FGM/Cutting: a Mutilation of the Soul
Chapter on Female Genital Mutilation in Kenya.
The Christmas holidays in North East Kenya, are celebrated by the Pokot Tribe as the ‘Cutting Season’. It is a hot, dry time of year on the equator and the tribal land is criss-crossed by dusty paths pounded by cattle herders, the Pokot are a nomadic pastoral tribe like the Maasai. The nomads, their necks and arms adorned with beads are bringing their precious cows to their wife-to-be’s father. The cows are bride price and will be exchanged for the patriarch’s daughter. Deep in the thorny wilderness these young daughters must face ‘the knife’ in preparation for their marriage-sale.
Ostrich feathers flutter in the warrior’s hats as they stride proudly alongside their bony cattle through the market towns. Tall and lean from herding cows and goats through miles of wilderness, they inhabit a world of river, earth and sky. The thorny harshness occasionally softened by gorgeous desert flowers burning brightly in the sun. They strut gracefully, their athletic legs wrapped in red tartan kilts as they catch the eye of giggling young girls - Is it him? the warrior who will be buying them? Cow tails swish the flies off rumps as men slumped by the side of the road, reach for another gulp of the local brew, and wonder at the murderous adventures their fathers once had cattle rustling. Warriors still kill for cattle in the remoter areas: animals are insurance against the unpredictability of the seasons and the failure of crops.
Girls between the ages of 12-16 with their genitals cut are for purchase with cows and beer. The wealthy herder-warriors can out bid rivals for the highly prized brown skinned, hard working and obedient girls - tutored to endure unspeakable hardship in silence.
Some of these will be older men who have perhaps 2 to 3 wives already, and perhaps a small tribe of 20 or more children. It is a harsh, polygamous, masculine world where bravery is more highly prized than compassion. The fit, the lucky and ruthless survive.
Young girls excitedly prepare for their rite of passage. The ceremony will transform their status from a young girl in to a ‘mature’ and marriageable woman overnight. What awaits them on their ‘day of celebration‘ is for most a cruel surprise. Mothers withhold the truth from their daughters, for it is taboo to speak openly of it. Women’s silence is doubly secured by the threat of violence. For women who speak out can risk beatings or in more extreme cases banishment or even the much feared accusation of being a foul-mouthed witch. Centuries of silence has been secured this way, or the price paid.
Yet whilst Female Genital Mutilation used to be openly practiced and celebrated across many tribes in Kenya, cutting has recently become illegal and is now practiced secretly and underground. The message is ignored by the many nomadic cattle men and warriors in the more lawless ‘out back’, away from watchful eyes. For them it is unthinkable to purchase a wife with their precious cows, unless the girl is cut. The cycle has continued time immemorial..what would be the reason to change it?
Some young girls will die alone in a pool of their own blood. If the slicing of the exterior genitalia leads to unstoppable bleeding she may be condemned, isolated and rejected by her family as her life fades. Bleeding is a sign of a witch’s curse.
The girls who survive the intense agony will endure years of unspeakable pain: first when the recently healed wound is penetrated on their wedding night, initially with a cattle horn thrust into their scarred vagina to make passage for their husband. Or the pea sized hole left by the wound will be sliced open with a razor blade as a ‘modern’ alternative.. In this surreal Eden, under beautiful flowering desert trees, a woman spends her wedding night in unspeakable agony.
She must also endure the torture without uttering a sound. Just as she did when the old circumcisor’s shaky hand sliced off her exterior genitals, like carving meat at a butchers shop. If she lets out a cry she will bring shame on her family.
Torn and ragged from repeated openings, those that are too remote or too poor for clinics, will endure childbirth with home episiotomies performed by a traditional birth attendant. In an emergency, broken glass, a rusty knife or piece of tin roof can be used to re-open the wound. Even finger nails.....Pokot women’s ability to endure pain is unimaginable. At each childbirth she will ‘face the grave’. For young pubescent girls with their hips too narrow to give birth have little hope. Words are inadequate to describe the fate of the girl-child.. I feel it is a discredit to them and the horror of it to even try.
Not long ago Kenya celebrated 50 year of Independence. Yet in Kenya’s hundreds of square miles of bush, women are trapped in unspeakable suffering. Nelson Mandela said before he died that, “Freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.” Yet in Africa 3 million girls are at risk annually, leading to trauma and suffering that impacts every aspect of tribal life and impoverishes everyone. (Fact check and update)
Some girls are no longer willing to face the knife. Or follow their mother’s unquestioned acceptance. There is an awakening. Pioneers of a new generation are having the courage to resist and do the unthinkable: speak their own truth. These courageous resistors suffer the challenges of all pioneers, yet their numbers are growing.
