Add to bookbag
Author: Françoise Lionnet
Title: Dissymmetry embodied: feminism, universalism and the practice of excision
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

This work is protected by copyright and may be linked to without seeking permission. Permission must be received for subsequent distribution in print or electronically. Please contact for more information.

Source: Dissymmetry embodied: feminism, universalism and the practice of excision
Françoise Lionnet

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 1, pp. 2-3, 4, 1991
Author Biography: Françoise Lionnet is in the Department of French and Italian and Northwestern University. She is the author of Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

DISSYMMETRY EMBODIED: Feminism, Universalism and the Practice of Excision [1]


What is most needed is some kind of special illumination of the structural dissymmetry that runs all through and conditions the entire fabric of social and individual life.

—Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society [2]

If one looks at the history of post-Enlightenment theory, the major problem has been the problem of autobiography: how subjective structures can, in fact, give objective truth.

Gayatri C. Spivak, "Question of Multiculturalism" [3]

In a recently published volume of essays entitled Conflicts in Feminism, editors Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller state that the 1980s have been "a decade of intense mutual criticism and internal divisiveness" [4] for feminist critics. Although Hirsch and Keller mean to refer primarily to the split which exists between "theoretical" feminism and "political" feminism, and to the disruptive and negative potential that such a polarization can have on the task at hand, that is, "the collective effort of gender analysis," [5] their diagnosis of the situation is quite accurate. Whether it is conflict between "American" and "French" approaches, "essentialist" and "post-structuralist" epistemologies, or "First" and "Third" world women, differences of ideology fuel disagreements that threaten to preclude dialogue. In such a climate, it has become imperative to re-examine the ground from which such conflicts develop, and to try to modulate and nuance the conceptual frameworks within which each position arises. To do so is to engage in a form of comparative feminist criticism that is urgently needed, and that does not aim at conflict resolution, but rather at reframing the issues in such a way that dialogue can remain open and productive.

It is easy to agree with Hirsch and Keller's position: the experience not just of the 80s, but of the last two decades, has created almost insurmountable differences, especially between "Western" modes of analysis of the concrete status of women in various non-Western cultures on the one hand, and non-Western women's subjective experience of their own position within social structures that perpetuate gender dissymmetry on the other hand. But I would like to argue that it is possible for a critic based in the Western academy to attempt, as Fatima Mernissi puts it, to "illuminate" the contexts within which this "structural dissymmetry" is embedded. This, however, requires us to go a step further than the editors of Conflicts in Feminism are willing to go. For Hirsch and Keller do not believe that feminism can be considered as a "unitary entity ... in which conflicts can or should be contained," [6] or that feminist activism can or should be subsumed "under the illusion of a unitary governing ideal," be it "woman" or "truth." Put another way, the implication of their argument is that we might be ill-advised to try to appeal to a set of "universal" (i.e. Western humanist) values which would allow feminists to come to a consensus about the possibility of sharing certain beliefs or points of views regarding both the nature and function of feminism as a global process, and the social construction of femininity within different cultural contexts. The point is well taken: ethnocentric value judgments have no place within a truly diverse, multicultural, and multiracial feminist inquiry.

Yet, it seems to me that the question of universalism comes back to haunt us, because we have not paused to carefully examine the consequences of anti-universalism when it is coupled with a cultural relativism marked by ignorance of, and indifference to, everything non-Western, and thus exemplifying a form of "Western liberal particularism that says 'hands off' to anything produced in Third-World nations or cultures." [7]

Anti-ethnocentrism can have the unfortunate consequence of undermining feminist political solidarity. Even worse, as Kathleen Barry's "Foreword" to Evelyne Accad's recent manifesto, Sexuality and War, points out, anti-ethnocentric liberalism reinforces "Third World masculinist nationalism [that] attempts to isolate women in their cultures and identify Western women as their enemy." [8] It is therefore important to continue speaking of community, and to attempt to find a common theoretical ground from which to argue for political solidarity without objectifying the "other" woman, nor subsuming collective goals under the banner of sameness. As Gayatri Spivak stated a decade ago, "However unfeasible and inefficient it may sound, I see no way to avoid insisting that there is a simultaneous other focus: not merely who am I? but who is the other woman? how am I naming her? how does she name me?" [9]

This is why I would like to enter the debates on universalism and particularism by briefly examining the discursive contexts of a concrete and specific ritual practice: the phenomenon of female excision and infibulation that is performed in parts of Africa and the Middle East, and that constitutes an important aspect of the cultural identity of Islamic women.

