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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Female Genital Mutilation reversible; biography of pioneering doctor presented at WSRC

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: News

The Women’s Studies Research Center presented a reading and discussion on Wednesday on a recently-translated book titled “Undoing FGM: Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris.” Translator Dr. Tobe Levin and author Hubert Prolongeau spoke about the continuation of the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) and what measures are being taken both to stop and undo the maiming of about 130 million women worldwide.

The custom of FGM takes on many forms. An excisor (one who performs FGM) can cut either the inside or outer skin of the female genitals as well as amputate the clitoris. The practice originated in African countries as a way to transform girls into womanhood.

“Girls undergo the procedure at six or seven years old, or sometimes just weeks or months old,” Mei-Mei Ellerman, resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC), said. “The psychological terror that the girls go through is indescribable.” Ellerman outlined the process in which girls are held down without any understanding of what is happening to them.

Immigrants from Africa wish for their daughters to undergo this process, but the practice is forbidden in many countries, including France. To skate around the issue, “[the parents] send their children back to their home country to get procedure done, unbeknownst to them,” Ellerman said.

FGM can lead to numerous health problems. Inexact surgical tools are often used, which can sometimes cut into the rectum or urethra, causing incontinence. Hemorrhaging or infections often result, and urinating can be difficult and painful. Birth is an excruciating experience that can lead to death. The process is often performed without anesthesia.

“All in the name of purity, cleanliness and chastity,” Ellerman states.

Paris-based surgeon Pierre Foldes gives hope to many women afflicted. Almost by accident, Foldes came up with a solution when he was examining a patient. He originated a procedure in which he cuts away the scar tissue that obstructs the clitoris. He then is able to pull the clitoris forward from where it can be stuck to the bone, since the organ is much larger than anyone had previously realized. The procedure lasts only about a half an hour, is very straightforward and requires little anesthesia. Women can therefore experience sensation in their genitals again and derive sexual pleasure. Best of all, Foldes does it all for free.

“He says he can’t bear to see suffering,” Ellerman says simply.

Other surgeons from Burkina Faso, Switzerland and the United States have found ways to undo FGM, but none are the same as Foldes’ method because these surgeons wish to charge their patients. Foldes refuses to do so, although it has created complications in funding, and subsequently makes it more difficult for him to train others in his technique.

Instead, if Foldes’ patients wish to thank him, he requests a music CD. “He puts the women at ease during appointments by playing music from their homeland,” Levin explains.

The experience can be difficult for women Ellerman elaborates, “The women must swallow shame and dignity and muster up the courage to approach him. Part of the healing process is for them to voice what is wrong and ask for help. Women who would never dream of approaching a male doctor feel safe with him. He completely changes their lives and gives them their lives back.”

Prolongeau, the author of “Undoing FGM,” agrees. “[Foldes] tries to not make it merely a medical act. The medical part is not the most important. He tries to work on the psychological connection as well.”

His humanity, which Prolongeau immediately recognized when he happened upon Foldes’ work, was part of what moved him to write a book about the surgeon’s efforts, which have restored 3,500 women since the early 90s. He first published the book in his native France in 2006, including a preface by Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Doctors Without Borders.

Later, advocate Tobe Levin read the book. Levin had long been involved in the fight against FGM. She started an organization called “FORWARD” in Europe, which strove both to bring the practice of FGM to public attention and to partner with leaders in Africa to advocate for policies to prevent the practice. Since then, Levin has allowed others to take charge of the organization so that there would not be unfortunate implications associated with a white European woman seeking to change an African custom.

Levin took it upon herself to translate Prolongeau’s novel into English, a feat that took her a year a half, completed in October 2011. She had created her own publishing company, Uncut/Voices Press, dedicated strictly to ending and promoting awareness of the practice of FGM. “Undoing FGM” was the second book it published; the first was a memoir called “Blood Stains” by Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny, which was also translated by Levin.

As a continuation of the mission to spread awareness, Levin and Prolongeau teamed up on a six-stop book tour in which they read passages and discussed the issues raised in “Undoing FGM.” Levin had previously worked at the Haddassah-Brandeis Institute as a resident scholar and contacted the WSRC again in hopes to stop here on the tour. The WSRC had previously started its own program, Gender and International Development Initiatives (GaIDI), which strives to expand the view of the WSRC to a more global platform. The tour exemplifies the kinds of issues GaIDI wishes to promote.

Of particular interest to the group at Brandeis was the issue of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is a term for the anthropological belief that foreign practices should be viewed in the context of their own culture. Some anthropologists believe that all practices of a culture have intrinsic validity and should therefore not be judged by our Western bias. The discussion at Brandeis had a clear outlook on the issue.

“At the center, we defend the rights of children and women to not have this forced upon them … People have tip-toed around the ritual [of FGM], but now it is being looked at in a human rights view and as a health issue,” Ellerman maintained.

“People sometimes show the cultural relativist view that ‘it’s their culture and we should not get involved,’” Levin said. “I accuse them of complicity. There are some absolute human rights standards. It is against international human rights law to cut something off of a child.”

Certain strides have been made; countries in Africa and Europe have outlawed FGM, yet it is still practiced.

To rectify this, Levin said advocates must “engage directly with the African community. The practice is strongly defended by those who continue it.”

“It is done for the sake of genital beauty. There is this notion of beauty and ugliness which helps perpetuate the practice.”

Levin summarizes the message she and Prolongeau hope to send.

“The point of the tour is [the] same as [the] point of the book, which is to give this topic far better exposure than it has had: to force policy makers and politicians to make change. [FGM] has been called torture, and it goes against the U.N. An Inter-African Committee of 28 nations defines this as torture. We want to raise public awareness, which in turn influences policy.”

Prolongeau expresses the hope Foldes gives FGM victims in his book. “We wish to raise awareness and show that [FGM] is not irreversible. It is important to have people know this so they can change.”