FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION
Pomerance is a documentary filmmaker from Montréal, Québec.
Her award-winning film Dabla!Excision was produced
by Monique Simard at Productions Virage for Canal Vie Television.
For more information about the film, visit www.dabla-excision.com
or contact the distributor Films en Vue at email@example.com
NOTE: THIS INTERVIEW CONTAINS DISTURBING MATERIAL AND
SEXUALLY EXPLICIT GRAPHICS
O: You would concede there is a difference if I report to you
that my finger has been removed as opposed to mutilated?
POMERANCE: Of course, a finger may have to be amputated for
health reasons, whereas a mutilated finger implies at best an
accident or injury. So the two terms have different implications.
O: In most African countries where female excision is practised,
the young women don’t think of themselves as having their
vaginas mutilated, do they?
POMERANCE: In traditional African society, it is not the widely
prevalent concept. In fact, many girls look forward to the event
as an initiation, an essential rite marking their entry into
adulthood, much like the young girls anticipate the Christian
confirmation ceremony. However I would like to specify that
FGM is not religious in origin.
O: So if Africa doesn’t regard female excision or clitoridectomy
as a mutilation, what right does the West have to impose this
pejorative term on their practice, and beyond that, what right
does the West have to interfere in African cultural practices?
POMERANCE: First of all, the West is not imposing the term FGM
on anyone. A movement exists across Africa comprised of women
and a growing number of men who object to the custom because
it violates the rights of women and children and has negative
physiological and psychological ramifications. The Inter-African
Committee against Harmful Traditional Practices (IAC) founded
in 1984, has national committees in 26 African nations, and
at their insistence, the United Nations adopted the term ‘female
genital mutilation’ to describe specific ritual removal
of all or part of women’s external genital organs. The
movement to stop FGM actually had its origins in Africa, albeit
somewhat timidly. The West has embraced and sponsors the movement,
especially in regard to efforts to educate the population on
the hazards of FGM.
O: How did you get interested in this cause?
POMERANCE: I first heard about FGM in the early 1980s, shortly
after it had been denounced publicly by Western feminists such
as Kate Millet at the 1976 UN International Women’s Conference
in Nairobi. A debate subsequently arose in feminist circles
around cultural appropriation of the question. African women
were feeling the brunt of what seemed to be an accusation by
Western feminists, who portrayed them as either complicit in
the act or as its helpless victims. Put on the defensive, African
woman forcibly entered the FGM battlefield. They expressed the
position that since they were the ones affected, FGM was an
African problem that required an African solution.
later, on my first trip to Africa, to research the role of primary
healthcare givers, I encountered evidence that a lively debate
around the excision controversy was emerging across the continent.
It seemed to be a good subject for a film. It took me five years
of research and reflection to get my documentary project together.
And another five years to shoot, finance, and release the film,
thanks to producer Monique Simard and the team at Virage Productions.
I spent several winters in fancophone West Africa, meeting people,
filming events and taking the pulse of the anti-FGM movement.
It was quite a learning experience, one that has radically changed
my life and the way I think about gender politics.
O: What is the difference between clitoridectomy and infibulation?
POMERANCE: Clitoridectomy involves removal of the clitoris,
whereas excision is removal of the clitoris and minor (inner)
labia. Infibulation, the most extreme form of FGM, entails removal
of the clitoris, the major and minor labia, after which the
vagina is sewn up, leaving only a small orifice for urination
and menstruation. Infibulation is practised primarily in East
Africa, although it occurs among specific ethnic groups such
as the Fulani in parts of West Africa.
O: Would anti-FGM activists feel more comfortable with FGM if
it were practised under sterile medical conditions in hospitals
POMERANCE: A prevalent fear in the anti-FGM community is that
medicalization of FGM would be used by its proponents to justify
a practice that deprives women not only of their sexuality,
but of free choice and control over their own bodies. For this
reason, most anti-FGM activists support a position of zero tolerance.
