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Writing Women's Rites: Excision in Experimental African Literature

Writing Women's Rites: Excision in Experimental African Literature

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Published by M. L. Landers
Chantal Zabus, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3/4.
Chantal Zabus, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3/4.

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Published by: M. L. Landers on Sep 29, 2011
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Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 24, No. 3/4, pp. 335–345, 2001Copyright © 2001 Elsevier Science LtdPrinted in the USA. All rights reserved0277-5395/01/$–see front matter
PII S0277-5395(01)00183-2
Chantal Zabus
University of Paris XIII, Prof. Chantal Zabus, 14, rue du Doyenné, 1180 Bruxelles, Belgium
This article examines “excision” (a.k.a. “female circumcision,” Female Genital Mutilation[FGM] or, more recently, Female Genital Cutting [FGC]) in African Women’s first-person accounts.While considering the shift from female third-person narratives to “experiential” texts, the article alsooutlines three steps—(1) in-passing; (2) auto(-)biography; and (3) suturing—in delineating the
of the representation of excision in postcolonial African literature, which in turn, contributes to the gen-eral shift in the literary text from
so that women’s rites now clash with humanrights.© 2001 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Over the past 2 decades, the body of literaryrepresentations of excision (a.k.a. “female cir-cumcision”) has considerably grown, but it stillconstitutes a little explored corpus, in inverseproportion to the wide socio-geographicalspread of the practice and the sheer mass of in-formation available from activist organizationsand media networks or the research carried outin cultural anthropology, law, and sociology.With the exception of written documentariessuch as Nayra Atiya’s
Khul Khaal: Five Egyp-tian Women and their Stories
(Atiya, 1982), orfilm documentaries like Pratibha Parmar’s
Warrior Marks
(1993) or Anne-Laure Folly’s
Femmes aux Yeux Ouverts
(Folly, 1998), litera-ture remains a privileged place where women’svoices can be heard, all the more so in first-per-son accounts or what one might call “experien-tial texts.”In the literary text, excision has, over theyears, shifted from being a ritual, a
to beinga
so that women’s rites now clashwith human rights or what the Lebanese-bornEvelyn Accad (1992) has termed “(W)HumanRights.”
Until women-writers started docu-menting that shift, the representation of exci-sion in fiction had been fathered by men, albeitsympathetically. Among the male writers whowrite about or around the practice, we canmention the Somali Nurrudin Farah in
From aCrooked Rib
(Farah, 1970) and
(Farah, 1981); Ahmadou Kourouma fromIvory Coast in
Les Soleils des indépendances
(Kourouma, 1968)
Suns of Independence
; theMalian Yambo Ouologuem in
Le devoir de vio-lence/Bound to Violence
(Ouologuem, 1971);and the Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in
TheRiver Between
(Wa Thiong’o, 1965) and
 AGrain of Wheat 
(Wa Thiong’o, 1967). More re-cently, the Malian Dombi-Fakoly in
La Révoltedes Galsénésiennes
(Dombi-Fakoly, 1994), theNigerian playwright Ladi Ladebo in
(Ladebo, 1997), the Ivorian Koffi Kwahuléin
Et son petit ami l’appelait Samiagamal 
(1997)or the African-American, Lagos-based ChuckMike in
Sense of Belonging
(forthcoming 2002)have also been sympathetic to the abolition of the rite.In considering the shift not so much frommale narration to female narration but fromfemale third-person narratives to female expe-riential texts, I distinguish between three stepsin delineating the history or rather
of the representation of excision in postcolonialliterature. The first step is the “in-passing”method, which Irène Assiba d’Almeida (1994)
Research on this article has been made possible throughfunding of the umbrella project on “Autobiography andthe Body” by Belgium’s FNRS Research Council, 2000–2002. Warm thanks go to Benita Parry for her helpfulcriticism, and to Chika Unigwe for her expertise in Igbo.
Chantal Zabus
has defined, in another context, as “a strategyby which the writer describes in passing, thatis, by what seem like innocent, benign observa-tions, difficult issues women are confrontedwith in their daily lives” (1994, p. 37).
