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Author: Raymond Verdier
Title: The Exciseuse in criminal court: the trial of Soko Aramata Keita
Publication info: Ann Arbor, Michigan: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: The Exciseuse in criminal court: the trial of Soko Aramata Keita
Raymond Verdier

Evanston, IL: Program of African Studies, Northwestern University
no. 3, pp. 1, 3, 1992
Author Biography: Raymond Verdier is Director of the Centre Droit et Cultures of Université de Paris X-Nanterre, and secretary of the editorial board of Droit et Cultures.

The Exciseuse in criminal court: the trial of Soko Aramata Keita


Reprinted from Droit et Cultures: Revue semestrielle d'anthropologie et d'histoire, no. 21, 1991.

Paris (March 6-8, 1991)

Bobigny (June 18-27, 1991)

The scandal of excision goes back twenty-five years: in Geneva, Terre des Hommes, denounced the "worst of criminal assaults" inflicted upon innocent children. Up until that time, it was not spoken of at the international level, since in 1959 the World Health Organization concluded it was unqualified to undertake a study commissioned by the Social and Economic Council of the United Nations, on the grounds that excision was a ritual operation of a socio-cultural order.

French courts found in 1983 that an excision performed by a mentally ill French mother on her young daughter was a criminal mutilation; in the absence of a specific text forbidding it, excision—ritual or not—today falls under the jurisdiction of the criminal courts.

Three criminal trials involving excision took place from 1988 to 1990—the Baradji case, Pontoise, May 1988; the Dalla Fofana Traore case, Paris, October 1989; the Saloum Soumare case, Bobigny, June 1990. Only the parents of the excised children were prosecuted; they were sentenced to suspended prison terms of from three to five years.

The first trial of an exciseuse in the Criminal Courts took place on March 6-9, 1991 in Paris, the second in Bobigny on June 18-27. Both concerned the exciseuse Aramata Soko Keita, accused in the first case of having excised the six small daughters of the Coulibaly family between 1982 to 1984 and, in the second, sixteen children of ten Senegalese and Malian couples, one of whom died following her excision.

Five years criminal confinement for Madame Keita and five years suspended sentence for the parents in the first case; four years imprisonment—three to be served and one suspended—for Madame Keita, one year suspended sentence for the parents (three of whom were acquitted) in the second: a punishment of extreme and exemplary severity in one case, and one of lenience and clemency in the other; such are the two verdicts pronounced in the space of three months in the jurisdiction of the same court of appeals.

The contrast between these two sentences is all the more surprising in that one should have expected a sentence of at least equal severity for the exciseuse who was accused of—apart from the mutilations—the death of a small girl. Should the vagaries of popular judgment exempt us from making attempts at explanation? The secret deliberations of the jury, the restrictions against taping the proceedings of the criminal court, and, most of all, the limited publicity of the second trial (Juvenile Criminal Court), prevent one from making a rigorous comparative analysis of the two trials which would permit identification of the factors influencing the judicial decision. These different constraints will cause our observations to be simple hypothetical remarks.

Let us enumerate a few explanatory facts:

  • A ministerial pronouncement on television which denounced the practice of excision on the closing date of the Paris trial—March 8, the International Day of Women.
  • The length of the trial: three days in Paris, eight days spread over a two-week session in Bobigny.
  • The presence of three public-interest groups in Paris, only one in Bobigny (the barring of SOS Femmes Alternative and Planning Familial were announced at the opening of the trial at Bobigny).
  • Silence and denial by the exciseuse in Paris; admissions in Bobigny.
  • The absence of witnesses for the prosecution in Bobigny; numerous witnesses in Paris.
  • Insufficient translation of the proceedings in Paris; Bobigny?
  • The effectiveness of the closing arguments of the chief prosecutor in Paris; Bobigny?
  • The presence of a Senegalese lawyer who spoke Madame Keita's language in Bobigny.

Without a true comparison of the two trials—which we are unable to do—we cannot appreciate the respective importance of these various factors. We will say only that the time factor must have played a decisive role in Bobigny, allowing the different actors to better understand one another and, thus, giving full significance to the cultural debate.

It was completely different at the Paris trial where the prosecution chose to stay "on the borders of the societal debate," to engage fully the "legal debate." On the cultural plane, the chief prosecutor discredited excision through four peremptory declarations: it is "a marking of inferiority"; it is a "mutilative wound;" it is "without foundation"; it is a "lucrative practice." On the legal plane, she declared the accused guilty because they, in her words, had acted "in full knowledge of the law," with the "desire to do harm, and in the absence of any "external constraint." The demon of excision was exorcised, the sentence a deterrent meant to make of excision "a livelihood which risks incurring a very heavy penalty."

