Published: April 1, 2013 By

[1]  Talal Asad begins his essay “What Do Human Rights Do? An Anthropological Enquiry” with the following question: “In the torrent of reporting on human rights in recent years far more attention is given to human rights violations in the non-Western world than in Euro-America.  How should we explain this imbalance?” (par. 1).  Asad’s answer is that human rights constitute a profoundly limited means of defining political recognition and juridical action.  Rather than indicating simply a blindness on the part of Western states to their own use of violence, the imbalance of attention arises from the fact that human rights define protection from very few sorts of violences (par. 5-9).  For Asad, the concept of human rights cannot be expanded in order to address the variety of abuses of social justice attendant upon Western imperialism, because what human rights do is to define recognizable and actionable violence for those moral and governmental orders that are premised on the reality and supremacy of “the West” (pars. 29-31, 49, 56-7).  

[2]  “Female genital mutilation,” or what I will call in this piece female genital surgeries (or fgs), has been constituted as a paradigm case of the human rights violation, in the sense that Talal Asad defines human rights.  In using “female genital surgeries,” I follow the lead of Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan’s essay “Warrior Marks: Global Womanism’s Neo-Colonial Discourse in a Multicultural Context” (260-61).  While using “fgs” cannot completely overwrite the effects of “female genital mutilation” as an object of knowledge with its attendant epistemological violences, it attenuates the obvious negative judgment implied by “mutilation” and also references technological practices which work on the body in ways similar to accepted medical procedures—i.e., “fgs” describes a thoroughly modern set of practices.  From the perspective of human rights discourses, as a constellation of practices codified under a single name fgs is ostensibly confined to particular and delimited cultures originating in the “non-West”; its meaning is often invoked as unchanging and transparent; its perpetrators and its victims are assumed to be distinct and identifiable; its continued existence is posed as incompatible with freedom, civilization, and democracy; and its origins and supporting paradigms are assumed to be religious.  On these last two points, fgs appears as one entry in a longer list of practices thought to be not only examples of misguided tradition but part of a larger and actively anti-secularist agenda, one that offends the very character of human rights-based democracy.  As a growing number of scholars have argued, the concept of human rights not only undergirds Western imperialism, but also aligns ideologies of good governance with an implicitly Christian-oriented secularism which is invariably defined over and against Islam and underwrites the expulsion of Muslim subjects from the democratic political order (Asad; Scott; Williams).  When explained, as it often is, as a feature of “culture” (Islamic or otherwise), the origins of fgs as an object of imperial knowledge production are of course elided.  Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan discuss the codification of fgs as an object of knowledge through “the suppression of the history of this practice in the West, displacing these surgeries onto an ontological other.  This kind of displacement occurs in accounts constructed by colonial bureaucrats, missionaries, health workers, educators, anthropologists, and travelers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (264).  Tracing an even longer history of European colonial representations of fgs in order to connect them to the current Western feminist codification of fgs as an affront to universalist approaches to women’s rights (282-84), Wairimũ Ngaruiya Njambi comments on the problem of the “cultural” argument regarding fgs, noting that even in much scholarship which “attempts to contextualize these practices in their cultural settings . . . such contexts are offered as a way to help locate the most effective means of breaking down and eradicating female circumcision” (286).

[3]  Moving beyond Talal Asad’s insightful formulation, it also seems important to note the production of human rights in epistemic and geopolitical locales beyond those that might be described as “Western.”  This is to say that critical analysis of human rights discourse must recognize it to be produced in a variety of idioms and for purposes which may not be commensurate with each other—or which at the very least complicate the notion of a unilateral Western knowledge production.  Ousmane Sembène himself conceived ofMoolaadé, his final film, as a pedagogical piece by, about, and for Africans (Sembène, “Power of Female Solidarity,” 201).  Set in a village in Burkina Faso, Moolaadé follows the story of Collé, a woman whose position in the village becomes fraught and precarious after she provides shelter to several girls who have refused to undergo fgs and, later, when her daughter’s marriage to the son of the village leader (who is returning home after making his fortune in France) is called off because she was never “cut.”  Motivated by the conviction that fgs should be eradicated via local efforts, Sembène screened the film in various communities in West Africa to spark discussion about the practice, and saw this project as providing necessary support for women to refuse the practice and to take full advantage of legal routes to doing so (Sembène, “Power of Female Solidarity,” 205); similarly, Fatoumata Coulibaly, the actress who plays Collé inMoolaadé, articulated her work in the film as having significant crossover with her work in Mali educating people in rural areas about fgs (Sembène and Coulibaly, “Ousmane Sembène,” 213-14).  This use of the film adds further weight to its importance as a fictional piece which directly challenges the sort of knowledge produced in documentary films for Western audiences.  But while Sembène’s efforts articulate with local projects to end fgs, the meanings the film generates cannot be confined to the local.  Accordingly, it seems important to also raise the question of how Sembène’s understanding of his project is both conditioned by and has a hand in producing broader discourses of human rights and of women’s rights.  That the latter are generated in part by an “African” filmmaker does not suspend the question of what work human rights do to uphold limited and problematic understandings of justice, social change, the human, and what constitutes a good life. In her analysis of the rise of human rights discourses, Inderpal Grewal importantly argues that individuals and groups in a variety of locales, not just “Western” ones, have participated in the production of women’s rights as human rights (124, 144-45).  If “. . . human rights for women could become meaningful only through geopolitics—that is, in relation to women in the ‘third world’” (Grewal 152), then even “local” interpretations of possibilities for women’s agency or the construction of feminine subjectivity must be understood within this larger context of geopolitics.