These ritual practices, often defined as various forms of sexual mutilation have, since colonial times, been denounced by missionaries, colonial administrators, Western media, feminist critics and health service professionals. They have decried the existence of such "ethnic" customs as "barbaric" or "anachronistic," that is, in terms that often smack of racist, anti-Islamic rhetoric. In the 1970s—especially after 1975, which was declared International Women's Year by the United Nations—the issue suddenly mobilized European and American feminists, to the point that in 1979, Renée Saurel could claim that those practices "ont fait couler beaucoup de sang depuis des millénaires et beaucoup d'encre depuis deux ans" ["have caused much blood to be shed for thousands of years, and much ink for the past two"]. [10]

In contemporary Western medical and anthropological literature, and in journalistic reports, the subject of excision has often been treated peremptorily, in an impassioned, reductionist, and/or ethnocentric mode which represents the peoples who practice it as backwards, misogynistic, and generally lacking in humane and compassionate inclinations: in other words, as has always been the case with respect to the Orient or Africa, the dominant rhetoric emphasizes lack, absence, failure, inhumanness. [11]

Unfortunately, counter-arguments also tend to use inflammatory language. In an interview, Mamadou Kante links the recent interest shown by Europeans in the sexual lives of African women to their desire to control the birth-rate in Africa:

Chacun sait que s'ils arrivent à contrôler les femmes sous un prétexte ou un autre, les naissances seront controlées en Afrique. Sous le fallacieux prétexte de l'excision, voilà le gros morceau qui se cache. C'est une politique des forces occultes. [12]

Everyone knows that if they [i.e. the super powers] succeed in controlling women under one pretext or another, then the birth-rate in Africa will be under control. Under the misleading pretext of excision, that is the hidden agenda. We are in the realm of occult political forces.]

Kante may well be justified in questioning the Western motives behind the campaign for birth control: the super powers' concern about "galloping demography" in non-white countries is indeed laced with racist fears and instincts for self-preservation stemming from the fact that whites are a global minority. But is it really fair to link the fight against excision to the racist wish to control non-white women's reproductive capabilities? Or does this accusation simply blur the real issue, marginalizing the female victims while the two opposing sides trade abuse and insult? Statistics show that excision and infibulation can have lethal side effects that contribute to higher mortality rates for mothers and infants at the moment of delivery. [13] Thus to conflate the Western fears about higher birth-rates in the Third World with the human rights issue of maternal and infant health seems to be a downright contradiction. But birth control information did make its entrance in Africa with the same health care professionals who had denounced genital mutilations in moralizing terms. The attitude of suspicion exemplified by Kante is easy to understand even if one cannot agree with it.

Unfortunately, the generally offensive rhetoric leaves little room for the careful examination of two competing claims: on the one hand, those who campaign for the abolition of all such ritual practices do so on the basis of a universal ethical imperative against the physical torture and psychological impairment of several dozen million women; [14] on the other hand, those who favor respect for the cultural autonomy of African societies tend to criticize all forms of feminist intervention as "acculturation" to Western standards. African women themselves have, in no uncertain terms, proclaimed that the issue was theirs to debate and discuss. Of several recent texts by African women who examine the problem with great care, three are particularly noteworthy: The Circumcision of Women: A Strategy for Eradication, by Olayinka Koso-Thomas, is a well-researched document, focused on Sierra Leone, that outlines a twenty-year plan for eradication; La Parole aux negresses by Awa Thiam is a compilation of interviews with women from West African states (Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria); and The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World by Nawal El Saadawi raises the issue as it relates to North Africa and the Middle East. Saadawi has also published a novel on which I shall briefly focus in the second half of this paper. Her Woman at Point Zero is, with Evelyne Accad's L'Excisée, one of the few fictional accounts written with moving sincerity and autobiographical details. It is a more effective and convincing denunciation than many pragmatic or political treatises because it allows the reader to enter into the subjective processes of the woman, to adopt her stance. [15]

These writers are all Western trained feminist intellectuals or scientists (Koso-Thomas and Saadawi are physicians) who denounce the practice from the vantage point of the educated elite—hence, some have argued, from a perspective more "Western" than "African," and thus alienated from the masses who will neither read them nor sympathize with their views. There is, in other words, a dissymmetry of class and ideology between them and the uneducated masses, a dissymmetry that is inevitable, since literacy and education remain, to a large extent, steps that favor Westernization.

