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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy
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I Tell of the Body in Pain

One of the most renowned books condemning female genital excision in Africa is Waris Dirie’s memoir, Desert Flower.33 Dirie followed up her extraordinary memoir with a foundation dedicated to stopping the ritual that nearly cost her her life.34 Other organizations and media outlets have joined women activists in protesting female genital excision.35 Other African women writers actively engaged in ending the practice are Nawal El Saadawi,36Ayaan Hirsi Ali,37 and Fauziya Kassindja.38 I will base my discussions here on the fictional work of Nnedi Okorafor and the poems of Warsan Shire.

Nnedi Okorafor’s magical realist novel Who Fears Death39 chronicles the life of a young woman who was born with magical powers. She also learns that she was conceived in rape, and because of that she is socially stigmatized. She was circumcised at the age of 11. These two violent incidents in her life have filled her with anger. She wants to understand her people’s culture and also to exact some measure of justice. The richly complex story encompasses many themes: female genital excision, genocide, human rights, globalization, the intermixing of peoples and cultures on the African continent, patriarchy, and solidarity among women, among others. The narrator threads the issue of female genital excision through the many instances of violence in her people’s culture. The story begins with a richly symbolic event:

It was evening and a thunderstorm was fast approaching. I was standing in the back doorway watching it come when, right before my eyes, a large eagle landed on a sparrow in my mother’s garden. The eagle slammed the sparrow to the ground and flew off with it. Three brown bloody feathers fell from the sparrow’s body. They landed between my mother’s tomatoes. Thunder rumbled as I went and picked up one of the feathers. I rubbed the blood between my fingers. I don’t know why I did that.40

The predator-prey relationship between an eagle and a sparrow foreshadows various encounters in the narrative. In this way, we are introduced to the story’s major motifs: violence and pain. The narrator, Onyesonwu, considers herself tainted. But her contamination is understood as deriving from a culture that is hostile to the human rights of individuals. It is a culture in which violence is considered a means of survival. Ethnic groups enslave one another, and genocide is a norm. However, it is the violence done to individuals that attracts the narrator’s lyric attention.

The narrative tells of how, during an outbreak of mass violence violence - the genocide of the Okeke by the Nuru - “all of the Okeke women, young, prime, and old, were raped. Repeatedly.”41 It is probable that Okorafor is recreating the genocide and mass rape that took place in Sudan. Genocidal rape as practiced in Sudan had the goal of introducing bloodlines of the victors into those of the vanquished. The women of the conquered tribe will carry the children of the conquerors to term and eventually groom the enemies within.42 Speaking of herself, Onyesonwu links sex, an act that is inherently pleasurable, with violence, with pain: “But I didn’t know about this—sex as violence, violence that produced children... produced me, that happened to my mother.”43 Thus the motif that was announced at the beginning of the narrative—the pain that society visits on women’s bodies— reasserts itself more fully. Onyesonwu can be understood as representative of the women of that society. She is “born of pain.”44

Having established the experience of pain as a background, the narrator introduces the ritual that constitutes society’s symbolic and actual violence on women: female genital excision. It is described as “a two thousand- year-old tradition held on the first day of rainy season. It involves the year’s eleven-year old girls.”45 Onyesonwu is 11, has already developed breasts, and is now experiencing her periods. The meaning of the ritual has been lost in the thicket of oral tradition. Though the girls know that a piece of flesh would be cut from between their legs, they are unaware of “what that piece of flesh did.” 46

