Sexing Africa, Again

Dominique Malaquais spins together Lil’ Kim, burkas, Muslim women, Somali Mata-Haris and the Great Female Mutilation Hoax to arrive at a veiled essays-in-fragments that confronts western fetishes, fallacies and fears around African womanhood and sexuality. Her veil is not about shrouding; it is about being alive to mourning, outrage, sadness, and hope. As she writes, “The ‘other’ refuses to give up her secrets: she will not be unveiled.”

 

 
You’ve come a long way, baby … (Slogan for Virginia Slims, “the woman’s cigarette,” 1970)

 

FUCK AFGHANISTAN

In December 2002, hip hop diva Lil’ Kim appeared on the cover of a magazine in a burka.  But for a few folds of cloth strategically draped, she was naked from the shoulders down.  The feminist left balked.  Not because the dignity of women who choose to wear the veil had been assailed – some talk of this was fast dismissed – but because the pint-sized star, it appeared, had had no politically correct uplifting motive.  Had she intended to condemn the veiling of Islamic women, the argument went, her display would have been acceptable.  As it turned out, she had no comment on the subject.  She did, however, have this to say:  “Fuck Afghanistan!”

In ordinary times, all things being as they should and the US securely at the helm of the world, such invective might have been roundly condemned.  Post 9/11, the criticism was muted.  Though few on the “left” would admit it, the mood on New York’s Upper West Side was as it was in Crawford, Texas:  Fuck Afghanistan!  Fuck Islam!  Fuck Muslim women and their veils!  Lil’ Kim was bang on target.

At the time, Twin Towers trauma seemed to blame.  With the benefit of hindsight, the situation appears more complicated.

Take a few steps back in time.  The year is 1993.  Billary is in the White House.  For the first time ever, there is serious talk of a woman president.  The Equal Rights Amendment has yet to pass and women still make 70 cents to a man’s dollar, but on the Steinem side of things the mood is buoyant. “Baby,” we tell our daughters at every turn, “you’ve come a long way …”

In the 1970s, when Virginia Slims came out with its now iconic campaign, it was the “long” in the “long way” that resonated with women consumers.  By the late 1990s, the Slim was long gone and the focus had shifted from the way to the consumer, from the distance covered – in theory, for all women – to Baby herself, American womanhood as ideal, the model to which women everywhere were meant to aspire.  What little there had once been of self-doubt or modesty – a willingness to defer to others elsewhere that might be seen as a legacy of the 1960s – had gone the way of the Reagan ’80s.  For even the most thoughtful feminists, in the end, it seemed self-evident:  women had it better in the “land of the free.”  It was just a matter of time before the Web, the cell and cable swept aside the veil.  Burkas, excisions and arranged marriages would soon be things of the past.

In decades previous, the message might have taken a while to filter through to the masses.  In the age of “Sex and the City,” it spread like wildfire. Sally Field filmed “Not Without My Daughter”; Layli Miller Bashir penned the story of Fauziya Kassindja, one woman possessed of the written word speaking for another dispossessed – Elsa Joubert and Poppie Nongena with a twist. CNN began carrying stories of unwed mothers condemned by mufti-clad courts; bringing their plight home to us was Christiane Amanpour, alluringly foreign yet safely “on our side.”  American womanhood was poised to save the world.

All might have been well had it not been for a slight hitch:  from the rest came grumblings that the West would do better to mind its own business.  This was nothing new, of course.  Since the Vietnam war exploded on the world’s TV screens, it has been generally agreed that the United States (and to a lesser extent Europe) rule the world and that the rest of the planet, in exchange for its acquiescence, is given leave at regular intervals to give the “first world” the finger.  Here, though, the situation was not quite as it had been before.  The naysayers were not the usual suspects.  They were those from whom one had least expected to hear. The poster children for the world’s dispossessed – women burka-ed and excised, kept home from university and wed in marriages arranged by their fathers – were insisting on their right to wear the veil, to have operations performed on their daughters’ genitalia, to eschew “higher education” and wed partners chosen for them by others.  From the housing projects of southern France, home to thousands of North African girls determined to attend public school in head scarves despite legislation to the contrary, to the conference halls of Nairobi, where Malian delegates to WHO congresses were reporting positive experiences of FGM, and the living rooms of Douala, where educated women were making known their decision to bypass condoms, the “oppressed” were refusing the outstretched hand of those determined to “free” them.

