Thursday 5 December 2013

The Cut: daughters, elders and local health workers speak out about female genital mutilation in Western Kenya

If you’re interested in the issue of female genital mutilation you might also want to read Cutting Us Down To Size: Working To End Female Genital Mutilation

An excellent film called The Cut by Beryl Magoko – not to be confused with the equally impressive recent British documentary The Cruel Cut – received its UK premiere at the 2013 London Feminist Film Festival and was awarded the Best Feature prize there a couple of weeks ago. Filmed in Uganda and Kenya, The Cut is a careful and intelligent documentary which enables diverse members of the featured small, rural communities where FGM is practised to speak about its meaning and history, while maintaining a clear but unpressing authorial sympathy towards the girls who undergo it. Despite comprising interviews and talking heads as well as some close documentary observation, ultimately the body language and silent reactions of the young women speak the loudest. The Cut has already won Best East African Film at the Kenya International Film Festival as well as many other plaudits.

The Cut establishes female genital mutilation as a social practice with a history so longstanding that even its apologists cannot explain it adequately. Both those who oppose and those who defend it mention the pressure girls are under to have it done.

Watching some of the older male apologists for FGM is a chilling experience. They display an odd, chippy defensiveness at being challenged and their comments are shot through with contempt for the (as they insinuate) wilfulness and irrational bloody-mindedness of women. One man says, “If a girl wants she will be circumcised. She runs away and goes for circumcision.” What we see in the film, instead, is the establishment of a haven for countless girls who have gone there to avoid being cut. Despite the existence of this refuge some parents, of both sexes, take the girls away against their will to be cut.

“They make a small mark on the knee,” says one man dismissively. I do not think he is lying outright, although he is speaking with heavy euphemism; I think he genuinely does not quite know exactly what is involved. As the film goes on to show, FGM is a female-perpetrated community act in the moment, although as a cultural practice it is endorsed by both sexes and it is ultimately approved, instigated and organised by men with social power. As one woman warns, “the sons of council elders inherit the right to organise circumcision.” Despite FGM being presented by detractors and apologists alike as something done to women by other women, often those women who are closest to them, its survival as a tradition can only be ended officially by council sons of council fathers, not mothers, wives or daughters.

Another man in the early minutes of the film insists,  “We don’t force them, nobody forces them.” But force is not always physical and momentary. Peer pressure, the weight of long tradition, the heat of expectation, the actions of the majority and the social cost of resisting the practice constitute different types force in themselves – forces which are sometimes harder to resist than the application of physical power. One adult woman explains how an uncircumcised girl will be ostracised and describes being shouted at, verbally abused, mistreated and cold-shouldered at her school, where 98% of the girls had been circumcised. The girls are caught between forces which are at once oppressive of their own instincts and free will and yet socially inclusive, communally approved, deemed to bring order and harmony to all. Another woman says carefully, “a good child has to obey the parents.” Her personal pain and regret are subsumed into a wider vision of what would please the people beyond herself.

One of the many subtle arguments The Cut makes is that female genital mutilation is related to poverty and education. One man says that when a girl has been cut “she can get married, give birth and handle a family,” even though it is obvious that the girls in the film are still virtually children. The under-education (in terms of both social values and academic status) of the parents creates a cycle in which the under-education, physical brutalisation, sexual and labour exploitation and social disempowerment of girls is perpetuated. The cutting of a girl is presented as a sign of her initiation into womanhood and therefore her readiness to marry and procreate. Anti-FGM speakers in the film rail against “illiterate parents” who do not see the value of education for a girl; they circumcise and marry off daughters who might have wanted to continue with their studies.  

