Sahiyo co-founder’s documentary ‘A Pinch of Skin’ will be screening at NaturFreudeJungend in Berlin on the 25th May. 25th May is also the one-year anniversary of the historic repealing of the ban on abortion in Ireland, also known as the 8th Amendment. This is especially significant as a successful contemporary feminist movement, where women of Ireland voted against the ban on abortion, influencing pro-choice ideas in the Irish constitution.
Goswami will be joined by a pro-choice activist from Ireland, Dervla O’Malley and Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, Female Genital Cutting/Mutilation activist, for a panel discussion post the screening. The discussion will aim to look at practices and cultural ideas such as Female Genital Cutting, stigma on abortion, menstruation taboos which try to control the female body and sexuality.
[This is Part 2 in a series of posts about Jenny’s experience of learning about female genital cutting happening within the Malian community in which she lived. Part 1 details her stumbling upon the aftermath of a cutting in Konza.]
As the editorial intern at Sahiyo, I’ve been reading the stories of women who’ve been sharing their experiences with female genital cutting with the world. Each story is so important, and reminds me of the stories of girls and women who shared their experiences with me during my time in Mali, West Africa. I lived in Mali from 2006-2009, but I went back in 2014 to work on a project about FGC within my community.
Five years after my Peace Corps service, my old mud brick house in Konza was occupied and Mali was hotter than I remembered. I flew back to visit friends, but I also wanted to explore the impact female genital cutting (FGC) had on community members. Cutting in Mali is as ingrained in society as pounding millet for dinner. The Sikasso region of Mali in which I lived maintains a 90.9% prevalence rate of FGC.
I had Kodak prints with me taken on the day of the cutting in Konza that I’d been privy to years prior. There were 21 girls of varying heights who gathered under a tree for a photo — all barefoot, and all wearing long fabric over their heads with colorful patterns of stripes, leaves, acorns and sunbursts. The girls in the group photo were adorned in head wraps, a symbol of their new status in the community as having been cut. They stood in a crescent shape in front of a mango tree. Only one adult woman out of the four present was wearing a long piece of solid white fabric covering her head. There was a lone silver tea kettle sitting in the dirt in front of them. Even though I can hardly look at the prints because of the emotion that’s palpable on their faces, it doesn’t occur to me that showing them to others during my search girls may be triggering for the girls in the photos.
I remembered a meeting I held with the community elders in a round mud brick structure near the end of my time in Konza during Peace Corps. Women hardly ever attend these meetings, let alone call them and set the agenda. About ten men sat on the floor ready for my monologue. I’d worked for a year with Binta, the midwife and the only health practitioner in the community. She hadn’t been paid in six months. The community had given her grain for sustenance, but didn’t give her monetary compensation. Binta was in Sanso, a mining town with her husband, and wasn’t present for the meeting.
I began by telling them that she works all hours of the day birthing their babies and burying placentas, as well as taking care of other ailments and injuries outside of her purview. They understood but expressed that they simply did not have the money to pay her. Paying her would involve pooling a small amount of money from every household in the community monthly. I paused. And then I let the words roll off my tongue in Bambara. “When cutting season comes, you find the money to pay the cutter to cut your girls, but you won’t find the money to pay the midwife.” The chief of the village, nearing 100 years old, had been lying on a cot. I was sitting on the edge. He bolted upright next to me and said, “Crazy woman!” to the men in the room. I laughed. I told them if they didn’t pay her they would not be receiving another volunteer. A few weeks later, they paid Binta for the full six months.
They welcomed me into their community and I threatened them by conjuring one of their most sacred traditions. I felt powerless that young girls in the community were being violated and no one was doing anything about it to my knowledge. I also could not understand how you could avoid paying the midwife for birthing your children. I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that the community members live in one of the poorest countries on Earth. But my reasoning was simple: if you can pay a person to inflict pain in the name of tradition, then you can pay a midwife to ensure your wife and children have access to safe delivery.
I had brought the printed portraits of the girls I photographed the day of the cutting in 2007, in hopes that I could interview them about their experiences with FGC. None of my friends could identify the girls. My translator suggested we try to interview the girls I photographed in a different series I also had with me called The Chair Portraits. Since the girls in that series lived in close proximity to me, my friends knew who they were and and where they could be found. Most of these girls were now teenagers who worked in the field all day. They too had all been cut years before.
One had moved to another community to work in a gold mine. Another, Yaya Kone had gotten married and moved to a nearby village. Jemani Kone moved five kilometers away to Kouale, a nearby community on the main road to Sikasso. Several were still in Konza.
Jenebou Kone was the first to agree to talk about how and where the cutting took place, and how it affected her. We walked to the northern part of the village for privacy and sat under a tree. I pulled out my RCA digital voice recorder and after she gave me her consent, I pressed record.
(This blog is the second in a series of blogs meant to inspire a larger, global conversation about girls’ and women’s health and rights, cutting as a practice, and ideas for positive change. The third blog will unpack my conversation with Jenebou and other community members in Mali. A series of conversations about cutting in my community in Mali led me to advocacy work at Sahiyo. My hope is that collectively we can gain understanding of the practice, and in doing so, encourage abandonment.)