In 1984, a seminar bringing together governmental (WHO, UNICEF, etc.) and non-governmental organizations was held in Dakar. Representatives of twenty African countries created the Inter-African Committee (IAC) for the abolition of harmful traditional practices. Its main focus has been education, information, and research, as well as strategies for "hand[ling] the problem in a manner acceptable to Africans." [16] The IAC also has subsections working in European countries where sexual mutilations continue to be performed among immigrant African families, especially in France and in England. Changes are slowly being implemented, and there are important indications that "progress" is indeed being made; arguments in favor of a form of cultural relativism that would excuse excision on strictly cultural grounds do not have as much currency as some vocal critics of interventionism might lead us to believe.

Indeed, a close examination of their arguments tends to reveal inconsistencies. For example, although Josephine Guidy Wandja calls for more attentiveness to the specificity of African sexuality, and to the deep meaning ("signification profonde" [17]) of traditional African rituals, declaring that "le modèle africain de la sexualité ne saurait ... être identique au modèle européen" [the African model of sexuality cannot be ... the same as the European model], she concludes her essay in defense of particularism with a universal statement that grounds sexuality in the materiality of the body, despite her earlier emphasis on the "optique spiritualiste" [18] of secular African traditions (previously contrasted to the mechanistic and materialist approach of the Americans Masters and Johnson). She asks:

En effet comment peut-on chercher à expliquer les coutumes millénaires d'un peuple en se basant sur des découvertes toutes récentes (XXe siècle)? On lit par exemple que l'excision supprime chez la femme le droit au plaisir mais dans leurs travaux, il faudrait que les spécialistes definissent unanimement ce que c'est que le plaisir. [19]

[Indeed, how is it possible to explain the age-old customs of a people on the basis of very recent discoveries (20th century)? One can read, for example, that excision suppresses women's right to experience pleasure, but in their research, specialists would have to give a unanimous definition of pleasure.]

If the issue is one of defining what constitutes "pleasure," then it seems acceptable to relativize the definition according to socio-cultural context and/or sexual preference. But Wandja never questions "le droit au plaisir," the right of women to be sensually/sexually fulfilled. As a matter of fact, she grounds the ethical problem in the physicality of the body, universalizing the well-being (if not the full integrity) of that body. Hence, one might argue, her position does not invalidate the search for an ethical imperative. Moreover, Wandja falls into what is perilously close to contradiction, for the other side of the coin remains the question of pain: how is it possible to reconcile the fundamental human right to pleasure with the wilful infliction of pain on the body of the female child? [20] Her particularist approach fails to justify relativism.

There are, however, other mitigating cultural reasons for regulating, transforming, and "improving" the body. I would be falling into the ethnocentric trap if I did not point out that in the West, the pursuit of an elusive ideal of femininity is also mediated by pain. French-speaking female children grow up hearing that "il faut souffir pour être belle" ["you must suffer to be beautiful"], and the pain of childbirth has generally been considered, in many cultures, as the "normal" fulfilment of a woman's destiny—a rite of passage, a difficult but necessary ritual. Similarly, excision and circumcision are considered rites of passage, initiatory practices the purpose of which is precisely to test the mettle of the individual, her endurance to pain, her ability to remain impassive and stoical in the face of severe discomfort. It is a "character-building" experience. It creates solidarity, closeness, and sisterhood among the initiates. Thus, as Wandja puts it, a successful initiation confers respect and dignity on the child now become woman. [21] As an initiatory practice, excision serves the same purpose as other forms of ritualized behaviors in many different cultures (e.g. fraternity hazing and its occasional fatal consequences). Furthermore, excision which has an aesthetic function—on a par with plastic surgery and other forms of self-denial: what Susan Bordo has called the "normalizing disciplines of diet, make-up, and dress ... [through which] we are rendered more ... focused on self-modification ... [These] practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation, and death." [22]

That is why, I would argue, it is quite possible to link excision to the general cultural paradigm of the reproduction of femininity and its concomitant depersonalizing effects. Marie Bonaparte, who had the opportunity to examine many excised women in Egypt in the 1930s, speculated, with Freud, that the practice stemmed from a wish to maximally "feminize the female" by removing the clitoris, "this cardinal vestige of her masculinity," and to intimidate and suppress the child's sexuality. But she also noted that "the physical intimidation of the girl's sexuality by this cruel excision would not achieve the aim of feminizing, vaginalizing her, any better than the psychical intimidation of the clitoridal masturbation of European little girls." [23] Since the operation suppresses genital structures which are "phallic," ethno-psychiatrist Michel Erlich adds that the psychological dimension of these operations

"s'inscrit comme une manifestation spécifique de l'angoisse de castration masculine devant le sexe féminin 'châtre' "

"is inscribed as the specific manifestation of masculine castration anxiety in front of the "castrated" female sexual organ". [24]

