What we think of as the unspeakable pain and suffering of FGM [Femal Genital Mutilation] must, in fact, be shouted and given voice, relentlessly. Khady’s account of this all too common practice is wrenching and necessary reading.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
Director, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research
“Life was sweet in the big house in the suburbs of Thiès,” Khady, a Soninké born in Senegal, recalls, a town whose towering trees lined broad and peaceful streets “in the shadow of the mosque where, at the crack of dawn, Grandfather and the men would go to pray” (Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights, p 3).
Soon, though, this early childhood tenderness would shatter, the moment the “grandmothers came and said, ‘Today, daughter, you’re going to be purified’” (p 5). In Soninké, the word is salindé.
During the long school break, Khady’s sister Daba, her paternal cousins Lélé, Annie, Ndaié, the seven-year-old herself and “a dozen or so little girls between six and nine” awaited a horrendous event. On ordinary days, “you’d be just as likely to find [them] playing house with dolls…” (p 5).
Not on this day. “Two women … dragged me in,” Khady reveals. “[One] … grabbed my head and, with all the strength in her knees, crushed my shoulders to the ground; the other … force[d my] legs apart” (p. 11). Naturally, because children resist, the girl’s age and maturity determine the supporting cast. “If you’re big, solid and expected to struggle, more women will be there to restrain you” (p 11). For the “scrawny and small,” like Khady, you needed “only” two.
And then …
Using her fingers, [the exciser] grasps the clitoris, … stretches that minute fragment of flesh [and]—if all goes well—whacks it off like a piece of zebu meat. Often, she can’t hack it off in one go so she’s obliged to saw.
To this day, I can hear myself howling (p. 11). (In a November 1997 interview I conducted in Dakar, Senegal, with anti-FGM activist and IAC leader Edna Adan Ismael—former Foreign Minister of Somaliland, former First Lady of Somalia, and founder of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa—I learned that the sound of her flesh being cut continued to haunt her.)
To Khady, “the pain had no name. It resembled no other. It was like they were yanking out your guts. Like a hammer in your skull” (p 12). And the big question why? remains:
…I longed to pass out and prayed for death. Such brutality perpetrated on little girls’ bodies escaped my understanding. No one had prepared me – not my older sisters, not my older girlfriends, no one. It was therefore inexplicable, unjust and gratuitous cruelty. For what were they punishing me? That thing that a razor blade hacked off my body, what was it for? If I had been born with it, why did they want to get rid of it? I must have been carrying some sort of evil. Was there something diabolical that had to be killed before I could pray to God? Incomprehensible! (p 14)
Female genital mutilation (FGM), or female sexual mutilation to the French, targets the vulva, amputating healthy flesh, nerves, and structures in children—upward of 100 million girls under the age of 18. Communities where this happens, usually without anesthesia and with considerable violence, are visibly patriarchal. (Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, who made the first full-length feature film on FGM in 2004, shows women and girls bowing down in daily life to men and boys. Moolaadé—“sanctuary” or “refuge”—was shot on location on the borders between Mali and Burkina Faso.) Although some feisty personalities cope with the system and affirm their indomitable spirit—Khady’s Aunt Marie for instance—law and custom openly subordinate women to men.
Most of you are aware of this. What you may not know is how survivors feel about what they have endured. Khady can tell you and, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., attests, the world would do well to listen.
In 2005, Khady, a close friend whom I met in Beijing in 1995, released a memoir Mutilée, literally “mutilated woman”, with an admirable French publisher dedicated to burning issues, mainly abuses against women, convinced that open discussion of erstwhile taboos can benefit humanity. Endowed with resources to secure attention, Oh! Editions made Mutilée a best-seller in France; its Foreign Rights department also oversaw dissemination internationally. A visit to the press in the Tour Montparnasse in Paris reveals shelf upon shelf of colorful paperbacks in Japanese, Russian, Chinese, and many European languages. By 2006, readers could meet the heroine in twelve different tongues. By 2009, that figure had risen to seventeen.
The English language was not among them.
