The Body in Pain and the Politics of Culture

Nnedi Okorafor and Warsan Shire

In 2008, a number of Saudi Arabian doctors embarked upon a campaign to end the ancient ritual of female genital excision. Their action is surprising given the widely held opinion that Saudi Arabia is patriarchal, religiously conservative, and unconcerned about the rights of women. The more surprising aspect of the doctors’ campaign was their justification, which they asserted was rooted in science: “Female circumcision is detrimental to women’s sexual satisfaction.” As a report in the Guardian details, “the study is part of an effort to build a collection of rigorous evidence about the long-term effects of FGM so that attitudes can be changed from within the countries where it is practiced.”1

The truth of the “scientific discovery” of the Saudi doctors dovetails with the assumptions in a popular film that is credited with changing the attitude towards female genital excision in Kurdistan. The film, “FGM: the film that changed the law in Kurdistan - video”2 produced in 2013, made a jarring comparison between female genital excision and neutering animals.3 The comparison seems apt given that the ritual is particular to patriarchal cultures and religions that are characterized by rigid ideas about women’s sexual expression. As Audre Lorde argues, pleasure in sex is liberating, and because a woman’s discovery of the pleasures of her body liberates her emotionally and psychologically, she is considered wild and untamed. Women who discover the pleasure of their bodies are “empowered [and] dangerous. So we are taught to separate the erotic from most vital areas of our lives other than sex.”4 Helene Cixous makes

© The Author(s) 2016 95

C. Eze, Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature, Comparative Feminist Studies,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40922-1_4

the same argument about women in relation to their bodies.5 She urges them to reclaim their bodies by writing, speaking, and above all by discovering their erotic power, and that includes masturbation. Cixous makes an interesting comparison between the bodies of women under patriarchy and Africa under colonialism. Those two spaces, the woman’s body and Africa, have been colonized, and made to hate themselves. Gloria Anzaldua reminds us that:

according to Christianity and most other major religions, woman is carnal, animal, and closer to the undivine, she must be protected. Protected from herself. Woman is the stranger, the other. She is man’s recognized nightmarish pieces, his Shadow-Beast. The sight of her sends him into a frenzy of anger and fear.6

If women’s sexual pleasure is considered to be something wild, it is not surprising that some cultures have chosen to disable that condition at its source. Most parts of Africa, while no longer traditional, are still patriarchal, and sexuality is viewed as solely for procreation. The notion that women have the right to enjoy sex is exclusively associated with Western feminism, which is considered a form of decadence. In the first part of this chapter, I discuss the resistance to the idea that women have rights to their bodies. This resistance is often couched in the rhetoric of culture and heritage. In the second part, I discuss the works of two African women writers as an argument against the politics of culture in regard to women’s sexuality.

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