[4]  Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find scholarly answers to the problems of violence and injustice in a globalized world which do not continue to locate such answers in a reformed (more hospitable, more tolerant) West.  Africans may in some instances be recognized as being capable of addressing “their own” problems, but models for ensuring human rights rarely seem to be imagined as originating in Africa.  As Jude G. Akudinobi notes, even while Moolaadé was heralded as a “feminist” film by established outlets of Western film criticism, this recognition was very often accompanied by a reinscription of Africa as marked by profound depredation:

Described by Nick James (2006, 3) as a “feminist disquisition,” Moolaadé won the Grand Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, ranked in the British Film Institute’s top-ten films for 2005,and was enthusiastically received in the West. However, the following headlines of the film’s reviews are paradigmatic of the hermeneutic dangers that African films and institutions face as they traverse global cultural zones.  For instance, . . .Kevin Thomas, of The Los Angeles Timescaptions his review: “Horror in a pastoral setting” (2005). . . . From Canada, Susan Walker’s headline in The Toronto Star promises, “Fresh view of an old horror” (2005); while Jay Stone’s heading in another Canadian paper, The Vancouver Sun,assures that, “Grace and horror mingle in Africa” (2005). (188)

Even those reviews of the film which did not employ the trope of barbarian horror still often premised the “recognition” of black African women as feminist subjects on a quite specific and unquestioned definition of feminism, one that presumed the synonymy of patriarchy with cultural tradition and that envisioned African life and politics as playing out at the level of the implicitly pre-modern village.  Long-time feminist film critic Amy Taubin, for example, described Moolaadé as “a rousing, life-affirming call to resist and organize against patriarchal oppression within a traditional village society” (46).  But with its story of a man who returns to his childhood home from France in order to get married, bringing wealth and stirring up a variety of social anxieties in his wake—not the least because his intended is a woman whose mother has refused to have her “cut”—Moolaadé offers a more complicated and skeptical take on whether fgs is a “feminist” issue than a reading like Taubin’s allows. 

[5]  The narrative momentum provided by the return of the rich son from France suggests that this film is best described not so much as “about fgs” but rather as an exploration of the newer relations of empire being played out between Western nation-states and their former colonies—now primarily in the form of exploitative economic policies in connection with Western-defined humanitarian paradigms.  One way to read the arc of the film’s narrative about the connection between gender roles, sexual mores, and economics is as a critical allegory of the devastations wrought by the postcolonial nation-state on its own citizens in the wake of liberation.  According to this sort of reading, the family, village, or town is taken to be a synecdoche for the nation-state.  This reading is not wrong—indeed many of Sembène’s films can be read in this way—but it is not the only one possible.  In this essay, I am more interested in the possibilities opened up by a reading that positions the film within a set of discourses that continue to produce human rights within a “global” framework.  Where the village depicted in the film is assumed to stand in allegorically for the nation-state, the more complex and insidious functioning of the trope of the “African village” is elided.  I refer here to the history of its staging in museum displays and world’s fairs, in the heart of the imperial endeavor to codify scientific renderings of human society via what Ann McClintock has called “commodity racism” (31) and what Fatimah Tobing Rony provocatively refers to as “fascinating cannibalism” (10), the consumption of images of native primitivity by Western subjects.  In terms of more recent such cultural productions, we might look to the humanitarian gaze of documentary and educational texts which imagine Africa as an object of rescue, in part through their reliance on the trope of the rural community as an index of “culture.”  Kathryn Mathers’ examination of the images consumed and in turn produced by American travelers to Africa reveals the persistence of this trope: despite their first-hand experiences in major urban areas during their travels, these American travelers literally cannot see what is right in front of them and thus “produce images of Africa that have no specificity” (162).  As Mathers puts it, “[d]espite its urban scapes South Africa is still produced and consumed as an exotic space, a cultural landscape. . . . African landscapes must be cultural because this marks how exotic and natural people are in Africa” (163).  Indeed, given these historical and contemporary contexts of knowledge production, it becomes impossible to consider the particular staging of the “African village” inMoolaadé apart from its continued use as the cosmopolitan metropole’s constitutive other—that is, as foil to, as mirror of, and/or as enhanced and perfected reflection of the Western city’s own arrangement of bodies, dwellings, places of worship, common areas, marketplaces, and political entities. 