Medical excision has its health risks as well, since the Mercurochrome
used to cauterize the surgical wound often causes scarring and
seals the vagina.
O: If I understand correctly, men just didn't invent this custom
out of the blue. They introduced the custom of clitoridectomy
to control the sexuality of their women.
POMERANCE: No one really knows the origins of excision. It undoubtedly
existed in pre-Pharaonic Egypt. It perhaps originated during
the Neolithic era or around the time when agrarian society developed
animal husbandry and metallurgy was introduced. After men realized
the role they played in fertility, they began to tame and exert
sexual control over women for breeding purposes. A man had to
ascertain that the children his women were carrying were his,
and not someone else’s. Some anthropologists presume that,
in fact, FGM was instituted in reaction to men’s fear
of women’s sexuality. In the context of the times and
evolution of the species, excision seemed a logical and effective
control over fertility, female promiscuity and paternity.
feared women’s promiscuity most probably because they
were projecting their own patterns of behaviour and sexual desire
on women. Historically, it has generally been men who are promiscuous.
Numerous traditional societies around the planet are polygamous,
whereas few cultures have allowed women more than one male partner.
This state of affairs is certainly due in part to the fact that
women are biologically conditioned to monogamy (or at least
serial monogamy) since they are preoccupied by the full-time
tasks of bearing, feeding and nurturing young children and have
little leisure to develop a complex system of multiple sexual
and martial partnerships, particularly considering that the
uterus cannot bear the fruit of more than one pregnancy at a
a strictly biological point of view, men will inseminate as
many women as they can handle in order to ensure their genetic
survival. From earliest history, men always fought -- sometimes
to the death -- over the possession of women; the more women
they control and protect, the greater their power. Fearing both
the sexual prowess of woman and the rivalry of younger, more
virile males, men probably introduced the custom of clitoridectomy
as a projection of their own libido, in order to limit a woman’s
capacity for achieving pleasure in orgasm. In this way, the
children she bore would most likely be begat out of duty to
her master and not through pursuit of sexual desire. A man could
easily repudiate a wife and abandon a child and any infant suspected
of being another man’s progeny. Such a woman, rejected,
was separated from her legitimate offspring and afforded no
further protection by her kin against rape, thus exposing her
to enslavement by a rival tribe. We shouldn’t forget that
in cultures where female excision is practised, a woman with
intact sexual organs is regarded as unmarriageable, leaving
her, for all intents and purposes, rejected by the community
and by her cultural group.
let’s be honest. Not only in Africa, but around the world,
men have traditionally feared and resented women’s power,
in particular, their sexuality. The clitoris is four times more
sensitive than the penis. Women’s orgasms, measured by
contractions, last longer than men’s, can be multiple,
and don’t diminish with age. FGM is just one response
to men’s collective resentment or fear of women’s
sexuality and reproductive fertility. In pre- Biblical times
men worshipped the Goddess of Fertility in many shapes and forms,
until the revealed religions discovered a supreme male God who
robbed the Goddess of her power. But that was not unique to
pagan, animist societies. In our supposedly enlightened West,
we only have to look at how the Church has tried to control
and stigmatize female sexuality. In the century following the
invention of the Guttenberg press and mass production of books
that empowered and enlightened the middle and upper classes
of society, the Catholic Inquisition burned more than 100,000
women at the stake as witches.
to its lowest common historical denominator, we find ourselves
faced with the overwhelming fact that men have never been comfortable
with women’s sexuality. And women have been eager to comply,
adopting self-mutilating behaviour with the aim to please and
seduce men, whether it be through excision, the chastity belt,
the corset, esthetic surgery or the crash diet.
& O: Walk us through a clitoridectomy.
