by Tobe Levin
January 5, 2012
That African kid with a sand belly, as the author and activist Khady calls herself, dares the world to look at what it chooses to ignore Female Genital Mutilation. Khady has come remarkably far from This in Senegal to founding and serving as the president of an organization in Brussels called the European Network for the Prevention and Eradication of Harmful Traditional Practices, Euronet-FGM.
Her tireless motivation feeds on an experience of hurt poignantly told in the book, Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights from UnCUT/VOICES Press in Frankfurt, Germany.
I’m Khady’s publisher and translator. In fact, UnCUT/VOICES Press was launched because Khady’s memoir was published in a dozen languages — Chinese, Russian, Japanese – after it first came out in France in 2005, but was not available until 2010 in English. It is one of many quality foreign-language texts that call FGM by its right name – torture — and sees it unequivocally as an abuse of human rights.
FGM remains a violent indignity even when medicalized — and Khady provides little space for ethical uncertainties. She witnesses how “three or four grown-ups snatch up a little girl” whose “blood-curdling shrieks” draw tears from her eyes. The women drag her in. One seizes her head and, “with all the strength in her knees, crushes her shoulders to the ground,” while the second forces the thighs apart. The clitoris now between the operator’s fingers, the elder “whacks it off like a piece of zebu meat.” Or, if unable to “hack it off in one go she’s obliged to saw.” Do you hear Khady “howling” She says that, in her mind, it has never stopped.
Can lack of empathy for targets of this widespread, systemic violation derive in part from the impotence of words For “the pain had no name. It resembled no other. It was like they were yanking out your guts. Like a hammer in your skull, [your body] now home to a famished rat or an army of ants. I was swallowed whole by horror from my head through my belly to my feet.”
First person accounts of the torture are rare. In 1978 Awa Thiam presented testimony by P.K. in a book, La Parole au Ngresses, published in Paris, which was only released in English 10 years later as Black Sisters, Speak Out. Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa, translated by Anna V. Adams. Two women who were prominent before their “coming out” described their ordeals — Waris Dirie in the book Desert Flower in the 1990s, and Ayann Hirsi Ali in The Caged Virgin in 2006.
Khady went public as an “ordinary” woman, an act of enormous courage. Interviewed in 2005 by
Florence Deguen, she admitted to being “prudish” and finding it “really difficult to tell the world such intimate things.” She said she was often overwhelmed by invasive questions about her private life that felt like “verbal rape.” Yet, she said, she did it “for the sake of others.”
Among those others was Khady’s fourth daughter who was spared; for the older three, awareness and militancy came too late. “I just let it happen to my first two,” Khady told Deguen, “but asked for it myself for the third. I was young, ignorant, lost. [She weeps.] And I’ve never forgiven myself.”
Tormented by what she had failed to avert, Khady works ceaselessly to prevent future casualties. She denounces mutilation, and explains how, embedded in a web of woes, “constant vigilance” is needed if it is to end. Excision is “merely”‘ the first step, she says. The second is early marriage, the coupling of children from ages 10 to 15 with grown men, and experienced by Khady as a girl of 13. Penetrated, the girl blacks out, the “excruciating” act robbing her “of sight and understanding” and resulting in self-hatred. “There’s something in me that absolutely refuses to envision what happened in that room. I blotted out that intimate wound forever powerless to heal.”
In her book, Khady blows the whistle on France’s complicity in African women’s abuse. She makes a radical claim about multiple acts of violence experienced by women: excision, early “marriage,” repeated marital rape, domestic battery and the abuses of polygamy endured by Soninke women in the diaspora, cruelties that are encouraged by a patriarchal system that are not only African, but French. For example, if the French welfare system were to deposit entitlements in the accounts of mothers instead of fathers, birth control would be easier to practice, she says. On the other hand, she does credit the French liberal democracy with facilitating her escape, describing how she succeeded in securing childcare benefits and took advantage of professional training offered by the government.
Through it all, Khady has been left with one true passion: activism she calls it “less a duty than a calling.” Khady is now building the Centre Mame Diarra Diallo, under construction in the village of Dakhar M’baye in Senegal, five miles from her birthplace. Once complete, the facility will welcome and house young girls and women threatened with violence, in particular, excision or early marriage. Named for Khady’s mother, it will provide counseling to encourage girls’ self-confidence and training to enable self-support. For Khady, activism means one thing: working to “keep the blades of tradition far away from little girls.”
Tobe Levin is an activist, translator and professor at the University of Maryland UC in Europe and the University of Frankfurt. She is an Associate of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and co-founder of FORWARD Germany. Contact her at [email protected]. You can support the building of the center by contacting Khady at [email protected] or buying her book at www.uncutvoices.com.
Also see “World AIDS Day: Women HIV Activists Make Sex Ed A Reality” by Alison Yager in the Cafe of this edition of On The Issues Magazine.
See “Engaged Activism: Two Women Challenge Global Sex Trafficking” by Gabrielle Korn in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.