[6]  I read Moolaadé as being not just about the inner workings of the postcolonial nation-state, but also about the place of “Africa” in the rendering of the operant “human” of human rights discourses.  To engage in such a reading, I see it as important to refuse the over-determination of the interpretive possibilities of this film as about the level of its educative “effectiveness” in making a human rights issue visible—or in other words to refuse the understanding of the film enforced by the DVD version of Moolaadé distributed by New Yorker Video, which has a lengthy pamphlet insert including articles with the titles “The Campaign Against FGM” and “Guide to Activism: The Power of the Individual,” and lists of resources for those interested in further learning about “FGM.”  Instead, I propose a reading that works to understand how discourses of human rights make this film possible and legible—as well as what productive illegibilities the film might generate.  Similarly, I am not interested here in fgs as an “issue” per se, but rather in how women’s bodies and African villages continue to form a seemingly necessary visual backdrop to the envisioning of political community, and to be foundational to discourses of human rights law and political formations, without yet being allowed as the origin of or necessary to the futures these discourses imagine. Moolaadé offers the possibility of imagining a better future created precisely by these women.

[7]  But I also want to be cautious of what scholar Karen Lindo refers to as “the potential risk of romanticizing the figure of the African woman” (111), a potential she sees in Sembène’s oeuvre (though which she argues Sembène complicates in his later work, includingMoolaadé).  This romanticizing of African women, I would add, can again fit all too neatly into human rights projects which seek to bring “traditional” cultures into the global market and/or under the purview of international law through the “empowerment” of their women (Grewal; Keating, Rasmussen, and Rishi).  Assessing Sembène’s work as sympathetic to Africana womanist theories and practice, Valérie Orlando notes that “[i]n Sembène’s postmodern African cinematographic context, women are now viewed as subjects linked to and interwoven with a plurality of systems: political, cultural, economic, and historical. His feminine subject is a site of contest and debate where sociocultural and political struggles play themselves out, are heard by all, and are refashioned and retransmitted on a woman’s own terms” (217).  This plural construction of the subject is, I would argue, the site of a dual potential in Moolaadé: here, black African women engage political systems and enact social change in ways that they themselves get to define, yet at the same time this agency has the potential to be read by a certain audience as evidence for the necessity of a universalist humanitarian project of women’s empowerment.

[8]  In other words, Moolaadé arguably both reproduces and exceeds the logics of human rights.  For example, the arguments against fgs articulated in the film both reject and produce familiar and widely circulating understandings of the wrongs and harms of fgs.  On the one hand, the film backgrounds the question of sexual pleasure, preferring to locate individual and community investments in fgs in the gender relations that have been produced in the wake of decolonization and postcolonial/neo-imperial economic policies.  In this way, it offers important alternatives to “explaining the causes” of fgs other than the standard line about it being about curbing women’s sexual desire, which as Grewal and Kaplan note often relies on an unquestioned model of proper feminist subjectivity, agency, and liberation drawn from “Enlightenment concepts of individuality and bodily integrity, medicalized notions of cleanliness and health, sexual notions of the primacy of clitoral orgasm, and cultural organizations of pleasure” (261).  On the other hand, as the claims made in the film about what is wrong with fgs focus on physical harm and pain, and most poignantly the deaths of children, it arguably becomes aligned with universalizing discourses of women’s rights as human rights.  As Grewal argues along these lines, “. . . the power of human rights discourse was to represent women as a population, which is one way that Foucault defined governmentality, and also as sovereign autonomous subjects.  ‘Women’ outside the West, in human rights discourses, were represented as objects of charity and care by the West but could become subjects who could participate in the global economy and become global citizens; this was the ‘third-world’ victim who had become a global subject” (129-30).  Moreover, this “granting” of subject status was operationalized through “a universalized conception of the body, in which what differentiated the female body was the violence wreaked on it” (Grewal 156).  The portrayals of violence against the female body that the film offers—the caesarean section scar, the night of painful sex, the suicides of two young girls—could in this sense be presumed universalist identifiers of women’s experience and indeed status as subjects (where womanhood is achieved via motherhood and heterosexuality).  And yet, Moolaadéemploys a story about fgs counter to the secularism required by many human rights discourses: in many ways, the possibilities for political debate and social change are located squarely within the ever-shifting relationships between the women in a polygynous Muslim household.  In this sense, the film understands fgs in a way that also imagines justice and community located outside of the preferred habitus in which they are typically envisioned.