One day, the eponymous character from thenovel
(1966) by the Nigerian FloraNwapa is reminded of the primary function of excision; she is told that a young woman must“have her bath” before she has a baby (1966, p.14). Tobe Levin (1986) has stressed the euphe-mistic nature of the expression “to have abath”—to refer to excision,
but one must keepin mind that the phrase is “relexified” (Zabus,1990, 1995) from Igbo, the Oguta variant of which is
 Isa aru
 Iwu aru
, which best conveysin English the original twin ideas of cleanlinessand purification. It acts as a reminder thatLatin-derived words like “excision,” “circumci-sion” and
a fortiori
“mutilation” do not exist assuch in the societies where the practice is ritual-istically performed. For instance, the Bambaraphrase to refer to both excision and circumci-sion is
“to wash one’s hands.” Theidea of the “bath” in
may also obliquelyrefer to an anaesthetic such as “the very coldwater” that “numbed the skin, making it lesspainful during the operation” in Ngugi waThiong’o’s
The River Between
(Wa Thiong’o,1965, p. 23). The narrator in
also occa-sionally mentions the phrase “female circumci-sion” to refer not only to the removal of theprepuce of the clitoris but also to excision
 per  se
, i.e. “the removal of the prepuce of the clito-ris, the clitoris itself and all or part of the labiaeminorae, leaving the labiae majorae intact”(Koso Thomas, 1987, p. 16). Nwapa is thus herereferring to the ritual operation of clitoridec-tomy, a decade before the Nigerian journalistEsther Ogunmodede (1977) spoke out againstthe practice and definitely before the phrase“female circumcision” came to be used outsideof its narrow range to cover all practices (i.e.,circumcision, excision, and even infibulation).“Female circumcision” is here coincidentalwith the in-passing method, which, while beinginnocuous, reinforces the status of the practiceas an immutable rite. The sister of Efuru’smother-in-law’s statement “It is what everywoman undergoes” (Nwapa, 1966, p. 15)—points to the fatalistic acceptance of the cult asit is reinforced by culture. Also, the exciser tellsEfuru the story of an uncircumcised womanwho had a miscarriage, a story, which precipi-tates the defiant Efuru’s subsequent fate as anexcised though childless woman, for, if the“bath” did proffer the desired pregnancy, thegirl child Ogonim died in her infancy.The exciser’s pronouncement is bitterlyironic in that miscarriage or complications atchildbirth feature among the oft-recordedhealth hazards for excised women. The literarytext is here at odds with medical data and re-cent reports such as the Nigerian case-studiesanalysed in Efua Dorkenoo’s
Cutting the Rose
(Dorkenoo, 1994), which records an impres-sive panoply of such hazards, including deathfor the excised woman or child. Ivorian FatouKeita’s
(1998) is, along with Sene-galese Aminata Maiga Ka in
La Voie du Salut 
(Ka, 1985), the first novelist to record “death-by-excision” in a negative light.
The fact thatthe 11-year-old Ivorian girl child dies as a re-sult of extensive haemorrhage in a Paris set-ting also propels the account of excision intothe literature of exile. Also, by considering theimprisonment of the parents, the novel showsit is attuned to recent debates in France aboutthe criminalization of excision brought aboutby the revision of Clause 229-10 of the FrenchPenal Code.In Nawal El Saadawi’s
Woman At Point Zero
(1975), the ritual is not only mentioned
in passing
, as in Nwapa, but also as an obscure pa-renthesis. Firdaus’ excision, on her mother’s or-ders, constitutes the first of violent traumas,which augurs the subjection of Firdaus’ prosti-tuted body to the violence of numerous malebodies. The bracketed experience, however, re-surfaces in a harrowing scene, in which Firdausplunges a vengeful knife into her pimp, slicingthrough the flesh, as an exciser would.
