In 1992, acclaimed writer and human’s right activist, Alice Walker, penned Possessing the Secret of Joy. The literary masterpiece aimed to address the emotional and psychological trauma associated with female genital mutilation, which is recognized in Western cultures as FGM or FGC. The novel, which features recognizable characters from The Color Purple, tells the painful history of protagonist Tashi, who is married to Celie’s eldest son, Adam.
FGM, which includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy); the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minor (excision); the narrowing of the vaginal opening through a seal (infibulation); and other manipulation of a woman’s genitalia, is one of the most brutal methods of sexual suppression. It is a cultural tradition performed in central Africa, the southern Sahara, the Middle East, Malaysia, Indonesia, and in certain ethnic groups throughout South America, according to the World Health Organization. FGM has impacted between 100 and 140 million girls and women throughout the world, including the United States.
One of those women is the fictional Tashi, who undergoes excision as an adult, in order to honor her Olinkan roots. The procedure was performed without regard for Tashi’s health, which traumatized her and directly led to her spiritual, emotional and physical death. Walker’s novel explores what she refers to as the cultural gendering, wherein “torture is not culture.”
Torturous it is. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health found that FGM has no health benefits for women, but can cause excruciating pain, urine retention, ulceration of the genitals, infertility and hemorrhaging among other issues. Despite the risks, for centuries, women were subjected to the procedure, often at the behest of their own families.
What Possessing the Secret of Joy was successful in doing was launching international awareness of female circumcision in the African Diaspora and throughout the world, by using Tashi’s plight to rebuke its practice as asinine and cruel.