Nancy Tomee, now in her early 20’s is one of the early pioneers.
When I walked into Nancy’s parents compound, high on a remote hill in West Pokot, miles from any modern amenities, it was clear that Nancy was driven by a passionate desire for change. She was refusing to have her genitals cut and be sold to an older man for cows so her brother could go to school. She longed for education herself and demanded to be treated equally. I filmed as an extraordinary argument between Nancy and her mother erupted over the washing up, in which she stated she wanted to end the cycle of suffering of the generations of women before her and pioneer a new way. Even if, as she would say, it was normal for women to be treated like animals, she innately knew it was wrong. Many of her generation accepted it as their inescapable fate but Nancy spoke out fearlessly. She was spat upon and abused by those around her, but she stood firm due to her inner conviction that her story would be different.
Nancy was an uneducated girl living in a mud hut in a culture that prized meekness and obedience, but she was a rebel, a brilliant speaker and a fearless taboo-breaker. She told me many years later that her Grandfather, a well known storyteller had predicted at her birth that she would change her tribe. She was prepared to challenge her whole culture if it meant she could follow her own dream.
It took immense moral courage. I filmed as she declared to the elders and chiefs of her tribe that she would not only empower herself to resist, but others too. She told them she would set “an example” I realised then, that as a storyteller, it was a unique gift to capture this young leader’s first public speech on film. I was also aware that sharing her story could amplify the change she desired manyfold. Nancy chose to become a role model and inspire hope wherever the need to stand up for one’s own truth is required.
If Nancy, a barely educated teenage girl, in one of the remotest and most patriarchal tribes in Kenya can refuse to become another victim in the chain of abuse stretching into centuries then we all can. She dared to follow her deep, innate inner wisdom after observing her mothers life of abuse.
Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have and Nancy is a shining example of “ to thine own self be true.” Her story is in Africa, but her quest is universal. For it is Nancy's, and it is mine, and it is all of ours even if at times we may forget.
Nancy’s lion hearted courage and compassion, inspired me to continue beyond that first meeting and the first short documentary. I decided to follow my own heart too and make a feature documentary called Nancy A One Girl Revolution, shot over 6-7 years, covering her extraordinary journey since the argument with her mother. One of the highlights has been her speech at the United Nations in New York - she hardly knew what the UN was. The hilarious descriptions of New York as seen through Nancy’s eyes as she tells bedtime stories to her younger siblings on return from the UN are my most memorable moments!
At a deeper level her story charts an archetypal journey to fulfill her potential. Whilst it is about resisting FGM, child marriage and violence against women, it is really a story about transformation and the quest for inner and outer wholeness.
Nancy is also a natural storyteller. Many of her stories describe the betrayal by the women around her: her Grandmother’s attempt to drug her, her parents attempt to cut her by force and the wider damage to her tribe that the violence against women and FGM does. Some stories were so brutal they left me wondering how love could exist here at all and how Nancy kept her heart intact?
By the time I had met Nancy on that far hill in North East Kenya, she had already been resisting for 7 years or more. She was consciously refusing to perpetuate the mother- daughter-mother-daughter cycle of abuse, but she was still facing immense pressure, abuse and threats. She was told she was better off dead. Her ability to follow her own inner compass when surrounded by those who threatened her was astonishing. I admired her for her courage to take on her whole tribe, but it was her kindness to others that meant I too did not give up when the struggle to tell her story was tremendous. For my experience was dwarfed by hers.
She had already run away from home once and it was supreme good fortune that she had stumbled - a frightened child with tear stained face - into the arms of the wife of a school teacher some 10 hours from her parents’ mud compound. She ended up finding refuge here as a ‘mothers help’ for 7 years until I met her back at her parents compound on that far hill being forced to resist once again. She had been allowed to go to school in exchange for housework.
She had witnessed her mother beaten senseless, her teeth knocked out by her father. Discarded as a worthless object and abandoned to support the children. Like many like her, her mother had been forced to cut trees. Later her mother expressed her despair to Nancy. Her impotent rage was clear.
As a child it had become obvious to Nancy that cutting was no initiation into the good that life offers or for that matter the traditionally feminine values of love, connection, nurturing, and compassion. Instead it is a brutal rupture with childhood so abrupt, and so violent that it is a betrayal of a child’s trust. This is later compounded by teachings by elder women that to be a good wife is to be - meek, obedient and silent. As a film maker I have no way to know the depths of fear or the anger women must hide from others because so much is unspoken. Yet Nancy’s mother’s deep outrage is so clear when she tells Nancy her story in her own words.
