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Reporter and translator discuss FGM practices

By Rachel Starr
On March 12, 2012

Last Wednesday, the Women's and Gender Studies Program hosted a talk with translator Toby Levin and author Hubert Prolongeau to discuss their book Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris. They discussed the horrors of female genital mutilation and a surgeon who risked his life to undo the surgery millions of females went through. Levin is an activist against female genital mutilation who wrote the afterword of the book and translated it from French to English. She is also the head of several campaigns such as Uncut/Voices to support women in African countries. In her opinion, "[female genital mutilation] is one of the worst plagues humanity has ever known." Hubert Prolongeau is a French journalist who originally wrote the book in French. During the lecture, Prolongeau read excerpts of the original book while Levin read the English version.

FGM involves cutting off, according to Prolongeau, "the scrap of skin, the clitoris," of the female and showing it to the mother. This operation is extremely painful and often the doctor makes a mistake and has to cut more than one area, he said. According to Prolongeau, the women do not undergo it by choice. One patient is described in the book as saying, "I didn't want to go through with it." The scar and incision prevent pleasure for the female during sexual activities. Female genital mutilation leads to the "creation of the virgin." The speakers said that cultures force female genital mutilation upon girls out of a sense of duty. "A culture grows up with an idea of genital beauty and genital ugliness and none of us wishes to be ugly, unattractive, undesirable. This idea is so important emotionally," said Levin. "The society has a notion of beauty and ugliness which helps to perpetuate this kind of operation." Some cultures believe that a child is of no sex before undergoing female genital mutilation and others believe that removing the pleasure point of females will make a child "pure."

According to the speakers, there is hope for the women who have had this operation. Doctor Pierre Foldes discovered a way to remove the scar caused by the female genital mutilation operation and replace it with healthy tissue. Doctor Foldes performs surgeries on thousands of women and does not accept payment. Before the book was published in 2006, 1,000 women had had the clitoris-restoration operation performed. Now, 3,500 women have had the operation.

Prof. Shulamit Reinharz (SOC), the director of the Women's Studies Research Center, was contacted by Levin about promoting her book. Levin said, "I have been here before introducing the topic and in a sense I knew there was interest here. … I knew that Brandeis was open to informing itself about those issues so they seem like an audience that would be open to this presentation." One student who attended the event, Elena Unschuld '15, said, "I thought it was very interesting. … It was interesting to hear that it has been going on."

When asked what message the speakers wanted to get across about female genital mutilation, Levin replied, "[The audience] should understand that those that have been subjected to this … grow up to resent having it done. If the audience has the opportunity to influence law makers or policymakers to recognize it as an international crime of human rights … then that should be their political opinion."

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