Empathy and Rage: Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature

Empathy and Rage – these words bracket a spectrum of feelings people confront when they think about the millions of women and girls who have undergone bolokoli, takhoundi, tukore, or gudni’in – names in local languages for a procedure that mutilates women’s private parts or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

This pioneering collection discusses representations of female genital mutilation as a theme in literary art. The contributors – both scholars and activists – join together to analyse African and African-American literature in the context of the debate between those who see FGM as a time-honoured tradition and those who recognise it as a human rights abuse.

Key Selling Points

  • This collection is a first – scholars analyse this subject as a theme in literature.
  • In an unusual symbiosis, activism and scholarship join hands to hasten the end of this egregious human rights abuse.
  • The collection examines representations in creative writing by African and African- Americans including Nura Abdi, Mariama Barry, Calixthe Beyala, Osman Conteh, Waris Dirie, Nuruddin Farah, Fatou Keita, Fadumo Korn, Ahmadou Kourouma, Christian Mambou, Nawal El
    Saadawi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Awa Thiam and Alice Walker. et al.
  • In their efforts to end FGM, the governments of Germany, the UK, Italy and the European Union (Brussels) have drawn on the expertise of Tobe Levin who has written many articles and chapters for books on FGM.
  • Contributors to the collection include: Anne V. Adams, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana, Muthoni Mathai, Marianne Sarkis and a translation from the French of contributor Herzberger-Fofana’s obituary placing it in the context of the work as a dedication to Sembene Ousmane, a true African pioneer of the exposure of this practice through film.

Empathy and Rage is a comprehensive and informative collection of essays from twelve contributors on literary representations of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or Female circumcision, in African and Diaspora literature, film and other media.   The book also provides an insight into the actualities of the practice itself, its geographical location and the history of the anti-FGM movement.  Far more than a simple examination of the use of FGM as a plot device, the volume considers how these representations of the practice can be used towards political and educational ends, and ultimately to “move the discourse from complacency, misplaced patience and under-estimation of the challenges African activists face to a more compassionate understanding, increased solidarity and, ideally, personal engagement on and at their sides”.   In short, the book aims to contribute to the anti-FGM campaign.

However, although Levin makes no secret of her allegiances (she could hardly do so given her active participation in anti-FGM campaigns since 1977), the book is far from  just a one sided polemic against FGM.  In fact, one of its greatest strengths is the division of the book into three sections, devised in Levin’s words to add a “controversial piquancy” to the proceedings.  So we are presented with the “Empathizers”, the “Enraged” and the “Engaged”.  Whilst none of the contributors are actively pro-FGM, this structure does allow for a spectrum of opinions amongst those who agree that the practice is harmful to women.    In “From Women’s Rite to Human Rights Issue: Literary Explorations of Female Genital Excision since Facing Mount Kenya (1938)”, Elizabeth Bekkers concentrates on literary analysis, avoiding discussion of the violence or politics of the act itself and choosing moderate terminology (referring to the act itself, for example, as “Female Genital Excision”).  In contrast, Marianne Sarkis, an “Enraged” contributor, does not shy away from quoting graphic descriptions from the autobiographies which her chapter “Somali Womanhood: A Re-visioning” analyses, nor from illustrating to the reader the violent reactions that African women who speak out about FGM have to endure.  Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower and Fadumo Korn’s Born in the Big Rains: A Memoir of Somalia and Survival are also used by Sarkis to challenge “traditional” anthropological views of women in Somali culture and society.  Anne V. Adams’ “The Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Novel in Public Education: An Example from Ghana” further demonstrates the volume’s engagement with various literary models, giving a detailed examination of the use of  Annor Nimako’s Mutilated as a text for educating readers on the medical dangers of FGM, both in practicing and non-practicing communities.

The “Engaged” section not only provides a different treatment of the subject but also a different content structure. Pierrette Herzberger- Fofana opens the section with her “Excision and African Literature: An Activist Annotated Bibliographical Excursion”, a thorough exploration of the literature on FGM.  This is followed by Muthoni Mathai’s “creative non-fiction memoir” in which she describes several incidents in her own life in which FGM was of crucial importance.  Through these incidents, Muthai explains the reasons (nationalism/tribalism and fear of AIDS)behind a revival of the practice of clitoridectomy  amongst the Kikuyu tribe in her native Kenya.  The section closes with excerpts from Nura Abdi and Leo G.Linder’s “Tranen im Sand” (Desert Tears).  The dramatic and violent description of the infibulation of a four year old girl in these extracts leaves us , ultimately, with a better grasp of the reality of this violent “operation”.

This work should be of interest to anybody already “Engaged” with the issue of FGM, but also to anyone who is interested in becoming so.

Fiona MacHugh

Weight 0.580 kg
Year Published







A. Adam Yidana,

Augustine H. Asaah (Editor),

Tobe Levin (Editor)


Ayebia Clarke Publishing


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