It is often reported that trauma and shock can leave the victims of FGM feeling confused and uncertain of who to trust. For it is a betrayal of trust from one’s closest care givers. It may disconnect a woman from her deeper Self as she has not learned to trust her own inner voice. She is taught her feelings are of no value.
What could be a greater violation of wholeness than to physically cut away the genitals of a woman? It is a symbolic act - cutting off, controlling and subjugating the body, the connection to pleasure, to life, to wholeness. It attacks women at the core.
Is the mutilation of the body echoed inside by a mutilation of the soul?
A young girl undergoing FGM is betrayed by her mother and betrayed by her father. She is told to be brave to avoid shaming them whilst she is neutered like an animal and sold to another man. How can she truly trust another, or even herself after that even if this is a tradition - would it force one into hopeless surrender to a form of slavery? Connecting to her feelings may become too dangerous, too much of a challenge to ‘society’. Yet this will not stop feelings from happening - but as more domestic servant than wife, she will be unable to express them. Does this lead to women numbing the connection to the Self, and the voice within that guides, leading to a disconnect to their own deeper wisdom and connection to source?
Violence against women hurts everyone. Women are at the centre of family life, they give birth and in traditional societies like the Pokot, will exclusively bring up the next generation. They are the building blocks upon which the whole tribe depends.
Yet the barrier to open discussion of the negative impacts of FGM is kept in place by what is known as pluralistic ignorance. This is a situation where there may be many people within the tribe who silently oppose FGM, but they fear to say so openly for fear of rejection or ridicule or worse. It takes courageous opinion leaders to change social norms at personal risk to themselves. Open discussion could lead to education and greater awareness of how the practice profoundly damages everyone and leads to the impoverishment of family, tribe and the natural world.
That is why Nancy is so important to support. She was prepared to break the taboo of silence, but not just for herself, for others too. Her story on film demonstrates how everything is entangled and how violence against women, poverty, FGM, child marriage, bride price, deforestation & climate change are all part of the same story.
- Women’s inequality means a woman’s insight, experience and wisdom goes unheard. Her knowledge as a mother and wife is not used to balance men’s opinion or guide the tribe.
FGM damages trust and the sexual and emotional connection between men and women. Marital relationships are often loveless. What is the impact on children?
Women and children suffer and die needlessly. Cutting can spread HIV, and cause death or multiple birth complications as well as side effects such as fistula. All the health impacts, affect the whole tribe as children are left motherless, or ill.
If our bodies hold records of trapped emotion and trauma, which is now considered to be true by a growing number of health professionals, then thousands of women worldwide are holding trauma within their bodies of this attack on the core of their femininity.
Research shows that gender inequality is linked to poverty and low levels of development. Girls are not educated and tend to be married early and have more children than more educated women. Tribal development is retarded.
Men control women’s income. Why would a woman who cannot own what she earns work hard, when she and her children will not benefit from her labour? Especially if her husband drinks and beats her which is commonplace.
Polygamy and early marriage lead to population expansion where one man may produce over 20 children. This leads to pressure on resources.
Nancy’s Mother explains how abuse and being cut off financially by her husband led to her resorting to cutting trees for charcoal in order to survive and eventually choosing to try to force her older daughter Nancy to be cut to raise money to fund her son’s education. This story is repeated over and over again by other women in the area. Impoverished women pushed to the edge resort to tree cutting and charcoal making or cutting their daughters as a last resort. In North East Kenya the seasons are already changing. Cutting trees causes erosion and rivers to dry up. The problem is being compounded.
My direct observation is that the fate of women and Nature is entangled within the Pastoral tribes. Violence against women can directly impact Nature too, scarring Mother Earth not just women’s bodies. The tribes unique blend of Christianity, Islam, Animism, superstition and indigenous wisdom means that there is still a strong spiritual connection with nature threaded throughout their lives and ceremonies.
Unlike the Abrahamic religions, the Pokot Tribe believe in spirits which inhabit mountains and groves of trees. However I have observed that the brutality towards animals and women is not something I have seen in other indigenous tribes which are connected to Nature, except where there is multiple generational trauma and abuse. I am unsure how to account for this difference.
