At the sold-out New York Premiere of Mrs. Goundo's Daughter, I joined the audience at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (HRWIFF) for an enlightening film on a commonly misunderstood and misrepresented phenomenon: female circumcision. Even the name of the practice is contentious, as some argue that the label 'female genital mutilation' is inherently judgmental (see anthropologist Richard A. Shweder's "What about FGM?" for more), instead opting for less value-laden terms such as 'female genital cutting', 'female clitoral excision', or 'female circumcision.' The debate over the name is a small indication of the depth and complexity of the practice, which is performed in a variety of ways across the world. Practitioners of female circumcision (FC) consider it to be a crucial part of life, and a necessary coming-of-age ritual for all females. Activists advocating for the elimination of FC come up against various traditional, cultural and religious dimensions of the practice, as well as some accusations of cultural bias. (See this Al-Jazeera report for more basic information.)
Mrs Goundo’s Daughter is the story of a Malian mother’s struggle for political asylum in the U.S. on the basis of FC. However, Mrs. Goundo is fighting not to protect herself (she was circumcised as a young girl), but to protect her U.S.-born daughter, Djenebou. If Mrs. Goundo is refused asylum, she will be forced to return to Mali with Djenebou, where she would most likely be exposed to FC. The frustrations of the asylum process are evident in the long drawn-out case, in which the U.S. can still appeal the granting of asylum within six months of the decision. While FC may not be a prevalent issue within the U.S., implications of the practice abroad are clearly tangible for immigrants such as Mrs. Goundo and their families.
The persistence of FC in Mali, where up to 85% of females are circumcised, is explained by various Malian community leaders in the film. One imam offers a religious explanation rooted in the Qur'an, while another refutes this claim completely. Other interviews reveal how the practice is important to maintain a woman's purity, while opponents and health activists argue that female circumcision is a tool to control women's sexuality and is medically unsafe. While these various views demonstrate how contentious the issue is within even practicing communities, what I personally found difficult to accept was the inability of women and girls to decide for themselves what should be done to their body. One of the most poignant scenes captures the reactions of a group of young girls right after their circumcision in a Malian village. An older woman leads the procession singing and dancing, while the girls - some of them toddlers - are unable to walk and are crying in pain, while others are in shock. These scenes, juxtaposed with Mrs. Goundo's personal story, bring the issue of female circumcision to life.
Speaking with co-producer and editor Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, she says that the film is important in being “a Malian story told through Malian voices,” allowing for people to represent themselves and their culture in their own way. Editor Shannon Mullally, who accompanied the directors on the first trip to Mali, echoes this sentiment, emphasizing that “it is important for us to confront [female circumcision] and know about it, but it’s important not to turn people from other countries and other cultures into the ‘Other’.” For these reasons, Mrs. Goundo's Daughter is an important addition to the information already available on FC. It provides a personal account of how the practice can affect women and their families across international boundaries, but grounds the issue within a specific context to prevent audiences from generalizing about practitioners or Africa. Most importantly, the film is able to portray the complexities of the issue from various viewpoints without a sense of moral superiority and without demonizing advocates of FC.
The film also shows how some communities were able to bring about change in the practice of FC in the past. In some Malian villages, grassroots efforts convinced practitioners to use individual razors to reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS; other communities stopped practicing female circumcision altogether. UNICEF has also tried to tackle the issue by persuading communities to institute symbolic rituals without performing the actual circumcision. Some opponents of FC advocate for Mali to follow in the steps of other African countries such as Burkina Faso, which successfully banned the practice. It is clear that both policy changes and extended grassroots efforts will be necessary for practitioners to let go of a practice they consider central to their way of life. This is the "cultural shift" which Janet Goldwater, co-producer and director, hopes the film can help accomplish. Just after the HRWIFF screening, we spoke to the filmmakers about the goals of the film. Watch our interview here:
The first successful asylum case to the U.S. on the grounds of FC was granted in 1996 to Fauziya Kassindja from Togo, also in west Africa. Kassindja and other high-profile individuals such as former model Waris Dirie, who underwent FC in Somalia, have been instrumental in publicizing the issue of FC. Amidst these figures, Mrs. Goundo is an unlikely protagonist in the campaign against female circumcision, being a soft-spoken and religiously devout woman. Yet the filmmakers argue that her positioning as a mother caring for her daughter's welfare rather than a political activist suggests that her story is not unique and should inspire other individuals to action. Moussa Traoré, a Malian and the Bambara translator for the film, says that the “tremendous” influence of the international community on Malian lawmakers means that individual efforts can have a real impact on women’s lives in advocating for changes in the law.
Lakshmi Anantnarayan, a representative from the international women’s rights organization Equality Now who was also present at the screening, urges concerned individuals to write directly to the Malian Justice and Women’s Ministry to ban female circumcision.
If you want to get involved, here's what you can do:
[Diana Tung is a WITNESS Hub intern]