The italicized verb urges us to question what the women are missing. What does the excised piece do for women? The justification of the campaign by Saudi doctors to end female genital excision could help us understand what Okorafor is suggesting by the italicized verb. We are also reminded of Foucault’s idea that the control of pleasure in society is intimately linked with power. The narrative raises the question: If that piece of flesh is useful to women, if it does something for them, why should society remove it? The question confirms our premise that destroying the clitoris has everything to do with society’s goal of controlling women. In sex, the most intimate expression of oneself, women are denied power over their bodies; they become objects and means through which men achieve their ends. If women are reduced to sexual objects, then men become puppetmasters. The sexual relation that exists between “circumcised” women and their men therefore becomes symbolic of the gender relations in such a society. The narrator describes in detail what was done to her. She is among other girls who undergo the same ritual, and she describes how it was done to one of them. The woman circumciser “went for a small perturbing bit of dark rosy flesh near to top of Binta’s yeye. When the scalpel sliced it, blood spurted. My stomach lurched.”47 It is curious that the narrator qualifies the clitoris as a perturbing piece of flesh. The dictionary definition of “perturb” suggests that that flesh is unsettling; it is a source oftrouble. But we are left to ask: For whom does it cause trouble? Before the narrator provides an answer, she takes us through the girls’ experience of pain. The description of the other girl’s genital excision provides a close perspective to the actual organ that is cut. Yet the more persuasive aspect of the narrative comes when she talks about the pain of her own experience. “The pain was an explosion. I felt it in every part of my body and I almost blacked out. Then I was screaming.”48 The description of this ritual of womanhood leaves no doubt that it was an initiation into a life of pain, a life of subjugation—in line with Dogon mythology. It describes the life of a person who has been objectified. Onyesonwu is therefore an embodiment of pain, both bodily and cultural. The former stems from the way she was conceived, and the pain in her own body, the throbbing wound, “the deep unprovoked pain [that] seemed to happen twice a day.”49 The latter form of pain comes from the fact that she is considered illegitimate. In narrating the painful ritual of female genital excision, Okorafor confronts us with questions of ethical relevance. Why does society cause such needless pain to women? Why does society make it painful for women to enjoy or control their bodies? We realize the ethical import of these questions when we, like the author, ignore the gaze of the West, that is, when we disregard the fact that Western feminists have adopted female genital excision in Africa as their cause. It is cruel to inflict unnecessary pain on people, to state the obvious. So, why would societies ingrain such cruel rituals in their cultures? In line with Adichie’s injunction that we should all be feminists, we raise a fundamental question that hinges on fairness. Would men allow it if it was done to their bodies? Onyesonwu exhibits symptoms of trauma. She constantly questions her worth as a human being, and this suggests her awareness of herself as a disabled body. Pain, as Elaine Scarry argues, takes away our capacity for language. It robs us of our voice.50 The Dogon creation myth could help us understand Onyesonwu’s condition in regard to self-perception. According to the myth, the Earth and her female descendants are forever denied their selfhood by the violent act of excision. They are denied the capacity to resist violation. They are therefore made ready to be raped. They no longer have a wall of (emotional and psychological) defense. The pain that Onyesonwu’s society has wreaked on her prevents her from achieving selfhood.

The narrator informs us that the Okeke people have forgotten the origin and reason for the practice of female genital excision. It is now simply an accepted part of Okeke culture. Over the course of history, female genital excision, like other cultural idioms, has acquired a symbolic power whose expression confers legitimacy on the people who undergo such rituals, regardless of the pain those rituals inflict. Yet Onyesonwu learns that the reason a girl’s piece of flesh is cut off is to “align a woman’s intelligence with her emotions.”51 In other words, its purpose is to curb women’s emotions, to tame them. Thus she learns the real answer to the question of whom the women’s clitoris perturbs. We understand the verb perturb as connoting women’s desire to express themselves and to refuse to be controlled. There is, however, an added element of power in what is considered a harmless practice: “the scalpel that they use is treated by Aro. There’s juju on it that makes it so that a woman feels pain whenever she is too aroused... until she’s married.”52 Juju describes an object used as a fetish or amulet by peoples of West Africa. Juju is also the magical power attributed to such an object. In most African communities, only men are thought to possess the secret of juju. As a consequence, all men are feared. In this narrative, juju stands for the uncontested power of patriarchy, which intends to protect women from themselves. Of course, marriage will never bring back the function of the missing piece of flesh. In effect, the woman is expected to always align her intelligence with her emotions as conceived by the culture’s patriarchs. Alignment here equals obedience. Elizabeth Anker has argued that the liberal notion of human rights is based exclusively on reason, which willfully suppresses the body.53 It is revealing how the idea of women aligning their emotion with their intelligence echoes these liberal formulations of human rights. Patriarchy in Africa, portrayed in this narrative, raises reason above emotion. Indeed, intelligence (reason) must reign over women’s bodies. This simply implies that women’s bodies must be suppressed. The ideology of this ritual, as