There was, finally, a scapegoat, and the defense needed to respond forcefully—but without being able to rehabilitate the image of the exciseuse, harmed by her silence and compared with an "angel maker" and a "mercenary." The legal argument had been detached from the cultural, and the latter was skillfully suppressed.

Let us re-examine, one by one, the arguments of the public prosecutor while giving to excision its traditional importance, in the interest of advancing the societal debate, which alone is likely to curtail the practice of excision on French territory.

  • No, in African tradition excision is not a "marking of inferiority," an affront to equality between the sexes; it is, like circumcision—with which, internationally, it is on a par (there is no society with excision that does not also practice circumcision)—the sign of the complementarity of the sexes. If infibulation is incontestably a mark of masculine domination, clitoridectomy is an act of social incorporation into the group of women, a rite of passage calling for courage, endurance, abnegation, and which opens the way from adolescence to adulthood and procreation, enabling marriage and motherhood in both a biological and social sense.
  • No, excision is not a "mutilative wound" among its practitioners in Senegal and Mali, but a purifying cutting the goal of which is fecundity; it is sometimes limited to the simple ablation of the clitoral hood (Sunna circumcision), indeed to a small incision or to a purely symbolic tattooing of the sexual organ.
  • No, excision is not an "unfounded custom:" it is a ritual of religious integration which predates Islam: every human being, a creature of God and of ancestors, acquits himself/herself of a debt of sacrificial blood owed to the spirits who gave him/her life. The initiate returns to the village a new and purified being, henceforth able to procreate and to begin a household under the protection of ancestors, the mediators between God and men, guardians of tradition and values.
  • No, excision is not a "lucrative activity" but a vocation: the exciseuse, whose role is essential during the initiation, is a respectable and respected woman; the ritual gifts she receives—soap, pagnes, and, today, a small amount of money—are not a payment, but an act of thanks and gratitude, comparable to offerings at a mass. The allusion to "angel makers" is heavy with misunderstandings.
  • No, excision is not a custom one can reject without losing one's cultural identity; it is an all the more compelling obligation since to the pre-Islamic tradition has been added the strong pressure of Islam in Africa which, far from forbidding excision, often recommends it to the faithful; as proof, a good number of accused parents see in it a Muslim custom.
  • No, there is no intention at all to harm the child: it is, on the contrary, in her "higher interest" that she be excised if she is to avoid becoming a stranger in her group of origin.
  • No, there was indeed widespread ignorance of the prohibition against excision in France at the time of these acts (1982-1983); the Immigration Service should have given to Senegalese and Malians arriving in our country a booklet outlining their rights and responsibilities in their host country. We do not take full measure of all the difficulties and obstacles to the establishment of real communication: the isolation of women who do not speak French, the weight of taboos, the pressure of the group, and of custom ...

Let us end these counter-propositions which could lead one to think that we wish to defend a practice which there can be no question of recognizing on our soil, neither as an initiatory rite nor as a medical intervention.

Our rebuttal proceeds from a recognition of the need for dialogue, not diatribe, and has no other goal in tying together the legal and cultural debates than to re-introduce the contradictory—which is essential to the legal debate—and to emphasize that the political campaign waged by certain associations against sexual inequality has no place in our courts.

It is not by discrediting a foreign custom which is unacceptable by our moral standards and contrary to our national public order—it is not by exorcising it with incantations and sanctioning it in an exemplary fashion with heavy and degrading punishments—that it will be curtailed; the risk is great, then, of repressing it further into clandestinity and of exposing children to additional danger in depriving them of hygienic safeguards. It is by taking full stock of the traditional significance and value of excision that we will be able—together with those directly concerned—to find substitutions adapted to their new social environment.

Copyright 1991 by Droit et Cultures: Revue semestrielle d'anthropologie et d'histoire, Centre Droit et Cultures, Université de Paris X-Nanterre. Translated and reprinted by permission.

1. Raymond Verdier is Director of the Centre Droit et Cultures of Université de Paris X-Nanterre, and secretary of the editorial board of Droit et Cultures. He is the author of Le Pays kabiye: cité des dieux—cité des hommes (Paris: Karthala, 1982) and editor of Systèmes fonciers à la ville at au village: Afrique noire francophone (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1986).

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