[9]  The character Ibrahima Doucouré’s journey home to the village of Djerisso in Burkina Faso is perhaps the key event of Moolaadé’s narrative, as it sets off an array of debates in the village about proper gender and sexual comportment and ultimately whether or not to continue fgs.  But the film actually begins with the arrival of a very different figure.  Its opening shots feature the character Mercenaire, a traveling salesman, setting up shop in Djerisso.  While the full meaning and origin of his name will only be revealed later, in these opening scenes the villagers who come to buy Mercenaire’s wares continually call him out for overcharging for the basic necessities of daily life simply because he can—a mercenary in the classic sense—as well as for being an incorrigible flirt with the town’s women.  So from the beginning of the film, fgs is framed as becoming legible as an object of knowledge and an “issue” demanding intervention only within a specific postcolonial economic context.  While cultural practice/tradition is arguably the predominant way in which the practice is understood, in Moolaadé this standard narrative about the origins and meanings of fgs is pointedly sidelined for a markedly different set of explanations.  At Mercenaire’s market a complex array of identity negotiations are played out by characters both central and peripheral to the narrative, against the backdrop of economic exchange and the purchase of goods (stale baguettes, kettles, shaving implements, clothing, and water buckets) which are both necessary to daily life and are emblems of global capitalism.  His goods are the material and symbolic capital necessary to securing the path to womanhood and manhood, or for a marriage: for example, the young woman Amsatou’s taking of goods on credit at the beginning of the film, with the promise that her future husband will pay, becomes the basis for an extended set of negotiations around the village.  But for many of the characters there is a marked anxiety around Mercenaire’s presumed sexual practices—seemingly indicated by his advances toward multiple women—an anxiety which will be played out in the most violent of ways later in the film.  Indeed the eventual murder of Mercenaire, an organized event involving the participation of many of the village’s men, suggests that fgs is situated in relation to and undergirded by a series of violences which often go unremarked upon in those discussions of fgs which posit it as a “cultural” practice.    

[10]  These beginning scenes of villagers interacting with Mercenaire are intercut with scenes in which the main character, Collé, is introduced.  When four young girls arrive at Collé’s family compound and request her protection from fgs, Collé agrees to shelter them.  The girls know that Collé had decided not to have her own daughter, Amsatou, undergo the procedure, and appeal to that fact in soliciting Collé’s aid.  As it turns out, Amsatou is meant to marry Ibrahima Doucouré—the returnee from France—and so the ensuing controversy over the girls who have fled the fgs ceremony becomes about much more than Collé’s or the girls’ individual transgressions.  Collé’s actions come under public scrutiny when the group of women who perform the fgs, the Salindana, as well as some of the mothers of the escaped girls, arrive at Collé’s compound and confront her.  The exchange that follows is crucial to the film’s narrative and thematic development in several ways.  First, Collé’s reasons for protecting the girls are presented as partly about her own experiences of pain (the deaths of two of her own children, and the need for a caesarean section to give birth to Amsatou) and partly about her responsibility to maintain the Moolaadé, which is the order of protection that she has invoked for the girls—an invocation that takes on a meaning and life of its own, beyond Collé’s own individual desires, power, or authority.  As Collé’s elder co-wife, Khardjatou, reminds her in a scene just preceding this one, now that she has invoked the Moolaadé she has a responsibility to it: she cannot break it without bringing grievous harm to herself.  Second, the social significance of fgs is framed as contested, and as both situated within and productive of an incredibly complex assortment of economic, aesthetic, and identitarian interests.  One of the women in the group confronting Collé suggests to the others that they need to continue searching for two still-missing girls who also fled the ceremony, because for each girl the Salindana received “10,000 CFA and an imported bar of soap.”  The Salindana have entered into an economic exchange for services they have not yet rendered—in effect they owe a debt.  The reference to the CFA—or more precisely the Western African CFA franc, which was created right after World War II and the value of which is now set in relation to the euro (Hodd 43)—suggests that fgs is conditioned by a quite literal indebtedness, one that describes the general situation of many former colonies as a result of the global economic order imposed by UN-related agencies in the aftermath of World War II.  

[11]  While Collé is clearly the main character of the film, there is another crucial narrative line that runs alongside of the one that features her.  This is the story of Ibrahima Doucouré’s return and the controversy around the original plan for him to marry Amsatou.  Despite Ibrahima’s declaration that “my marriage is my own business,” it most definitely is not.  As it becomes clear through several side exchanges between characters throughout the film, it is his financial support that has kept the village’s inhabitants fed and housed during difficult times—difficulties which are the product of the very global economic system that is represented by the crisp, clean bills Ibrahima hands out from his seemingly endless supply.  Ibrahima Doucouré embodies the false promise of progress in the age of development, the cultural and economic systems of postcolonial modernity that the villagers must participate in in order to survive, and the Western cultural encroachment which slips in on the trail forged by cash and credit.  He is the symbolic capital for the village’s leaders: when he objects to their declaration that Amsatou is unfit for him to marry, he is threatened with disinheritance and thus implicitly with losing his birthright as future leader of the village.  In the figure of Ibrahima, “proper” gender comportment becomes compounded with the exigencies of the neo-imperial market economy.  As a father says to his son when rewarding his hard work by buying him his first pair of shoes at Mercenaire’s market, “When you grow up, you too will go to France where money is printed.”

