Since documentary viewers and moviegoers are usually careful and cautious as to the kind of films they watch, if I were to tell you the theme of this documentary (which I’m reviewing) is female circumcision (i.e. Female Genital Mutilation) but in a context of fighting for emancipation and liberty against this social practice banned in an African village – would I lose your attention? If not, have you then decided to see this film? But the truth is, to skip ‘Moolaade’ the documentary, would be to miss an opportunity to actually witness the heroism and a celebration of the dynamism of African women.
Female genital mutilation/circumcision (FGM/C) is a fundamental human rights issue that affects girls and women negatively worldwide. As such, its elimination is a global concern. It refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. According to a 2016 UNICEF report on FGM/C shows that, at least 200 million girls and women have experienced in 30 countries across three continents and hundreds of millions more girls will suffer profound, permanent, and utterly unnecessary harm by 2050 if proper intensive and sustained action are not taken by the international community.
FGM/C may cause a extreme pain and can result in infection, infertility, prolonged bleeding and even death (United Nations Children’s Fund, 2016). A 2006 World Health Organization’s study found that FGM/C is also harmful to newborns as a result of adverse obstetric outcomes, leading to an extra 1 to 2 perinatal deaths per 100 deliveries (World Health Organisation, 2006). It is important therefore, to see Moolaade in order to appreciate the fight against this false social norm.
I approach this review as a heterosexual male who has little understanding of the positionality of women affected by female genital cutting.
Review of Moolaade
The documentary Moolaade tells the story of a Muslim woman, and a mother Colle’ Gallo Ardo Sy, as she confronts the forced practices of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) advanced by mainly male elders and women associates. By refusing the circumcision of her daughter Amsatou, seven years earlier and now has become declared bilakoro (unpurified, a state that prevents sexual or marital union with a man), Collè became in the eyes of the village establishment a very stubborn woman and erring wife. However, she became a local hero in the eyes of educated locals, and the girls enlisted to be circumcised that season.
The society Ousmane Sembene (the writer and director) depicts is a self-enclosed patriarchal (the social order of male rights and privilege) society in Burkina Faso, ruled by predominantly Muslim but governed by pre-Islamic traditions. The society is symbolized by traditional family compound houses surrounding a Masjid and a ‘spirit-possessed’ anthill that stands side by side in the main square of the village, Djerisso. But Djerisso, the village, is not entirely shut off from the outside world. The women, as they tend to their work and children, depend on their radios for news and happenings around the world. Throughout the film, he notes the details of work, rest, domesticity and religious rituals that make up the daily routine of the village.
Moolaade is indeed a story vibrating with urgency and life, the title refers to a ‘magical protection’ named after an evil spirit rooted in an evil king of the land who reigned in the past. It is a hallowed tradition of the people, which involves a superstitious blockage imposed on a doorstep of a house which cast spells on anyone passing through without permission. Thus, no one can enter through that door except the one whom the invoker gives permission. One will incur the wrath of the Moolaade if they disobey the blockage. And only the invoker can disable the blockage and its wrath through a counter-ritual. This ‘protective spirit’ is invoked by Collé, the film’s heroine, when four pre-adolescent girls appear on her doorstep seeking sanctuary. But before, two others terrified at the prospect of genital mutilation have already drowned themselves at one of the village wells.
Collè whose scars on her belly testify to a childbirth (i.e. previously, the couple had lost two of their daughters through the effects of FGM) made dangerous and hurtful by the after-effects of circumcision, and the determination to save her only surviving daughter and others from a similar fate, or a worse one agrees to help them by the invocation of the ‘protective sprit’. She ties a strand of bright tassel across the entrance to her compound, and it is understood by everyone that as long as the girls stay inside the compound, they are safe, and no one can step inside to capture them. Her decision seems to have been tolerated as a personal foible and a matter for gossip among the village establishment when she refused the circumcision of her daughter. But in sheltering other women’s daughters from the fearsome women, the Salindana and her red-gowned priestesses who perform the ritual with small, red-handled knives, Collè, ‘the human right advocate’, finds herself cast as a dangerous subversive, accused of going against traditional teachings and of threatening the social order of the village and discriminately flogged in public for standing up for her rights as well as the right of the voiceless individuals in the village.
However, the village in Moolaade has an interesting division of powers. All authority allegedly resides with the council of men, but all decisions seem to be made by the women, who in their own way make up their minds and achieve what they desire. Men insist on purification, but it is really women who enforce it – not just the fearsome red-gowned women who actually conduct the ceremony, but ordinary women who have undergone it and see no reason their daughters should be spared. Notwithstanding that, the women in Djerisso remain disadvantaged in many areas of their lives. Gender inequality is reflected in the traditional ideas about the roles of women, and men in the village and these stereotypes and assumptions about the women’s lives leads to unlawful discrimination.
Gender relations in Moolaade are not different from the known traditional dimensions of social relations that create differences in the positioning of men and women in social structures and processes. The relations that give men a greater capacity than women to mobilize a variety of cultural roles and material resources in pursuit of their own interests. These structures and relations give rise to women’s subordination and disadvantaged position in the village, Djerriso. For instance, in Moolaade, the men are always seen sitting on stools, above the women, who sit on the ground. It is even true for the chief’s son who sits above his mother and other elders. This is a good visual representation of the inferiority and subservience of women with regards to gender relations in this community.
But Mr. Sembene never lets anyone lapse into easy categories. As Djerisso is not entirely shut off from the outside world, the film’s plot is advanced by two semi-outsiders. A peddler named Mercenaire and the chief’s son Ibrahima, who has returned from France with crisp linen suits and crisper banknotes, which he passes out to the dazzled villagers. These two men influence the outcome of Collé’s revolt, which even led to the murder of Mercenaire (signifying that, in the quest of challenging the patriarchal status-quo and social constructions in the society, can lead to loss of life. This is seen in the first feminist wave, liberators especially women who fought for the equal rights to vote and participate in politics lost their lives in these quests), and the film, the second in a projected trilogy that Sembene presents is devoted to “heroism in daily life”.
Moolaade is certainly a film worth watching, as it is a story signifying hope and one that calls on the international community to intensify efforts not only to end the practice of FGM but advocate against all social ills and inequalities within our societies and how women can play an instrumental role in this quest for liberation and emancipation from these social ills and inequalities that exist. These yawning chasms (inequalities) between males and females in our social settings is one of the major setbacks if not the paramount in the attainment of sustainable development. Hence, seeking to realize human rights for all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in order to uproot the socially constructed inequalities within societies around the globe will contribute greatly to empowering women, individuals and communities to stand up against social practices advanced by the ‘patriarchal social order’ in our societies.
About the Writer
Khiddir Iddris is from Tamale, Northern Region, Ghana. He is a planner who did his undergraduate studies in BSc. Planning at the University for Development Studies (UDS) and is currently pursuing his MPhil in Development Studies at the Institute for Development Studies, University of Cape Coast, Ghana.