Warrior Marks, subtitled "Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women" is Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar's documentary book and film about female genital mutilation. All I know about the film is that it was produced by Walker, directed by Parmar, and shown on television in England on Channel 4, on a series called Critical Eye in the fall of 1993, and was sponsored by Alain Fountain and Caroline Spry, who also commissioned Parmar's films Khush, Double the Trouble, Twice the Fun, and A Place of Rage. What follows is a review of the book; comments on the film will depend on my ever finding it (fingers crossed).

Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women. By Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993. ISBN: 0-15-100061-1

In 1992, Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Alice Walker published Possessing the Secret of Joy, a novel about an African woman struggling to overcome the trauma of her genital mutilation (female circumcision and infibulation). A portion of the proceeds from this book were dedicated to education about genital mutilation and its consequences. Before her book was even released, Walker sent a copy of its manuscript to British filmmaker Pratibha Parmar, asking her if she would be interested in collaborating on a documentary about genital mutilation. Parmar had interviewed Walker for her documentary, A Place of Rage, and was eager to work with her again. Deeply moved by Possessing the Secret of Joy, she began to do research and seek funding for the project, which would involve a trip to the West African countries of Senegal and The Gambia, where female genital mutilation is practiced. The quotes below are from Parmar's writings at the project's inception:

I had known about female genital mutilation before I read Possessing the Secret of Joy. I was aware that it was practiced not only in Africa and the Middle East, but also in other parts of Asia and among small communities of Bohra Muslims in India, Pakistan, and East Africa.

I was also keenly aware of the debate that had erupted at the 1985 UN Decade for Women conference in Nairobi, Kenya. Many African women had reacted angrily when Western feminists raised the subject of female genital mutilation. "Stop groping about in our panties" was their response, born of resentment at the colonial tone of Western feminism....

The fear of being labeled cultural imperialists and racists has made many women reluctant to say or do anything about female genital mutilation. Except for the writings and voices of a handful of white feminists over the last decade or so, there has been a deafening silence, a refusal to engage either critically or actively with this taboo area of feminist concern.

Clearly, female genital mutilation is a painful, complex, and difficult issue, which involves questions of cultural and national identities, sexuality, human rights, and the rights of women and girls to live safe and healthy lives. But this complexity is not an excuse to sit by and do nothing. Who cares if African women and children are subjected to violence? We should all care. If one hundred million white women and children were being mutilated as a matter of course in the name of tradition, the earth would by now be shaking with the tremors caused by voices of protest and righteous anger. (93-5)

Warrior Marks the book is in three parts: Walker's half of her correspondence with Parmar, and journal entries from the trip to Africa; Parmar's half of the aforementioned correspondence, and journal entries; and transcripts of interviews conducted by Walker and Parmar. In Africa, they spoke to circumcisers, circumcisees, activists and educators working to end genital mutilation, religious experts (although the tradition of female circumcision, excision, and infibulation are known to predate Islam by centuries, if not millennia, they have nonetheless become linked to the requirements of that religion), and others. They also met with a young woman from Mali who fled her village to avoid mutilation and successfully sought political and religious asylum in France. Walker herself is the subject of two interviews, in which she and Parmar explicate their movie's origins as an outgrowth of her book, and her personal reasons for exploring such a sensitive topic. The following is an excerpt from "Like the Pupil of an Eye: Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women", a segment Alice Walker wrote for Warrior Marks about her own experience of being visually mutilated by a brother at about the same age many young girls are subjected to genital mutilation.

The fact that I learned to rebalance... to go on with my life... means I have by now turned my wound into a warrior mark---for I have had to live with it and to transform myself, from someone nearly devastated by childhood suffering, into someone who loves life and knows pleasure and joy in spite of it... It is true I am marked forever, like the woman who is robbed of her clitoris, but it is not, as it once was, the mark of a victim. What the woman warrior learns if she is injured as a child, before she can even comprehend that there is a war going on against her, is that you can fight back, even after you are injured. Your wound itself can be your guide.

No one would think it normal to deliberately destroy the pupil] of the eye. Without its pupil, the eye can never see itself, or the person possessing it, reflected in the eye of another. It is the same with the vulva. Without the clitoris and other sexual organs, a woman can never see herself reflected in the healthy, intact body of another. Her sexual vision is impaired, and only the most devoted lover will be sexually "seen." And even then, never completely.... It is for this loss, among others, that we must, women and men, mourn. For who among us does not wish to be seen completely? And loved in our entirety? ...Those of us who are maimed can tell you it is possible to go on. To flourish. To grow. To love and be loved, which is the most important thing. We can also tell you that mutilation of any part of the body is unnecessary and causes suffering almost beyond imagining. We can tell you that the body you are born into is sacred and whole, and there is nothing that needs to be subtracted from it. (17-19)

Both Walker and Parmar's segments of the book are profoundly autobiographical; neither hesitates to share her deep personal connections with the work. I liked learning about Parmar's life and approach to filmmaking, having previously only seen her film Khush. The authors do not shy away from a horrifying topic, yet they are not exploitative of or condescending to any of their subjects. Reading Warrior Marks is alternately inspiring, horrifying, and fascinating, but always powerful.

...in the "enlightened" West, it is as if genital mutilation has been spread over the entire body, as women (primarily) rush to change their breasts, their noses, their weight and shape---i.e. by removal of ribs and fat, and by such things as deliberate starvation. I would want this in the film somehow, because otherwise there will be a tendency for Westerners to assume that genital mutilation is more foolish and "barbaric" than the stuff they do. (9-10)

Today the maiming and mutilation of women is common. Not just in the Middle East. Not just in Asia. Not just in Africa.... (19)

Some of the documentaries that I'd seen on female genital mutilation tended to sensationalize the issue and show these practices as something outside the realm of Western civilization, something "other", "remote", "barbaric". In fact, the psychic and physical mutilations that women in the West undergo are equally devastating: unwanted hysterectomies, endless face-lifts, liposuction, bullimia, anorexia. Silicone breast implants---all in the pursuit of youthfulness and an ever-changing notion of the ideal woman. (109)

...Gloria Steinem's book Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions... linked patriarchal practices like genital mutilation with examples of patriarchal oppression from the U.S. and Europe. I learned that Western nineteenth-century medical texts proclaimed genital mutilation as an accepted treatment for nymphomania, hysteria, and masturbation. (110)

Walker and Parmar do a great job of pointing out that although much discussion of female genital mutilation takes the stance that it's an isolated, barbaric, primitive, foreign practice without acknowledging that women are victimized by violence everywhere, much less subjected to painful and traumatic procedures (facelifts, breast implants, genital plastic surgery---see labiaplasty---and other stuff I wish I was making up). So that's really excellent. If you're interested; I also highly recommend Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy---as mentioned before, this fictional predecessor to Warrior Marks about an African woman whose life as an immigrant to the U.S. is haunted by her mutilation. Parmar's original proposal for Warrior Marks planned on including dramatic enactments of scenes from Possessing the Secret of Joy, but these had to be cut due to budgetary constraints.

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