July 31, 2009
Last night I went to a screening of the film Mrs. Goundo's Daughter, which follows the story of a mother from Mali as she fights for asylum so that her U.S. citizen daughter, Djenebou, will not be circumcised upon return to Mali.
Filmmakers Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater follow Mrs. Goundo's immigration case in Philadelphia but also track a circumcision ceremony in Mali where 62 young girls are circumcised. The filmmakers interview several people, including expatriate Malian women who underwent FGM, Malian activists working to stop the practice, imams in Mali and the U.S. who have differing views on the practice's relation to Islam, female supporters of FGM in Mali, and the woman who was paid to circumcise the girls.
Several people interviewed, whether pro or anti-FGM, said the principle justification of the practice is to control women's supposedly insatiable sexual desire. Paraphrasing one young Malian imam in the film, "They are jumping over the walls to get sex as it is, imagine if they weren't circumcised."
Those who support the practice attribute it to divine will. In Mali, the great majority of women undergo FGM. The health effects of FGM can be severe, including infection or death from blood loss at the time of the cutting, and later ulcers, scar tissue, cysts, complications in pregnancy, incontinence, repeated urinary infections, obstruction in menstrual flow, infertility, chronic pelvic pain. The practice may also facilitate the transmission of HIV.
FGM is so prevalent in Mali, and cultural pressure to do it are so strong, that mothers cannot trust their own families not to send their daughters to be circumcised at the first opportunity. Uncircumcised women in Mali are undesirable and ostracized, so the family views FGM as in the best interest of the child.
Immigration judges in Philly are familiar with FGM asylum law because of the sizable West African community here. From the film's website:
To stay in the U.S., Mrs. Goundo must persuade an immigration judge that her two-year old daughter Djenebou, born in the U.S., will almost certainly suffer clitoral excision if Goundo is deported. In Mali, where up to 85% of women and girls are excised, Mrs. Goundo and her husband are convinced they would be powerless to protect their daughter from her well-intentioned grandparents, who believe all girls should be excised.
The filmmakers got the court tapes (presumably through a FOIA request made by Mrs. Goundo) and at one point in the film the government attorney argues that Djenebou is not being deported, that as a U.S. citizen she could simply stay in the U.S. to avoid her fate. At the age of two! This is a specious argument. Clearly if the mother is deported, a two-year-old child will go with the mother.
This is a film I recommend to anyone interested in learning about asylum law or the practice of FGM (or female genital cutting). At the end of the film, the filmmakers were asked what the audience could do to get involved with this issue, and they recommended supporting the work of Tostan, an NGO based in Senegal that works with local organizations throughout Africa to halt the practice of FGM. I would also say you could support local or national immigrant rights organizations who represent asylum-seekers on a daily basis (ACLU, NILC, AILF, and any number of local organizations).