In this reading of the practice, male fears of women's sexuality would be the unconscious motivation for exaggerating, and thus controlling, femininity. But, paradoxically, infibulation which might first appear to be a "hyperfeminization" of the genitalia can also, on the contrary, be interpreted as a "phallisation" of the vulva which has been rendered smooth and convex, thus evoking "a phantasmatic phallus." This second interpretation underscores both what Clifford Geertz has called the "thickness" or polyvalent nature of symbolic systems, and the embedded incoherences to be found in the signifying text of culture. Clearly, there can be no simple cause, and therefore no simple "solution" to the complex cultural phenomena known as practices of genital mutilation. [25] As Tobe Levin declares, "Western activists must learn to enter the value system of the 'circumcised' to avoid the counter-productive approach based on ignorance and indignation alone." [26]

It is by pointing out some of the incoherences in cultural practices that we can begin to make sense of them. Indeed, the "official" discourse—on both sides of the ideological fence separating abolitionists (or universalists) from traditionalists (or particularists)—tends to overemphasize coherence, in the one case by appealing to abstract humanitarian notions, in the other by claiming the importance of cultural autonomy and specificity. In 1985, the President of Senegal, Abdou Diouf, made a declaration that stated the position of his government:

Female mutilation is a subject that is taboo ... But let us not rush into the error of condemning [genital mutilations] as uncivilized and sanguinary practices. One must beware of describing what is merely an aspect of difference in culture as barbarous. In traditional Africa, sexual mutilations evolved out of a coherent system, with its own values, beliefs, cultural and ritual conduct. They were a necessary ordeal in life because they completed the process incorporating the child in society.

These practices, however, raise a problem today because our societies are in a process of major transformation and are coming up against new socio-cultural dynamic forces in which such practices have no place or appear to be relics of the past. What is therefore needed are measures to quicken their demise. The main part of this struggle will be waged by education rather than by anathema and from the inside rather than from the outside. I hope that this struggle will make women free and "disalienated," personifying respect for the eminent dignity of life. [27]

In other words, two symmetrical and coherent systems seem to be opposed, the new displacing the old, the need to disalienate women taking precedence over the physical ordeal of excision. But one might contend that the so-called "coherent systems" are in fact already undermined by what Mieke Bal has recently called a "countercoherence", the coherence of dissymmetry. [28]

In her work, Bal makes a crucial distinction between asymmetry and dissymmetry: "The word asymmetry," she says, "refers to an absence of symmetry [that is an absence of coherence], while dissymmetry refers to a relevant relation wherein the expected and "logical" symmetry is replaced by a distortion of it, a distortion that allows power to take its place between the two related subjects. [29] Bal studies gender and murder in biblical texts, and compares two sets of murders: those of women committed by men, and those of men by women. The comparison reveals a basic dissymmetry of power, and "a fundamental struggle to enforce and strengthen dissymmetrical (unequal) power relations." [30] Of particular importance in Bal's study is the role she assigns to language as an instrument of murder: language too is a weapon that insures powerlessness in the victims. [31]

Consider, for example, that in many parts of Islamic Africa, notably the Sudan and Somalia, the worst form of insult is to call someone "a gaping vulva." There, speech-acts perform tradition, reinforcing the doxa, the meaning of age-old practices. Ideologemes contribute to insure powerlessness before the social system so that women may take their rightful place as subjected objects of desire. Women are named and defined by men who shape their self-understanding. Thus, in Woman at Point Zero, the protagonist "Firdaus," whose name means "Paradise" in Arabic, is taught the alphabet by her sexually abusive uncle. [32] Her clients, the men to whom she submits, also name and define her. They call her "slut," "bitch," [33] "You street walker ... you prostitute," [34] and she begins to use those words herself [35], having internalized the vision conveyed by those speech-acts which help perpetuate the status quo, and the women's belief that excision is necessary.

For Firdaus, words have a substance that is "palpable," "tangible" [36], a materiality and a weight as real as that of the bodies that arouse/abuse her. The men to whom she submits name and define her: "You are not respectable," [37] and as Firdaus's powerful anger makes clear, their words are means of control, abuse, and torture:

the words continued to echo in my ears ... buried themselves in my head like some palpable material object, like a body as sharp as the edge of a knife which had cut its way through my ears, and the bones of my head to the brain inside ... I could almost see them as they traversed the space separating his lips from my ears, like tangible things with a well-defined surface, exactly like blobs of spit, as though he had aimed them at me from between his lips. [38]

These words are sharp and cutting, instruments of contempt and disdain, ejaculations ("blobs of spit") that defile and contaminate the hearer, as in an act of rape. Words maintain the dissymmetry of power between the sexes by entering the woman's consciousness, serving as scalpel in a metaphoric lobotomy that mirrors the genital excision: "the knife ... had cut its way through my ears ... to the brain inside." The soft tissue of the ear with its orifice that leads to the brain has an unmistakable sexual connotation. Words rape as surely as the penis, or the knife that the groom must use on his wedding night to open his bride's vulva and consummate the marriage. Saadawi thus conflates the act of speech and the act of sex in a way that clarifies and buttresses Bal's claims about dissymmetry.

Furthermore, words—uttered or written—have the same power as money: they are akin to paper money ["a mere piece of paper" [39] ... "the whole ten pound note" [40]] contact with which produces in Firdaus a physical sensation as violent and as sudden as the unexpected orgasms provoked by her abusive uncle and clients. The symbolic value of words and money is thus conflated in a way that underscores their respective worth as currency, as means of exchange within a system that attributes to women a similar exchange value depending on their physical conformity to patriarchal standards of sexual beauty and purity. These standards are themselves based on a distortion of the idea of cultural symmetry which is presumed to exist between male and female processes of acculturation of the body.

Indeed, the question of symmetry is so often raised by traditionalists who want to emphasize either/both the equivalence between circumcision and excision, or/and the need to leave cultural interpretations of Africa to Africans, [41] that we must examine its tenets. I have already mentioned that the dissymmetry "educated" versus "illiterate" is evoked whenever feminist points of view are brought into focus, especially because feminism is considered to be a foreign—i.e. Western—import. [42] The fact is that there is an obvious analogy between circumcision and excision: they both consist in the ablation of a part of the body for the ostensible purposes of hygiene and sexual attractiveness, and as a means of correcting the primal androgyny, or original bisexuality, of each being, a belief held by some Nilotic peoples, and by the Mande and Kwa of Western Africa. [43] Hence for both sexes, the operation is meant to inscribe a particular sexual identity on the body, to mark it as cultural, to give it symbolic meaning, that is, to differentiate it. In Foucault's terminology, excision is part of a network of practices that "discipline" the body, functioning as a means of social control, and reproducing unequal relations of power along with gender identity. Mary Douglas has shown that there are symbolic relationships between the human body and the social body, that rituals can be interpreted in terms which link purity with order, and impurity with disorder, the latter being a sign of danger and power. [44] Excision, like circumcision, thus "purifies" the body, renders it fit to belong to its assigned place within a social order which it no longer threatens by its impure, abject nature—that is, its undifferentiated, dangerous sexuality. The painful ordeal to which the individual is subjected becomes a sign that the body can transcend pain, can endure. It is proof that the flesh is under the control of the spirit, in other words that the embodied self can become sufficiently detached from its physical sensations to attain the state of "pure" and heroic subjectivity.

But there ends the expected symmetry. It becomes a dissymmetry when the focus is once again placed on the body. From a strictly anatomical perspective, only a piece of flesh is removed from the male member, whereas in the case of the female, a sexual organ is cut off. By all accounts, the infliction of pain through circumcision cannot even begin to be compared with that of excision and infibulation. In The Hidden Face of Eve, Saadawi graphically describes her own experience of the knife, making a confession that can be juxtaposed to the silent testimonial of Firdaus in Woman at Point Zero:

I was six years old that night when I lay in my bed, warm and peaceful in that pleasurable state which lies half way between wakefulness and sleep, with the rosy dreams of childhood flitting by, like gentle fairies in quick succession. I felt something move under the blankets, something like a huge hand, cold and rough, fumbling over my body, as though looking for something. Almost simultaneously another hand, as cold and as rough and as big as the first one, was clapped over my mouth, to prevent me from screaming.

They carried me to the bathroom. I do not know how many of them there were, nor do I remember their faces, or whether they were men or women. The world to me seemed enveloped in a dark fog which prevented me from seeing ... All I remember is that I was frightened and that there were many of them, and that something like an iron grasp caught hold of my hand and my arms and my thighs, so that I became unable to resist or even to move. I also remember the icy touch of the bathroom tiles under my naked body, and unknown voices and humming sounds interrupted now and again by a rasping metallic sound which reminded me of the butcher when he used to sharpen his knife before slaughtering a sheep for the Eid.

My blood was frozen in my veins ... They were getting ready to cut my throat which was always what happened with disobedient girls like myself in the stories that my old rural grandmother was so fond of telling me.

