By Emma Batha
LONDON (TrustLaw) - Sister Fa, a Senegalese rapper campaigning to end female genital mutilation, is still traumatised by her memories of this violent rite of passage, an experience she has turned into a powerful song.
Now 30, she remembers being taken as a small child to visit a favourite aunt, and arriving to find about 50 girls and a party atmosphere.
“It was amazing, so beautiful. There was a lot of love and a lot of fun. The next day the love and fun turned to screaming, fear and pain,” said Sister Fa, now Senegal’s most famous female rapper.
Sister Fa - real name Fatou Mandiang Diatta - tells her story in the song ‘Excision’ (Cutting).
Female genital mutilation, still practised in 28 African countries, involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris, and in its most extreme form the vaginal opening is also sewn up.
Senegal banned it in 1999, but it is still widely practised by some ethnic groups – including the Diola which Sister Fa belongs to – and about a quarter of Senegalese women have undergone it.
Sister Fa’s mother died before she got the chance to ask her why she was cut. For years she felt her mother had betrayed her, but recently she came to understand she had no choice – that is why she refers to the practice as “cutting” rather than the more judgmental “mutilation”.
In the communities that practise it, cutting is a prerequisite for marriage and social acceptance. Girls who aren’t cut are ostracised and treated like animals, Sister Fa says.
“If you are not cut it is very hard to have a place in the community … No boy will marry a girl who isn’t cut. She’s not allowed to cook food, she cannot give people water, she won’t be involved in ceremonies and there are certain places where she cannot even go because they will say, ‘You have a clitoris’.”
The singer, who grew up in Casamance in southern Senegal, first questioned the tradition as a teenager, when two babies in her community died after the circumciser applied bleach, thinking it would reduce the pain.
“They had very bad injuries but no one dared take them to hospital. It was a big tragedy and no one was talking about it,” she told TrustLaw during a visit to London this month to speak at an event at the House of Lords, parliament’s upper house.
Sister Fa appears equally at ease addressing politicians and chatting with teenagers. She is fluent in five languages, glamorous, articulate and forthright.
She is also fearless. Campaigners against FGM have been attacked and even killed in some countries.
When Sister Fa goes to Senegal on tour and appears on TV and radio shows, people phone up to abuse her. But she is not worried by threats. “I’m a rapper. I say things exactly the way I think,” she said. “I’m not really scared. If one day I have to give my life to save this future generation … well, so what?”
BREAKING THE SILENCE
Sister Fa, who now lives in Berlin with her Austrian husband and their daughter, says moving to Europe in 2006 gave her the space to gain a clearer perspective on FGM.
“Before, I was a little bit ashamed about talking about it because it’s a taboo. It was my father-in-law who told me it’s time to break the taboo,” she said.
“I started talking in a very shy way, to say that I’m not a complete woman. There’s something missing in my body. Now I’m not ashamed any more to say this happened to me, and to explain to people that it’s time to stop this practice.”
Senegal has made considerable progress in tackling FGM, thanks to the grassroots movement TOSTAN which has persuaded thousands of villages to abandon cutting.
The government aims to eradicate FGM by 2015, but Sister Fa says that when a community declares it has abandoned cutting, many people do not stop. Perhaps 60 percent do, but others simply get their daughters cut in another village.
There is still strong resistance to ending cutting, and it is vital to put FGM in the school curriculum and involve young people, she says. “There’s a generation we must focus on to get them to abandon it before they become mothers and fathers and cut their own children.”
Sister Fa is used to breaking down barriers. As a woman she had to battle to be accepted in the male-dominated world of rap, but she says it is the best music for protest songs - she also sings about child marriage, AIDS and war.
She now has her sights set on Senegal’s neighbour Guinea, where FGM is almost universal. She plans to travel there shortly to work with local musicians who can then continue to spread the message.
During her Senegal tour last year, Sister Fa was particularly proud of helping persuade her home village to abandon cutting.
The singer says her father, a teacher, was disappointed when she decided to pursue her music rather than go to college. He was hoping she’d be a diplomat.
Today he is one of her biggest fans. He has also made her a solemn promise – he will never cut her two youngest sisters.
(For more on FGM see our special package: Female Genital Mutilation: "It's not culture, it's child abuse")