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….

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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


On Teaching about FGM

Speech announcement 27, 28, 29 September MA

Ending Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Requires Support For Community Activists

Hilary’s support of funding for smaller NGOs, generally more intimately linked to practicing communities than many larger ones, is timely and crucial. With me, Hilary penned the AfterWords to UnCUT/VOICES’ latest book, Kameel Ahmady’s _In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran_

Hilary Burrage

Today I published a piece in the Huffington Post entitled The ‘Cuts’ And ‘Cutting’ – And So Female Genital Mutilation Continues In The UK.  The eradication of FGM is critically dependent not only on the skills and leverage of the leading organisations in the field, but also on the goodwill and support of activists in their communities.  Often these activists report that their work is not resourced and that they are therefore unable to deliver the #EndFGM message as they would wish – a matter of especial importance when ‘vacation cutting’ is about to start.

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Female Genital Mutilation: An Educational Challenge

On March 10, 2017, in the Mary O’Brien room at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford, scholars and activists focused intently on Four specific Challenges to Ending FGM: Medicalization, Female Genital (Cosmetic) Surgery, Asylum, and (Lack of) Education (about FGM) … Co-sponsored by the International Gender Studies Centre  and the Clitoris Restoration and Fistula Repair Fund (UK charity commission # 1169186), the workshop enhanced knowledge that can improve quality of life, especially for girls under threat of FGM.

Body art protest against FGM

Body art protest against FGM

16 June 2017, which is commemorated as the INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE AFRICAN CHILD, called on civil society to reconsider African girls’ well-being. Why June 16? In 1991, in response to the Soweto Uprising of 1976 in which the government attacked South African youth demonstrating peacefully against apartheid education, the Organization of African Unity reserved that date for global reflection on action to better children’s lifetime opportunities. Specifically, a non-violent protest against the additional requirement of Afrikaans together with English as the language of instruction was brutally disrupted. Behind student discontent was surely the Bantu Education Act of 1953, conceived by its author H. F. Verwoerd as an exclusionary, separate and UNequal measure: ‘There is no place for [the African] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. It is of no avail for him to receive a training which has as its aim absorption in the European community’.” [See http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/june-16-soweto-youth-uprising] [Retrieved 16 june 2017]

It is a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow from a brilliant English novelist, that moral education is central to development, and even more so to disarm racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and misogyny behind the wide-spread abuse of genital mutilation.

At the Oxford workshop session on education chaired by Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Professor Hazel Barrett of Coventry University presented the EU-sponsored REPLACE 2 project that evaluated interventions to change behavior, — that is, to end FGM –, in Diaspora communities in Europe. By educating change agents, i.e. ethnic insiders, and enabling them to coordinate educational activities with community members, REPLACE 2 followed up the pilot REPLACE 1 that looked at FGM intervention in the European Diaspora  in the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium. Pedagogy was pivotal. Kate Agha of Oxford Against Cutting and Kameel Ahmady, author of In the Name of Tradition. Female Genital Mutilation in Iran (UnCUT/VOICES, 2016) also spoke to education, Kate outlining an art and film-making project with middle-schoolers, and Kameel revealing how epidemiological interviews correlated with a decreasing number of FGM victims. Raising the issue in a critical way serves both activism and research.

Kameel Tobe

Kameel Ahmady and Tobe Levin von Gleichen in Rome

Kate Agha
Kate Agha Oxford Against Cutting
10 March 2017
Hazel March 10
Professor Hazel Barrett at the Oxford FGM Workshop 10 March 2017

UnCUT/VOICES author Maria Kiminta agrees. In our book, Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation, education takes pride of place. We offer here the Preface and Chapter 1.




Kimiinta Cover (2)PREFACE by Maria Kiminta

Joy sat down with me when I first conceived of writing this book. Motivated by my own need for answers, I knew that others, too, wanted broader knowledge. Like me, they would welcome the chance to move beyond the static information of the past. And even if immediate success eluded me (would I find a publisher? would my writing hit the mark?), communicating what I had learned, I was bold enough to think, could alter African culture, both in the Diaspora, –including where I live, in Germany–, and in Africa. For traditions responsible for FGM and the risk it poses to girls’ health are cultural, and therefore stubborn, but culture and destiny can change. Written and spoken words, sincerity and conscientious action can realize African people’s aspirations for their children.

If coming generations are to become innovative, resourceful leaders, they need role models. I dared to use my education to become such a leader, at least insofar as memoir reaches out, explaining in this text which fixed beliefs permit the use of razors against girls and why my desire to see those girls escape the shadow of those blades can be realized after all.

