Harvard Conference on Female Genital Mutilation in Literature and Art


Dear fellow campaigners in the fight against female circumcision,

According to popular myth, sex is the most beautiful pastime in the world. Menstruation is annoying, but women have to get through it somehow within the framework of their female fertility. Urinating is nothing worth mentioning, it happens quickly, in films you don't even notice that someone is going to the toilet. But maybe you should. Especially when it comes to FGM. Through Female Genital Mutilation, so-called trivialities become dangerously life-defining through pain and fear, and so it is our duty to keep searching for new dialogue and new ways to end this cruel custom.

There is no joy in my mind when I, again and again, familiarise myself with the topic of FGM, the abolition of which I have been committed to for decades. And yet: I am happy to welcome you all in this framework and I thank you already now for your respective courage, your interest, your commitment, your voice and your attention. We have achieved a lot in the fight against female genital mutilation - and we still have a lot more ahead of us. Today's event is particularly important to me, because the power of art and literature, the influence of media formats and artistic narratives could be a key to a more progressive approach and a more interdisciplinary approach. In this context, the processing of traumas already suffered and the unconditional avoidance of new injuries are at the forefront of all our work.

Again and again, I try to put myself in the shoes of a single young girl who has to lose a part of herself and will never be allowed to know a part of herself due to a traditionalist-based, blatantly wrong intervention. And this very attempt to empathise with the pain and shame of a single injured girl sets me up again and again to raise my voice for a human rights violation that could hardly be more blatant and at the same time still has so much silence and invisibility.

For many years I have been thinking about strategies that can lift the veil of silence and bring light into the darkness. I have shelves full of books that managed to bring up FGM in the 60s, 70s but did not leverage the issue out of the defence mode of cultural conditioning. In the 80s and 90s, I observed how feminists from different parts of the world initiated important debates in the struggle for interpretive sovereignty and got caught up in them. I notice that currently more and more courageous women are telling their stories, biographies and autobiographies are literally sprouting from the ground, creating an urgency and an unconditional flow of speech. In recent years, I have been able to experience that there is also movement at the political level. I regularly make my voice heard in this regard at the European level. And to give a concrete example of political movement: In order to resolutely stand up to zero tolerance against FGM/C, the German Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, in cooperation with other ministries and organisations, developed a letter of protection against female genital mutilation in 2020. The letter of protection is an official document of the German government that is intended to raise awareness and be used preventively to mark FGM/C for what it is: a crime against (mostly young) girls and women.

One point is surprisingly easily lost in all the debates and emotions on a political, medical and also philosophical level, because it is a very fragile point of view: the empathy, the empathic understanding of the individual woman, the individual girl.

Showing oneself to be truly empathetic is a sensitive area; it therefore means at least partially leaving a factual level or a discourse. Empathy reveals not least one's own vulnerability, one's own fear and one's own shame. However, I very much believe that it is precisely at this point that there needs to be a readjustment in the fight against circumcision of girls and women, which could be helpful for all involved.

And this is where that which is sometimes advocated here today comes on the scene. Literature and art offer people places of retreat where they can come to terms with their own inwardness, with their own views and practices of life. Immersing oneself in an installation or accompanying a novel character through a narrative are fictional spaces of time in which one's own reality can enter into an exchange with an imagined reality. And this inner confrontation of the reader or viewer, as we know, often has a revolutionary moment. Art and literature have such tremendous power because they allow people to enter a state of "as if", because looking at a painting or reading a book can trigger an inner research that is not binding. And this path via the freedom and power that literature and art carry with them is what we need in order to come a little closer to ending the circumcision of girls and women.

A brochure calls me to take a stand against or for something. A study confronts me with facts and figures that are perhaps frighteningly binding. A vote in a political context or a congress in a professional context always takes place in relatively hermetically sealed rooms. All this is good and important.

A novel, however, to take this example, unfolds its potential, fulminant power on the quiet. A novel does not carry its themes in front of it, but packs criticism, explosive power and above all the possibility of showing oneself as a reader called empathically into its own language and story. And a good piece of literature or a convincing work of art always leaves the individual subtly changed.

The day before yesterday, the philosopher Donna Haraway was named the most important and influential personality in the art world by the art magazine "monopol". Mind you, she is a philosopher, a theorist and not an artist. But her major theme - how humans could ensure a functioning coexistence with other species and nature as a whole - has been influencing many artists around the globe for a very long time, as can be read.

Why do I mention this in the context of FGM? Because it shows that interdisciplinary work, and perhaps only interdisciplinary work, can really initiate discourse and drive developments. For the fight against female circumcision, we need science, medicine, psychology, we need politics and its decision-makers, we need courageous women and their courageous testimonies, we need education campaigns and training. And we also need art and literature. Their freedom to deal with unreasonableness and directness, with playfulness and ruthlessness, is our freedom. Sex and menstruation and going to the toilet can be given space there, topics can be woven in en passant, and thus be all the more present. We need this fictional material to get to the bottom of the reality and the protection of thousands of girls and women. There are still more than three million a year and worldwide whose integrity is at stake!

I look forward to your contributions and thank you for your attention.

Below you will find the recording of our webinar to watch.


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