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Critical Review by Judy Mann
SOURCE: "Victims of Tradition," in Washington Post Book World, January 16, 1994, p. 4.
In the following review, Mann praises Walker's and Pratibha Parmar's attempt to illuminate the prevalence of female genital mutilation in Africa, but faults the book for a slow start.
The World Health Organization estimates that some 80 million women living today have undergone an ancient and excruciatingly painful ritual known as genital mutilation. It is widely practiced in Egypt, the Sudan and the Horn of Africa—by rigidly patriarchal cultures. Pretexts marshalled to defend the practice range from religion and hygiene to cultural traditions. But the true reason this humiliating, dangerous practice continues is to ensure that women will remain virgins until marriage, and to maintain control over women by destroying their ability to enjoy sex. Mutilated women are turned into sexual vessels for men, many of whom believe the procedure enhances their own enjoyment.
The age at which girls are mutilated—from infancy to post-puberty—and the degree of mutilation varies widely between tribal cultures. Symbolic circumcision involves a ritual nicking of the clitoris to draw blood. Pharaonic circumcision, the most extreme form, involves the scraping away of the clitoris and the inner labia. Then, in a procedure known as infibulation, the outer labia are stitched together with sutures of catgut and with acacia thorns, leaving a hole the size of a pencil for the passage of urine and menses. After the outer labia are sewn up, the girl's legs are bound together from the hips to the ankles and she is forced to lie still on her back for several weeks until the labia grow together, forming a permanent closure over the vagina. At her marriage ceremony she is cut open again with a knife or sharp stone by her husband or mother-in-law.
When the United States first joined the hunger relief effort in Somalia—where 90 percent of the women have undergone Pharaonic circumcision—I wrote a column suggesting that we use American relief efforts to carrot-and-stick a campaign to wipe out female genital mutilation in that country.
The morning my column appeared, I received a phone call from a Somali woman working for a health organization in Washington. She said that women in her country were working to eradicate the practice and they needed help from women in the international community. I learned that my caller was a physician.
I also learned that she had undergone Pharaonic circumcision as a child.
This was the end of my illusions about female genital mutilation. It wasn't a ritual tribal practice in the abstract. It had been done to someone real: a voice on the telephone. I understood at that moment that the mutilation of women involved me.
In countries where circumcision is performed, it is taboo to talk about it. In the West, we are too horrified or ignorant to talk about it. Those of us who do know about it often think of it as something done only to primitive women living in mud-huts. Our silence is a psychological device for marginalizing the horror and separating ourselves from it—and it contributes to the shameful international indifference that allows it to continue.
Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar aren't having any part of this global denial. Walker, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her novel The Color Purple first wrote about female circumcision and its impact on a girl, in her novel Possessing the Secret of Joy. She has collaborated with Parmar, a London-based feminist filmmaker, on a documentary to confront world public opinion—to compel civilized countries to acknowledge that female genital mutilation is nothing less than ritual torture of girls—and to enlist international support to eradicate it. Their book, Warrior Marks, is the story of how they made the documentary, and the people and circumstances they encountered in Senegal, The Gambia and Burkina Faso.
They are deeply affecting when they write about the emotional toll in working with this practice. They understand that the price for girls goes beyond the loss of clitoral sexual pleasure. They lose their trust in their mothers who dare not defy the weight of tradition and so hand their unsuspecting daughters over to the circumcisers. Mutilation is almost always done by women, often in the most unsanitary conditions imaginable. The child is not anesthetized nor does she have access to antibiotics to fight the deadly infections that frequently result.
The documentary crew was allowed to film a "coming out ceremony," in which a group of Gambian girls who had been circumcised two weeks before returned from the bush to their village. "They looked totally stunned, bewildered, in shock and total despair," writes Parmar. "For a few minutes I just stared, and suddenly their expressions hit me with such force that I felt tears begin to roll down my cheeks … [But] I had to direct the crew and couldn't give in to this pain, not now.
"It was so sad to see the light gone from their beautiful eyes, to see their drawn faces. In the last two weeks, they had been catapulted into adulthood with great violence."
Warrior Marks is not an easy book to read, partly because the topic is so tough to handle. But it is also slow to get off the ground. The beginning is padded with laundry-list correspondence and journal entries that have to do primarily with the tedious logistical problems of doing a documentary—and tedious problems make for tedious reading. Walker writes one section, "Alice's Journey," and Parmar writes another, "Pratibha's Journey." Since they have witnessed many of the same events, there is much repetition and the reader is left wondering if she's lost her place. People who appear to be important to the writers' lives are mentioned in journal entries but not fully identified, producing irritating mysteries. The writers make the alarming assertion that circumcisions are being performed within immigrant communities in the U.S.—but they do not document the facts. The book does not get rolling until about a third of the way through, when the filmmakers arrive in Africa and begin interviewing women who are resisting the practice.
These are voices of hope, and one of the most important contributions Warrior Marks can make is to introduce women in the West to the courageous feminists in Africa who are mounting educational and health campaigns to drive this practice back into the Stone Age. Theirs is a war that can be won—and this should inspire Western women to pressure their governments to support eradication campaigns. Ten years ago, few people dared to talk about female genital mutilation. It is still ignored by the men who control the international aid machine. Both the United Nations Children's Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development released reports on the children in developing countries shortly before Christmas and neither mentioned female genital mutilation and the resulting death rates of female children or women in childbirth.
Despite the efforts of Walker, Parmar and others, female genital mutilation remains a taboo subject. There has been more international attention devoted to the severing of John Wayne Bobbitt's penis than to the genital mutilation of tens of millions of women. Warrior Marks is a piercing howl into that silence, and it's a howl we need to hear.
This section contains 1,194 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)