Literature as activism in the fight to eradicate FGM

Maria Tomlinson explores a portrayal of FGM in Adelle Barry’s short story “En attendant minuit”. This article is part of the series ‘Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’, guest edited for The Polyphony by Rebecca Rosenberg and Benjamin Dalton.

In Niger, one of the poorest countries in Africa, women’s power over their bodies continues to be undermined through the violation of their sexual and reproductive rights. Practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), polygamy, and child marriage undermine women’s corporeal autonomy. These practices also render women more vulnerable to contracting HIV. There has been a long tradition of West African cultural production, such as novels and plays, which has been written as part of efforts to eradicate FGM. This post takes as its focus the incredible short story, ‘En attendant minuit’ (Waiting for midnight), by Adelle Barry. Barry, who is both a doctor and award-winning author from Niger, fights against the sexual exploitation of women on both fronts. In ‘Waiting for midnight’ Barry offers a glimpse into how women experience FGM and its negative impact across their lives. It is shaped both by her medical expertise and her drive to help disadvantage women in Niger.

By portraying one women’s battle with HIV and PTSD, Barry offers us a personal narrative about the impact of FGM. In-depth individual experience is often missing from global media campaigns, and thus Barry’s view offers a helpful and rare insight into how FGM can harm individuals. ‘Waiting for midnight’, is narrated by Kady who was infected by HIV as a five-year-old during a clitorectomy. As an adult, Kady has forgotten about this experience and is only reminded once a doctor diagnoses her with HIV. Once she realises that Kady is a virgin, the doctor asks Kady if she has undergone FGM. This leads to a journey of self-discovery in which Kady eventually remembers her clitorectomy (a form of female circumcision in which the clitoris is removed) and comes to terms with the fact that it caused her to contract HIV.

To piece together the past, Kady heads back to the village in which her clitorectomy took place. It is through the emphasis on the horror of Kady’s experience of FGM that Barry most poignantly calls for the eradication of the practice. Once Kaddy sets foot in her village, she begins to visualise the room in which she, and many other girls, were cut. She also recollects the pale face of a girl who died from excessive bleeding. To emphasise the brutality of FGM, Barry describes the scene in abject and animalistic terms: ‘The room transformed into an abattoir. Bright red blood, flies […] my braids were soaked in a mixture of dirty mud and blood, our blood, the blood of girls who were barely five years old. Carelessly, a woman cut something out of my vulva’[1]. By comparing the room to an abattoir, Kady illustrates that the girls were treated as if they were pieces of meat. The imagery of the intermingled blood and mud emphasises the chaos and unhygienic nature of the scene as well as the lack of care and attention that is paid to the health of the young girls.

Poignantly, the story’s repetition of the pronoun ‘she’ underscores that it is women who afflict this violence onto other women and who continue to perpetuate this circle of violence. Yeyrel, who performed clitorectomies on Kady and hundreds of other girls, is described in abject language, such as ‘her awful and rotting teeth’, ‘her smelly hair’ and ‘a braid that had become rotted by the aggressive nature of time’. The imagery of rot highlights the negative impact that Yeyrel will have on the future of the girls she is cutting, who will grow up to feel ‘rotten on the inside’. As Kady’s story shows, this rot can engender lifelong feelings of powerlessness and alienation. Kady labels Yeyrel, and the other women who helped her to perform FGM, ‘criminals’. Yeyrel is symbolic of an element of this society which is rotten at its core because it subjects women to a patriarchal practice that can lead to life-long trauma, HIV, and a loss of sexual pleasure. Kady exclaims ‘they took away our lives. Lives of satisfied women’. The French equivalent of the word ‘satisfied’ has connotations of sexual pleasure, thereby illustrating that the aim of FGM is to strip the girls of any future sexual desire (Abusharaf 2006). Indeed, in Niger, as well as in other countries that perform FGM, this ceremony is performed so that women’s sexual desires can be controlled. Indeed, the narrative also recounts Kady’s sexual experiences as an adult and illustrates that she does not feel sexual desire.

Importantly, Barry offers an explanation as to why women continue to practice FGM. The narrative makes clear that Yeyrel was paid to commit these crimes. The story therefore suggests that women are perpetuating this harmful societal tradition out of economic necessity. Barry’s short story therefore raises awareness that poverty must be eradicated in order that the practice of FGM is eradicated.

The story finishes on a lighter note, showing that Kady has been able to find catharsis in art and nature. By expressing her pain with a paintbrush, Kady finds a way to work through her trauma and come to terms with her past. In encapsulating the sense of empowerment that Kady finds in art, Barry nods to the power of artistic production to affect change and her hope that ‘Waiting For Midnight’ may also, in some small way, lead to the eradication of this harmful gendered practice.

*****

Maria Tomlinson is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the department of Journalism at the University of Sheffield. The title of her project is: “Menstruation and the Media: Reducing Stigma and Tackling Period Poverty”. Her related monograph, From Menstruation to the Menopause: The Female Fertility Cycle in Contemporary Women’s Writing in French, is forthcoming with Liverpool University Press (2021). Maria has edited a special issue of L’Esprit Créateur and is co-edited a volume entitled Queer(y)ing Bodily Norms in Francophone Culture published by Peter Lang. Maria tweets @MariaKTomlinson

References:

Rogaia Abusharaf (2006) ‘Introduction: The Custom in Question’, in R. Abusharaf (ed), Female Circumcision, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 1-26.

[1] I have translated passages from Barry’s book from French into English.

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