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Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women.

Reviewed by

Lovalerie King University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar chart the origin, development, and realization of the 1993 film project bearing the same name as their book. A unique and practical resource, the volume also provides an illuminating glimpse into the minds of its authors. Though each was born under the sign of Aquarius, they emerge as an interesting odd couple in this scenario. Still, their similarities a strong sense of mission, spiritual depth, and the uncompromising belief and assertion that "torture is not culture" -allow them to work in complementary fashion to bring to fruition an appropriately multidimensional and multi-perspectival project.

For Walker, the project is deeply personal, and she situates herself in the middle, rendering her narrative from that subjective vantage point. She frames her telling of their collaborative journey around her own blinding in one eye at the age of eight. Her approach is direct and to the point. Parmar's perspective, on the other hand, is generally that of the film's producer and director and, thus, needs to be more objective. Her task, in part, involves capturing the essence of the harmful effects of female genital mutilation without exploiting the women who are victimized by the practice. Though she is an Indian who spent her childhood in Africa, Parmar comes across as both familiar with, and yet distanced from, the subject of her project - like a journalist returning to the hometown left decades before to write a story about the locals. Parmar expresses surprise at being able to speak openly about female genital mutilation. She is most self-revelatory when she admits that she suffered a mini-crisis of self-confidence in the midst of the project and that she felt exposed and vulnerable at the end when she had to let go of the film.

Additional perspectives are provided in the interview section. Interviewees range from internationally recognized political activists like Awa Thiam of Senegal, to survivors of mutilation (or circumcision - depending on vantage point), to the circumcisers themselves. Of course, the inherent weakness even in presenting such a multi-perspectival narrative is that it is ultimately filtered through a Western lens.

Following each author's preface, the journal proper is divided into Part One Walker's introduction and "Alice's Journey" - and Part Two - Parmar's introduction and "Pratibha's Journey." "Pratibha's Journey" is the longest section in the book. Each narrative takes several forms - from brief, dated entries to letters and entire poems. Seventeen interviews make up Part Three, which is followed by an interesting amalgamation of useful data, including film credits, acknowledgments, an "Afterword" (Walker's uniquely original tribute to a "fallen warrior"), information on types of female genital mutilation, a list of contact organizations and advocacy groups, bibliography, permissions, and photo credits.

In her preface, Walker informs us that the book chronicles her experience as Executive Producer and co-creator of the film, and she explains how she became acquainted with the topic and that her involvement will last for the rest of her life. She discusses the progress that has been made toward challenging and eradicating what she calls female genital mutilation, and she warns the "faint of heart" to take heed before reading the book. Parmar begins her preface by relating the experience of a fourteen-year-old Egyptian girl and the graphic image of the child's agonizing death following the excision of her clitoris and labia minora. Parmar humbly acknowledges that the film is only a small contribution. She also provides information about televised presentations, promotional tours, screenings, and the film's international audience. The film, she explains, continues to be screened at educational and health institutions and in theaters around the world, and its impact has been phenomenal in terms of activism. It has raised consciousness among women who are survivors of female genital mutilation and (along with Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy) has even been used to effect a change in Amnesty International's policy regarding the definition of "torture."

The introduction to each author's journey provides a general description of the project as it was initially conceived. "Alice's Journey" includes the following statement of faith: "I believe we are destined to meet the people who will support, guide, and nurture us on our life's journey, each of them appearing at the appropriate time, accompanying us at least part of the way." Walker notes that she maintains her optimism in the face of adversity through the knowledge that "companion spirits" are always ready to join in her endeavors. She acknowledges Parmar as one such companion spirit, and Parmar shares a similar (or reciprocal) understanding when she marvels over chance occurrences like meeting the dancer who represents - through movement - the effects of genital mutilation in the film.

Parmar addresses - in her introduction - the cultural imperialism which often undergirds Western feminist attitudes in assessing the practices and customs of people in African and Asian societies, where such practices as female genital mutilation are common. She recalls an incident in Kenya at the 1985 Decade for Women conference in Nairobi, pointing out that many "African women had reacted angrily when Western feminists raised the subject of female genital mutilation. 'Stop groping about in our panties' was their response, born of resentment at the colonial tone of Western feminism." Her observation is particularly appropriate because one recognizes in Walker's straightforward, uncompromising (almost self-righteous) approach the potential for such a charge. Indeed, Parmar comments that she is amazed at how vulnerable Walker is willing to make herself with her words. Such perceptions (judgments) must be tempered always by the practical knowledge that female genital mutilation - or circumcision, as the case may be - is indeed harmful and sometimes even fatal to women. As Walker points out, it has become increasingly dangerous in terms of overall health issues, and the broader picture suggests the real potential for its devastating impact in terms of population dynamics where the practice is widespread. Thus, Parmar, at the end of her introduction, expresses hope at the sight of women working in tandem with men at the international level to increase the type of awareness that will bring an end to the practice regardless of cultural tradition and/or religious mandate.

