Moolaadé, directed by the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene and released in 2004,tells the story of a group of young African Muslim girls who have refused to undergo a “purification” ceremony in an African village. The girls seek protection (“moolaadé”) from a woman, Colle (played by actress Fatoumata Coulibaly), who finds the practice abhorrent and is sympathetic to the girls’ pleas. What ensues is a story of impending social change—the intertwining of the media, cultural influence, and a woman’s steadfast resolve to stand up for her convictions and combat a debilitating and sometimes fatal social convention: female genital mutilation.
The film uses terms like “cut,” “purification” and “social convention” to refer to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Sembene rarely refers to the procedure as FGM within the subtitles of the film (if I remember correctly, it is only referred to as FGM towards the end of the film once). He instead refers to women who have undergone the procedure as those who have been “cut,” the procedure itself being referred to as “purification.”
The term “FGM” is considered controversial due to the negative connotation associated with “mutilation,” in addition to the practice and ideology behind the term’s denotation. What is female genital mutilation? And what terms does MMW use to refer to it? Female genital cutting? Excision? Circumcision? Each word lends a unique connotation to the practice. After discussing the term with my fellow MMW contributors, henceforth in the article, I will use the term “female genital mutilation,” as described by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be:
all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
The WHO outlines four types of FGM: clitoridectomy, excision, infibulation, and other (“all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes”) that occur primarily in western and northeastern Africa, but also in parts of West Asia.
As I read more about the film itself, I was surprised to learn that all of the women who acted in the film had experienced FGM themselves. In an interview with Cinema Scope, “Woman is the Future of Man,” Sembene remarks on the courage of these actors:
I’m just happy to touch on the surface of things, and content to trigger discussion without humiliating anyone, without being graphic about it. There is another reason for this: because the woman playing the practitioner in the film also underwent the excision. In fact, all the women in the film have undergone the surgery. But they agreed to play these roles, which I find very courageous.
By distancing the procedure from the Western term of FGM, Sembene places the term within its cultural context and exemplifies the social importance of undergoing the procedure—“purified” women have undergone the procedure and are marriageable, whereas “unpurified” women are shunned for refusing the procedure and are unmarriageable.
In the discourse on FGM, the social context that surrounds the procedure itself—and the potential social ramifications for women who choose to not complete the procedure—is not often presented. In the film, Colle is persecuted for her subversion in her village. Her daughter’s marriage to a village man (who lives in Paris) remains in limbo, she is publically flogged by her husband, and is socially shunned by her village for most of the film.
Throughout her tribulations, Colle remains committed to the protection of the girls. She single-handedly supports the girls for a considerable length of time, only receiving support from other village women later in the film and citing a report she heard on the radio, where an imam mentions that Islam does not require cutting for girls.
Colle’s conviction is absolute: she protects the girls because she thinks it is the right thing to do and refuses to succumb to the social pressure she faces from her village. The nuanced intertwining of religious conviction and the media (citing the imam she hears on the radio) and cultural practice (invoking the “mooladé”) is subtle and remains in the background as she continues to protect the girls.
African women are often presented in the media as helpless in a backward, patriarchal culture and as individuals who require considerable assistance from the western world if they hope to achieve societal change. Sembene disproves this in Moolaadé. In the same interview with Cinema Scope, Sembene says:
In Africa, we have a lot of strong women. I think that without that, we would have gone down the drain a long time ago. We have very, very strong women. They are the people who hold society together.
In the film, the Muslim African woman protagonist of the film is responsible for instigating social change for her fellow sisters, bravely fighting a negative social convention so that girls can live healthy lives that they are entitled to.