Why? At least one clear incident gestures toward a reason by revealing how, compared to a militant global movement against FGM, the United States prefers a position that either mutes the horror under euphemism, or, in fact, comes out in favor. For instance, on April 26, 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics reversed a 1998 policy that had been in line with the wishes of African women activists from 28 nations in the Inter-African Committee (IAC). In 2003, the IAC launched International Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation Day (February 6—birthday of the IAC in 1984). Its Bamako Declaration explicitly opposes trivializing terminology. Thenceforth, “female genital mutilation” would officially name the offense.
In defiance of this African initiative, not only had the AAP altered the wording of its policy—deleting “mutilation”, the appropriate medical term for what is done, and preferring the more harmless-sounding “cutting”—but also urged clinicians to lobby for a change in U.S. law that had banned FGM since the mid-1990s. (In 1993, Congresswomen Patricia Schroeder and Barbara-Rose Collins introduced the bill (H.R. 3247) against FGM in the United States.) Because so many immigrants had been approaching physicians to request clitoridectomy or infibulation, wouldn’t it be a good idea, the AAP asked, if legislation allowed a “ritual nick”?
Apparently ignorant of a decades-long African-led global movement against medicalization, this suggestion elicited so much international disgust that one month later, the new policy was rescinded and the old, appropriately-worded one put back in place. (For a more detailed account of this contretemps, see my “Afterword” to Hubert Prolongeau’s Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2011.)
So why did it take five years before Khady’s book, Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights, became available in English? This example represents part of the answer and also illuminates a need for UnCUT/VOICES Press whose sole purpose, until girls are safe, is to publish good books on FGM, especially in translation. In German, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and other languages, first person narratives and excellent studies have appeared; they often reveal the child’s perspective, present the rite as embedded in specific cultures, help the incredulous to understand the horror and resilience of its victims, and appeal for support.
Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights, by Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny and translated by me, details the mesh of cultural norms that entrap girls like Khady. In chapter 1 the child undergoes clitoridectomy. In chapter two (“Growing Up”), she is taken out of the seventh grade and given “a blow to the head”—to announce a girl’s bridal fate:
According to tradition, when a young woman is married [an agreement celebrated among men, the ceremony takes place without her in the mosque] …, her friends race to see who will be the first to punch her. Why? Because the sprinter will be the next to marry. In American films, the bride tosses her bouquet to single girls who scramble to catch it. Where I come from, you get to whack the betrothed on the noggin.
And with that, I knew. It was over. … The fist told all. (pp 47-48)
The husband, nearly two decades older, consummates his union to the fourteen-year-old in a defloration scene striking in brutality and psychological self-defense. Khady tells how a matron walked her over to “four cement walls” with a mattress on the floor and left her there to wait by herself for the groom.
I assume that from that moment on, I literally lost my mind. It must have fled because there’s something in me that absolutely refuses to envision what happened in that room. I know he [entered] but I neither looked at him nor removed my veil. He extinguished the oil lamp; and that’s the last thing I recall. I woke up the next morning around 4 a.m. as the sun rose. Cries and ululations at the door had aroused me from the coma into which I had fallen. The husband was gone; he had already left. The mamas were happy; they had gotten what they wanted, and my girlfriends told me, “My God! How you howled…! [Everybody] heard it.”
I remember the searing of that instant, but not my shriek. … Excruciating, … [the act] had [thrown] me … into the darkest abyss.
For four hours, [I] had been absent from my life.
Hating myself, I blotted out that part of my body whose intimate wound is forever powerless to heal. (p. 60)
Nor will sex with the husband get better. On the contrary. Concerning that infernal decade in minuscule apartments in the capital of France, Khady writes:
… resigned to endure, I emptied my head and lay there rigid as a plank, not taking part in anything. I didn’t want to do it. I never wanted to do it. As far as I was concerned, conjugal duty was a torment you simply had to put up with. I was passive and fatalistic. I never even asked myself whether all women experienced the same thing. The love they talked about in films and TV clearly wasn’t for me. (p. 92)
Khady’s intended had returned to Senegal specifically to marry a naïve, young girl more easily controllable than the village wife he had just divorced who, in his absence, had gotten pregnant. At first he would resume his Parisian life alone, sending for his bride the following year. At barely fifteen, then, Khady would take up residence in a foreign country with a man of few words whose traditional thinking presents a constant challenge. He governs the purse-strings and the bed; she has no right to say “no”. Conjugal rape is the order of the day. Three pregnancies in as many years join the young bride’s fate to that of many excised, imported teens isolated in small Parisian walk-ups whose duties (and timidity) prevent their integration into the wider French metropolis.