As a film maker and artist, my opinions come from direct observation. They are not backed by academic research and therefore come with that caveat. However, my fear is that a combination of resource scarcity, population expansion and poverty as well as the powerlessness of women (demonstrated in the practice of FGM, child marriage and polygamy) could lead to a crisis in the region. Climate change is adding to a scarcity of resources and an unravelling of the ecosystem. This combination could lead to economic collapse. Empowering women may help avert this breakdown on multiple levels - yet it may take generations to change and heal.
Women’s anger is dangerous when it goes underground - yet in this case it could be harnessed to propel fast social change. As Kofi Annan says “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women”.
My hope is for a new Wangari Maathai, someone prepared to empower women and plant trees. As she said “We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and, in the process, heal our own—indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder.” My hope is Nancy’s story on film can certainly encourage awareness of this need.
In this remote part of Africa, it is clear women are feeling the inner call for change and a desire for a deeper participation in their world; a desire women in the West also seem to be articulating louder and louder.
Anne Baring, Jungian Analyst and Author of many books on the Goddess says - 'The voice of the long-silenced Feminine is needed to heal the Wasteland—the current state of the planet and the lives of the billions of men, women and above all, children that are blighted or destroyed by human cruelty, greed and ignorance. Centuries of conflict between nations, religions and ethnic groups have brought us to the present time when we must find a way of transcending this archaic pattern of behaviour or risk destroying ourselves as a species. Will we choose to imitate the patterns of the past, or can we embrace the truly immense transformation of consciousness we will need to make if we wish to forge a different future for coming generations?
Western women’s psyches are also wounded by the legacy of a not so different past. Our experience is less nakedly violent, however the “Me Too” exposé shows the abuse beneath the veneer.
Unlike my generation, Pokot girl resistors like Nancy are the first generation to resist. It is these women who will determine Africa’s future. Another African woman, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says “I would like to ask that we begin to dream about and plan for a different world. A fairer world. A world of happier men and happier women who are truer to themselves. And this is how to start: we must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently. Nancy’s young son was on her first 5-day march across the Pokot area to spread awareness that FGM must be abandoned. She is committed to bringing up her son differently to any generation of men before him. She offers hope.
Nancy and I have laughed together about how many cows men would pay for her. However to most Pokot men, outspoken woman like Nancy with ‘opinions’ are ‘already spoilt’. Yet Nancy’s hope is her work will ensure her son grows up in a generation of boys who demand their wife and children to be uncut and educated. Her ability to tell stories with a life-affirming exuberance, is part of her charisma, and I am convinced that her Grandfather’s prophecy will be true. For she has also redefined what it is to be a ‘married’ woman in the Pokot. She and her ‘husband’ or partner are equals. She has transcended the message she grew up with that girls must sacrifice their life for boys and a wife’s value is only in her beauty, fertility and obedience.
Nancy has awakened my awareness too, I am more aware of the subtle messaging within my own culture. I grew up with a similar message to Nancy’s even if the context was within a loving, educated and affluent western family. I have had to learn to value myself in my own right. My identity was attached to becoming a wife and mother. I have had to learn that I am good enough even when I am childless and unmarried. Even in our socially aware times I have faced stereotypes both socially and from within myself.
Bethany Webster says 'a patriarchy severely limits a mother's ability to initiate her daughter into her own personhood, because in a patriarchy, a mother has been deprived of her own. It sets her daughter up for self-sabotage, her son for misogyny, and a disrespect for the mother "ground" out of which we come, the earth itself.'
Africa is desperately in need of women leaders, as well as stories about empowered women. In the words of Wangari's we need to ' give back to the children a world of beauty and wonder'.
Nancy is the granddaughter of a storyteller and a natural ambassador for change. Yet she faces many obstacles and some from ‘her own side’. After Nancy's triumph over the pressure to be cut she was faced by new trials. For no sooner had the story of her incredible courage been shown worldwide than her very success caused competition. Rivals competing for status tried to dislodge her. Her mother felt betrayed by the lack of bride price. Nancy was excluded by rivals and on one occasion had stones thrown at her for not supplying money she did not have.
After reading the Jungian Analyst Anne Baring’s books and listening to her seminars on the Deep Feminine, I feel Nancy’s story is just a small part of the potential for a worldwide awakening and reconnection. As Anne Baring has spoken about - a rebirthing of the Feminine is required as a response to the need for a new consciousness triggered by the social and ecological crisis of our time. Given the root cause of the crisis is the repression of the feminine principle - oppressed for over two or more millennia. Yet our species requires a huge evolutionary leap in consciousness. Carl Jung’s words that Anne quoted resonate deeply with me when he says, “The world hangs on a thin thread, and that is the psyche of man” and “Woman is faced with an immense cultural task; perhaps it will be the dawn of a new era.”