Each author's journey begins with the correspondence that initiated the discussion about the project. Walker opens with a letter to Parmar asking whether she would be interested in doing a documentary, including a basic outline of her concept of the film. Walker points to the connection between female genital mutilation and other practices like liposuction and silicone breast implanting to underscore women's own complicity in their bodies' mutilation. Most importantly in this section, Walker interviews herself about her own visual blinding in one eye, and she frames her discussion of mutilation as sexual blinding. "Seeing" and "blinding" metaphors permeate this section of Warrior Marks, where Walker proclaims: "It was my visual mutilation that helped me 'see' the subject of genital mutilation."

Parmar's journey begins with her response to Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy; she comments that the novel "brings together the complex and difficult issues of gender, sexuality, and 'cultural' and national differences through the exploration of one woman's experience of being genitally mutilated." Parmar comments on the dynamic interaction of "history, language, memory and power" with "identity and cultural difference," underscoring Walker's observation about the importance of depicting female genital mutilation as part of a "continuum of violence against women across many cultures and societies." She includes in this section quotes from author/activist Awa Thiam and Patrice Lumumba. The quote from Lumumba, "There is no compromise between liberty and slavery," seems to capture the spirit of Parmar's and Walker's combined attitude toward the practice of female genital mutilation.

Genitally mutilated girls are appropriately and literally located at the center of Warrior Marks. This part of the filming takes place during the girls' return to the village following their "kidnap" into torture two weeks before. The youngest in the group is a four-year-old named Mary, and hers is one of the most profoundly moving stories in the book. Observing Mary and the other recently circumcised girls during a celebration, Walker notes that their "silent, grave, stunned" eyes seemed to be asking, "Why is everyone else so happy?" The film is especially successful in presenting this image of stunned silence, as are the many illustrations included in the text.

The interview section of the book contains some extremely revealing interviews, as well as some which are less so. Interviewees include three members of Senegal's Commission for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation (founded by Awa Thiam); Thiam; Efua Dorkenoo, director of an international activist and educational organization; Aminata Diop, who fled Mali to avoid mutilation and to seek asylum in France; Diop's lawyer, Linda Weil-Curiel, whose commitment to fighting against excision made her the almost natural choice to handle Diop's precedent-setting case; Dr. Henriette Kouyate, a gynecologist in Dakar who treats mutilated women and organizes retraining workshops with circumcisers; Baba Lee, an Islamic scholar who is "one of very few men who speak out against this practice publicly, at conferences and on radio programs"; little Mary's mother, who is, herself, a survivor of genital mutilation; and others whose stories add breadth and depth to the project. One circumciser (of little Mary's group), apparently attempting to maintain an air of mystery about the practice, asserts during her interview that none of the girls will divulge what they have undergone in any detail, even under threat of death. According to the authors, she seems surprised when, in response, Parmar and Walker share their knowledge of four types of female genital mutilation, from the simplest circumcision where only the hood of the clitoris is removed, to the most radical - infibulation or pharoanic - which - involves removal of not only the entire clitoris, but also the labia minora and majora and the stitching together of the sides of the vulva, leaving only a small opening.

Parmar actually experienced nightmares about being mutilated during the period of filming, but she is still able to express the feeling that "there is much joy in creating work that has been inspired by passion and a desire for freedom and justice." She says that, for her, "making a film is . . . a base that sustains a political vision for democratic representation and change." Again, her words connect her sense of mission and vision to Walker's expression that "you have to learn to find joy in the struggle itself. Otherwise you die on the vine." Whatever apparent differences exist in their approaches to this project are outweighed by the complementary factor. Walker and Parmar have produced a unique document that is multi-perspectival and grandly illuminating in ways that the film can not be because of medium and time constraints. Conversely, the film captures and transmits living, breathing images and represents ideas in ways that still photos intermingled with text can not. Like Walker and Parmar in this collaborative enterprise, the film and text exist in a complementary relationship. The two options create the possibility for a broader audience, which is, ultimately, the bottom line; for as Thiam observes, "You can go wherever you want - to America, France, India. . . . women on all five continents are always subordinate to men. The subordination we're speaking about exists everywhere." Exactly.
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Author:King, Lovalerie
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Words:1868
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