I recently watched an interesting film by Ousmane Sembene called Moolaade or Sanctuary. The story revolves around a woman (Colle) who went through the ordeal of female circumcision (or “purification” or female genital mutilation – fgm), but refused to circumcise her daughter. She now finds herself amidst scandal and controversy when a new group of young girls facing circumcision flee to her home for protection (sanctuary).
Colle provides the children with protection but at the risk of alienation, public humiliation, flogging, and a slew of other negative side effects including her daughter being rejected by her fiance for being a Bilakoro, or one who is uncircumcised / unpurified. However, even through all the suffering, there is a happy ending as the women of the village muster enough courage to stand up and resist the oppressive, misogynistic tradition. I enjoyed the film, and really thought it spoke to some of the sexism within various African societies and various cultures of resistance within, as well as the dangers and pain associated with female circumcision.
While watching, I was struck by the way the language and cultures seemed to be entrenched with sexism, and I wonder if that was the filmmaker or writers’ choice in attempts to portray the circumcision as a result of the oppressive Islamic society in which these women exist. In other words, to show that this type of behavior/act can only be a result of a sexist misogynistic society. And I say this not with the assumption that every society that practices female circumcision is sexist and misogynistic, but rather that it probably exists in some cases as simply an archaic tradition that was once viewed as necessary, but not solely because of patriarchy and female oppression. Is it possible for this tradition to exist in a society where it’s simply an adopted tradition like many things but not because of oppression? Crazy I know…still possible right?
Also, one issue I’ve had with the anti-FGM “movement” it its characterization of those who practice it. You know that whole, “Oh those barbaric backwards Africans are at it again” type representations…regardless of dis/agreement with the act (although I don’t know anyone who supports it). Can you oppose the act without pathologizing the practicing peoples and cultures?
To put it into perspective for narrow-minded westerners, some African women have used the idea of designer vaginas to show how both seemingly unnecessary and barbaric acts are viewed through completely difference lenses. On one hand, one is viewed as liberating, and a woman’s choice, while the other is viewed as an oppressive tool against women’s sexuality (and guess which one is African and which one is western). And no, I’m not discussing how and what makes which to whom (is it liberating or oppressive). Not right now.
While watching, I also thought about how little attention is paid to male circumcision and wondered if it shouldn’t be viewed the same way. I know many people claim a plethora of benefits for male circumcision, but is it possible that it’s also unnecessary? I’ve seen/heard mixed research results about the benefits or lack thereof for either, so I’m still undecided. But I do notice that it’s been rationalized and generally accepted but not as stigmatized as female circumcision.
Overall, I thought the film fell victim to the pathological view of Africans where problems or issues are magnified and projected as endemic. However, I think the story was well put together and really showed the dangers, oppression and dis empowerment of women in certain societies. And I love that women can and do stand up to people and traditions that are oppressive and outdated.