French Activists Fight Female Genital Mutilation

Sixth in a six-part series.

Aissata fled Mali so that her daughter would not have to undergo female genital mutilation. i i

hide captionAissata fled Mali so that her daughter would not have to undergo female genital mutilation. She lives in France illegally and went to GAMS, the French Women's Association for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation, to file a request for political asylum.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Aissata fled Mali so that her daughter would not have to undergo female genital mutilation.

Aissata fled Mali so that her daughter would not have to undergo female genital mutilation. She lives in France illegally and went to GAMS, the French Women's Association for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation, to file a request for political asylum.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Reporter's Notebook

Read Sylvia Poggioli's thoughts on reporting on Muslims in Europe over the past decade.

Khadi Diallo says an average of six women come to the GAMS office each day to seek asylum. i i

hide captionKhadi Diallo says an average of six women come to the GAMS office each day to seek asylum to protect their daughters from mutilation.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Khadi Diallo says an average of six women come to the GAMS office each day to seek asylum.

Khadi Diallo says an average of six women come to the GAMS office each day to seek asylum to protect their daughters from mutilation.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
A poster that says "Our daughters will not be cut." i i

hide captionA poster on the wall of GAMS shows an African woman and the words "Our daughters will not be cut."

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
A poster that says "Our daughters will not be cut."

A poster on the wall of GAMS shows an African woman and the words "Our daughters will not be cut."

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Lawyer and human rights activist Linda Weil-Curiel. i i

hide captionLawyer and human rights activist Linda Weil-Curiel is largely responsible for making France the leader in tracking and prosecuting both perpetrators of female genital mutilation and the consenting parents.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR
Lawyer and human rights activist Linda Weil-Curiel.

Lawyer and human rights activist Linda Weil-Curiel is largely responsible for making France the leader in tracking and prosecuting both perpetrators of female genital mutilation and the consenting parents.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR

Female genital mutilation is an ancient rite practiced mostly in some sub-Saharan and North African countries. Many Muslims in that part of the world wrongly believe it's dictated by Islam.

In recent decades, the practice has spread to immigrant communities in Europe.

Women activists in France have led the campaign in prosecuting those responsible for excisions performed on young girls, and the United Nations now considers the practice a human rights abuse.

Seeing Asylum in France

GAMS, the French Women's Association for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilations, estimates that there are more than 50,000 mutilated women in France. One of them is Aissata, a young woman from Mali who has a 2-year-old daughter.

"I come from a village in Mali where excisions are always practiced," she says. "My sister had a daughter and when the baby was not even 2 years old, she was mutilated. When I was four months' pregnant and my doctor told me it was a little girl, I was scared for her and ran away to France. I didn't want my daughter to undergo what they did to me when I was young."

But Aissata is in France illegally. She went to GAMS to file a request for political asylum.

On average, six women a day, five days a week, come seeking asylum in France to protect their daughters from being subjected to mutilation in their home countries, says GAMS worker Khadi Diallo, 53.

She claims GAMS has a 99 percent asylum success rate.

Recalling Brutality

Diallo was mutilated when she was 14, and the brutality of the practice is etched in her memory.

"I was mutilated against my parents' will," she says. "It was during the summer visiting my father's family in a village near the capital Bamako. In Mali, it's the father's relatives who decide everything in the family."

Diallo describes how several women held her down as one of them inflicted excruciating pain.

Supporters of female genital mutilation say it dampens a girl's sexuality and protects her honor.

Diallo says she can't even begin to list the psychological traumas she has since suffered.

"They cut off my sex. It was as if they cut off my finger. They took away a piece of me," she says. "They imposed customs of a society where it's not permissible for a 14 -year-old girl to remain intact."

In most cases, the excision involves the removal of the clitoris and minor labia. The most extreme form is infibulation, where the vaginal opening is stitched closed.

Often, knives or razor blades are used in unsanitary conditions. The result is scar tissue that not only makes sex difficult and not pleasurable, but can also create complications for childbirth and long-term infections.

"There is such a strong taboo against sex that girls often learn they were mutilated at an early age only when visiting a doctor or after their first sexual experience, when their boyfriend says, you're not normal, you're not like the others," says Diallo.

Fighting to Stop Mutilation

Female genital mutilation is alien to the great majority of Muslims in Europe, but GAMS claims there's a growing number of fundamentalist imams, funded by Islamist movements from abroad, who preach that removal of the clitoris is endorsed by the Koran.

Women activists here have enlisted rap singer Bafing Kul to help convince poor and uneducated immigrants to stop mutilation, saying the practice is backward and harmful. One song's lyrics include: "May my ancestors forgive me. Not all traditions should be preserved. Islam does not endorse this one."

The producer and distributor of Kul's CD is lawyer and human rights activist Linda Weil-Curiel.

"The aim of the mutilation is to deprive the woman of her own sexuality. She is only left to be a baby-maker," Weil-Curiel says.

Weil-Curiel is the person most responsible for making France the leader in tracking and prosecuting both perpetrators of female genital mutilation and the consenting parents.

Representing the interests of child victims over the last 15 years, Weil-Curiel has been involved in most of the 40-some trials that have led to convictions.

Girls Still at Risk

She says clitorectomies have all but been eradicated in France, but the tragedy continues. Families started taking their daughters to their homelands for summer vacations.

So she and other activists go to schools. It's not easy, she says, to warn children about the risks.

"And we are there saying, 'Beware, be very careful, 'cause your parents are planning to send you over and this is what will happen,'" Weil-Curiel says. "And each time ... You have two to three girls, we can observe tears running down their face, so we know in the family, if it is not them, it has happened."

But last year the law was toughened. It's now illegal for any girl who lives in France to be sexually mutilated whether it happens in France or not, whether the girl is a citizen or not.

Doctors are obligated to report cases they discover, and parents can be prosecuted for neglect, even if they say it was done somewhere else, without their knowledge.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: