the honor of convening a presentation by Samburu Girls Foundation founder Dr. Josephine Kulea on October 17 at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. The Samburu, like the Maasai, are semi-nomadic tribes whose girls experience a higher rate of FGM than the Kenyan average. “According to the Kenya Demographic Household Survey of 2014, some 78 percent of Maasai women and 86 percent of Samburu women between the ages of 15 and 49, have been mutilated, while for Kenya’s general population the figure  stands at 21 percent.” (1)  So what is there to celebrate on this International Day of the Girl? Alternative Rites of Passage have taken hold, pioneered by many dedicated NGOs. “Already more than 13,300 Maasai and Samburu girls have avoided FGM.” (2)

Although Kenya has indeed shown progress, there remains a great deal still to do.

UnCUT/VOICES’ author Maria Kiminta, in another excerpt from our book, Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation, offers reflections on what is holding the status quo in place and setting limits on girls’ growing freedom from the blade.

Kimiinta Cover (2)

The custom banned, and yet … Despite Kenya’s passage of The Children’s Act of 2001 to protect the young from harmful cultural practices and the nation’s president having condemned FGM in 1983, the practice goes on. Similarly, numerous NGOs and human rights activists excoriate FGM internationally and within Kenya as a violation of human rights, yet little progress has been made. FGM remains prevalent and requires a more integrated approach.  For in fact, the Children’s Act of 2001, now in place for over a decade, has not prevented it. Its tenacious hold on tradition remains, especially among pastoral groups. And even worse, the elders of my community, in obvious defiance on hearing the edict, issued a statement to the authorities. Protesting that female ‘circumcision’ is a cultural right reserved exclusively by the tribe, they warned the central government that it had no business telling them to stop.

As a Maasai who knows all too well the effects of FGM, I feel obliged to tell not only the Maasai elders but the world about the harm girl children suffer, including me. … From my experience as a ten-year-old, I bear witness to the fact that FGM is not only traumatic but also perilous; it can bring life-long pain, suffering, and even death to girls. I would like to see the Maasai community conserve our rich culture. Let’s keep rituals, feasting and blessings on initiates but stop – full stop! — cutting genitalia.

The significance of FGM to the Maasai community. As a Maasai, I have been raised to feel great respect for our culture, and although female ‘circumcision’ is claimed by some, even among us, to be an outdated practice, it remains difficult for many to leave a way of life and adopt a new one, especially since, thus far, Maasai customs as a whole have survived largely intact. If FGM were not so tightly woven into the traditional fabric, convincing us to stop might be easier. But this magnitude of change would seem possible only with patience over the long run. …

I paused at this point in my writing, overcome by a sense of malaise, wondering how to address a tricky issue of pride. You’ll agree, of course, that the Maasai regard female ‘circumcision’ differently from the rest of the world, but the fact that we practice it, I must insist, does not make us lesser people. Our traditional ways of thinking have taught us that FGM is positive; that it improves a child’s life. From the Maasai perspective, then, the time-honored practice has the following aims.

A wrong rite of passage. The primary reason the Maasai give for FGM is its use as a rite of passage from immaturity to womanhood, making a girl ready for marriage. As you have already read, we young children were made to believe a ‘circumcised’ girl ripens, gains in obedience, and becomes aware of her role in the family and society as a whole. We also learn that once ‘circumcised’ we would enjoy the respect of our elders and peers since despite our tender years, we would no longer count as kids.

How, exactly, are these rewards presented? Before the procedure, girls are brought together daily, inspired not to fear, and assured that the most heroic will reap the best gifts. Initiates are also told that young men and their families will be watching and select wives only from among the most courageous. Thus, aspiration to be chosen by influence and wealth creates devotees of the ordeal.  My feeling was that stakes like these propelled FGM beyond the status of a mere tradition; instead, as a lifestyle, its culmination in a show of heroism would also make me a hero for life. After all, the cutting isn’t even the most spectacular of the day’s events. Rather, festivities are boundless, and the whole village celebrates a girl’s passage to maturity, her accession to another level of existence.

Now, parents make most decisions, but in some cases girls beg to be ‘done’ earlier, giving in to peer pressure, ridicule and insults. Elders would warn those just circumcised to remain steadfast. “Don’t ever reveal your ordeal,” they were told. Instead, they were exhorted to motivate us to face the knife in silence, as they, ideally, had done. So whenever we asked them, “What was it like?” they would lie. “It was fine,” they’d say. “Everything’s ok,” and push us away. They would show us the gifts they had received and describe how everyone was ululating, dancing and praising them for their great achievement. They would also mock us and call us ‘babies’ because we had not yet confronted what they had. It was even more hurtful because girls we used to play with were now telling us to get lost.  “Babies like you are beneath us,” they scoffed.

Sadly, their strategy worked. Most of us felt irritated enough to swear to join in the following season, but really, all we wanted was to escape the taunting and humiliation.

In the past, Maasai girls had been ‘circumcised’ at 17 or 18 years old, the age when a girl was considered ready for marriage. But now, victims are between 8 and 15. Why? The trend can be attributed to parental worry about girls becoming sexually active, sometimes as young as ten, thus increasing the risk of pregnancy before being cut — a community taboo.

Kiminta dreamyFurthermore, the clitoris itself is blamed. Considered an aggressive appendage, local belief holds that it threatens the male organ and even endangers babies during delivery. How are neonates imperiled? The baby’s head touching the mother’s clitoris will, it is thought, lower the child’s IQ.  Consequently, villagers consider the girl with a clitoris ‘unclean’ and unmarriageable. Anyone keeping her genital intact poses a threat, ultimately fatal to a man whose manhood might brush against her clit.  In fact, so dangerous does she appear that the Council of Elders has passed a ruling: pregnancy before ‘circumcision’ makes the girl an outcast ineligible ever to marry in the tribe.  Her choices are restricted to men from other groups. So, partly to prevent such tragic consequences of promiscuity, candidates for cutting are less often teens and more likely to be increasingly younger girls.

Another reason, however, for the cut is poverty. Because dowry can change hands only after ‘circumcision’, no matter the age of the betrothed, parents book their girls off for marriage to start receiving the bride price. The amputation tells suitors when to start instalments which, once paid up, entitle them to come and get their spouse. This is done in an orderly manner giving the mother time to teach the (too) young intended how to treat a man. And even if already wedded, the teen can remain in her parents’ home for as long as five more years.

Still another motive behind the downward trend in age is that children under ten are hardly old enough to refuse nor strong enough to resist. At the same time, they are coming increasingly to know their rights, and maybe a hint of insipient rebellion is also making initiates younger.

For parents have begun to apply an ironic and misguided viewpoint; they contend that smaller kids suffer fewer traumas. Whether true or not, escaping notice is important as well, for, as we have seen, the government made FGM illegal under the Children’s Act of 2001.

What really baffles me is how aware I am of just such motives, older people seducing children into undergoing rites of passage whose actual benefit accrues to the grown-ups in the form of wealth. Offspring bear the consequences since whatever they go through violates children’s rights including their right to health, freedom, security and protection.

  1. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2017/01/kenya-maasai-samburu-women-fgm-170116184420081.html  Retrieved 11 October 2017.
  2. Ibid.

You can order Maria Kiminta and Tobe Levin. Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation. A Memoir and Source Book (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015) for a discount by writing to Tobe.Levin@uncutvoices.com