Following its 2004 release, Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé was honored at European, African, and U.S. film festivals for its polemical depiction of women refusing to continue the common practice of female genital cutting (FGC) in traditional West African communities.[open endnotes in new window] According to the World Health Organization (WHO) an estimated 92 million Western and Northern African girls ranging in age from infancy to puberty have undergone one of the many procedures that comprise FGC. In the film Sembène provides a blueprint for grassroots human rights activism to animate universal human rights conventions within a local context. His dramatization of how an individual woman may resist the practice of female genital cutting — “purification,” in the language of the film’s Islamic village elders — provides a model for how West African social activism may elevate women’s rights within traditionally male-centric communities.
The human rights discourse that surrounds the film often comes extra-diegetically, firmly rooted in the funding of the film, its reception in first world film festivals, and its use as a tool by anti-FGC activists, as well as diegetically in its narrative and staging. Analyzing its funding, narrative form, and didactic nature will contribute to our understanding the film as an explicitly staged lesson in social activism; it is an unique text to examine critically to explore the cinematic forms by which international values may be translated and enacted in local communities. Set in a rural farming village in Burkina Faso, the film revolves around the efforts of Collé Ardo Gallo Sy to protect a group of girls who have fled the the community's FGC ceremony. The second and favorite wife of the younger brother of one of the village elders, Collé was “cut” when she was a girl and now refuses to have her own daughter, Amsatou, purified according to the community's beliefs. Once the mother’s decision is made public in the community, Amsatou is considered bilakora or “impure.” Collé’s own FGC experience has created lifelong health difficulties for her, including infections as a child and difficulty during Amsatou’s birth. Showing her ragged cesarean scar to the village women who want their daughters to undergo FGC, Collé reminds them that she nearly died during childbirth because of the lasting effects of the FGC procedure. The visibility of the procedure remains marked by Collé’s scar, which reminds the audience that the ceremony has physical consequences for a woman’s health and affects her body for the remainder of her life.
Her personal experience with FGC and decision to exempt her daughter from the village practice frames the film when four young girls seek Collé’s help after escaping the salindana — the group of women responsible for cutting the young girls in the village. Collé grants the girls sanctuary or moolaadé, which is represented for the community by a multicolored rope tied across the open doorway leading into her multigenerational family compound. The rope demarcates a bound space in which the girls are safe — they cannot be taken from the space nor can they leave until Collé utters “the word” that breaks the moolaadé. A moolaadé both grants sanctuary and levies a curse on those who violate its protection. According to village tradition violating the moolaadé may result in death. In fact, adjacent to the village mosque built 150 years prior, one of the three central structures in the village is a large termite mound the community considers to be the transfigured body of a former king who violated a moolaadé. During the film these two structures act as reminders of both the religious doctrine and community-driven cultural beliefs that guide the village.
In film festivals in the developed world and urban cultural centers, ranging from Cannes to New York to Toronto to Adelaide, Australia, to Pittsburgh to FESPACO as well as in the film’s US and UK press books Moolaadé is described as “a rousing polemic directed against the still common African practice of female circumcision.” The film’s non-apologetic didactic structure and the extra-diegetic discourse it inspired in both its programmed position in film festivals concerning the rights of women and the reviews the film prompted harness its first world reception to an ideal liberal political solution to the complex tangle of universal and local approaches to human rights. This solution entails valuing directed proclamations of FGC as “mutilation” and linking it to first world discourse concerning abortion.
Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf is one of several anthropologists and activists who argue that naming FGC a “mutilation” carries with it neocolonial connotations that ignore the ritualistic importance of the practice, which “rests on an opulent repertoire of diverse cultural themes regarding notions of femininity, beauty, tradition, gender, sexuality, and religiosity.” Isolating FGC as a misogynistic practice that robs women of sexual pleasure, as activist Fran Hosken does in her oft-cited Hosken Report, presumes that a woman’s control of her body is the central issue, as in Western debates concerning the legality of abortion which highlight the patriarchal authority exerted by religious and cultural institutions that condemn the practice. Abusharaf critiques Hosken’s essentializing and patronizing insistence that a “lack of human compassion and vicious greed” perpetuates FGC due to the male dominance exhibited in traditional societies.