Though films and documentaries related to female genital cutting (FGC) promise to uphold the realities surrounding the subject, there are undeniable strings of subjective interpretations attached to them. Thus, rather than becoming ‘real’, these films and documentaries transpire as the reel portrayal of realities. Desert Flower, a 2009 German productionis the most pertinent feature film on the subject based on Waris Dirie’s 1998 autobiographical account of the same name. In the realm of popular culture, the film relegates the practice of FGC being coterminous to infibulation, whereas infibulation is one of the most extreme variations of the four types of FGC, as has been classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Rather than providing the holistic imagery of the practice, this film portrays a partial picture of it.
Cutting the Cut was produced in 2018 under the aegis of The Health Channel in Kenya. Winnie Lubembe, a Kenyan herself, is the narrator, producer, and writer. With a special focus on the Maasai community of Kenya, the documentary presents both against and for narratives of the practice. On the one hand, it discusses the hazardous aspect of the practice. On the other, views supporting legalization of the practice are also presented, as it arguably promotes medicalization as well as cultural preservation. The non-alienation of the community and the need for complementing legal banning with adequate awareness programmes and cultural redressal are the two main takeaways of the documentary. It also highlights the political nuances operating through the legal state apparatus.
A Pinch of Skin, on the other hand, is a 2012 Indian production directed by Priya Goswami. This can be designated as one of the maiden attempts to shed light upon the practice among the Bohra women in India. The maker, despite not belonging to the cultural community, makes honest attempts to put herself into the shoes of the believers, and thus, brings out voices both pro and against the practice. In fact, the naming of the documentary is indicative given that it does not merely portray the practice as ‘gruesome’ and ‘barbaric’. Rather it highlights the practice of nicking the tip of the prepuce of the clitoris, prevalent among the Bohras.
Barring these two, representations through visuals of the cultural ‘other’ from an external vantage point appear to lack intricacies and layers. For example, The Cut: Exploring FGM, The Cruel Cut- Female Genital Mutilation, and The Cutting Tradition are produced respectively by Al-Jazeera, Channel4 and SafeHands for Mothers in collaboration with the International Federation of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (FIGO), respectively. The Cut, directed by American-journalist Linda May Kallestein, has also been funded by multiple Norwegian agencies. Most of these representations are located beyond the cultural purview and thus, lack empathy in their cultural portrayal. Though The Cruel Cut- Female Genital Mutilation and Jaha’s Promise feature Somali activist Leyla Hussein and Gambian activist Jaha Dukureh respectively, it is to be reminded that the onus ultimately lies at the hands of the creative teams of these documentaries. Even Jaha’s Promise uses one of the clips from Barack Obama’s speeches where he is referring to the practice as ‘barbaric’ which as a term is discredited for its blatant cultural insensitivity. It is problematic to assume that the mothers always put their daughters through the practice intentionally being fully aware of its consequences. Fatma Naib, the presenter of The Cut: Exploring FGM, anEritrean immigrant to Sweden, showcases details of the state of the practice in Somalia and Kenya with substantial subtlety so far as it highlights campaigners against the practice from within these cultures. As a whole, it is not merely about the geographic positioning of the creative teams but about the outlook that they share while describing cultural specificities.
Nuances and variations of the practice are not adequately showcased in many of these films. For example, out of all the countries with reported cases of FGC, African countries especially, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Egypt are highlighted out of proportion. It is largely because of the rampant prevalence of the practice mainly in these countries. It is to note that only 10 percent of reported cases worldwide are the most severe and may fall into the category of infibulation- even in Africa. Notwithstanding the need to highlight the regions with a higher percentage of the practice, these documentaries seem to make convenient choices so far as the cases are concerned. This comes hand in hand with exoticization of pain. For instance, the documentary True Story – Female Genital Mutilation in Afar, Ethiopia,starts with the representative audio of excruciating scream of a newly-wed girl who dies out of profuse bleeding due to forced penetration of her infibulated vagina. This scream is followed by figurative graphics of a splash of blood accompanied by a heart-wrenching narration of the incident. The Cutting Tradition with its explicit emphasis on four African countries including Egypt, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Burkina Faso, uses substantial, real visuals of the practice. The cultural orientation of these representations is reflective of a cultural aversion toward the unintelligible culture. The visual knowledge of the matter, thus, gets constructed from a position of power going in tandem with the existing Western liberal discourse.
Though there are well-intentioned attempts to bring out hard-hitting facts regarding such sensitive subjects, in many cases such intentions get mired with preconceived prejudices. Notwithstanding the possibilities of becoming judgemental even after belonging to the same culture, it is important to understand the outlook of the makers. Needless to say, the making of films and documentaries are driven by factors of storytelling or awareness-raising and are thus, difficult to be objectively oriented. Attempts to bring out different sides of various cultures, giving voices to women of these communities who break the shackles of conformity may pave the way for a ‘real’ and relatively balanced depiction of realities in regard to FGC.