In all honesty, I find it difficult to explain the complexity of sexuality and body autonomy when discussing sexual health in an African* context (*defining African in itself is complex, but for the purpose of this blog post, I shall use the term as a blanket cultural and racial description). There are so many intersecting factors, namely the continuous fight between religious dogma versus antiquated cultural practices. Majority African cultures are patriarchal, there is a huge and continued stigma surrounding female sexuality which often neutralises womens’ basic human rights. To further explain I would like to examine one of my favourite films of all time: Moolaadé. I hope it’s a good read.
Directed by acclaimed godfather of African cinema, Ousmane Sembène, Moolaadé is a masterpiece that explores the controversial topic and cultural practice of female circumcision. Sembène artistically documents the ancient tradition in context to sexuality and how that forms views on the black female body within the societies that enforce the ritual.
Set under the bright Burkina Faso sun, the film begins with three distressed young girls wrapped in white cloth running through the village screaming ‘mother Collé, mother Collé, and we are then introduced to the ingeniously crafted heroine Collé Ardo. Collé embodies Sembène’s argument against the cutting custom and the strength of the black woman. We soon learn that the girls have escaped circumcision, asking Collé to offer them moolaadé (which poetically means sanctuary) – a right she chooses to exercise.
The circumcision is the cornerstone of the film, but through precision and subtlety, Sembène also disassembles themes of deeply entrenched patriarchy within African societies, the influence of colonisation and how that has further cemented extreme views of how to remain ‘cultural’ or ‘religiously pure’. We learn that Collé’s own daughter hasn’t been circumcised and as a result she is in the circle of ‘impure’ women – this is an important commentary which I will explain soon – and being impure consequently creates a rift between mother and daughter. The film focuses on two choices presented to our heroine: revoke moolaadé (to which the children will be circumcised and risk death) or keep moolaadé (and be subjected to a public lashing for disobeyed her husband and embarrassing the elders until she utters the words that revoke moolaadé).
The topic of purity and what that means for women in particular is a constant theme in the film, Burkina Faso is a predominantly Muslim country. Most communities believe female circumcision is right due to religious grounds (even though Muslims theologians have stated otherwise), Moolaadé explores this duality subtly but truthfully. I do admit though, it was hard for me during some points of the movie. There were moments that I really wanted to scream IT’S A LIE! When I knew the women were being manipulated and were forced into feeling guilty as the men knew religion was a foundation that was hard and controversial to argue on.
I know this blog post is seemingly bleak, but I assure you it is a really good beginners source to start to understand why sexual health is so complicated in a cultural, and by extension, religious context. I wanted to write this post because I love this film, as grim as the premise might be, but it is also inspiring and humorous. Sembène didn’t depend on shock value by showing the circumcision, but he relied on the characters to tell their stories using their voices. This film is so close to my heart as it doesn’t try to hide the devastating ritual and its impact on the community. To me Moolaadé captures all topics sexual health related from a different perspective.
Moolaadé is a loud cry for urgency. It is not only a compelling piece of African cinema, but there are elements that resonates with everyone. If my argument is not enough, just read the reviews from the Cannes Film Festival. If you want to watch the movie just search it up, it’s in French so be prepared for subtitles, but I promise you it’ll be worth it!