Ann McFerran on the women who are campaigning to turn their country against female circumcision
To the Western eye, the scene might be an African version of Oprah Winfrey. Before an attentive circle of men, women and children in the picturesque village of Kim Simbera in Senegal, west Africa, a mother is describing her tussles with her adopted daughter over her most intimate sexual secrets - becoming a "real" woman.
The mother, Doussou Konate, recalls with evident pain her then 14-year-old daughter's plight. Baybara would come home in tears. Her friends mocked her for being dirty. One boy publicly taunted that no one would marry her. Seated near her mother, Baybara peers through her cascade of finely plaited braids and whispers shyly: "I was a laughing stock. I begged my mother to let me be like my friends."
Doussou reluctantly agreed to let her daughter undergo "the operation of the ancestors". In the West we call this female genital mutilation. Until the 1970s, like male circumcision, FGM was an obligatory rite of passage for many of Africa's Islamic women. Those who refused to comply were considered unfit to serve at table and impure for marriage.
Over the past 25 years elaborate collective initiation rites where the "cutters" wore masks have been replaced by individual cuttings of younger girls and three-month-old babies. Performed without anaesthetic, the cuttings take about 20 minutes, but the resulting gynaecological problems may last a lifetime.
Just before the start of the rainy season, young girls are taken to a special hut where their genitalia are scraped away with a razor blade by a professional woman cutter, who is of the blacksmith (a lower) caste. Her razor may be used for six other girls. She charges around pound;5, and cuts off the clitoris and often the upper and lower labia. Should the girls scream, they bring shame to their families. The wound is sealed with dried blood; all that is left is a tiny hole, which makes it initially excruciatingly painful to urinate.
As a result of the crude operation, some women suffer infertility or incontinence or even contract HIV from unsterilised blades; a few will haemorrhage and die. The cutter will return on the bride's wedding night if there are any problems; sexual initiation is usually extremely painful.
To people in the West this seems a barbaric practice. But in Africa, where 130 million women have been circumcised and 2 million girls a year are at risk, it is part of an Islamic tradition ensuring a bride's virginity and purity.
Nine out of ten of Somalia's women undergo the practice. In Senegal, on the West African coast and one of Africa's most stable and democratic countries, nearly one million women (20 per cent of its female population) still undergo circumcision.
But that may one day change. For the dialogue between Doussou Konate and her daughter is part of an educational campaign that has spread from village to village and is set to secure prohibition of the practice in Senegal.
In the shade of a flowering Leucena tree at Kim Simbera, a trio of teenagers enacts a short play in which Baybara plays a mother, not unlike her own, who doesn't want her daughter circumcised. "This tradition is bad for our health," argues the erstwhile shy Baybara, now eloquent in her role. Her "husband" chastises her disobedience, and forces their daughter to comply. The play climaxes with a fatal haemorrhage, and ends with a human rights song.
The play was brought to Kim Simbera by the women of a tiny fishing village, Malicounda, a few hours' drive from the capital, Dakar. It was at Malicounda that the campaign against FGM began. A local development agency, Tostan ("breakthrough"), persuaded the village women that with more knowledge and education - everything from the three Rs to basic hygiene and child vaccination - they could change their lives for the better.
Tostan's work is funded by the United Nations Children Fund. Its charismatic director, Illinois-born Molly Melching, who has lived in Senegal for 17 years, has developed a consciousness-raising group with locally trained members who help other women become aware of how they can change their lives.
Last September the women of Malicounda chose to learn more about their own sexuality in a controversial educational programme. One by one, they reached a turning point. "I knew the dangers in pregnancy," reveals one woman, "but I never understood my rights. I didn't realise I could say 'No'." Taboos were banished as the president of the Women's Association, Maimouna Traore, and 38 other women used plays like the one at Kim Simbera to convince their husbands and Malicounda's religious leaders, their Imans.
Despite their efforts, the Malicounda women were reviled as revolutionaries and publicity seekers who had betrayed their Bambara race and sold out to the West. However, they still managed to take their message to neighbouring villages, using plays to catch the conscience of the chiefs and Imans.
Villagers in nearby Ngerin Bambara declared that they, too, should stop this practice. Oureye Sall, who is president of their women's association, should have succeeded her cutter mother. Oureye revealed that when her mother circumcised her granddaughter the girl nearly bled to death. When Oureye took her daughter to the doctor, she pretended that the girl had fallen out of a mango tree, but no one was fooled. This detail has been incorporated into Malicounda's touring play.
"We worried that our children might not get married if they weren't circumcised," says Oureye, "but I have seen too much blood. We must tell the truth."
Since then the women's pledge to end the mutilation - the Oath of Malicounda - has gathered momentum. Earlier this year they were joined by 13 other villages pledging the Declaration of Diabougou, and then by several villages in the Korda region. Now the word of the Malicounda women has spread throughout Senegal. The country's President, Abdou Diouf, who declared FGM a human rights issue after the oath, has recommended that it be included in forthcoming legislation. And in April, the women received the ultimate blessing: the USpresident's wife Hillary Clinton invited them to attend a Dakar human rights discussion as special guests.
As Molly drives into Malicounda she is welcomed with dancing, drumming, a special performance of the play and lengthy speeches. The village's Iman says that the taboo was not imposed by Islam but by husbands, "like parents who tell their children there is a hyena on the road to scare them, but one day the children discover there is no hyena".
Issa Tou Saan, who was a respected cutter in Diabougou, where the girls were circumcised at seven years old, tells me: "I was very angry when I first saw the Malicounda women's play. We did it to protect girls from getting pregnant before marriage. I cut very quickly and no girl ever haemorrhaged. They would stand up immediately afterwards, hold their breasts and declare they were real women.
"I did it to my own daughters and granddaughters, who never cried. Never. They felt they shared something special."
Then Issa Tou Saan attended Tostan's education programme and learned about circumcision's often deadly consequences. "Please don't condemn me," she urges. "I didn't know."
In the tiny village of Tatin Bambara, the village elders, rather than the women, elect to respond to Molly's questions. Producing a leather-bound Koran, the Iman leafs through pages, then declares, "Moham-med had been travelling from Mecca to Medina when he met two midwives about to cut a woman. He urged that she should be gentle." The Tatin women look on miserably as he opines: "Cutting honours women and makes them more beautiful."
In the small town of M'bour, conversation grows sticky in the molten glow of the late afternoon sun. A young woman demands to know why the Malicounda women have ignored a Muslim woman's duty to be circumcised and caused Senegalese women to be insulted by Mrs Clinton. As the woman grows more indignant, Molly explains why FGM is such a health risk.
"Bring your Tostan programme here," demands the woman, "and let us decide."