[12]  And it is in exchanges between Ibrahima and Mercenaire, at Mercenaire’s market, that the critical heart of the film’s argument is revealed.  Ibrahima goes to Mercenaire not to buy goods for himself but to pay the bills of both his father and his (former) future wife.  When Ibrahima accuses Mercenaire of selling stale bread at inflated prices, Mercenaire counters that “. . . bread is cheaper than rice or millet.  You’ve been to Europe, you know what free market and globalization mean.”  In a later and even more significant exchange, the two characters argue over both money and masculinity.  When Ibrahima asks about the origins of Mercenaire’s name and the reasons he was forced out of the military, Mercenaire mentions the UN peace-keeping missions he served on in Africa and the Middle East, and how he was wrongly imprisoned for leading a campaign to recover the wages that were stolen by his superiors; for his efforts, he was nicknamed “Mercenaire” by the press.  Here I see a questioning of the larger framework of human rights and, implicitly, its use to construct and then ameliorate certain kinds of “problems” in ways that uphold the authority of institutions like the UN which were formed in the heart of the project for Western supremacy.  Mercenaire’s ambiguous social and precarious financial positions are highlighted by the irony of the fact that Ibrahima, as a much richer man, attempts to school Mercenaire on “fair” economic exchange.  Moreover, Mercenaire’s experiences point to the violences that attend “peace-keeping.”  On the other hand, during this same exchange, Mercenaire accuses Ibrahima and his father and uncle of being pedophiles, when he learns that the father has called off the marriage to Amsatou and instead arranged for Ibrahima to marry his eleven-year old cousin.  When Ibrahima expresses his anger at the accusation, Mercenaire ends the conversation with the declaration that “Africa is a real bitch.”  With this statement Mercenaire invokes an ethical sensibility cultivated through travels beyond Africa, where Africa becomes the unethical other to a peaceful human rights-based world order—in effect undercutting the previous critique of the construction of objects of rescue via human rights paradigms.

[13]  Yet that critique is arguably also echoed and amplified by events later in the film.  Mercenaire’s reference to pedophilia is also significant in part because it both reiterates and contrasts with the categorization of Mercenaire himself as a sexual deviant by other characters.  His eye for women is remarked upon at several points in the film, and during the celebration held in honor of Ibrahima Doucouré’s return, Mercenaire is shamed by the village griot for holding hands and flirting with the character Sanata.  This ascribed deviance in fact marks him for death: Mercenaire is run out of town and murdered after interrupting the public beating of Collé by her husband (the husband, Ciré, is goaded into beating Collé by his brother, in an effort to force Collé to break the Moolaadé).  And what this transgression of the gender roles secured by marriage means to some of the other characters is overdetermined by Mercenaire’s previous marking as transgressive.  This is highlighted by some of the “side” conversations that occur during the scene in which Mercenaire interrupts the beating, conversations which do not advance the plot but which nonetheless fulfill a vital function.  In one of these, two of the elder men ask each other if they have ever slept with an uncut woman, and each expresses disgust at the idea.  This performance of the denial of deviant desire soon finds its ultimate expression in the murder, an act which is described by one of the characters as necessary not just because Mercenaire has publicly questioned a husband’s relationship with his wife, but because he has “perverted” the village women.  While it might be tempting to read the murder as simply evidence of the villagers’ religious fundamentalism, it can alternatively be read as about how gender and sexual mores are constructed in response to economic and political conditions that cannot be described as “culture,” even as “culture” is invoked by some of the characters to justify such actions.  I see the murder as a critical commentary on the invocation of culture and tradition in the context of the post-colony, in those instances when it is used as a means to rework and solidify the privilege and authority of certain groups over others, given new social, political, and economic conditions and paradigms. 

[14]  As outsiders (albeit to varying degrees), Mercenaire and Ibrahima Doucouré are granted a privileged viewpoint and serve as perhaps the central figures of ideological identification, at least to a certain audience.  Having traveled to the former colonial motherland and now neo-imperial metropole, they have access to a language of humanitarian modernity that other characters do not, a language which moreover the film at times seems to encourage a sympathy with.  In this sense, the film does indeed trade in notions of progress—as when Ibrahima protests his uncle’s demand that he turn off his television with the declaration that “[w]e cannot cut ourselves off from the progress of the world.”  Yet at the same time, their efforts to effect change in the village achieve very little: Mercenaire loses his life for making such an attempt, and while Ibrahima’s money is welcomed, his ideas are not.  The possibility of such change is ultimately attributed to other social actors with other methods, who do not appeal to international law or secularist principles or state intervention, and who indeed have not typically had access to such modes of argumentation or venues of recognition. The fact that Ibrahima’s and Mercenaire’s exchanges with each other take place in French (as opposed to Dioula, used in much of the rest of the film) highlights both their privileged access to the international language of humanitarianism, and how limited the possibilities are for this language to create new practices of social justice. 