However, The Cut also conveys how strong the anti-FGM movement is, with leadership coming from both sexes. Indeed the defensiveness and vehemence of the apologists, virtually all of whom are of an older generation, shows that the drive to end the practice is gaining ground. We see groups of very little girls chanting and holding up signs reading, “Don’t circumcise me! Don’t hurt me!” and “When you circumcise a girl, you destroy her life.” Male preachers urge, “Leave this outdated cultural practice.” Handsome men of marrying age have a pretty persuasive line that makes me smile: they say that FGM excises “the sweetest and most delightful part of a woman.” I always thought that my most delightful parts were my brain and my heart, but there you go. Another man says he doesn’t want to marry a woman who has undergone  FGM because “I want her to be sexually satisfied.” Another man tells a crowd, “You can tell the difference between [happy] wives who have not had it done, and [unhappy] wives who have.” 

The Cut is expertly structured, with a sense of foreboding that increases with every testimony. The women who have been cut, some of them looking barely ten years old, seem bashful, not angry, when expressing their pain and disgust.  “It was very painful. I will never forget,” says one, her eyes sliding as she remembers. Another represses a shudder as she describes the way she was mutilated: “They would use [the razor] to cut everything [around the genital area].”

The Cut’s masterstroke – to use exactly the wrong word – is the access Beryl Magoko has gained to the circumcision rituals themselves. These happen for both sexes. The boys are circumcised in one area and we see them surrounded by countless male friends, neighbours and relatives, whooping, hopping, singing and celebrating. Then we see them standing with their willies hanging out, all looking like skinny kids. Each one clenches his jaw and keeps his chin up, lips firm, eyeing the boys on either side, full of determination not to show any pain. Despite that, quite clearly, it hurts a hell of a lot. When the circumcision is done the boys look dazed and miserable, oblivious to the partying around them. They’re escorted back home by all their friends, bleary eyed and unsteady, silent, as though all they want to do is lie down in a darkened room.

The girls are in a different area. Just like the boys, they are surrounded by their same-sex relatives and supporters. The atmosphere is wonderful, full of celebration, connection and encouragement. I can well understand the sense of rejection and chagrin, even confusion and blame, that a community would feel and then bring vengefully to bear on a girl who refused to undergo FGM. And I could well understand the conflicted feelings of any girl who does not want to be cut yet who is naturally drawn – as anyone would be – to a celebratory event in which everyone participates and supports each other. This is not about girls being too weak to say no, but about the strength of a culture in persuading, muffling, denying or overriding that no. Additionally, The Cut makes it painfully clear that the girls who submit to FGM do not do so because they are passive but because they are innocent. The reality of what exactly will be done to them is concealed from them until it’s too late. 

At the FGM ceremony there is an atmosphere of frenzy, an undercurrent of brisk determination to see it through despite anyone's hesitation or aversion and a core of dark zeal, as at any rite where blood is to be shed. Amidst the celebrations of the brightly dressed older women around them – a celebration in whose rhythms and music I can’t help but hear the refrain cycle-of-abuse, cycle-of-abuse – the girls themselves are subdued. They become increasingly and instinctively nervous as they are jostled to stand in a line and then pushed down to sit on the ground, then lie back when their time comes. We see money changing hands as women buy pairs of surgical gloves from a vendor.

The innocence of the girls is such that one casually helps her mother get a fresh surgical blade out of its sterile packet. The girls are forced back and told to relax with their legs bent and naturally apart. Fear spreads from girl to girl to girl. The older women grow carping, bossy and a little physically rough, relishing their one moment of power. They bully the girls and egg each other on. One of them holds the razor and cuts a girl. It’s unwatchable.

Afterwards, there is silence. The girls look sick, queasy with pain. Their faces are rubbery with shock and, for some, tears pour thickly down their cheeks. Their eyes are dead. The girls are unable to sit up. They are clearly, obviously, visibly traumatised, in shock. A sizzle of glee passes through the older women who throng, dance, gather. They look triumphant, like bullies who’ve gained a point.

A health worker filmed in her clinic says, “after FGM you can have death from bleeding out. You can catch an infection. There can be a cross-infection.”