As Sembène develops a plot around this practice, the script pays attention to the patriarchal structure of the local community, but it also illustrates the interdependence between this structure, the women of the community, and external organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union. Sembène highlights the hypocrisy of the local governing institutions, rather than, as Hosken asserts, the inhumanity of their actors. By doing this, he demonstrates how eliminating the practice is intertwined with education, particularly that provided by mass media, and with the economic and political opportunities available to women. Moolaadé demonstrates a critique of the practice tied to the overall status of women within the community’s public institutions. By focusing on Collé as the central community activist, Sembène allows her to form a collective anti-FGC group that challenges the authority of the community’s governing elders, thereby letting the women collectively gain access to power within the community’s political and juridical institutions.
Throughout most of the film Collé provides the force for change with important support from her husband’s other wives, including her husband’s elder wife. Collé begins as an individual actor, gains the support of her sister wives, and by the end of the film has gained the support of the mothers whose daughters originally fled the ceremony. The film demonstrates in its trajectory how an individual may move from a lone activist to a collective force able to confront male elders in public. The narrative has a progression from individual to collective and the scenes juxtapose domestic space and public space as both imbued with political and juridical powers. With such a script, Sembène concretizes the ways universal prescriptions for human rights abuses may be enacted on a local stage. He does this by creating a film that demonstrates how human rights discourse may be translated into the vernacular of daily living via articulating local cultural customs, media discourse, and support of western, democratic human rights values as an accompaniment to economic opportunity.
As such, the film operates in a space bound on one side by first-world human rights, proclaimed universal by the United Nations, and on the other by grass roots activists, whose work confronts the realities of local politics and economies rooted in the shifting terrain of Islamic western African communities, which are often dominated by patriarchal political institutions but which also rely on the village women’s voluntary participation to function. As he does in his other films and novels, Sembène uses characters read allegorically to locate a balance between the universal and local. In this way Moolaadé is both a tool used by anti-FGC activists and a reflection of the methods non-governmental agencies (NGOs) currently use to foster changes to women’s rights in local cultures.
In Moolaadé Sembène considers how women may effect change in their communities and families if given access to the economic and cultural power that had in previous generations been reserved for men. Focusing on both Moolaadé’s narrative and its funding history, I argue that Sembène uses a narrative form that features the development from individual activist to collective force to depict the potentially liberating force of internationally defined human rights in a West African context when used by local activists. His depiction of women as collective and individual forces for change touches on questions of the libratory potential of capitalism and media as modernizing forces for a contemporary generation of African community leaders.
The depiction of modern activism within the Islamic, West African community depicted in the film is presented diegetically via the narrative construction of the film’s main character, Collé, played by renowned Malian women’s rights activist, Fatoumata Coulibaly. Collé is constructed as an individual whose personal experiences offer an interiorized psychological depiction and history of a woman now advocating for cultural change; she uses her personal experiences to change community practice and belief. In the script, Collé’s ability to assert her personal experiences and values within the community may best be understood as a staging of the drama of human rights activism. In some ways, the character exemplifies ways in which contemporary human rights declarations and proclamations issued by, for example, the United Nations; additional NGOs, such as Tostan — a Senegalese women’s rights NGO; and various African continental human rights treaties, such as the African Banjul Charter, may be translated into local action on the part of activists and grass-roots campaigns aimed at ending FGC, and, by extension, advance West African women’s rights.
