Some thoughts on fighting FGM

Michael Gove has finally agreed to write to schools in England about FGM after the recent campaign led by 17 year old Fahma Mohamed. I recently read Alice Walker’s novel ‘Possessing the Secret of Joy’, 1992, and will attempt to discuss some of the horrors of FGM, and thoughts on fighting it, through a reading of this powerful text.

Possessing focuses on a fictional African tribe, Olinka. The fictional element enables Walker to explore the results of the most extreme form of female circumcision, infibulation, enacted upon her protagonist Tashi without blaming any one real tribe. Thus, Walker can be as outspoken as she likes, heavily criticising Olinkans’ reasons for female genital mutilation (FGM) and rallying for collective responsibility to stop it. Olinkans ‘validate’ their reasons for FGM by using religious myths and presenting the procedure as initiation into adulthood and eligibility for marriage. Particularly, Olinkans use the tale of God and the termite hill, which represents female sexual organs, to affirm God’s wish for FGM and naturalise male control over female sexuality. This is because God mastered the earth by “[cutting] down the termite hill, and [having] intercourse with the excised earth”. Therefore, in the eyes of the Olinkans, as God has initiated it, FGM is justifiable and an eternal phenomenon. In this way, as the writer Gourdine has noted, Walker positions FGM as “a brutal ritual so tied to culture and tradition that for thousands of years women have been powerless to stop it”. 

Tashi is estranged from her mother; yet, more significantly for identifying the origins of Tashi’s trauma, is betrayed by her. The betrayal is partly because Tashi’s mother does not allow her to openly mourn for her dead sister Dura, who – unknown to Tashi at the time – died during a botched circumcision. Tashi feels Dura, as well as herself, is betrayed by this enforced silence and repression as it denies not only Tashi’s healthy expression of grief but also the memory of Dura and acknowledgement of her past existence. Tashi remembers, “It was a nightmare. Suddenly it was not acceptable to speak of my sister. Or to cry for her”. The betrayal is confirmed after M’Lissa the tsunga, the woman who performs FGM, tells Tashi that her “mother helped me hold your sister down” during the operation.

Possessing’s second epigraph: “When the axe came into the forest, the trees said the handle is one of us”, poignantly establishes this betrayal and violence committed against women by other women. However, Tashi herself realises that M’Lissa is just an extension of [Olinkan men’s] own dominating power”. So the axe blade itself could represent patriarchy, as this is what ultimately oppresses Tashi and Olinkan women. The women, personified by the axe’s wooden handle, are just the agents. This is emphasized by the fact that an axe controls the forest by ‘cutting’, which is similar, literally and metaphorically, to the procedure of FGM. Indeed, “God’s axe” is directly referred to by Olinkans through the myth of original female circumcision.

Possessing makes explicit male domination via the practice of FGM through graphic statements such as “the opening that is made will never enlarge on its own, but must always be forced”. Additionally, the statement “man is jealous of woman’s pleasure […] because she does not require him to achieve it”, implies man gains control by eradicating female autonomy by exterminating female desire. This control is also appropriated by the myth that “the dual soul is a danger” and should be destroyed so each gender is clearly defined. The idea of sexual duality was created out of fear that the clitoris resembled the penis, as both can “rise”, and so has some of its strength and power.

Certainly, after Tashi has submitted her body to FGM she does lose her sexual identity. She feels shame and anger at feeling sexual pleasure after circumcision. This implies she cannot voice female experience or affirm a positive connection with her own body, let alone a connection, and space, for herself within society. Tashi feels this loss of self, stating, “I am nobody”. Thus, Tashi’s self-expression is intrinsically linked to her physical body and the space she occupies as a woman.

Tashi reacts to her traumas by inventing stories. This suggests she cannot face the traumas and tries to remove them from her memory by containing and distancing them within fiction. She turns to natural animal imagery, often perverting it, in order to communicate the unnatural, perverted acts that have been forced upon her body. This suggests Tashi finds it hard to position herself as an active subject and autonomous being, even in her own constructed narratives.