I imagined the thing that was making the rasping sound coming closer and closer to me. Somehow it was not approaching my neck as I had expected but another part of my body. Somewhere below my belly, as though seeking something buried between my thighs. At that very moment I realized that my thighs had been pulled wide apart, and that each of my lower limbs was being held as far away from the other as possible, gripped by steel fingers that never relinquished their pressure ... Then suddenly the sharp metallic edge seemed to drop between my thighs and there cut off a piece of flesh from my body.

I screamed with pain despite the tight hand held over my mouth, for the pain was not just a pain, it was like a searing flame that went through my whole body. After a few moments, I saw a red pool of blood around my hips ... I did not know what they had cut off from my body ... I just wept, and called out to my mother for help. But the worst shock of all was when I looked around and found her standing by my side. Yes it was her, I could not be mistaken, in flesh and blood, right in the midst of these strangers, talking to them and smiling at them, as though they had not participated in slaughtering her daughter just a few moments ago. [45]

If we follow Elaine Scarry in her argument that the pain of torture is a process which "unmakes" the world and the self, dissolving the boundary between inside and outside, conflating in an almost obscene way private and public, then the experience described by Saadawi underscores the "unmaking" of the child's environment. [46] Visual and auditory perceptions become blurred, trust is forever destroyed as the mother's smiling face denies the reality of the shock and the pain. The strangers are described as body parts: a huge hand, cold and rough, an iron grasp, unknown voices, steel fingers. The child's own body reacts to the cold bathroom floor, to the rasping sound of metal being sharpened, to the metallic edge of the knife, and to the searing flame of pain that envelopes her. But the disjunction and depersonalization caused by the pain is replaced by a strong sense of urgency and agency when she sees her sister being carried away in order to submit to the same fate. A mirroring effect comes into play when the sisters' eyes meet and they are both united by the memory of a past and future pain:

They carried me to my bed. I saw them catch hold of my sister, who was two years younger, in exactly the same way they had caught hold of me a few minutes earlier. I cried out with all my might. No! No! I could see my sister's face held between the big rough hands. It had a deathly pallor and her wide black eyes met mine for a split second, a glance of dark terror which I can never forget. [47]

The remarkable anger voiced by the six year old child who protests on behalf of her younger sister is an almost mythical example of the agency and autonomy manifested by the body despite its disintegrative suffering. Here symmetry exists powerfully: the excised child sees herself in her sister, and feels with the sister. The empathy is complete and total. Yet, in her novel Woman at Point Zero, it is precisely this question of empathy that haunts the adult narrator who first resists identification with Firdaus as she struggles to understand her position vis-a-vis this "other" whose lower-class status, she initially feels, invalidates any comparison between them as symmetrical female subjects.

Woman at Point Zero is a lyrical testimonial that exemplifies the countercoherence of dissymmetry, the possibility of resistance to hegemonic pressures and to the cultural master narrative. Here, the countercoherence of "the body in pain" manifests itself in a feeling of irretrievable loss that opposes sensations to language and ideology, subjective structures to cultural doxa. It is emblematic of the issues raised by Gayatri Spivak in my second epigraph and in her essay on "French Feminism": "the problem of autobiography," the question of "objective truth," and the name of "the other woman." These issues continue to be widely debated in recent feminist theory [48], and Saadawi's work can be used as an example of the self-reflexive questioning that can make feminist criticism sensitive to the way scholarly discourse names "the other woman" and appropriates her voice, while at the same time insisting on the need for a universalist perspective on the global condition of oppression of women. The association between the educated researcher and the "(un)common criminal" changes the terms of the equation between "self" and "other" or "subjective" and "objective," enacting a transfer of values and feelings, locating the practice of writing at the intersection of multiple forms of knowledge. Saadawi's text contrasts and collapses the language of patriarchy and the language of the body, bringing into focus those aspects of the narrative that allow for its re-definition as a self-portrait. By appropriating Firdaus's voice, and allowing intersubjective communication to occur between them, Saadawi raises the hope that it is possible to come to an acceptable compromise regarding interpretation and intervention in the local practices of African Islamic societies. If autobiography is the means by which African women represent themselves, then to understand their subjective experience of excision, and its affective and cultural ramifications, we need to look for traces of these preoccupations in their texts, and to listen to their silences.

Saadawi's work often has an hypnotic, incantatory quality that draws the reader into its world: if "subjective structures can, in fact, give objective truth," then Saadawi's struggle to come to terms with Firdaus, "the real woman" [49] whose story she tells, testifies to her efforts to elevate this case study to the status of an exemplary narrative of female oppression and emancipation—in other words to give universal appeal to the story of this Cairo prostitute who is awaiting execution in Qanatir prison for the murder of her pimp.