J. Hoberman describes the film as “diagrammatic” in its approach to women’s rights in a review prior to the film’s New York theatrical run (“Auteurs”). He particularly cites the rousing rally staged in front of the community’s male elders at the end of the film where the majority of the village women adopt Collé’s position against genital cutting. The rally is staged and shot as a public performance; it mimics events sponsored by anti-FGC NGO Tostan, which has held rallies celebrating the decision by local women to end FGC in communities throughout Senegal. In the scene’s staging, the village elders occupy one third of the on-screen space, the pro-Collé supporters another third, and the salindana occupy the final third, eventually joining the community’s women creating a division between the sexes in the blocking of the sequence. The lesson of this rally is bolstered by a mother, Salba, who holds her infant godchild in the air while chanting alongside the other village women that this girl will not be “cut,” that no girls will ever be “cut” again.
In addition to the film’s conclusion, Hoberman is perhaps more correct in his reading than he imagined. As I will argue, the plot of Sembène’s final feature film strongly resonates with articles inscribed in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the 1980 establishment and 1993 strengthening of provisions for the rights of women in the UN the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The entire premise of the film — the right of protection or moolaadé — is specifically covered in the UN Universal Human Rights Declaration as the right of seeking and enjoying in other countries “asylum from persecution.” If one accepts the film’s central thesis that ritual “purification” is a form of persecution, Collé is justified in creating a free space beyond the rules confining conduct in the village (Moolaadé). The sanctuary she creates via the moolaadé is akin to a nation-state with its distinct but permeable boundary — members of the community may move between it and the village at large. They may not, however, remove the young girls who have sought sanctuary from the space without Collé’s permission. Much like a sovereign authority, it is only Collé’s “word” that may release the girls from their protected space (Moolaadé). Additionally, the space Collé creates emerges from a historical tradition understood as juridical within the village because of its ability to punish or allow clemency. This tradition is substantiated in the community via the cultural memory marked in the village by the termite mound.
Sembène’s career-long critique of nation as a corrupted patriarchal institution that denies equal rights to women complicates the idea that a sovereign space akin to a nation-state may provide safety. The fact, then, that this asylum is enacted by and controlled by Collé, a woman, is significant because it asserts the ability of women to claim sovereign power from local, cultural traditions. Collé’s ability to provide asylum and to assert that ability within the community may be seen as a performance of the provision in the UN human rights’ declaration that states, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community” and guarantees “the right to…security of person.” The fact that both the men and women of the community respect the sanctity of the moolaadé regardless of the gender of its enactor points to local cultural traditions on which activists may build in the pursuit of women’s rights.
Anthropologist Ellen Gruenbaum describes how asylum has become an effective means for women to remain in first world countries — “Canada, Australia, Sweden, and others” to avoid FGC in their home nation. It is an increasingly useful tool for women to gain protection for themselves and for parents to gain protection for their female children. While limited, the practice has received a lot of press coverage, particularly following Togo citizen Fauziya Kassindja’s and Ghanian citizen Adelaide Abankwah’s applications for US asylum in the late-1990s and Malian Aminata Diop’s application for asylum in France in the early-1990s. Citing the increased recognition of cultural practices as a basis for asylum, Gruenbaum argues,
By enacting a local cultural custom to create an asylum within the community, Collé effectively relocates an international anti-FGC human rights tool at the local level. This staging allows Sembène to provide an argument for local change that does not draw directly on the authority of the laws of other nations, as is the case with the asylum cases mentioned previously, nor directly on international conventions, such as the UN Refugee Convention Gruenbaum cites. Sembène’s use of asylum as a juridical form of protection indirectly draws from the discourse surrounding international efforts to end FGC, yet forcefully argues for local, community-driven actions.
Considering relations between the local and international, I will discuss how African activists against FGC have taken on the task of facing cultural and religious traditions that uphold the practice, and also examine how they use local traditions to resist FGC. I will also make note of how New York University cultural anthropologist Sally Engle Merry takes some of these issues of social change and traditional values up on a more theoretical plane. In her 2006 study Human Rights and Gender Violence Engle-Merry further complicates the notion of the universal as an ethical and political category that takes as its departure point a modernity rooted in colonialism. Using Engle Merry’s and African activists’ writing, my discussion will consider how Sembène’s film negotiates the twin discourses of international and local human rights definitions diegetically and extra-diegetically via the instructive nature of the narrative.