Skip to content

A White Wedding

Can it be true? Did a woman anthropologist actually compare the ceremony at which young Masai girls are genitally mutilated to “a white wedding”?

Yes she did. It’s true. The anthropologist’s name is (or was) Melissa Llewellyn-Davies MFA. In case you’re wondering, the initials do not stand for Master of Fine Arts; they stand for Marxist Feminist Anthropologist. Ms Llewellyn-Davies compared genital mutilation to a white wedding in her chillingly misleading narration for the film Masai Women, a Disappearing World production. You can buy it today from CD Universe for $13.49.

I was reminded of this episode when Ayaan Hirsi Ali passed through Sydney recently. It should be said that on the subject of female genital mutilation, and the cultures where this abhorrent practice is found, her own writing in Infidel and The Caged Virgin is the place to start. The general circumstances in which helpless girls have the labia minora, clitoris, and sometimes more than this inadvertently cut off could not be better described and explained. Moreover, Ms Hirsi Ali also tells us that it is still practiced by Somali and Moroccan immigrants in Europe today.

Masai WomenBut it’s Ms Llewellyn-Davies we’re concerned with here. Her film was made at a time when interviewing indigenous informants was relatively new, and was felt to add authenticity—as it usually does. If the purpose is to honestly elicit information it can be valuable. If on the other hand it is used for political purposes by the film-maker it may add nothing useful whatever. Ms Llewellyn-Davies’ purpose in Masai Women is to deliberately misrepresent a cruel and painful tribal custom, so instead of asking the Masai girl herself how she feels about it, she seeks the opinion of a traditionalist Masai woman who is all too keen to draw a confusing veil of romance over the whole thing. Ms Llewellyn-Davies then uses this interview to distract us from the bloody centerpiece of the event.

Mind you, our MFA never speaks of “genital mutilation”: this ugly phrase never passes her lips. Instead she talks loftily about “the female circumcision ceremony”—but what on earth is that? For most of us “female circumcision” hovers vaguely between anatomical improbability and oxymoron, and is rather puzzling. Secondly, she uses blandly euphemistic imagery to distance, neutralise, and conceal the gory surgical aspect of the occasion. For a girl, she tells us, clitorodectomy

is her farewell to childhood, and also to her family village because she will leave to be married soon afterwards. The ceremony is thought to transform a giggly girl into a mature and thoughtful woman.

No doubt it does. Most of us would stop giggling. In fact, some of its victims not only stop giggling, they later die or suffer the misery of life-long urinary and vaginal complications. Next we see a young girl being prepared for the operation and a few close-ups of her head being shaved. She looks tense, anxious, bewildered, and on the edge of tears. At this point the cine camera image abruptly stops. The photographic record stops. The live sound stops. Regarding the grim ongoing reality of the event, the screen goes blank. (Is this perhaps what Jean Baudrillard meant by the “extermination of the referent”? Certainly the referent—ie, the “giggly girl”—is not just silenced but eliminated.) After a number of scenes in which she is seen looking confusedly toward the camera, no doubt wondering if these white British film-makers are going to be there all the time, she “bids farewell to childhood” by abruptly disappearing into the darkness of a mud-floored hut.

Ms Llewellyn-Davies now has a problem. If she’s honest she will try to convey the reality of what is taking place, and audiences everywhere who have read anything about clitorodectomy and infibulation—audiences today who have been reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s clear and honest account—will see in the mind’s eye a helpless child-victim having her external genitalia cut off with a razor blade, by some fumbling half-blind elder working without anaesthetic in semi-darkness, cutting bloodily this way and that. But that of course would give a most unfortunate impression of Masai culture.

What to do?

Very HappyBack in the 1960s a New York film producer turned down a depressing movie script with the memorable advice—”look, Joe, you don’t get it: I make happy pictures about happy people with happy problems.” As a film-maker Ms . Llewellyn-Davies belongs to the same euphoric school. With the girl conveniently out of the way she feels free to construct another reality—one that entirely displaces and replaces the reality suffered by the victim with an imaginary creation of her own. Instead of searing pain and humiliation and helplessness, genital mutilation is presented as a happy problem with a happy victim in a happy culture. Because the girl herself might prove an “unreliable witness”, she is of course not allowed to speak—instead our Marxist Feminist Anthropologist consults a Masai woman who’s all for it.

“Is the girl happy?” asks the MFA brightly, referring to the girl now under the knife.

“Very happy”, the woman replies. “Part of the ritual is to brew mead from sugar and honey. Her father drinks and her mother drinks. They wear charms and they are happy.”

It is at this point that a ruminative Ms Lewellyn-Davies vouchsafes that all things considered, when you stop to think about it—as of course academics are wont to do…

“It’s a bit like a white wedding.”

But was it like a white wedding for the victim? Was she laughing with joy as she said farewell to childhood? Or did she scream with pain and terror?

Surprisingly, we know the answer to these questions, not from the film itself or from the cold lips of Ms Llewellyn-Davies but from an article by Dr Peter Loizos, an anthropologist, telling us how the film was made. According to his 1993 report on the editing of Masai Women, the girl’s agony was in fact recorded on audio tape during filming, and “a lively debate took place in the cutting room later about how the issue should be handled”. One view was that “perhaps the girl’s screams should be heard, thus giving symbolic expression to what was visually too horrific.” The anthropological sensitivity of the editors is touching—though one is bound to wonder what exactly Ms Llewellyn-Davies contributed to the “lively debate” and how she influenced its outcome.

In the film that was finally produced there’s no sound whatever of the girl’s ordeal. Her screams were edited out and replaced by the voice and image of an older tribal woman smilingly telling us how happy she is, while Ms Llewellyn-Davies—whose bleak British diction has to be heard to be believed—pours a bland sociological interpretation over everything. Those interested in general arguments about truth and lies in documentary film-making are referred to an essay at this site where these matters are discussed at greater length—see “Matters of Fact“. For the story of the editing of Masai Women see Peter Loizos, Innovation in ethnographic film. University of Chicago Press. (1993)

Posted in For the Record, Africana.

Tagged with , , , , , .