Tashi’s decision to undergo FGM is problematic because it is the same procedure that killed her sister. As a reader I was constantly questioning why she did it even though the novel presents it as Tashi’s chosen resistance against colonization and American culture. The first epigraph states it “is a way the Olinka can show they still have their own ways […] even though the white man has taken everything else”. Tashi herself exclaims she wants to be “Completely woman. Completely African. Completely Olinka”. This is an assertion of race rather than tradition. In this way, as the writer Olakunle George articulates, Walker “raises crucial questions about nationalism and the intersection of, or tension between, cultural identity and gender”. Indeed, racial and gendered identities interlink in a problematic way because Tashi’s actions suggest that if a woman is not Western there is no way for her to assert her race other than by getting circumcised. The reader is thus aware that anti-colonial discourse and expressions of liberation are difficult and problematic for women; Tashi herself does not achieve them. This suggests tension between American and African cultures prevents women from cultivating a harmonious sense of self.

Additionally, Tashi’s assertion of her Olinkan race through FGM is further problematised when Amy’s story is taken into consideration. Amy admits FGM also occurs in Western cultures, as “even in America a rich white girl could not touch herself sexually”. Therefore, Tashi’s racial assertion is undermined because FGM is not racially specific. Lastly, Olinkans’ belief in FGM is itself unstable. This is because M’Lissa tried to make Tashi’s mother wait before deciding to circumcise Dura as she believed the tradition was no longer necessary due to the influence of new “white missionaries”. This is affirmed when Tashi’s mother is not pressurised to put Tashi through circumcision after Dura died. The suggestion that FGM is no longer considered integral to Olinkan identity deepens the futility of Tashi’s actions as she has been trying to write herself into outdated values.

However, Tashi does begin to realize the double standards and paradoxes within her tribe. For example, she admits she rushed off to her initiation ceremony ignoring the surrounding poverty: “I saw the children, potbellied and with dying eyes”. She confesses she was arrogant and did not see the whole picture, instead she saw through the lens of tradition and what she was told to see.

Tashi can only start to achieve a harmonious sense of self once she has left Africa. However, she moves from one racial trauma in Africa to another in America, partly because she encounters racism in America. She also realises that there is no stable American identity when she states, “an American looks like me” as many people have wounds in America that they have tried to hide even from themselves. Harmony is only triggered by interactions with another character, Mzee, who is meant to be the psychoanalysis Carl Jung. Jung’s work focuses on an ‘individuation process’ which is about asserting one’s difference or individuality within society. Individuation can be postponed by ‘complexes’, which Jung defines as “the image of a certain psychic situation which is strongly accentuated emotionally and is, moreover, incompatible with the habitual attitude of consciousness”. One of Tashi’s complexes is manifest whenever she sees blood, it makes her panic although she “[forgets] why the site of her own blood terrified her”. Tashi’s inability to link her complexes back to the original source is evidence that her trauma has produced disturbances of memory. Therefore, complexes must be made conscious so they can be dealt with by coming to terms with their source.

Jung used ‘mandalas’, the drawing of circles and symbols, as a way for his patients to access their complexes and reveal the ‘Self’. Tashi starts to paint in a way that evokes mandalas after Mzee shows her a film where women are preparing young girls for FGM, unknown to the characters at the time, while a cockerel crows. It is not until Tashi starts painting that she understands why the cockerel “completely terrorized [her]” and is able to work through the resistance of her complexes. During the process she realises it is a hen rather than a cockerel that she has painted, indicating that she shifts blame of FGM from men to women. In this way, painting is a way for Tashi to access her repressed fears. Furthermore, a foot “appears” in the picture, drawn from a child’s perspective. This suggests the cockerel in the film has triggered in Tashi a specific childhood memory. She does not identity the foot as M’Lissa’s until she painted the patterns on M’Lissa’s wraps. In this way, M’Lissa becomes what Jung would call the ‘shadow’, “the symbol of the dark, inferior, repressed side of the conscious personality”, which personifies everything one refuses to acknowledge about oneself, and in Tashi’s case, her Olinkan tradition. This suggests M’Lissa represents everything that has gone wrong with tradition: appropriated violence towards women, inflicted by other women.

