FGM in Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky

After watching Moolaadé, I recalled that I had come across a story several months ago of how FGM is combated in Senegal in Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, released in 2009. Kristof and WuDunn devote the thirteenth chapter of the book (chapter: “Grassroots vs. Treetops”) to looking at an organization, Tostan, that works to “empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation” that has contributed to a reduction of FGM in African communities.  The book itself explores women’s empowerment in developing countries.

Kristof and WuDunn establish early on in the chapter the demographic of individuals who practice FGM: “Today, female genital cutting is practiced mostly by Muslims in Africa, though it is also found in many Christian families in Africa.  It is not found in most Arab or Islamic cultures outside Africa” (221).  The emphasis is on Muslim African women who experience FGM.

Kristof and WuDunn highlight the work of a American expatriate, Molly Melching (the founder of Tostan), as they explore the organization’s contribution to reducing FGM in Senegalese communities.  The “major educational program includes units on democracy, human rights, problem-solving, hygiene, health, and management skills” (226) and lasts for three years.  The model doesn’t touch explicitly on “women’s rights” (to avoid antagonizing village men, who also attend the program).  The group is not dedicated solely to addressing FGM, but instead places a “nonjudgmental discussion of human rights and health issues related to cutting” within the program.

Initially, I thought that Tostan might be considered a predominantly Western-oriented NGO that swoops in to save the village and admonish FGM practices–”Tostan sometimes angers feminists for its cautious approach and for its reluctance to use the world ‘mutilation’ or even say that it is fighting against genital cutting” (227)—but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Tostan seems to have taken pains to employ local educators for its development program.  I found it interesting that Kristof and WuDunn chose to use the term “female genital cutting” to refer to FGM—the deference to a less incendiary term minimizes the negative connotation associated with the practice itself.

However, what struck me most about how FGM is presented within the book was the lack of an African woman’s personal experience with FGM—especially after establishing FGM as a practice that predominantly affects African Muslim women.  Kristof and WuDunn briefly touch on Edna Adan’s insight to FGM in Somaliland, but spend most of their time looking at Melching’s work in Senegal.  Why did Kristof and WuDunn present a racial dichotomy of an organization founded by a white, American woman that combats the practice of FGM in an African population?

Moolaadé was released to widespread critical acclaim in 2004 long before the release of Half the Sky; its Senegalese director, Ousmane Sembene is considered by many critics to be the “father of African cinema.”  Kristof’s colleague at the New York Times, film critic A.O. Scott, gave it a glowing review.  How did a well-received film on FGM in Africa, with a strong female African Muslim protagonist, escape mention from the book?

The silence of African Muslim women from the presentation on FGM in Half the Sky is disappointing on many levels, and reinforces the stereotype that these women are helpless to address the problems they face independently; instead, they require the assistance from Western-run organizations if they hope to gain human rights.  Islam is maligned due to the failure of presenting how Islamic leaders and religious scholarship denounce FGM practices.  This starkly contrasts with how FGM is combated in Moolaadé. In Sembene’s film, an African Muslim woman takes on the role of the protector to a group of girls from FGM without enrolling in a development program.  The protagonist uses religious reasoning and her own personal conviction to combat FGM.

In the introduction to Half the Sky, Kristoff and WuDunn proclaim: “In this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”  I could not agree more with Kristof and WuDunn’s declaration.  But in presenting how gender equality is achieved, it is important to always remember the women at the heart of these stories.  Their own individual circumstances are unique and contribute to the inequality they face everyday; their resilience and resolve to overcome their challenges and contribute to social change is ultimately achieved of their own accord.  It is their stories that deserve to be told.

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