Only Women’s Solidarity Can End Women’s Suffering

Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène's final film, "Moolaadé," takes on female genital mutilation

Three women in traditional African dress stand together. The subtitles read, "No girl will be cut. Forever!"
Screenshot from Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé

A woman barricades the entrance of her house with a rope. Fierce-looking women draped in blood-red garments attempt to come into the compound, but the woman will not allow them to take away the children under her care: girls who have run to her for protection from having their genitals mutilated. After a moment of both parties staring at each other, sometimes without uttering a word, the red-clad women turn back, disappointed.

Considered the father of post-colonial cinema in Africa, Ousmane Sembène’s work as a writer and filmmaker highlighted the shortcomings of religion, impact of colonialism, perpetuation of classism, and the plights of the victims of a rigid societal construct. Already an acclaimed novelist, at 43, he made his first feature film Black Girl (1966), which is centered on Diouana, a young Senegalese woman working as a maid for a white couple in France. As his career progressed, Sembène’s feminist sentiments became more prominent.

His last film, Moolaadé, which premiered in 2004 when the filmmaker was 81, serves as a critical commentary on female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa. Sembène’s decision to shoot the film in Burkina Faso, one of the countries with the highest rate of FGM in the world, was deliberate. The film portrays the quotidian life of a people in a small community, the role religion plays in reinforcing patriarchy, the atrocities committed against women and their bodies, and the lifelong impact a marginalized group could make for generations to come when they finally find their voice.

The film shows the lifelong impact a marginalized group could make for generations when they finally find their voice.

It’s natural to root for Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), this pipe-smoking, no-nonsense woman who is doing something no one has ever done in the community. “Purification is an important part of our custom,” a man tells Ciré, Collé’s husband. “Who is she to challenge it? You have to do something about this situation. You must tame your wife.”

Female circumcision is the norm in this remote village. Mothers take their prepubescent girls to the Salindana women whose primary duty is to ensure all the girls in the village are circumcised. Someone holds the girl down, another pulls her legs apart, another takes a knife and tears her open. In one scene, some of the girls are seen, perhaps days or weeks after the procedure, with black loincloths tied around their waists. One is crying and cannot stand, while others are called upon to come out of the shed. “Spread your legs apart and jump,” a Salindana woman instructs them, perhaps to examine them before discharge. Some jump, gingerly, and clap to the rhythm of their song; some are unable to respond, bending and writhing in pain.

But as a round of mutilations is about to begin, six girls flee the scene. Four make it to Collé; the other two are missing. Collé ties the rope at the entrance and invokes the Moolaadé—the magical protection of the first king of the village which should not be tampered with—thereby transforming the sun-baked huts into a sanctuary. The girls are safe as long as they remain inside the compound. Protecting them has become an issue of life and death.

“Why won’t you let us have the girls even though you were purified as a child?” the Salindana women ask Collé the first time they come for the kids. They are standing in front of her rope barricade but will not dare cross it. Their leader holds a metallic staff, an authority in her own right, as though with every step she is saying “All ye women, bring your girls unto me.” The women in the village obey without questions; after all, the custom was established long before they were born.

The girls run to Collé because she refused to have her daughter circumcised despite strong oppositions. Having lost two children to this monstrous act, and with a belly that bears the scar acquired from birthing her now only daughter through C-section, as a result of implications from mutilation, she vows never to let her be subjected to such treatment. Now 15, Collé’s daughter is perhaps the only girl walking around the village uncircumcised. Because of her, these four girls realize an escape is feasible, that they need not accept violence against their bodies because it’s the societal norm. “You are our only lifeline,” they tell Collé.

“I don’t want to be cut,” says one of the girls when a Salindana woman signals at them to cross the rope. “Me neither, me neither. I don’t want it—” they all say in turns, affirming one another. To not be circumcised is to be looked down upon and banished to a life of chronic singleness.

The girls’ solidarity in their shared struggles calls to mind a scene in Sex Education, the Netflix series about how teenagers navigate their sexuality and experiences. Following some threats by a fellow student, a picture of a high school girl’s vulva is shared among other students. As the principal sermonizes about the negative impact of distributing pornographic images and the importance of being courteous, a male student names the girl to whom the genitals belong, and the assembly roars in laughter. However, a female student rises and proclaims that it’s her vagina in the photograph. Another one stands and says it’s in fact hers. Followed by another, on and on; even a male student declares that it’s his vagina. The viewer swells with pride at how the power of solidarity holds people together and makes them transcend shame—this patriarchal tool that has been exploited for centuries to silence women.

To term female genital mutilation, an extremely brutal procedure, “purification” in the community, is a testament to how women are expected to respond to patriarchal violence: we are supposed to be grateful for whatever is handed down to us, to regard it a blessing. Any form of resistance is perceived as being unnecessarily difficult, self-absorbed, or ungrateful. Nasty, unsolicited comments masquerading as compliments should not only be received by women with a smile, they should be appreciated.

Another norm in this community is that it’s not only acceptable for men to flog their wives in order to subdue them—it’s encouraged. “Tame your wife,” Ciré’s brother tells him.

“You’re my favorite,” Ciré says to Collé. “You refused to have our daughter purified, I said nothing. You climbed on top my head, I did nothing, now you want to shit on it.” I find his choice of words, “shit on my head” interesting. At what point does existing, the simple act of Collé living on her own terms and protecting the girls from a lifetime of horror, become in his mind a tremendous insult?