In her Author's Preface, Saadawi states: "Firdaus is the story of a woman driven by despair to the darkest of ends. This woman, despite her misery and despair, evoked in all those who, like me, witnessed the final moments of life, a need to challenge and to overcome those forces that deprive human beings of their right to live, to love and to real freedom." [50] Although Saadawi is emphasizing generally unproblematic values, these could hardly be taken for granted in Sadat's Egypt. What makes the story compelling is the highly personal tone, the erosion of distance between the authorial self and the narrating "I" of Firdaus. Indeed, if Saadawi is first drawn to Firdaus because of her exceptional nature, the focus soon shifts to their shared experience of oppression as women in a patriarchal culture. What the text puts in motion is a strategy of displacement and identification between two women who are "objectively" very different—from the point of view of their respective social classes, their education and profession—but whose intimate experiences as women are uncannily similar. The narrative suggests that the universal can only be known through the particular or the personal, that it is the concrete subjective experience of this "other woman" that allows the scholar to relate to her as woman and sister, and to bring her back to life through her writing.

Physically and verbally battered, Firdaus retains nonetheless her capacity for agency, which manifests itself in a rage that culminates in the scene of the murder. This is a cathartic moment that helps her realize that anger sets her free to reappropriate language, to face "the savage, primitive truths" [51] and to be beyond fear and death. Firdaus finally names herself: she refuses to be a victim, and is willing to be a criminal because she prefers, as she puts it "to die for a crime I have committed rather than to die for one of the crimes you have committed." [52] This you names the ultimate other, the one who creates my hell. [53]

To the question Spivak asks: "How am I naming [the other woman]? How does she name me?" Saadawi might answer in the words of Roland Barthes and Nadine Gordimer: that a "writer's enterprise—his work—is his essential gesture as a social being" and that writers "take risks they themselves do not know if they would." [54] When Saadawi braids her identity with that of Firdaus because of their shared experience of pain and betrayal, she gives us a powerful example of a kind of feminine textuality I have called métissage, a dialogical hybrid that fuses together heterogeneous elements. [55] We are here in the presence of a mutual and reciprocal "naming" which effaces differences in order to point to an essential truth: that beyond their social differences, the two women share a nominal essence qua excised women. [56] Since this sexual mutilation is the most important cultural signifier of femininity, "biological" feminity becomes a culturally determined fact, linked to specific local practices. When Saadawi denounces those practices, she puts herself in jeopardy. By appealing to universal human rights, she attempts to build bridges across cultures, showing the validity of a "Western" mode of analysis that allows her to name her subjective experience of pain and to situate it within an intersubjective context. As a critic who does not belong to Islamic Egyptian culture, I am nonetheless interpellated by this dimension of the narrative and I must respond to it in a way that "universalizes" the integrity of the body. But, I would argue, this form of universalism does not objectify the other and subsume her into my world-view: what it does is create a relational space where intersubjectivity and reciprocity become possible.

1. I wish to thank Elizabeth Boyi for her insightful reading of a longer version of this paper. I also profited from the questions and comments of the participants of the 1990 Harvard English Institute.

2. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), ix.

3. Interview with Sneja Gunew, in Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 420.

4. 1. (New York: Routledge, 1990), 1.

5. 3.

6. 2.

7. Kathleen Barry, "Forward," in Evelyn Accad, Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East (New York, New York University Press, 1990), ix.

8. Kathleen Barry, "Forward," in Evelyn Accad, Sexuality and War: Literary Masks of the Middle East (New York, New York University Press, 1990), ix.

9. "French Feminism in an International Frame," Yale French Studies 62 (1981), 179. These lines have been cited by numerous feminist critics to underscore the need for a "particularist" or "relativist" approaches to the study of different cultures. See Elizabeth Abel, "Race, Class, Psychoanalysis? Opening Questions," in Conflicts in Feminism, edited by Hirsch and Keller, 197-99; Jane Gallop, "The Monster in the Mirror: The Feminist Critic's Psychoanalysis," in Feminism and Psychoanalysis, edited by Richard Feldstein and Judith Roof (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), 13-24; Jane Gallop, "Annie Leclerc Writing a Letter, with Vermeer," in The Poetics of Gender, edited by Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 137-56; and Helena Michie, "Not One of the Family: The Repression of the Other Woman in Feminist Theory," in Discontented Discourses: Feminism/Textual Intervention/Psychoanalysis, edited by Marleen S. Barr and Richard Feldstein (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 15-28.

10. "L'enterrée vive," Les Temps Modernes (fevrier 1979-mai 1980), 1354. See also: L'Enterrée vive (Geneve: Slatkine, 1981), 20, and Bouches cousues (Paris: Tierce, 1985). All translations are mine, unless otherwise noted.