The fact that Tashi paints a ‘cockerel’ is also significant because there was one present during Dura’s circumcision. Tashi remembers M’Lissa kicking “an insignificant morsel” towards it, which would have been Dura’s ‘unclean parts’. Now that Tashi is able to locate and acknowledge her precise fears, she decides the ‘cockerel’ “no longer frightened me. Indeed, I felt as if I were seeing the cause of my anxiety itself for the first time”. This culminates through her articulation of Dura’s “murder”. A boulder motif alludes to the almost physical struggle Tashi undergoes in order to break through her complexes. She feels “there was a boulder lodged in my throat” that prevented her naming Dura’s death as murder; however, through painting, she is able to “[explode]” this boulder, accusing the women responsible and finding peace for Dura and herself. As Olinkans state it is a taboo to speak out against the tsunga, because God ordained her, this illustrates the enormity of the ‘boulder’ Tashi had to expel.

Possessing suggests locating complexes is only a part of individuation; they need to be resolved. Tashi is convinced resolution will come from killing M’Lissa, for she becomes obsessed with “fantasizing” about taking her life and being freed from her presence. However, I feel Tashi’s conviction is problematic firstly because M’Lissa is not only a victim of FGM herself, but also of poverty, because she and her mother became tsungas to “fill [their] bellies”.  This suggests being a tsunga is not something she necessarily believes in or has chosen for traditional reasons. Furthermore, M’Lissa realizes the immorality of her actions. This is lucidly illustrated through her remorseful rhetorical question, “who are we but torturers of children?” Due to these reasons, I feel Tashi should forgive M’Lissa rather than killing her.

Lastly, I feel Tashi’s individuation is undermined because she lacks agency in her killing of M’Lissa. This is because she is acting under the influence of Olinkan tradition and the tribe’s maintenance of power. M’Lissa herself tells Tashi, “it was traditional for a well-appreciated tsunga to be murdered by some-one she circumcised”, which causes Tashi to admit, “I carried out what was expected of me”. Indeed, Olinkan FGM is re-affirmed, even elevated, by Tashi’s act because it causes M’Lissa to become a “saint”, which celebrates her role.

However, the killing of M’Lissa is shown to complete Tashi’s individuation because she makes a resistive statement through her own death, to which the African state sentences her as punishment for murder. Indeed, Possessing positions Tashi’s death as a triumph. The metaphor of flight conveys this triumphant freedom as Tashi describes that she “flew” the moment she was shot. Additionally, Tashi’s different names come together to imply she no longer has a fragmented sense of self. Previously, Tashi’s chapters have been narrated by different versions of herself, indicated by the titles that use her various African and American names. This causes the critic Gourdine to argue that Tashi emerges at the end as “spiritually intact”. Tashi certainly has managed to establish a sense of self within African and American society because she at last knows what she wants and how to resist assimilation. She states, “it is only the cruelty of truth, speaking it, shouting it, that will save us now”. This suggests her sense of self relies on her resistance to societies that uphold clear, rigid binaries and lies, such as gender essentialism and oppositional binaries of African and American identities. In light of this, the critic Moore’s idea that in the novel “resistance to lies is the real secret of joy” does appear to ring true.

However, I feel there are problems with Tashi’s death as an act of triumph. This is mostly because her death signifies there is no constructive space for a resistant female in America or Africa. Both cultures are limiting to the female sense of self. The only space she can occupy is death, which ultimately eradicates her being. This suggests Tashi has not found an alternative discourse of female autonomy. Thus, the reader is left in the binaries of racial and gendered identities. Furthermore, it is unclear exactly what Tashi is resisting against, for even if she is resisting lies, which are embodied by FGM, she has undergone circumcision herself. She cannot resist against a part of herself, or something she has previously colluded in and defined her sense of self by. This suggests it is futile for her to resist; the physical treatment cannot be reversed. Lastly, a group of people, including her husband and Olivia, is present to support Tashi during her execution. I find this confusing because their presence suggests they support M’Lissa’s murder even though Tashi’s desire to kill M’Lissa was never collective; she never initially intended to speak out for a community. Thus, the group’s presence seems to take some of the power away from Tashi, destabilizing her personal triumph.

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