[15]  Throughout Moolaadé the camera pays rapt attention to the space of the village.  This space is constituted by compounded tropes which throw off the ordered, enclosed space of the “African village” as configured for a knowing scientific or ethnographic gaze.  Many shots evoke the physical proximity and meaningful relationship between three structures: a termite mound which embodies Djerisso’s first king and the power of the Moolaadé, representing non-Islamic practices and beliefs; the village’s mosque; and a pile of radios taken by the village’s men from the women on the orders of Djerisso’s leaders.  These three structures come to have meaning and form through the movements and practices of the villagers’ daily lives, as is established by the many shots of people moving around, into, and out of them, and even directly adding to the construction of them (as suggested by the pile of radios, which keeps growing throughout the film).  Thus while some of the characters invoke them as symbols of long-standing tradition under threat in order to undergird their own arguments about the “proper” social order of the village, the visual text of the film suggests that those arguments are themselves formed through changing and syncretic knowledges and practices.  Each structure could be taken to represent distinct historical periods (the termite mound from a time before the spread of Islam in West Africa, the radios from after) and hence a sort of progress narrative; but the highlighting of the visual likenesses between them, and the similar ways in which each appears in the villagers’ arguments, arguably confounds this reading.  Likewise, none seems to be given any ethical or political precedence over the others, as ultimately all three become crucial referents in the arguments made by Collé and her allies.  The power of the Moolaadé is referenced throughout the film as requiring a community responsibility and thus as supporting Collé’s interventions into the lives of other villagers.  Similarly, while some characters argue that fgs is mandated by Islam, Collé and the women who support her directly counter this claim and express an understanding of Islam as supporting ethical paradigms and gender identities that do not involve fgs—something which they learn from listening to the radio, a source of information from beyond the village and a spark for further dialogue and debate.

[16]  While several key scenes take place in the public spaces of the village, a significant amount of action is set within the mostly woman-occupied family compound of Collé’s husband; and perhaps the most important intellectual exchanges between characters happen here, between Collé and her two co-wives, the young girls, and Amsatou.  Very early in the film, Collé places a brilliantly colored rope across the entrance to the compound, explaining to the girls who have come to her for help that no one can cross the rope with the intent of violating the order of protection, for “Whoever breaks that law will be killed by the Moolaadé.”  The many shots of the rope, and people and animals moving into and out of the compound (or being stopped from doing so by the rope), suggest that it continues to reconfigure the space of the village throughout the film—that is, who has access to which sorts of spaces, what the social ramifications are for this movement, and where “important” events happen.  The rope is commented on again and again by the women in their conversations with each other, lending the sense that the Moolaadé gains its power through their very invocation of it.  Many important exchanges take place in the compound between Collé and her elder co-wife, Khardjatou.  Khardjatou pulls rank on Collé at several moments, yet as Collé receives pressure throughout the film to break the Moolaadé, Khardjatou not only offers her support to Collé but reiterates the importance of honoring the power of the Moolaadé.  And the final scene of the film, in which the village gathers for a public confrontation of fgs critics and supporters, is immediately preceded by a scene of a gathering at the compound.  Here, the girls who went to Collé for aid are reunited with their mothers, and the women also provide comfort to Salba, who is mourning the death of her daughter; it is revealed that during Collé’s public flogging, Salba had broken the Moolaadé to take her daughter, one of the original escapees, back to the Salindana.  Notably, in marking the tragic deaths of both Mercenaire and Salba’s daughter, the film does not appeal to the state or law in defining what a redressing of those deaths would look like.  Rather, it invokes the Moolaadé as a sort of community-generated responsibility that, when ignored, results in the spilling of blood. 

[17]  In regard to the understandings of justice and social transformation offered by Moolaadé, it also seems important to discuss how the film portrays the actual procedure of fgs—especially because the procedure is itself never directly visually represented.  In one very brief scene, which I read as a flashback to Collé’s own experience, we see a girl being held down by the Salindana and screaming, but mostly we see her face.  What is actually happening when the girls are “cut” is never explicated, so the specific form the procedure takes is left open to the imagination.  This opens up multiple avenues of interpretation, not all of which are commensurate with each other.  For some audiences it may conjure up the worst, leaving them to draw upon the vast colonial archive of images of barbarian horror.  Even though African women’s genitals are not put on display here, given the continued circulation of such images it is not difficult to imagine that some viewers might readily fill in this representational gap with a very specific visual text indeed.  As Wairimũ Ngaruiya Njambi powerfully argues, there is a strong relationship between current medical and mass media portrayals of African women’s “circumcised” genitalia and historical examples of African women being placed on display to highlight their supposedly distinct sexual features (284-85).  Yet at the same time, the film is arguably not at all interested in the sort of ethnographic cataloging of what exact forms fgs takes in which cultural contexts.  What it is interested in is the subjective experience of pain, the pain of the procedure itself as well as its aftereffects, most notably the deaths of girls and women.  So while the film does forward a critique of the way fgs is used to produce and support a particular kind of gendered social order, its critique of fgs is also just as much centered in the problem of the pain that individuals undergoing it experience.  This is interesting because on the one hand, the film directly counters the common ascription of the causes and harms of fgs to an ostensibly inherently patriarchal African culture, while on the other hand the film’s invocation of pain might still play quite well into long-standing racist portrayals of black women’s suffering.

[18]  In regard to this latter point, I want to acknowledge the potential for the film to facilitate the production of Western humanitarian subjectivity through the depiction of the pain of “others.”  Sherene Razack’s analysis of the subject-constituting functions of genocide documentaries is useful here because it highlights “the ways in which the pain and suffering of Black people can become sources of moral authority and pleasure” (376).  Looking at the ways in which documentaries on the Rwandan genocide support Canadian nation-building projects, Razack critiques the use of empathy as the primary mode in which such texts address their audiences, in part because of the long history of white interlocutors using empathy to “translate” the pain of others via their own experiences and concerns without addressing the social, political, and legal conditions (including racism) that lead to these “other” subjects’ inability to seek formal redress for such conditions (376-9, 387).  Along these same lines, it also seems important to cast a critical eye on Western film critics’ noting of the simultaneous pain and pleasure, brutality and beauty, of Moolaadé.  Wesley Morris’ review of the film ends with the symptomatic reflection that “[t]he subject is a downer, but Sembène, ever the soul-stirring optimist, insists on uplift” (74).  Uplift of whom, one might ask?  Who desires resolution to the “downer” problems the film portrays, and what form is this resolution assumed to take?  Ventriloquizing common readings of the genocide documentaries she looks at, Razack notes that “[g]enocide, far from depressing us, uplifts us.  It uplifts us because the hero of the story is us” (385).  While by “us” she is referring to a particular configuration of Canadian identity, I think the point can be made more generally about portrayals of black Africans’ pain.  Indeed, Kathryn Mathers locates this trope of beauty/suffering in the narratives produced by American travelers to Africa as well.  As Mathers puts it, “[w]hen Americans experienced African poverty as something that strengthens Africans and as a reminder of American goodness, they achieved what many travelers are looking for when they travel—the discovery of themselves” (167).

[19]  At the same time, it seems possible to read the portrayals of physical pain in Moolaadé not simply as analogues for the actual procedure of fgs, but rather as a potential refiguring of black African women subjects over and against their figuring by standard human rights discourses and humanitarian texts.  It is arguably on Collé that most of the weight of the portrayal of the effects of fgs on individual women falls.  The physical manifestation of the imputed pain of fgs is represented both indirectly and directly: indirectly, in the prominent featuring of Collé’s bloodied finger in one scene (which she bites to stifle her cries during painful sex), and in the wounds she suffers during the public flogging; and directly, in the large scar left from her caesarean section (which was necessitated by the fgs Collé had experienced).  Interestingly, the caesarean section scar, the bloody finger, and the whip-induced wounds all become occasions for the highlighting of women’s caring bonds with each other.  In relating the story of Amsatou’s difficult birth and the ensuing caesarean section, Collé talks about the doctor who saved her own life and that of her daughter (who Collé then named after her doctor).  The morning after the night of painful sex, Amsatou helps to prepare a bath for her mother, while the camera continues to focus on Collé’s wounded finger.  This is a moment of intimacy that also signifies a reunion of the two after a prior argument.  And during the quite lengthy scene in which Ciré, Collé’s husband, flogs her, shots of the crowd of onlookers highlight the experience of many of the women of the village as akin to that of Collé herself.  The women shout their support for Collé, urging her to remain standing and not give in, and their shouts and sympathetic flinches match the rhythm of the blows falling on Collé’s body.  Later, as Collé’s two co-wives tend to her wounds, Alima (the youngest wife) talks about how she felt the blows on her own flesh.  