POMERANCE: I have not actually witnessed one myself, except
on film. I do show a brief archival excerpt of an excision in
my recent documentary film Dabla! Excision. But this
is not the main purpose of my film, which examines many of the
sociological and medical aspects of FGM, and the role of African
woman in the movement to stop the practice
the opening scene of my film, shot in rural Guinea, we see a
typical village ceremony involving a group of girls between
the ages 3 and 6, who are brought together in a clearing. As
adult women clap and sing songs to encourage bravery and courage,
one by one the girls are led by a paternal aunt to a grass hut
in the forest where the procedure takes place.
mortified child lies down on her back, her assistants hold the
girls legs open, while the female circumciser takes out a sharp
instrument (knife, razor blade or shard of glass) and removes
the clitoris. The girl’s cries can be heard by the others
waiting their turn outside. A mud or herb salve is then applied
to stop the bleeding.
circumcised children hobble single file to the centre of the
clearing where they are seated on a mat. The village women dance
around them, singing ceremonial songs that honour their entry
into womanhood. The girls are then sequestered for two weeks
to one month while they heal, but the operation often scars
them for life. We should note that in most societies, this custom,
originally introduced by men for their own benefit, is performed
exclusively by women and takes place in the company of women.
Women thus accept to serve as proxies for men, and the female
circumciser occupies a position of status in the community.
O: If men refuse to marry women who are not excised, shouldn’t
your crusade be directed at the men behind this barbaric custom?
POMERANCE: Most anti-FGM campaigns in Africa target the various
segments of the population: men and women, students, religious
and political leaders, and female circumcisers themselves. The
information is tailored to each specific target group. Wherever
funding is made available, trained African women and men knowledgeable
about ethnic practices in the targeted region hold a series
of in-depth information sessions and frank discussions in the
villages. When possible, they use support material such as films,
photos, leaflets, diagrams (la boîte aux images), a three-dimensional
model of a female torso with removable genital parts. After
harmful physiological, psychological and social aspects of the
custom are clearly explained and elucidated, people begin to
question the necessity of FGM. However, you can’t expect
to change ancestral cultural beliefs overnight. The following
such myths still prevail: left intact, the clitoris can grow
down to the feet (another projection of women's penis envy?);
a woman with a clitoris is impure and cannot prepare a man’s
food; if the baby’s head touches the clitoris during childbirth,
the infant will be deformed for life; a woman with a clitoris
wears her sexuality for all to see.
growing opposition to FGM has also sparked a backlash among
certain Islamic groups and as a result, more female circumcisions
are being performed in infancy or in early childhood. In the
cities, FGM is now performed by medical personnel in certain
clinics. Laws are difficult to enact. In countries where anti-FGM
legislation already exists, it is difficult to enforce, since
extended family members tend to protect each other and female
circumcisions continue to be held in secret. Nonetheless, a
small but growing minority of men and women are coming to view
the custom as unacceptable. Naturally, in larger cities, where
the educated middle class has more access to information via
the media, liberal attitudes tend to circulate more freely about
women’s rights and sexuality in general.
O: To what extent does clitoridectomy deprive a woman of her
POMERANCE: Obviously, clitoral orgasm is no longer possible.
But that is not the primary criterion for sexual satisfaction
in many traditional African societies. We should remember that
only since the recent sexual revolution, has the West become
very orgasm-oriented. We are conditioned to believe that orgasm
and sexual fulfilment are one and the same. For many mutilated
women, the sexual act is a marital duty performed without expectations
beyond that of successful pregnancy and childbirth. In Africa,
a woman’s satisfaction may be related to her sense of
security and that of her family, whether her husband cares and
provides for her economically, and her status in the community.
I personally think there is much we can learn from this.
O: Talk to us about the health hazards involved.
POMERANCE: Female circumcision often results in complications
to reproductive health. For the majority of African women, this
constitutes a more urgent preoccupation than the fact that women
do not attain orgasm. Sexually mutilated women suffer from a
number of disorders including infertility, prolapsed uterus,
incontinence caused by vaginal fistula. After infibulation,
the vaginal orifice is sewn up, and later on a woman usually
requires surgery in order to have intercourse and give birth.