The practice of excision can also be high-lighted in the text so as to further ground therite as a factor of social cohesiveness. TheKenyan women-writers’ third-person narra-tives—Rebecca Njau’s one-act play
The Scar 
(Njau, 1965), Muthoni Likimani’s
They Shall Be Chastised
(Likimani, 1974), Miriam Were’s
Your Heart is my Altar 
(Were, 1980)—as wellas Charity Waciuma’s autobiographical
Daughter of Mumbi
(Waciuma, 1969) all her-ald, in Jean F. O’Barr’s words, “a positive viewof [female] circumcision as a social practice”(O’Barr, 1987, p. 62). This “positive view” of 
Writing Womens Rites337
excision has to be understood contextually, asthese novels were written in the wake of thenKenyan president Jomo Kenyatta’s champion-ing of the practice in
Facing Mount Kenya
(1938), but before his successor Daniel ArapMoi issued an administrative decree against(rather than banned) the ritual surgery in 1982when he learned that 14 girls had died.Understandably, Kenyatta considered
in boys and girls as a source of cultural and eth-nic (e.g., Kikuyu) identity and a form of resis-tance against missionary societies in East Af-rica. In
Red Strangers
(Huxley, 1939), ElspethHuxley presents the reader with two factions:the “Men of God” who, invoking Christian te-nets and the authority of King George, outlawthe circumcision ceremony on the grounds thatit is “cruel and wicked” (1961, p. 347) and theadherents to a Nairobi-based revolutionaryparty who believe in a European conspiracy to“destroy the Kikuyu people” by encouragingwomen not to undergo circumcision and there-fore be “unclean” and “barren.” The Kikuyuretaliation against the British missionaries ispictured as extremely violent, because fathersare urged “to refuse the missionaries’ oath, butto take another, no less solemn, pledging them-selves to have their daughters circumcised inthe fullest and most thorough way” (1939, p.349). The ban on clitoridectomy indeed pro-voked, in 1931, the allegedly forcible excisionand subsequent murder of the female mission-ary Hilda Stumpf, who was identified as
or uncircumcised woman.
Although Huxleydoes not mention her by name, she refers to a“European woman,” who emboldened Kikuyugirls to take a stand against “circumcision” andthereby defy the law of the fathers. As a result,she got “crudely circumcised in the Kikuyufashion” (Huxley, 1939, p. 355) and died in herbed from the wounds. This serves as a powerfulinstance of “reactance” (Mackie, 2000, p. 277)and of the way colonialism served to perpetu-ate tradition as a means of resisting cultural in-cursions and denigrations of African societies.Excision is here no longer mentioned
in pass-ing
or bracketed, but made part of the overallentexting of the female body as the site of colo-nial conflict between the European imperialistsand African societies. In Ngugi’s
The River Be-tween
(1965), the female body became a battle-ground in the clash between conservativeKikuyu traditionalists and the new converts toChristianity. Yet Ngugi’s Muthoni dies atpeace, as she is, after her excision, “a woman,beautiful in the manner of the tribe” (1965, p.53). The female “body in pain,” to use ElaineScarry’s apt phrase (Scarry, 1985), is evacuatedby war or by a premature death, the way theexcised female body was metaphoricallyaligned with a feminised war-torn Beirut in Ac-cad’s
(1982).By the early 1980s, as the Minority RightsGroup Report of 1983 holds (in McLean &Graham, 1983, p. 3), the fact that even femaleinfants undergo the operation indicates that thepractice of excision is no longer linked to initia-tion into adulthood. In other words, excision isno longer a
of passage, let alone a
rite tout court.
“Female circumcision” has now been dis-carded as a “misnomer” (James, 1994, pp. 5–6)and ousted by FGM (Female Genital Mutila-tion), for it presupposed an equivalency to themale initiation ritual of circumcision, which isinaccurate and provides an interesting exem-plar of “dissymmetry embodied” (Bal, 1988).However, “mutilation” has been thought topre-empt moral judgment about such opera-tions and to comfort an already hegemonic dis-course about the “bodies of third-worldwomen,” as Therese Saliba (1995) proprietori-ally puts it, except that these same “third-worldwomen” were to increasingly cast the practiceas a mutilation in literary texts. At the turn of this century, activists and writers alike speak of “genital surgeries” (Gunning 1992) or, morerecently, Female Genital Cutting or FGC.“Mutilation” is indeed terminologically un-stable. It has been used to qualify vindictivedeeds as in the 1983 French case whereby amentally disturbed woman, Danièle Richer, cutoff her own daughter’s genitalia, which causedthe French Penal Code to be revised. Clause312-3 indeed mentions that the removal of theclitoris on a child constitutes a “mutilation.”This new clause on nonritualistic excision, how-ever, served to indict both the (often Bambaraand Soninke) parents of excised girls and theexciser as criminals in subsequent Parisian tri-als. “Mutilation” is also used to qualify varioussurgeries. Naomi Wolf in
The Beauty Myth
(Wolf, 1990) has gone so far as to call breastenlargement through silicone implants “a formof sexual mutilation” on account of its man-gling erotic power and “half a clitoridectomy”(1990, pp. 242–243). This illustrates the ten-dency in critical discourse to put excision on apar not only with ancestral practices such as

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