A male apologist insists, “girls don’t bleed and are not cut painfully.” His comment is not just motivated by an arrogant dismissal of female pain but - as echoed by many of the speakers - a suspicion of health workers. Multiple commentators hint that “the negative effects come from doctors” who they say are misleading people about the risks of FGM despite having to deal with the consequences when things go wrong. There is, overall, a resistance to the kind of change that the clinic symbolises: a national, standardised and networked healthcare system relying on medicalised, non-naturopathic treatments. Something very simple lies at the heart of all this: resistance to change and fear of the loss of defining and unifying rites. “It may end gradually. We can’t stop abruptly. We say it’s an initiation and we believe it’s good for us,” says one man. Another person repeats fervently, “It will not end” because “culture doesn’t end. Ever.”

The girls are escorted home. Their faces have been daubed in talcum powder to mark them as ‘initiated’. With colourful hats and parasols held over their heads they look like little ghost emperors. The pressure of the bodies around them and the willpower of the crowd seem to be the only things holding them up. The people are singing, dancing and jogging alongside the girls.

A still from The Cut by Beryl Magoko
It’s a terrible journey back. The girls pass in and out of consciousness, crying, staggering, fainting, sweating and collapsing, barely able to walk. Their eyeballs roll, their necks go floppy. Blood runs down their legs. They are shaken firmly, scolded and harangued. There is no tenderness whatsoever. Never before has it been so clear that FGM – the entire day, not just the moment of cutting – is not about celebrating the start of womanhood but about forcing female obedience, beginning a trauma which makes girls mentally vulnerable and therefore susceptible to further control and abuse, women bullying girls and the deliberate debilitation and weakening of strong, healthy female flesh. FGM is a socially sanctioned brutalisation process justified as a rite so ancient that nobody can remember its purpose, thereby leaving it usefully open to conventional patriarchal justifications.

A woman describes the “excruciating pain” of female genital mutilation.

Another woman says, “I regretted having gone there – but it was too late.” It was done.

We see the girls being taken home, glassy eyed. They are so traumatised physically and mentally that they’re unable to speak. They are encouraged to lie down. They can barely manoeuvre themselves. We see one mother trying to get her daughter to eat a biscuit. The daughter is unresponsive. She is too weak to chew.

In the aftermath there are countless physical problems, in addition to the mental trauma. It is difficult to urinate and it can take up to three weeks to walk properly. One woman says she “can’t even bathe alone. You need to be held.” Much older women describe how they “staggered” and “couldn’t sleep or walk for ten days with the pain.”

The wound must be left to heal in a certain way. If a girl sleeps with her legs closed the wound is forcibly re-opened.

“It’s so painful that I can’t even explain,” says a woman.

“It is like taking a hot nail and putting it on the wound,” says another woman.

A health worker explains the biologically necessity of the clitoris, which helps the vagina to stretch during childbirth. But FGM can remove the clitoris, leaving scar tissue: “Scar tissue doesn’t expand, which leads to tears, which obstruct labour. This leads to tears upwards and also down to the anus in childbirth. So a woman can develop a third degree tear – vagina to anus.” It’s not the word ‘tear’ that gets me about that quote, it’s the phrase ‘third degree’. Because I’m guessing there aren’t a whole load of degrees to get though and third is pretty much the worst. From this, a woman can develop a fistula, which means that she passes faeces through the vagina, the barrier separating the vagina and anus having been ripped. 

Another health worker adds, “I feel [FGM] should stop. It’s just humiliating. If they want to do it let them do it on adults who can sign their own consent form.” For the villagers shown in The Cut, the power to end FGM officially and decisively is in the hands of the new generation of men, the sons of the council elders.

A woman who underwent female genital mutilation says, “If I could stop it, it would have ended.”

Further reading:
·           An interview with Beryl Magoko about The Cut and the issue of female genital mutilation.
·           The official press pack for The Cut, giving full credits and further details of the film’s history and making, can be accessed here.
·           Read Beryl Magoko’s directors’ notes about the challenges she faced when filming.
·           Listen to award-winning reporter Juliet Spare’s feature on female genital mutilation for Voice of Russia

Bidisha is a 2013 Fellow of the International Reporting Project, covering global health and development.