Nancy’s rebirthing of her tribe’s attitude to women requires support for the beliefs are deeply entrenched. One hundred years on from the Suffragettes, the new frontline is in Africa and the Middle East where women may have the right to vote, but not always ownership of their bodies, or even their lives. Yet there are remarkably few films about African feminist heroines, least of all from remote African villages, especially patriarchal tribes like Nancy’s.
Interviewing the men of Pokot is like excavating the deeper subterranean rivers that run beneath the surface of my own western culture too. It is like peeling the layers to reveal the naked fear of woman within the male psyche which is behind the need to control women.
Especially interesting is how the fear of women is projected on to foul tempered and opinionated women who are condemned as witches. Angry women.
Men assume without question that uncut women are promiscuous. As one Mutatu driver bluntly put it “the clit is hot for sex and must be cut off”. In short women’s sexuality must be controlled. The Pokot man’s uncensored expression of these fears helps reveal the deeper psychological roots of misogyny.
Women who experience difficulty in childbirth ( due to FGM ) are accused of promiscuity too. These women can even be forced to confess to adultery if it is considered that the difficulty is as a result of a curse. These fear-filled projections of witchcraft and promiscuity are echoes of our own not so distant European history - where innocent women were burnt to death at the stake, accused of being brides of Satan.
Equally Clitorectomies were performed on ‘hysterical’ women within the last 100 years and men locked up the wives ‘they owned’ with chastity belts for fear of women’s naturally libidinous behaviour. It was only in 1919 that women above a certain age could vote - after a long struggle by the Suffragettes. (CHECK FACTS)
Western women’s hearts and psyches are only just recovering from the hangover left by the persecution and devaluation of the feminine. When Nancy came to London she was lucky enough to meet Lady Diana Dollery, the granddaughter of Myra Sadd Brown. This famous Suffragette had thrown a brick through the war office window and had gone to prison for it. Nancy and Diana genuinely connected because they both understood the courage it took to be the one to put their head above the parapet. Nancy visited Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue and was incredibly encouraged to see for herself that she was part of a global movement, and was not alone.
Nancy A One Girl Revolution is not intended to make a unique heroine of Nancy but to inspire others to realise the potential within themselves - for it takes a huge collective effort to change a culture. Like ripples from a stone thrown into water, each girl can impact other girls and as ripples join other ripples a movement for change becomes unstoppable. The film is about these role models - one girl at a time, leading to a girl revolution!
It has been humbling to witness this awakening in the remotest and poorest part of Africa, yet see it reflected worldwide. I have gradually become aware that what I am witnessing in a remote part of Africa is a microcosm of a shift going on across the world where women are challenging the old values underpinning a society out of balance and disconnected.
Human beings worldwide are driven by the search for happiness, aliveness, connection and ultimately as Jung would say, integration and wholeness. Thanks to the Suffrage Movement western women alive today are perhaps the first generation for thousands of years that have enjoyed the chance to consider fulfilling that and pursuing their personal talents, dreams and potential...
Stories tend to find you, even if it takes time to unravel why. That is the case with Nancy’s for it is unusual for a privileged British white girl from an upper middle-class family to connect with an impoverished black girl from a remote rural village, living in a mud hut. Yet our connection is genuine. There was something in me that recognized that Nancy’s story is my story too. I had experienced gender discrimination and it had left me feeling disempowered and voiceless, but here was an uneducated girl from the remote African hills standing up despite the very real threats. What struck me then and now, is that her story has an archetypal, universal quality, for in many ways it is every woman’s story; it is for all those women who have the courage to say no to abuse and aspire to live more fully. Nancy leads the way simply because she follows her own inner wisdom even when it is at odds with the approval of those around her.
Nancy’s example triggered my own realisation of the huge task women have and my small part in it. In Anne Baring’s Magnum Opus “The Dream of the Cosmos” she says “The recovery of the feminine principle has been like the excavation of a precious treasure.” Nancy began my own excavation of this treasure. It is what unites us.
It is not NANCY’s revolution but a girl revolution and that means all of us. She is one of us, it is all our story. Mine too. Tectonic plates are shifting at a deeper level. Yet whilst Nancy has the courage to speak up, and say no, what makes her story important is that this personal awakening is a potential within each one of us. Her story simply articulates the path towards it and perhaps to wholeness too.