The most powerful woman in the world

Ousmane Sembene’s story of resistance proposes a progressive future for rural Africa

Niels Strandskov

An old slogan has it that “you can’t blow up a social relationship.” Indeed, the solutions to the worst problems we face as a civilization are often complex, messy and not amenable to violent intervention.

Such a problem is the issue of female genital cutting (FGC), often referred to as female circumcision or female genital mutilation. The practice, which hundreds of thousands of young women are subjected to every year, involves the excision of the clitoris and often parts of the labia. Much of the time, this is done without anesthesia, in a nonsterile environment by people who are not trained physicians.

Clearly, we live in a horrible world.

Senegalese filmmaker and novelist Ousmane Sembene, one of the most respected people in African cinema, takes on the practice in his new film “Moolaade,” with a candor that is both nuanced and intense. The solutions he offers implicitly reject the colonialist, top-down approach that has so far failed to abolish FGC.

In an unnamed Muslim village in sub-Saharan Africa, six girls escape from the “purification” ceremony in which they are supposed to undergo FGC. Four of them run to the house of a sympathetic woman named Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly), who has refused to allow her own daughter to endure the procedure.

Colle, the second wife of one of the village elders, ties a skein of yarn across her doorway to symbolize that the girls are now subject to “moolaade” (protection) and that anyone who interferes will be subject to unspecified but dire penalties.

Of course, this action is unpopular, and Colle has to withstand the wrath of the elders, the women who perform FGC and her husband.

“Moolaade” takes African village life seriously. The film neither romanticizes the people it studies, nor does it paint them as hackneyed stock-types who predictably fall into their roles. Instead, we see the very real obstacles Colle faces in her attempts to protect the children. She is rejecting tradition and thus going up against the entrenched power structure – and not without a price.

It’s almost possible to sympathize with her opponents, who see the creep of modernization threatening to undermine both their own power and the stability of their community. Colle is undaunted, however, and persistently makes the case for an end to FGC within her village, using both her solidarity with the other women and her knowledge of village tradition.

Sembene’s work has often focused on women’s issues in a changing Africa, and with “Moolaade,” he gets right to the heart of the matter. While many African people and nations are faced with a diverse array of problems that can hardly even be grasped by privileged Westerners, there’s no doubt patriarchy and its insidious effects are at the root of much of the continent’s suffering. But the antidote to this misogynist disease cannot come through neocolonial means. Sembene rightly proposes the only solution that will work: grassroots organizing and solidarity on the part of those most victimized by oppression.

This is no easy out, but in the end, it is a struggle that must be won, can be won and will be won.