When I was growing up in Kenya, I had a single option, to become someone’s wife. It was drilled into me that we are Maasai (or, speaking for my friends, Kikuyu) and … we were still a people apart. The past remained present and the present – its encroachments – were resisted. At times, these constant comparisons to the ways of life now slowly invading our domain made us feel that we were better than, although often enough less than, those practicing another culture.

Kiminta smiling 2

Maria Kiminta. Photo by Britta Radike

But the other culture’s benefits –computers, cures for diseases, kidney transplants –have made me thankful, as an African woman, for the new technology, and gratitude trusts in change.

It is the source of my yearning to liberate children, above all, from the emotional and cultural bondage that molded us and affected our whole lives. I would say to my people, please focus on today and let go of the past. Choose to alter – culture and yourselves.

Rooted as it is in the past, FGM must end.

Chapter 1

I am a Maasai, and I was subjected to female genital mutilation. Although commonly called “circumcision” by people not (yet) ready to abandon the practice, the rite involves slicing off parts of the visible female genitalia or otherwise injuring sexual organs for reasons other than malignancy, malformation or illness.  Not medically prescribed, the ‘surgery’ answers cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic mandates. Recent reports observe a shift – minor among the Maasai — towards medicalization of the process, now increasingly offered by trained personnel ostensibly to limit side effects and pain. But in case you are tempted to smile, this is not a positive development and is, in fact, strongly opposed by, among others, the Inter-African Committee.

A long-standing cultural practice, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not limited to my community but prevails equally in other pastoral ethnic groups. Although girls between four and ten are its most frequent victims, it takes place at any age from infancy through adolescence. Although thirteen to sixteen years had been preferred where I grew up, now, to avoid detection by authorities, clitoridectomy is often performed on babies.

As children, we were meant to believe that FGM is a ‘good tradition’. This would be elaborated to us by the old women and grandparents during evening story-telling where values and morals were imparted. Then we also learned that the smooth flow of a girl’s whole life depended entirely upon her undergoing FGM so that refusing became as unthinkable as the dire future predicted for the child left unshorn. Indeed, no one ever talked about what could go wrong – and certainly not the extreme pain that segues into torture. Instead everything was meant to encourage us to accept the knife, abandoning resistance or fear. And so we, too, celebrated these amputations, viewing them as bestowing on initiates increased respect and enhanced status. Showered with numerous gifts, the graduate, no longer a child, would have become a woman and an asset to the group.

Festivities for kids

During the ceremonies, we young children would be allowed to eat, feast and dance to the traditional jig whose text lauded and praised the courageous who have just been cut. Ironically, beforehand, we were never permitted anywhere near the ‘circumcision’ rooms where screams would surely have frightened us away. Nor were we allowed to visit the victims. Only after they had healed would we see them again. Otherwise, we would have known how inhumanely they had been treated. In fact, the older girls would be isolated on a different homestead far from uncircumcised children, to remain there until their bodies had mended and resumed normal function. To limit our interactions, the elders warned us that because these girls had now been turned into ‘adults’, they had become off limits to us kids. We were forbidden to mingle or play with them.

For you see, the ‘circumcised’ now belonged to a different, advanced ‘age set’. Only after we too had confronted the razor would we be permitted to fool around, hang out, or take care of chores together. Our elders told us that girls who have been ‘circumcised’ now had a special ‘status’ and deserved to be treated differently — better than the way we were treated. During recovery, they were prepared special meals, treats also promised to us once we had become candidates ourselves. Of course, this made us jealous. The favor showered on that season’s ‘chosen’ made every child long for the blade.

All these efforts that shielded us from the harsh realities of the procedure pushed us to admire and even desire it. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the elevated social status that came with it?

To understand the psychology here, you must be aware that, as kids, we were systematically humiliated in ways I now know to have gone against children’s rights. We were deceived by all means possible, tricked into loving a so-called ‘good practice’ because of its artificial ‘positive’ change.  No one ever mentioned long-term negative effects. Only afterward did reality dawn on me, and I realized that, for the girl child, adverse consequences far outweigh anything good.

Whilst an adult is free to submit herself to the ritual, a child without formed judgment never ‘consents’. She simply undergoes the mutilation (which in this case is irrevocable) while she is totally vulnerable. The child’s rights are violated since children are not consulted nor given a choice about facing the knife. Instead, for years, their minds have been manipulated by the old women who want girls to think ‘circumcision’ is what they need most in their lives.

As Maria Kiminta writes in the Afterword:

Fortunate to attend university in Nairobi, I pursued my interest in advancing women’s human rights in various villages but then traded my dream of advocating human betterment for a more pragmatic career in sales. My first job in a women’s clothing store led to engagement to the owner’s son followed by marriage and moving to Germany.  Europe has enabled me to return to my passion for helping women discover the irrelevance and detriment to health of the ritual passage so many of us had been through. I aim to promote confidence and education among Maasai girls.