Like Khady—and at the same time unlike her. For despite having been forced to drop out before the end of junior high, Khady is literate. Her husband isn’t. Nearly all her African Diaspora friends can’t read either. And literacy gives her a special role assisting others with the French bureaucracy and helping herself find work. A temporary office job—the first paid position of which she is justly proud—is extended; another comes along, and she begins to understand one key to male dominance and female oppression specifically in the Diaspora: French government complicity. Subsidies for additional wives and children are deposited directly into men’s accounts. Earmarked for women and kids, this funding reaches intended beneficiaries only at the discretion of the men who often withhold it for themselves, for instance to acquire additional wives (to increase their income) or to live royally for months with another wife back in the village. Khady blows the whistle on this systematic abuse and actually succeeds in diverting her share of the welfare money her husband had been getting into her own account. But it is precisely this interference with the budget that incurs the strongest wrath of her community, more chilled by a concrete usurpation of power than by her speaking out against excision or rampant domestic abuse.
The U.S. women’s movement, even more than others, dislikes calling relatively powerless, young women like Khady “victims.” Fortunately, in Khady’s case, we are not obliged to. A survivor and more, she has become a charismatic leader of the global, political movement against FGM. Her memoir opens and ends at the United Nations where, as spokesperson for No Peace Without Justice, the European Network against FGM (which she founded), and La Palabre (her refuge for girls fleeing FGM in Senegal managed together with Els Leye), Khady confronts with vehemence the indifference of the world:
In February and March 2005, I addressed the 49th session of the UN Committee on the Status of Women. There nearly 6000 NGOs greeted good news with exuberant applause: national governments, without reservation, had re-affirmed the Platform for Action on violence against women formulated ten years earlier at the Beijing Plus 10 Conference. For my part, I was on a cloud, sure that now everything would change…
But that evening, on re-reading the speech I would be giving the next day at a UNICEF conference in Zurich, I fell to earth and wept.
My whole life unfolded before me like a film whose first installment had been a tale of horror.
Since 1975, when the first United Nations women’s conference took place in Mexico and I arrived in France, thirty years had passed. How many women had suffered since then, and how many were suffering now? How many women had had to put up a fight like mine? In how many countries did men still not know what a phrase like “women’s rights” means? I had just lived through a magnificent moment listening to beautiful speeches by male politicians. I was tempted to cry out who I was and why I was there. To hurl at them my suffering and anger and tell them to stop talking but go see for themselves the lives of women in whose name they made decisions that wouldn’t be applied for half a century… if ever.
Discouragement claimed me, exhaustion in this interminable combat, the same feeling I had experienced three years earlier in Italy when they awarded my activism a prize shared with a young Bangladeshi whose face had been destroyed by acid for refusing to marry. That day I also cried, seeing that woman, of rage and desire to just let it all drop, so vast did the journey seem, and male violence so oceanic. (p. 210)
Thank goodness Khady’s courage has returned. Once again in N.Y., on March 2, 2012, we shared a podium at the 56th meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. Our High Level Panel, hosted by the Permanent Mission of Germany to the U.N., attracted more than 100 participants, mainly from Africa, who learned that Khady’s work as described in Blood Stains was bearing fruit. On July 1, 2011, the 17th African Union Summit meeting in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, issued its “Decision [in] Support of a Draft Resolution at the Sixty Sixth Ordinary Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations to Ban Female Genital Mutilation in the World.” Spokesperson for the BanFGM Worldwide movement, Khady works to ensure that the Sixty-Seventh Ordinary Session of the U.N. General Assembly will take up the issue when it convenes this fall.
Law without conviction won’t make the torture stop. But it moves humanity further along the rocky road to justice.
A professor with the University of Maryland University College in Europe, Tobe Levin is an Associate of Harvard University’s W.E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research directed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. She founded UnCUT/VOICES Press to ensure that academic and literary studies representative of African activists‘ commitment to eliminate female genital mutilation reach a broader audience.