11. See, for example, Anne de Villeneuve, "Etude sur une coutume somali: Les femmes cousues," Journal de la société des africanistes 7: 1(1937), 15-32; and Fran Hosken, The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females (Lexington, MA: Women's International Network News, 1982), 201. For studies of the way the Orient and Africa come to represent absence, see the classic study by Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1979), and Christopher Miller, Blank Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985).

12. "L'Excision," Présence africaine 142, 1(1987), 180.

13. See Michel Erlich, La Femme blessée: essai sur les mutilations sexuelles féminines (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1986), 132-33; Olayinda Koso-Thomas, The Circumcision of Women: A Strategy for Eradication (London: Zed, 1987), 27.

14. There are approximately 70 to 80 million excised women in the world today. Of those, five million have undergone infibulation. See Michel Erlich, La Femme blessée, 277.

15. Thiam (Paris: Denoel/Gonthier, 1978); Saadawi (London: Zed, 1980 and 1983); Accad (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1982). Some of the most famous defenses of the practice of sexual mutilation include Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu (London: Secker and Warburg, 1938); A. Van Gennep, Les Rites de passage (Paris: Nourrit, 1909); E. Leach, Culture and Communication: The Logic by Which the Symbols are Connected (London: Cambridge University Press, 1976). In all cases, the basis for the defense is a presumed homology or symmetry between circumcision and excision, and the fact that these practices form part of a classic three-phase ritual process marking entry into adulthood (for children of both sexes), and social integration into the community. For a traditionalist female perspective, see the novel by Flora Nwapa, Efuru (London: Heinemann, 1966).

16. Koso-Thomas, 107.

17. "Excision? Mutilation sexuelle? Mythe ou réalité?" Présence africaine 142 1(1987), 58.

18. 56.

19. 58.

20. Need I state that all published oral testimonies of educated and illiterate women dwell on the painful aspect of the procedure and its sequels, even if some interviewees maintain that their sexual response (i.e their ability to experience orgasm) is not affected? See Thiam, Erlich, as well as Chantal Patterson, "Les mutilations sexuelles féminines: l'excision en question," Présence africaine 142 1(1987), 162-67. As Patterson states: "A ce point du débat, je tiens à mettre en valeur les points suivants:

1. L'erotisme, la sensualité ne se vivent, ne se pratiquent ni ne se conçoivent de la meme façon dans chaque civilisation.

2. S'il y a mutilation, il y a forcément un système de compensation que le corps, usine extraordinaire, met en branle."(165)

[At this stage of the debate I would like to stress the following points:

1. Different civilizations live, practice and conceptualize eroticism and sensuality differently.

2. If there is any mutilation, a system of compensation must be set in motion by the body, this extraordinary machine.]

21. Wandja, 57.

22. See Erlich, 183 ff., for a comprehensive survey of the "aesthetic" argument. Susan R. Bordo, "The Body and The Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault," in Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing, edited by Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989), 14.

23. Female Sexuality, translated by John Rodker (New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1953), 207.

24. 14.

25. The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

26. "Women as Scapegoat of Culture and Cult: An Activist's View of Female Circumcision in Ngugi's The River Between," in Ngambika: Studies of Woman in African Literature, edited by Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1986).

27. In Koso-Thomas, "Appendix 5," 106, my emphasis.

28. Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago, Press, 1988).

29. Death and Dissymmetry, 138 and 273, n. 10; my emphasis.

30. 18.

31. 23.

32. Saadawi, 15

33. 50.

34. 49, 62.

35. 50.

36. 70, 71.

37. 70.

38. 70-1, my emphasis.

39. 66.

40. 65.

41. See Wandja, for example.

42. See Patterson's critique of Thiam, 165.

43. Erlich, 210-18.

44. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1979). Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols (New York: Pantheon, 1982); Purity and Danger (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

45. Saadawi, 7-8, my emphasis.

46. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 53. Saadawi, The Hidden Face of Eve, 8.

47. Saadawi, 8, my emphasis.

48. See for example, Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, eds., Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1988); Shari Benstock, The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988); The Personal Narratives Group, eds., Interpreting Women's Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing, Post-coloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); and Caroline Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life (New York: Ballantine, 1989).

49. Saawadi, 1.

50. iv.

51. 107.

52. 101.

53. I allude here to Jean-Paul Sartre's famous statement: "L'enfer, c'est les autres."

54. The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places (New York: Knopf, 1988), 286-87.

55. See the first chapter of my Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989).

56. See Diana Fuss, "Reading Like a Feminist," Differences 1:2 (summer, 1989), 78; and Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989).

passages |