A Film for Every Holiday: Int’l Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, “Moolaadé”

Judy Brooks picks the film to watch for today’s awareness day and tells us why it’s the right choice for the occasion.

On December 20, 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to annually observe February 6 as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. Their intent was to use the day to enhance awareness of, and take action against, this barbaric practice.

The best film to watch to take part in the UN-sponsored awareness day is Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé (2004).

In Moolaadé, director Sembène examines the dangers for women who live in harshly patriarchal and repressive societies, particularly those who have adopted a policy of intentional ignorance or a refusal to abandon traditional religious rites with harmful consequences to individuals. The film’s opening shots depict the synergistic connection between an African tribal village’s religion and their entrenched, often inhumane and misogynistic, practices.

In the film’s opening, Sembène tracks the frightening Doyenne des Exciseuses and her assistants (the female practitioners of “cutting”) en route to the village. After their movement, the camera roams the village itself and zeroes in on the local mosque. This structure is a simple mud hut, but it is ornamented and capped by an ostrich egg. Crude as it may appear, the mosque is striking, vaguely reminiscent of something by famed Spanish Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. However, as we are introduced to the village’s people and its customs, we find the purpose of the mosque feels darker, more chthonic than paradisiacal.

Women are the heart of Sembène’s film. The men make the laws here, but the women can either enforce them by tacit agreement or defy them by subtle or blatant disobedience. Female circumcision is considered necessary by all the men and most of the women, who are concerned for the future of their daughters – the practice of genital mutilation is so entrenched that no man will marry a woman who has not undergone the purifying ritual of “cutting.” Conversely, Collé (Fatoumata Coulibaly), the wife of a tribal elder, stands adamantly against it and invokes “moolaadé” (magical protection), an invocation of harbored protection, for four terrified young girls who are slated for the ceremony.

Collé’s moolaadé is a powerful invocation that none dare challenge, and only she can revoke it. When she defies an order to do so, the men decide the women are subject to excessive outside influences. They collect all the radios so cherished by the women in the village and burn them in a collective heap. When a heartbroken Collé still refuses to submit, the elders, along with many of the women in the village, call for Collé to be flogged publicly by her husband. She stands quietly and defiantly while being whipped, a silent example of the adage that men’s dominance over women can only continue as long as women as a collective accept their authority.

Moolaadé is Sembène’s parable about the state of social justice for girls and women, particularly in third-world countries who remain on the sidelines of modernization. In the world of the 21st century, it’s shocking that men anywhere still believe they have the right to assume control over women’s bodies, whether it’s through the denial of birth control, restricting access to abortion, or the cruel and archaic ritual of female genital mutilation. But Moolaadé illustrates that it can be even more disturbing when women, whether out of fear, ignorance or a failure to believe in the possibility of change, collude with or sacrifice themselves to the harsh and disdainful gods of patriarchy.

For this powerful and difficult message, as well as its close look at how the problem of genital mutilation can tear communities apart, Mooladé is the most important film to watch on February 6 of each year, as we draw awareness to the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.