Reviews & Comments

Jack David Eller

ABSTRACT: A brave and honest woman tells her story of female genital mutilation and then her efforts to liberate herself and others through her filmmaking, writing, and global activism.

Here is some hopeful news: “The New York Times” reported in October of 2011 that Senegal has achieved remarkable success in curbing the practice of female circumcision—also known as female genital mutilation (FGM)—with the majority of villages that formerly performed now committed to ending it.

Here is some ironic news: The Atlantic reported in June of 2011 that increasing numbers of American women are opting for surgery “to ‘rejuvenate’ and/or ‘beautify’ their vaginas,” a procedure referred to as ‘cosmetic-gyn’ in which “the labia minora are completely amputated to create a ‘smooth’ genital look known in the field as ‘the Barbie’” (Lee 2011, p. 21)—and which sounds suspiciously like the operation of FGM in other countries.

It is perverse indeed that what is dreaded and condemned in other countries is voluntarily sought (and paid dearly for) in the United States. But perhaps American women would think twice if they read the memoir of Soraya Miré, a Somali woman and survivor of the cruel and pointless procedure. Miré is the maker of the film “Fire Eyes,” also on FGM and reviewed previously in ARD. Her new book tells her life story in an earnest and courageous tone, from her childhood through the making of the film, which occurred in the mid-1990s. Surprisingly but perhaps modestly, she does not discuss her considerable success and fame since that time.

Like all important lives, Miré’s life is more than a personal biography but an account of a time and a place. The place is Somalia, the time is just before and then during the civil war that has torn that country apart for decades. Born in 1961 to a prominent family with government connections, she had the bad fortune (in her own and in Somali terms) to be born female, “with cursed body parts where my ancestors waged wars with womanly sensation” (p. 3). The third leg, the external female genitalia, was believed to be “so strong that the girls who still had it did not know right from wrong” (p. 4). So, obviously, in order to construct proper, pious women, the flesh had to be removed.

Miré had the odd luck of retaining her third leg longer than most Somali girls, which gave her a unique perspective: she was curious about the meaning of the phrase ‘third leg’ and about the rumors that married women had fire come from their ears during sex, and she was aware of the contradiction between the high moral talk of her culture and the actual behavior of its citizens. But one day her mother deceived her into thinking that they were going to get her a present; instead, she got the gift of womanhood, the operation.

This experience set off a spiral of experiences that led eventually to her liberation and then her activism. She became seriously ill, as do many girls and women who undergo the surgery, since the vagina is closed so effectively that urine and menstrual blood often cannot flow. This causes swelling, pain, and sometimes death (and women who give birth after the operation often have stillbirths and suffer from fistulas—which rupture their bladder or bowels—and even death). She was eventually taken to a European hospital (a luxury not available to most African and Middle Eastern women), where she received not only medical treatment but counseling that encouraged her to become acquainted with—and to take control over—her body and sexuality.

Attending school in Europe, she was freer in some ways but also highly constrained in others. Her relationship with her mother, always difficult, continued and worsened as she became more independent and more outspoken in her criticism of ‘tradition.’ In addition, she was made to marry an older male relative, which endangered her psychological recovery and her very life. But out of these experiences—including a rape when she became too vocal in her disparagement of Somali culture, came an unconquerable will to tell her story, to continue her recovery, and to be an agent of change for others.

Her primary determination was to make a documentary film about FGM and its harms, and this intention takes her to many interesting places, including Oprah Winfrey’s television show, where she hoped that the great woman would support and finance her project. But as an unknown at the time (and no doubt one of many pilgrims to the temple of Oprah), she was turned away. Years later when she had completed the film, she was invited onto the show and met some of the same people who had rejected her before. Yet, her attitude is unswervingly positive: she bears no ill will toward anyone, and others (from Oprah’s producer to the entertainer Debbie Allen to the writer Alice Walker to playwright Eve Ensler of “The Vagina Monologues”) come to embrace her, literally and figuratively.

The final sections of the book chronicle her life immediately after finishing and screening the film: appearing on Oprah and Nightline, attending the Sundance Film Festival, and speaking before various international organizations. Yet despite her hardship and celebrity, she remains throughout the book an unyieldingly humble and nice person. She concludes, “My work as a survivor of a cultural act of violence, pain, and betrayal, then, is to never forget what happens to women and girls. My duty is to voice the hidden struggle of women who have been tortured” (p. 371). Equally appealing to me, she does not see any special dignity in suffering: “I believe pain has nothing to do with the journey of life and is an evil that shatters one’s soul. I have been there, and without the brave souls who helped me reclaim my humanity, dignity, and sexuality, I would not be here telling my story” (p. 371).

I had the honor and pleasure to meet Ms. Miré and to host her for a presentation on my campus subsequent to reading her book and viewing her film, and I can attest that she is still one of the nicest and most open people I have ever met. While she is no longer alone in the cause of ending FGM, her work on that cause predates most Americans’ awareness of it, and years of struggle and real violence have not dimmed her spirit, nor have recent years of success and acclaim robbed her of her humility. If the world had more Soraya Mirés it would be a better place for all of us.

And, finally, all of those bourgeois American women considering cosmetic-gym should read her book first—and then hang their heads in shame.


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