At the global market: Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé and the economics of women’s rights
by Amy E. Borden
In Moolaadé Sembène considers how women may effect change in their communities and families if given access to the economic and cultural power that had in previous generations been reserved for men. Focusing on both Moolaadé’s narrative and its funding history, I argue that Sembène uses a narrative form that features the development from individual activist to collective force to depict the potentially liberating force of internationally defined human rights in a West African context when used by local activists. His depiction of women as collective and individual forces for change touches on questions of the libratory potential of capitalism and media as modernizing forces for a contemporary generation of African community leaders.
The depiction of modern activism within the Islamic, West African community depicted in the film is presented diegetically via the narrative construction of the film’s main character, Collé, played by renowned Malian women’s rights activist, Fatoumata Coulibaly. Collé is constructed as an individual whose personal experiences offer an interiorized psychological depiction and history of a woman now advocating for cultural change; she uses her personal experiences to change community practice and belief. In the script, Collé’s ability to assert her personal experiences and values within the community may best be understood as a staging of the drama of human rights activism. In some ways, the character exemplifies ways in which contemporary human rights declarations and proclamations issued by, for example, the United Nations; additional NGOs, such as Tostan — a Senegalese women’s rights NGO; and various African continental human rights treaties, such as the African Banjul Charter, may be translated into local action on the part of activists and grass-roots campaigns aimed at ending FGC, and, by extension, advance West African women’s rights.
J. Hoberman describes the film as “diagrammatic” in its approach to women’s rights in a review prior to the film’s New York theatrical run (“Auteurs”). He particularly cites the rousing rally staged in front of the community’s male elders at the end of the film where the majority of the village women adopt Collé’s position against genital cutting. The rally is staged and shot as a public performance; it mimics events sponsored by anti-FGC NGO Tostan, which has held rallies celebrating the decision by local women to end FGC in communities throughout Senegal. In the scene’s staging, the village elders occupy one third of the on-screen space, the pro-Collé supporters another third, and the salindana occupy the final third, eventually joining the community’s women creating a division between the sexes in the blocking of the sequence. The lesson of this rally is bolstered by a mother, Salba, who holds her infant godchild in the air while chanting alongside the other village women that this girl will not be “cut,” that no girls will ever be “cut” again.
In addition to the film’s conclusion, Hoberman is perhaps more correct in his reading than he imagined. As I will argue, the plot of Sembène’s final feature film strongly resonates with articles inscribed in the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the 1980 establishment and 1993 strengthening of provisions for the rights of women in the UN the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The entire premise of the film — the right of protection or moolaadé — is specifically covered in the UN Universal Human Rights Declaration as the right of seeking and enjoying in other countries “asylum from persecution.” If one accepts the film’s central thesis that ritual “purification” is a form of persecution, Collé is justified in creating a free space beyond the rules confining conduct in the village (Moolaadé). The sanctuary she creates via the moolaadé is akin to a nation-state with its distinct but permeable boundary — members of the community may move between it and the village at large. They may not, however, remove the young girls who have sought sanctuary from the space without Collé’s permission. Much like a sovereign authority, it is only Collé’s “word” that may release the girls from their protected space (Moolaadé). Additionally, the space Collé creates emerges from a historical tradition understood as juridical within the village because of its ability to punish or allow clemency. This tradition is substantiated in the community via the cultural memory marked in the village by the termite mound.
Sembène’s career-long critique of nation as a corrupted patriarchal institution that denies equal rights to women complicates the idea that a sovereign space akin to a nation-state may provide safety. The fact, then, that this asylum is enacted by and controlled by Collé, a woman, is significant because it asserts the ability of women to claim sovereign power from local, cultural traditions. Collé’s ability to provide asylum and to assert that ability within the community may be seen as a performance of the provision in the UN human rights’ declaration that states, “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community” and guarantees “the right to…security of person.” The fact that both the men and women of the community respect the sanctity of the moolaadé regardless of the gender of its enactor points to local cultural traditions on which activists may build in the pursuit of women’s rights.
Anthropologist Ellen Gruenbaum describes how asylum has become an effective means for women to remain in first world countries — “Canada, Australia, Sweden, and others” to avoid FGC in their home nation. It is an increasingly useful tool for women to gain protection for themselves and for parents to gain protection for their female children. While limited, the practice has received a lot of press coverage, particularly following Togo citizen Fauziya Kassindja’s and Ghanian citizen Adelaide Abankwah’s applications for US asylum in the late-1990s and Malian Aminata Diop’s application for asylum in France in the early-1990s. Citing the increased recognition of cultural practices as a basis for asylum, Gruenbaum argues,
“The use of asylum provisions for cultural, rather than strictly political, risks is a remarkable development, giving new stature to the human rights of women and children to be protected from the effects of their social and economic disempowerment. The basis for such claims to asylum is the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, on the grounds that these women would be at risk of grievous harm in the forms of FGM [female genital mutilation] if they were to return home.” (217)
By enacting a local cultural custom to create an asylum within the community, Collé effectively relocates an international anti-FGC human rights tool at the local level. This staging allows Sembène to provide an argument for local change that does not draw directly on the authority of the laws of other nations, as is the case with the asylum cases mentioned previously, nor directly on international conventions, such as the UN Refugee Convention Gruenbaum cites. Sembène’s use of asylum as a juridical form of protection indirectly draws from the discourse surrounding international efforts to end FGC, yet forcefully argues for local, community-driven actions.
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