Halimata Fofana is a French-Senegalese writer and director, committed to the fight against female genital mutilation. She grew up in France, while being very close to the culture of her Senegalese parents. In 2015, she published her first novel, Mariama l'écorchée vive, which breaks the taboo of female circumcision, of which she was a victim at the age of 5 during a family trip to Senegal. In 2022, she published her second novel À l'ombre de la cité Rimbaud. This book is a moving story that questions the situation of many young girls torn between two cultures, two territories and two futures. It is also a testimony that allows us to look back at the trauma of excision and its consequences.
Excision is a practice that goes beyond the physical control of women’s bodies: it is also a symbolic and psychic control.
How do you explain the practice of excision?
The reasons for this practice are twofold: firstly, the desire to exercise absolute control over women’s bodies, which is why this practice mainly concerns babies and little girls. The second reason is the sacredness of women’s virginity and the importance of avoiding motherhood outside marriage.
Excision is a practice that goes beyond the physical control of women’s bodies: it is also a symbolic and psychic control. This aspect is often forgotten when excision is discussed. Therefore, the terminology of “repairing” excised women (which comes from the medical world) is not appropriate. Physical repair should not be seen as an end and even less as the only solution. Some women need to go down this road, others don’t, it all depends on the individual.
In the world, a little girl is excised every 4 minutes. In France, an estimated 125,000 women are affected by excision, 3 out of 10 of whom are excised in their country of origin. And yet, there are few testimonies like yours. How do you explain this?
The taboo of the woman’s body, her sexuality and her genitals is very strong and exists in all societies. Victims understand this implicitly and know that they should not talk about it. They can be ashamed of what they have suffered, as victims of sexual violence very often are.
What strikes me, since I published my book, are all the messages I receive. They write to me because they have the feeling that, because I have suffered it myself, I am able to hear their words. In my time, I didn’t know where to knock either. It is common to be redirected to associations. I notice that women like me and like many others, who are French and have higher education, do not find their way into these associations. The women who go there are African women, who do not have the same background.
It is also very complicated to talk about an issue like this because it concerns the family sphere, which reinforces the taboo. It is very complex and difficult, and yet we love our parents. We must not forget that when mothers excise young girls, they think they are doing it for the good of their daughters. They have already undergone it themselves. It is something that is passed on from generation to generation.
But I want to emphasize one point: the taboo is not only among the victims. It is also in the media, which is afraid of stigmatizing certain populations, and among teachers who do not report girls at risk and victims. When I was excised, and I went back to school walking with great difficulty, not a single teacher asked me what was wrong with me.
The taboo is also among doctors and midwives. For example, among the new generations arriving from East Africa, more than 86% of women have undergone excision. For these communities, the clitoris and labia minora are cut off and the labia majora are sewn back on. All that remains is a small opening for menstruation and urine. When these women give birth in the West, some ask the doctors to sew them back on. It is obvious that if a woman asks to be sewn up, her daughters are in danger. Yet few professionals address the issue or report it.
How did you manage to break this taboo?
It’s thanks to the school. And that’s what makes us different from our mothers. We learnt to question and challenge. I studied literature, I read a lot and I can’t be asked to sit somewhere and be told that someone will think for me. Our parents left Africa and were in a hurry to survive. When you leave like that, culture is what you keep. And generally, those who left are more attached to it than those who stayed.
What are the good practices to be put in place to fight against excision?
I know that in Belgium, an awareness-raising campaign on excision and forced marriage is being set up, aimed at different spheres: health professionals, teachers, educators. I think it is a good practice and it is important to raise awareness among all those who may be in contact with victims.
In France it is very complicated. In 2019, Marlène Schiappa launched a plan against excision but there is already a French law that prohibits all mutilation. When we talk to families, we realize that it is not laws or plans that will change things. We change things step by step daily. We need literacy classes, cooking classes, so that women can get out of their daily lives and meet other women, different women. This is essential because it allows them to express themselves on their behalf. In our families, the individual does not exist, it is the collective that takes precedence.
As former victims, we also have a responsibility. We must break the taboo and talk to our mothers. Not to speak is to participate.
Is there anything you would like to add?
People often ask me how I survived. I often talk about skylights. It is very much thanks to the beauty of the things I have advanced. Reading poetry, going to the Comédie Française, looking at Haussmann buildings, listening to Céline Dion. It’s very important to have beauty in your life.