[20]  The marks on Collé’s body in all of these moments can be seen as subject-constituting, not in a way that defines Collé solely in relation to her pain but in a way that suggests that the scars can be read as productive of that subjectivity itself, rather than as violations of an already-formed subject.  Here, the terms of women’s recognition as full social subjects, and hence their routes toward agency or empowerment, become importantly complicated.  If the predominant way in which human rights discourses treat women is as always-already constituted subjects who simply need to be “granted” rights and recognition, Moolaadé offers a challenge to this in portraying gender and sexuality as social processes that confer subjectivity, not as differences that are secondary to the deeper and more important essence of basic humanity.  In this sense, it also provokes a critical look at the ways in which human rights discourses themselves constitute the very identities and subjects that they claim simply to be describing.  According to Moolaadé, violence comes in a myriad of forms and is productive of gendered subjectivity, rather than being simply “wreaked on” bodies presumed to be always-already female (Grewal 156).  It also seems significant that the film largely leaves aside the issue of sexual pleasure as either a main problem with fgs or as what would automatically be achieved by its eradication (as if pleasure were not itself contextual, ideological, or variable in its experience and definition).  There are moments when this is addressed obliquely—namely when Mercenaire is charged with “perverting” the town’s women and in the character of Sanata (who we see holding hands with Mercenaire and who otherwise does not appear to be attached to any man)—but as discussed above, it is not the main concern of the characters in the film who argue against fgs.  Whatever the reasons behind this exclusion, I see it as importantly challenging to those discourses which posit women’s achievement of sexual pleasure as the primary indicator of a liberated mentality, where pleasure narrowly defined (and implicitly in heterosexual union) is the yardstick by which the agency of woman as a global subject is measured.

[21]  The final scene of the film stages a confrontation between the majority of the village’s women, led by Collé and Sanata, and the male elders.  With the pile of radios on fire (and, what’s more, emitting screams) in the background, Collé and Sanata proclaim that no more girls will be cut, contradict the claim that fgs is required by Islam, and force the Salindana to give up their knives.  The men argue amongst each other: Ciré looks at his wife with admiration and declares his allegiance to her, to the dismay of some of the other men, while Ibrahima Doucouré is physically assaulted by his father when he expresses his support of the women.  Amsatou gets the last word, declaring to Ibrahima that “I am and shall remain a Bilakoro” (a woman who is uncut).  As with the rest of the film, this final scene arguably both reproduces and engages alternatives to human rights discourse.  While a multiplicity of terms are used throughout the film to describe fgs—in the English translation of the dialogue, “cutting,” “purification,” and “excision”—the final scene is more polemical.  Jude Akudinobi points out that “. . . during the women’s protest toward the film’s end, ‘female genital mutilation,’ a term of choice in and with origins in dominant feminism, is used” (191).  Yet other moments suggest that the events in the final scene have more complex meanings.  Earlier in the film, in a conversation with Mercenaire, Ibrahima Doucouré points out the ostrich egg that is affixed to the top of the village mosque and notes that it has been there for 150 years.  Lingered on again by the camera in the very final shots of the film, along with the antenna that is also atop the mosque and the billowing smoke made by the burning pile of radios and the termite mound, the egg invokes a time (the early 1850s) long before the establishment of Burkina Faso and, indeed, before French colonial rule of the area.  This suggests that the change that is to come will not be made through appeals to the state or indeed to international law, or to the “progress” offered by modernity.  It also coheres with the vision of social change that Sembène has articulated elsewhere.  Often emphasizing the desire for Africans to take charge of their own politics, history, and culture, Sembène has called for a sort of active reshaping of cultural meaning and social forms, above and beyond either the reclamation of tradition or embrace of the “modern”: “I think cinema is needed throughout Africa, because we are lagging behind in the knowledge of our own history.  I think we need to create a culture that is our own” (Sembène, “Ousmane Sembène,” 217).

[22]  The flaming, screaming pile of radios also suggests the violence of social change, or the histories of colonialism, imperialism, and state violence with which any project for social change or the creation of a new culture must contend.  The cultural creation that Sembène (and the film) calls for is anything but peaceful.  Indeed these final images visually echo Collé’s declaration to the elder men during their final confrontation that if anyone touches her, “I’ll set the village on fire and drown it in blood.”  Here, I see the film not as simplistically supporting violence, but as acknowledging the legacies of violence that are often elided by the enforcement of peace in the era of human rights-based international law—or what Randall Williams calls the “discourse of nonviolence” (14) that has forcibly supplanted and delegitimized decolonizing and anti-imperial movements (xviii-xxii, 3-16).  And it again locates fgs squarely within the subject-constituting violences of imperial knowledge production and the exploitative processes of global economics.  Collé’s invocation of violence, rather than solving a discretely defined problem, reminds us of the multiplicitous social processes, cultural beliefs, political ways, and economic policies at stake here.  This African village is on fire, and we are left at the end of the film not knowing what precise effects the transmogrifying force of the flames will have on its structures or on the social order that created them.

Works Cited

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