The pain behind Fire Eyes
Trigger warning: this documentary review covers female genital mutilation. Don’t read further if you are easily squicked, please.
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We see activism as it happens in Soraya Miré’s short 1994 documentary film Fire Eyes. As a victim of the practice who has chosen to become a survivor, her stated goal is to stop female circumcision, or as it is sometimes known, female genital mutilation (FGM). Her documentary is relatively short — about an hour — but packed full of both inspiring and shocking information. It is not an easy film to watch; I find myself tensing up and wincing in particular during the scene where we see the faces of the women and children as they are involved in an actual procedure. The wide-eyed dismay of the four-year-old child watching an older girl being circumcised is horrifying, but the gasping screams of the girl herself, covered over by the ululations of the women holding her down, are heartbreaking.
Despite the horror of the subject matter, I believe this is a film which tries hard to be fair, in that we are given many perspectives. I have some sympathy, for example, for the woman who had been circumcised, who describes the dual pain of being in the hospital in the US for ensuing genital issues, and waking up surrounded by doctors whose expressions say they are viewing something monstrous. I also feel for the Somali woman who earnestly explains that she wants to see female circumcision stop, but not at the cost of demonizing her entire culture. As is noted, it is indeed women who perform the circumcisions, but since the practice is so tied up with cultural concepts of purity, no man will marry a woman who has not been circumcised. Consequently while listening to her I confess I find myself doing so from within my own Western perspective: there is a part of me which feels that women such as she will likely have a far healthier and better life if they can own property, and are no longer utterly dependent upon men for everything. This is, unfortunately, not simply a “Third World” issue, either. There is an interview with a woman who is both white and possibly American, from her accent, who received a clitorectomy as an infant… because her parents and the doctors believed her clitoris was too long.
Fortunately the almost unremitting grimness of the subject matter is alleviated in a rather lovely fashion by a graceful woman dancer wearing a beautifully flowing, fiery-colored robe. Initially she dances in a pale, expressionless mask, and upon first seeing her I had the fleeting thought that she moves much like one of my professors, who is also a dancer. It was consequently a pleasure to see her name in the end credits. In her interview, my professor speaks movingly on how she considers — and dances — the female body as sacred, and what a marvel it is that there is no one on earth who has not come into being through the body of a woman. Considering the horrific, misogynist abuse and control which female circumcision exemplifies, that is a welcome relief to hear.
In the end, I think what struck me the most is the reactions. There are, for example, maybe three thoughtful and well-dressed young men interviewed in what I would guess is some sort of school or nonprofit. As they note, for this practice to stop they must forbid it happening to their girls, and they must be willing to marry women who have not received circumcision. They seemed well-meaning and earnest, which offers some hope that this dangerous, agonizing, and unnecessary practice will eventually end.
Then there are the women, especially the young ones: smiling, slightly nervous in front of the camera, nicely dressed — but with a lurking, terrible pain hiding in the back of their eyes, whose faces fall instantly into lines of grief and wary pain when they are asked if they will have their girl children circumcised. These are the eponymous “fire eyes”: circumcised women who live with almost constant pain and the danger of further medical complications. Tragically, all of the women agree, speaking in tight, quiet voices, that they’ll have their girls circumcised — but only the simplest and lightest form. When the shocked Miré asks how the process is to stop if women continue it, they have no real answer… just despondent queries as to how their girls are to live if they are not circumcised and no one will marry them.
The women’s pain at the cultural injustice they face is quite vivid. Far more personally shocking is the elderly midwife and circumciser who ruefully agrees that circumcision is a tradition they’d all be better off without — but who, when respectfully asked by the women how they should behave in order to stop the practice, can only advise that the women always obey: obey their fathers, obey their husbands, obey, obey, obey…
She, at least, clearly sympathizes with and understands the women’s pain. More appalling to me is the older man Miré interviews, who pages through the Qur’an and agrees with her that there is nothing in the scriptures which demands circumcision. However, it is a tradition, and since (as he says the Qur’an states — which I’m not sure is accurate?) men have more needs than women, that is why men can have up to four wives. After all, he continues, when a woman is bleeding for, what: 15 days, a month? Miré indignantly interjects with, “Seven days!” He waves her off a bit impatiently: whatever — the man still must be able to satisfy his needs. After all, the elder replies with matching indignation, a man can’t touch the woman for 40 days after birth, and all the other times she’s unclean as well…! It is painfully clear the man has little to no empathy with, or understanding of, women or their bodies — apparently to him they are simply god-given tools for men’s satisfaction of their supposedly greater needs, who should be treated gently so they last.
As appalling as I find that to be, however, it is the near-sociopathic uncaring and cruelty expressed by the young and less educated men which really makes my guts clench up in revulsion. There are maybe six to ten of them interviewed, and to a man they are adamant: of course women must continue being circumcised! The constant pain women suffer is clearly of no importance to them, and they somewhat impatiently wave off Miré’s question regarding it so they can give her an example. As one of the young men carefully explains to her: he would not go to work each day and leave his door unlocked, right? Miré indignantly points out that a woman is not a door — a door is property! The young man looks at Miré as if she is being willfully ridiculous: of course he can speak about women that way! Like the door, they are property.
An utter lack of empathy or understanding of the pain you indifferently inflict on others: is that the true root of this repellant practice? Are the sickening levels of cruelty necessary for a misogynistic society to thrive based in something that simple — and yet also profound? As I type, I read in the news that eight Republican congressmen — clearly no women need apply — in the House Judiciary Committee are working on getting a bill passed that bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy — without exceptions for rape, incest or health of the mother. Who are these delusional men? WHO ARE THESE MEN, who believe they own our bodies?!
I can identify a few through reading internet articles on this travesty of justice: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), sponsor of the bill. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who at least had the decency to be concerned about women’s health as well as that of the fetus. The rest apparently get to slide under the radar of responsibility for their misogyny. What are they telling us? If you are pregnant but need treatment for cancer? Tough it out or just die already. If the fetus is seriously malformed or has died? That’s your problem, not theirs. If you were raped? Pft, get real — you were probably really asking for it anyway. If you cannot afford to raise a child? Again: not their problem — and apparently not the problem of the man who impregnated you, either — God will provide! Unfortunately, while the congressmen need not worry about where their next meal comes from, God rarely thinks to provide three square meals a day for the poor woman with an unwanted child in need of serious medical treatment.
Does this repulsive drivel sound familiar? It should. Women are being told, again, that the sexual desires of men are more important than women’s constant pain and anguish. Gosh, you women are selfish — men have needs! Women are just property, god-given tools for the satisfaction of men. Property shuts up and does what it is told. Property. Must. Obey.
This is why I’m a feminist: while some of us are not free, none of us are.