Onyesonwu’s narrative reveals, can be understood in light of what Audre Lorde and Helene Cixous have characterized as women’s erotic power. Society fears women’s emotional expression, that is, their freedom and their pleasure, and the only way men can curb that power is to resort to the magical thinking involved in ideology. It is therefore no surprise that it was a man who came up with the idea of putting juju in the scalpel used in the genital excision. Indeed, after the ritual, the girls experience intense pain during sex. Those who have had sex with men before the ritual—kissing, touching, and intercourse—now know the sharp difference after having experienced the cutting.54 Luyu, one of the girls, speaks of how she tried to do exactly what she had always done before the ritual:

I have tried for three years. Then Gwan came one day and I let him kiss me.

It was good but then it was bad. It... made me hurt! Who did this to me?... Soon we’ll be eighteen, fully fledged adults! Why wait until marriage to enjoy what Ani gave me! Whatever the curse, I wanted to break it. I’ve been trying... Today it felt like I was going to die.55

It is interesting that Luyu identifies her vagina and its pleasures, as a gift from Ani. Ani is a Mother Earth figure in Igbo, the ancestral language of the author. To be sure, Onyesonwu is also an Igbo name, meaning “who fears death,” hence the title of the novel. For Luyu, pleasure is a gift from Mother Earth. Yet the culture that promotes the suppression of women’s pleasure invokes the same Ani. As Binta says, “it’s Ani protecting us.” Ani is protecting them “from enjoying boys.”56 There are obvious differences in the two instances in which Mother Earth is invoked. In the first instance, Binta sees herself as a member of the human community, as part of creation. There is an effort to locate her individuality as part of the larger whole. In her case, therefore, there is a healthy relationship between the individual and the community. Being part of a larger community should not, in her understanding, prevent one from being an individual with distinct wishes. Yet, in the second instance, her community or culture invokes Mother Earth in the abstract, as something that is omni-historical. She is used as an ideology that notoriously subsumes the individual within an imaginary whole. But the girls have seen through the ritual to the underlying belief system. Luyu, exasperated, says, “we’re tricked into thinking our husbands are god.”57 They also recognize that women are not free of blame. The woman circumciser gave her consent to the whole ritual.58 Onyesonwu speaks of how she discovered what the ritual had taken from her. She has read the great book of secrets, the book that had been hidden from women:

I learned that my Eleventh Rite took more from me than true intimacy. There is no word in Okeke for the flesh cut from me. The medical term, derived from English, was clitoris. It created much of a woman’s pleasure during intercourse. Why in Ani’s name is this removed? I wondered, perplexed. Who could I ask? The healer? She was there the night I was circumcised! I thought about the rich and electrifying feeling that Mwita always conjured up in me with a kiss, just before the pain came. I wondered if I’d been ruined.59

The significance of Onyesonwu’s discovery is that it is a testimony (albeit via the medium of art) from a woman of African ancestry about the effects of female genital excision on women’s bodies. In Onyesonwu, the circumcised African woman’s body accuses her culture, and asks the same question that the unnamed protagonist in Adichie’s “Tomorrow is Too Far” has asked; it seeks to relate to the man’s body as an equal.

Okorafor is concerned with the healing of the African community; this explains Onyesonwu’s supernatural powers. With these powers, she can help others, but she cannot help herself in the area where she needs the most help. Her powers cannot help restore her Ani-given right to pleasure. For that, she needs the help of another person with supernatural powers, one who has also learned the secret of the people’s cults. That is a young man named Mwita. With his intervention, Onyesonwu grows back her “tiny flesh,” which eventually helps her to climax. It pleases her “that for once in [her] life obtaining something of importance was easy.”60 Does Mwita’s help suggest Okorafor’s belief that men are needed for the success of women’s feminist causes? His help relates to Okorafor’s conception of the flourishing community, to which I will return in the concluding part of this chapter. A flourishing community is one in which humans are not stuck in categories dictated by ideologies. Rather, it is one in which men and women relate to one another in freedom and on equal grounds.

 
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