French Activists Fight Female Genital Mutilation Many Muslims in sub-Saharan and North African countries observe the ancient rite of female genital mutilation. One estimate says more than 50,000 affected women now live in France, where a campaign to prosecute those responsible is under way.
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French Activists Fight Female Genital Mutilation

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French Activists Fight Female Genital Mutilation

French Activists Fight Female Genital Mutilation

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This next story is difficult to hear. And we want to give a warning to our listeners: Some of the language is explicit.

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

In recent decades, the practice has spread to immigrant communities in Europe. And women activists in France led a campaign prosecute those responsible for excisions performed on young girls. The United Nations now considers the procedure a human rights abuse.

In the sixth and final part of our series on Muslim women in Europe, NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Paris on this disturbing subject.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Half a dozen women, mostly from Mali, are chatting while a French woman takes a phone call, and another types at a computer. A large poster on the wall shows the photo of a beautiful African woman and the words: Our daughters will not be cut.

This is the headquarters of GAMS, the French women's association for the abolition of sexual mutilations. GAMS estimates there are more than 50,000 mutilated women in France. One of them is Aissata, a young woman from Mali who holds her sleeping 2-year-old daughter, Dawli(ph).

AISSATA: (Through translator) I come from a village in Mali where excisions are always practiced. 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 I ran away to France. I didn't want my daughter to undergo what they did to me when I was young.

POGGIOLI: But Aissata is here illegally, and she has come to GAMS to file a request for political asylum.

Khadi Diallo, a 53-year-old woman who works at GAMS, says on average, six women come every day, five days a week, seeking asylum in France to protect their daughters from being subjected to mutilation in their home countries. She claims GAMS has a 99 percent asylum success rate.

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

Ms. KHADI DIALLO (Member, GAMS): (Speaking in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: I was mutilated against my parents' will, says Diallo. 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.

And 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.

Ms. DIALLO: (Speaking in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: They cut off my sex, says Diallo. It was as if they cut off my finger. They took away a piece of me. 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 unpleasurable, but can also create complications for childbirth and long-term infections.

Ms. DIALLO: (Speaking in foreign language)

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

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.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BAFING KUL (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

POGGIOLI: May my ancestors forgive me, he sings. Not all traditions should be preserved. Islam does not endorse this one. African women, you're victims of an evil custom. It's awful. It's horrible. Excision is bad. Excision is mutilation.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KUL: (Singing in foreign language).

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language).

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

Ms. LINDA WEIL-CURIEL (Producer): The aim of the mutilation is to deprive the woman of her own sexuality. She is only left to be a baby-maker.

POGGIOLI: 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-odd trials that have led to convictions.

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. But it's not easy, she says, to warn children about the risks.

Ms. WEIL-CURIEL: And we are there, saying, beware, be very careful, because your parents are planning to send you over and this is what will happen. And each time you have two to three girls, we can observe tears running down their face, so you know that in the family, if it is not for them, it has happened.

POGGIOLI: 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 could be prosecuted for neglect, even if they say it was done elsewhere, without their knowledge.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

SIMON: You can hear Sylvia Poggioli's complete series on Muslim women in Europe and explore where they reside on the continent at

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