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Critical Review by Tobe Levin
SOURCE: A review of Warrior Marks, in NWSA Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 511-14.
In the following review, Levin admits the importance of stopping the practice of female genital mutilation, but asserts that Warrior Marks, by Walker and Pratibha Parmar shows a lack of understanding of cultural differences.
Media attention to the issue of female genital mutilation is essential if this practice is to be stopped. An activist in Germany since 1977, I believe in the power of exposure and so I say, Thank you, Alice, and Thank you, Pratibha, for releasing your book and film, Warrior Marks. Premiering in Washington, DC, in November 1993, the film concerns 100 million of the world's females. In an April interview with Ghanaian activist Efua Dorkenoo, I learned it affects "6,000 each day, 2 million each year." The crisis needs airing, Efua told me.
Yet "I know how painful exposure is," Alice Walker says in the video's opening vignette. "It is something I've had to face every day of my life, beginning with my first look in the mirror each morning!" Thus, "in a deliberate effort to stand with the mutilated women, not beyond them," Walker offers as a leitmotif the analogy to her visual maiming, what she came to identify, once having become a "consciously feminist adult," as "a patriarchal wound." As a girl, she hadn't received the gift Santa Claus brought her brothers: guns. The one who customarily bullied her aimed at Alice standing on the roof of the garage, his copper pellet blinding her.
Alice narrates "Like the Pupil of an Eye: Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women" while we watch an excised girls' coming-out ceremony in Dar Salamay, The Gambia. Barren women's club members dance in front of the children, ranging from 4 to 11 years of age, the expressions on their faces freighted with symbolic import. Although we cannot reach behind those eyes, the sadness speaks, discomfort shows. To Pratibha, who was there, "they looked totally stunned, bewildered, in shock and total despair," although she admits in print that "their feelings were unimaginable to [her]." I would share such caution, but no doubt the drawn blankness of the suffering girls contrasts—and conflicts—with the jubilation all around them.
The youngsters, excised two weeks before, also walk with difficulty. The book's longest section called "Journeys" gives the women's movement symbolic status. The narrative of P.K., borrowed from Awa Thiam's Black Sisters, Speak Out: Feminism and Oppression in Black Africa (originally La Parole aux Nègresses), includes this motif and is the video's heart. "I did not know what excision was," P.K. tells us, "but on several occasions I had seen recently excised girls walking … like little bent old ladies [trying to balance] rulers between their ankles…. I can tell you it was not a pretty sight." This we see, as Parmar's camera focuses on the shuffle characteristic of the genitally mutilated. "The expression on the faces of the excised girls … aroused my fears," P.K. continues. The viewers' angst stirs as well, our empathy and outrage reaching out to the twelve-year-old "in the throes of endless agony, torn apart both physically and psychologically." The dancer Richelle represents her suffering, simultaneously expressing the joy of the body intact and the horror of the organ cut. "It was the rule that girls my age did not weep in this situation," P.K. adds. "[But] I broke the rule … with tears and screams of pain."
How can mothers ignore this pain and, using Alice Walker's term, "collaborate" with patriarchy? As Linda Weil-Curiel, the French lawyer for Malian Aminata Diop (the first girl to apply for political asylum on the basis of specific gender risk—of mutilation), tells Alice Walker in the book "Parents are always excused for what they do to their children. So when I read [Possessing the Secret of Joy], I was fearful…. Each time I turned the page, I was wondering: When will the excuse for the parents come? And I am very, very happy to tell you I never found that excuse, and I thank you for it."
Do I want to make "excuses" for these mothers, these behaviors? I hope not, yet we campaigners need to understand them and their fears. Like right-wing women in the West, traditional females link their survival to male power, and this can be, under the circumstances, a comprehensible strategy. Concerned with the Sudan, where 82% of women are infibulated, Ellen Gruenbaum argues that women who perpetuate practices painful and dangerous to their daughters and inhibit their own sexual gratification "must be understood in the context of their social and economic vulnerability in a strongly patriarchal society…. Effective change can only come in the context of a women's movement oriented toward the basic social problems affecting women, particularly their economic dependency, educational disadvantages, and obstacles to employment." Walker, in an interview sequence not in the video, acknowledges this financial base: "[in] a culture in which men will not marry you unless you have been mutilated and there is no other work you can do and you are … considered a prostitute if you are not mutilated, you face a very big problem. Women mutilate their daughters because they really are looking down the road to a time when the daughter will … marry and at least have a roof … and food." Poverty, to many African activists, is the prime issue, and, consequently, transforming individual awareness cannot free the masses of women from genital mutilation.
Nonetheless, Warrior Marks argues strongly that mutilation is child abuse and must be opposed like other customarily exercised but admittedly harmful practices—for instance slavery and battering. The epigraph reads: "'What is the fundamental question one must ask of the world?… Why is the child crying?'" Excerpted from Possessing the Secret of Joy, this answer ties Walker's empathy to her identifying with the suffering young person she once was. "It could have been me … passing through this slave house three hundred years ago, mutilated and infibulated," she recounts in the final interview on Gorée Island at the House of Slaves. "It's remarkable," she goes on, "that the [children's] suffering … is the thing … least considered. Children cry in pain and terror … yet their elders … just assume they will forget." She concludes on tape, "Do we have a responsibility to stop the torture of children we say we love, or not?… or are we like the midwife who said that when she's cutting the child and the child screams she doesn't hear it? Are we expected to be deaf?"
No, we aren't, and there is a most powerful argument for international solidarity. Efua Dorkenoo, the head of London-based FORWARD International, notes that a play she wrote along with mutilated refugee women could not be performed. Her coauthors told her, "Efua, if we put this … on, we will be killed." Many of us outsiders are not so threatened. At the very least we will be perceived as meddling, our gravest risk to be labeled arrogant or insulting. Admittedly, words which avoid degrading the victims are hard to find. Renaming them "warriors" and "survivors" doesn't really do the trick. Even the term "mutilation" has been criticized, and neutral words have eluded the most skillful pens. Witness Walker's use of "brainwashed" and "indoctrinated"; two initiates were "programmed to say nothing they felt." I perceive in these comments not only outrage but a specifically American blindness to aspects of cultural difference I attribute in part to monolinguality and the devaluation of intimate experience in foreign cultures. The fact that neither Walker nor Parmar resided for a considerable period in the societies they portray proves a handicap. For instance, in their original proposal, they expect to film people "talking … about their sexual and psychological experiences of genital mutilation"; they are surprised when Aminata Diop tells them her language has no words to discuss the topic. They seem genuinely taken aback on encountering a culture of silence.
I also find slightly irritating the inevitable lacunae in the work of people new to the field. Although I applaud the urgency and speed with which author and film maker took an idea and transformed it into media, it is simply not true of the international movement, as Pratibha notes, that "except for the writings and voices of a handful of white feminists over the last decade or so, there has been a deafening silence." As far back as 1986, Dr. Lilian Passmore Sanderson, under the auspices of the Anti-Slavery Society for the Protection of Human Rights, published Female Genital Mutilation; Excision and Infibulation, a bibliography containing seventy densely filled pages.
Nonetheless, I urge you to see the video and read the book. Show the film to your classes…. Join the chorus of African women shown demonstrating in the film. "We condemn FGM!" they shout. When asked why, they explain: that evening, February 1, 1992, a councillor in Brent had raised a motion to legalize "female circumcision," arguing that British women too might benefit from it. "We feel very strongly about this," Bisi Adeleya-Fayemi tells the camera, "it is child abuse and degrades women." And nurse-midwife Comfort I. Ottah adds, "I helped a little girl who came to me and asked why? Why hadn't the government protected her from her parents? This is not culture. This is torture."
This section contains 1,552 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)