We’ve seen it before. A young African woman sits outside her home and stares desolately into the camera. Silent. Unmoving. Mournful music plays as a celebrity voice-over narrates the woman’s horrific tale of female genital mutilation (FGM). International aid organization videos have a history of problematic portrayals, highlighting despair and tragedy, positioning the subjects of these films as defined by their trauma. They attempt to yank on the heartstrings of viewers to garner donations. But in the process, FGM survivors are left to be understood only as downtrodden women, which is far from the reality.
In a new film by Egyptian filmmaker Sara Elgamal, A Piece of Me shows that FGM is only one part of these women’s stories. It challenges stereotypes surrounding an issue that affects an estimated 200 million girls and women alive today who have undergone some form of FGM.
In the documentary, three Ethiopian women—Zahra Mohammed Ahmed, Abida Dawud and Khadija Mohammed—are the stars of their survival stories. Instead of positioning these women as helpless victims, Elgamal combines stories of their activism in their own words with stunning close-ups and shots of their daily life in two-minute breathtaking segments. The striking result reveals just how skewed this issue has been portrayed in the past. “My goal was to shift that victimhood narrative,” Elgamal said in an interview at the film’s Toronto premiere in July. “I wanted people to see these women almost like you would see fashion models. I felt like they deserved to be celebrated in the same way.”
The message, of course, is still to draw awareness to the harmful epidemic of FGM, a practice where parts or all of the outer female genitalia is removed by cutting off the flesh. The extremely dangerous and painful procedure is now more commonly understood as a cultural tradition rather than a religious custom, according to Elgamal. Girls “are cut” as early as infants, and well into adulthood. Places in Africa, Asia, South America, The Middle East, Eastern Europe, and some diasporic communities in North America continue to practice FGM. The A Piece of Me director explains that for some, it’s a requirement for marriage because the idea of removing the ability to have sexual pleasure is a virtue associated with women’s sexual morality and modesty. “The parents aren’t doing it to be malicious. They are doing it because that’s what is required for you to get married,” says Elgamal. Yet, FGM poses major sexual health risks such as infections and viruses (from the use of contaminated instruments), painful urination and sex, menstrual problems, complications in childbirth and hemorrhaging to the point of death during the procedure itself, according to the World Health Organisation.
The three-part documentary premiered at the Toronto Media Arts Centre as part of an immersive exhibit by artist network Somewherelse, and is a partnership with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a sexual and reproductive health agency that is hosting the film on its site.
In collaborating with the survivors and the UNFPA, Elgamal also teamed up with U.K. fashion designer Nadine Mosallam to help change the conversation around FGM. Mosallam worked with natural fabrics to create the gorgeous traditional costume designs the women in the film are wearing. “I decided to go with warm tones because they’re very feminine, they’re very empowering, beautiful,” says Mosallam. “That’s why I chose pink, orange and yellow.”
From long, transparent wraps of silk dancing in the wind, to personalized accents of beaded jewellery, the wardrobe was meant to be more than just a fashion statement. The colourful clothing is an extension of the messages of Zahra, Abida and Khadija, in which their words shine the brightest. Being a survivor doesn’t just mean reliving your trauma, it can also mean promoting resilience as beautiful. “My flesh may have been taken away,” says Abida in the film.“But I can never give away my heart.”
Abida and the other survivors in the film don’t just want people to understand the dangerous sexual health implications of FGM, they want to raise more awareness in order to end it, says Elgamal. What they don’t want is pity. Elgamal was careful not to play into old tropes, focussing on the women’s mission instead of the gruesome details of their experience.
As activists within their own community, Zahra, Abida and Khadija dedicate their work to educating families of the harm FGM causes so that other girls and women are spared the same fate. Zahra, who works to end child marriage and rape along with FGM, says she doesn’t want her daughters to be cut, but to be self-sufficient without the need to get married. And Khadija says that just because FGM existed before her time, and during her time, it doesn’t mean the next generation must follow.
Often, we don’t see the other side of these stories. We don’t get to learn about life after surviving FGM from the survivors themselves. Voice-over translations create distance between the survivors and the viewers. In A Piece of Me, not only do we see them from a lens that’s not stereotypical, we have a more authentic understanding of their story because it’s told from the women themselves, in their own native language (subtitled for viewers).
When Zahra, Abida and Khadija first saw themselves on the screen monitor of Elgamal’s camera, they collectively said “Konjo,” which means beautiful in Amharic, the main language spoken in Ethiopia. Using beauty in the main narrative and giving the female stars creative input throughout the filming doesn’t just change the way that we see these women, it changes the way they see themselves too.