Many women suffer permanent damage to their reproductive systems.
These complications are discussed in detail by gynecologists
in my film. The film web site contains graphic photos of certain
O: Given the widespread incidence of FGM in many African cultures,
is it fair to accuse men of introducing the custom of female
circumcision with the purpose of controlling women’s sexuality,
while relieving themselves of the responsibility of satisfying
their multiple partners sexually? If a woman has been physically
desexualized, is the man off the hook?
POMERANCE: Are men to be blamed for the way humanity has evolved?
It’s a tricky question. Whether it is fair or not to accuse
men of instituting FGM is just about as difficult as asking
if it is fair to accuse men of war and patriarchy. Humanity
has evolved in a very sexist manner, but who is to blame? This
is an unfortunate state of affairs, because now women have a
huge task trying to gain their most basic rights, specifically
in those traditional cultures that are still actively suppressing
women’s rights, often as a backlash to the extreme liberalism
(which some consider decadence) of the industrialized West.
No doubt we should have fought back before the patriarchy was
institutionalized. But that’s a long time ago, and perhaps
we didn’t have the means to fight back collectively, or
even the insight to recognize that we were losing what we now
consider basic human rights. As to whether or not a man is off
the hook when a woman can’t achieve orgasm, I doubt it.
In the West many men suffer because their wives are frigid even
though they are sexually intact. Look at the number of men taking
Viagra in societies where women are not sexually mutilated:
the erectile problem continues to plague them, with or without
women’s capacity to have orgasm. Of course, in Africa
and in other cultures where polygamy is the norm, having up
to four legitimate wives to service must be exhausting after
a certain age…
O: In making your film,
Dabla!Excision, you spoke with several
African women who now live in Canada. Given the importance of
sexuality in Western society, how does an excised or infibulated
woman negotiate her sexuality in our liberated culture?
POMERANCE: Most African woman in Québec with whom I have
discussed FGM are fed up with the focus of attention given to
the problem by the media here. They generally feel the issue
has been sensationalized to such an extent that they feel they
are being undressed when people look at them. It is a degrading
experience to feel one is considered purely in terms of “is
she or is she not sexually mutilated?” One woman I know
reacted this way when I told her I was making a film about African
women and FGM. She said that she hoped I wouldn’t be asking
“the question”. For her, being asked whether or
not she has been circumcised is as humiliating as asking a white
woman whether she has vaginal or clitoral orgasms. She feels
the question is an invasion of her privacy and shows a lack
of respect, since it defines her identity as an African woman
through the condition of her genital organs.
women have left Africa in the hope of turning the page, and
would prefer to leave the FGM issue behind them. That is why
many African women in the West refuse requests to tell their
excision story. The media has generally focussed on the more
sensational aspects of FGM, whereas it might be more pertinent
to highlight the efforts underway to stop the practice both
in Africa and clandestinely within our own borders. There are
also services Canada can provide to help mutilated women, by
creating increased sensitivity about FGM- related gynecological
problems within our medical system, and by more readily offering
asylum to women and children fleeing the imposition of FGM in
their country of origin.
I of FGM appeared in
Vol. 5, No. 2.
Gender-based Income Redistribution with Honour and Dignity
Abored the Porn Express
Traders in the Material World
Divas, Pantydom and 3-Chord Ditties
Triumph of the Pornographic Imagination
People Muslims and the rest wake up! Those who preform female
genital mutilation (FGM) on children should be brutally killed;
it's a crime to do this kind of things to children; it's disgusting,
sick and totally abnormal. Each one who has thoughts even
to take his/her daughter for FGM must to seek treatment. It's
so bloody abnormal; it's the same as cutting fingers or toes.
The world needs to speak up and punish all the bastards abusing
innocent children making them to suffer and feel pain and
trauma for the rest of their lives. It's not a mother, but
a bitch who gives her own daughter for FGM. Those people must
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