“Tame her! Harder! Tame her!” Male spectators and some of the women prod Ciré on, as he flogs Collé to concede: say the redemptive word to ward off the Moolaadé power so the girls can be taken away. Other women standing at a corner encourage her to resist and not say the word.

How can we nurture one another out of violence?

The women in the former group are an insightful portrayal of how internalized oppression makes the work of solidarity difficult. One wonders: How can we make such women in our midst see that they themselves are thoroughly being screwed? When do we look inward, individually and collectively, and point to that which holds us back? How committed are we to unlearn internalized misogyny? How can we nurture one another out of violence?

Sembène’s films do an excellent job in portraying the inner lives of people who, despite being on the receiving end of a horrendous system, learn to stand firm on their feet. They serve as a reconfiguring tool such that the viewers are forced to take a look into their own lives.

Sembène referred to Moolaadé, which was announced best film at Cannes 2004, as his “most African film,” in relation to its narrative structure and aesthetics. “We have a majority of individuals, both men and women, who are struggling on a daily basis in a heroic way,” he said in a 2005 interview with the Guardian, “and the outcome of whose struggle leaves no doubt.” Mercenaire a merchant in the village, is a rich, complex character whose role is pivotal in Collé’s fight for freedom. This womanizing war veteran who was unjustly discharged from the army following an accusation, is the other person, besides Collé, who does the unthinkable in the village.

Though the film portrays repression of a group in a rural society over a decade ago, its themes are still a reflection of our daily lives today. They subtly show in some conversations that ensue, for instance, on social media: what women should do, what we should have access to, who we should be, what should bother us, what we should say, how much we should achieve. One easy example: I have seen the word “allow” being used on Twitter countless times, in relation to romantic relations between heterosexual men and women. Guys, can you allow your wife make this hairstyle? Can you allow your girlfriend wear this dress? Will you allow your partner eat that?

In the community, the women’s only contact with the world outside their immediate environment is the radio. Following Collé’s revolt, the men go from house to house, taking women’s radios. Once, three women are seen walking with bundles of firewood on their head. They stop beside a pile of radios, all confiscated from the women in the village.

“Do you know why they are confiscating our radios?” one asks. “Our men want to lock up our minds,” another replies;

“But how do you lock up something invisible?”

The World Health Organization says more than 200 million girls and women alive today in 30 countries in Africa have been cut. The primary purpose of the procedure is to take away women’s sexual pleasure. Millions more have been subjected to other barbaric, deep-rooted cruelty. In northern Nigeria, not only is FGM common, so is under-aged marriage. Foot binding was a major custom in China until the early twentieth century. It was believed that small feet made women more desirable to men.

Although foot binding is longer in practice, some other horrific customs still are. Breast ironing, for instance, is done in Cameroon and some other parts of Africa. Stones are used to press down girls’ breasts so they don’t mature fast; hence preventing them from being viewed sexually by men. Like breast ironing and foot binding, genital mutilation is an extremely painful, sometimes fatal procedure which is also done to control women and make them appeal to men’s gaze.

In Moolaadé, the Salindana wear red garments and walk around the village with a fierce resolve to do their duty. Once, after returning from Collé’s house without success, they sit in a semi-circle in an open space to discuss their next step. This scene harks back to images of witches as portrayed in Yorùbá films of my childhood. A group of women with red or black wrappers tied around their breasts are oftentimes plotting how to destroy someone’s life from their dreams or waking consciousness. They make incantations and invoke spells such that the victim sometimes wakes up unable to articulate what has befallen them or strips naked and runs onto the street. An intervention from a spiritual authority is often required to save them.

For women and girls, horror continues to manifest daily, dressed in different outfits.

Still, for women and girls, horror continues to manifest daily, dressed in different outfits. Once, as the Salindana women approach, through the point of view of the kids, the viewers see the women wearing dark masks with smoke rising around them, even though there are really no masks or smoke.

Apart from the fine blend of humour and charm, Moolaadé is set in a community; there is room for the women to amplify one another’s voices, for one to pull the other up. Black Girl’s Diouana, isolated and detached in a strange land, does not share a similar ending as in Moolaadé.

Moolaadé touches on the importance of having a support system, of connectivity and collectivity. The first time the Salindana women come, Ciré’s first wife Hadjatou gives Collé a cutlass. She stands facing the women on the other end of the rope while Hadjatou observes some feet away. The next time the women come, Collé is not alone. Hadjatou and the youngest wife stand behind her. Her rebellion has rubbed off on them.

But Moolaadé doesn’t only provide a model for how women’s solidarity can help resist patriarchal brutality. It also provides a road map for how men can be a part of that solidarity. From Mercenaire’s viscerally impactful role, we see what it means to be an ally. While most men will not take drastic steps as Mercenaire does, damning all consequences and interjecting Ciré when he publicly flogs his wife, they can at least take up simpler roles by simply listening to women. Only through dedication to unlearning toxicity will men become true allies.

Ciré’s life serves as a reminder that we women must first hold our hands and march forward, together. He loves Collé; however, it’s only after the women save themselves that he is able to stand up to his menfolk. I imagine he is, thereafter, able to lend his voice in dismantling other aspects of the society that hold them—both men and women—from living freely.

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