This state of affairs might have been of little consequence – hardly a blip on CNN’s radar – had it not reflected a broader trend.  Throughout the world, it seemed as the 20th century drew to a close, the oppressed were standing up for their right to be oppressed, batting away, first with annoyance, then with outright violence, the star-spangled hand of freedom.

With the battle of Mogadishu, in 1993, came the US public’s first, prime-time glimpse of the problem.  Shocked, the “first world” looked on as the “third” bit the hand intent (so it claimed) on feeding it. As footage of US soldiers being dragged naked through the streets hit their TV screens, Americans stared in disbelief; by the time Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant appeared on the cover of Newsweek, bruised and beaten in a video still shot by his Somali captors, it was all over:  Africa could go to hell.  Nine years later, MSNBC viewers would come to the same conclusion about Afghanistan, the Middle East and, ultimately, the whole of Islam.  On American college campuses one looked on, quieter but no less appalled, as the burkas failed to fall.  “Fuck them!” a friend said to me in an un-guarded moment; it was from her I had first heard of Betty Friedan.  Lil’ Kim was bang on target.

In time, my friend recovered and, like much of the “left,” belatedly began raising a fist in anger at America’s new imperial doctrine.  It was too little too late.  On TV, in magazines, in music and videos, in the sermons of televangelists and American imams the picture was clear:   there was “here” and “there,” “us” and “them,” a well-intentioned West (waylaid perhaps by the Bush White House, but ultimately on the right track) at grips with a Rest unwilling to follow a course charted for it by history.  As a consequence of its refusal to see the light, this recalcitrant Rest – Africans South and North, Middle Easterners, Indonesians all lumped pell-mell – found itself the subject of episodes on the most popular TV shows (“E.R.,” “Law & Order,” “NYPD Blue”), of news stories, specials by Barbara Walters, movies-of-the-week and full-blown Hollywood extravaganzas.  Not since WWII had pop culture been put to such relentless use in the making of a worldview.

I am interested here in one aspect of this pop culture explosion:  a construction of the non-Western – and in particular the African – “other” as an unruly woman.  Gone is the helpless woman of the past – she, brown, black, beige, who watched in mute horror as her children were massacred or starved, who beseeched us to free her from the veil, the shackles of unwanted marriage, the barbarism of excision.  In the late 1980s and the early ’90s, in US press coverage of Sierra Leone and Liberia, much was made of the role children had come to play in war; hair-raising stories were printed about little boys turned marauding killers and rapists (a tale not dissimilar from those being told then too about Harlem boys gone wilding in Central Park).  That was then.  The tale-du-jour has changed.  Now, it is women, we are told, who have run amuck, they whom we can no longer trust.  It is yesterday’s victims whom we must fear.  How this message is articulated, why and what we might make of it, is the subject of these pages.

The reading I propose here of contemporary American and European gazes on Africa and the “other” more generally differs from previous approaches to these same questions.  While the West’s perception of the Rest continues to draw on concepts and images developed in the colonial and early post-colonial eras, of late, I argue, new tropes have entered the picture that significantly alter both its content and its form.  Underlying these developments, I suggest, are two contradictory yet symbiotic phenomena, both of which are intimately linked to economic and political developments shaping the early 21st century world:  an increasingly isolationist stance on the part of the self-styled “first world” and forms of interventionism – a determination to unveil the “other” – in which ideas of sex, violence and secrecy are instrumentalized as never before.

 

HAIL MARY AND FUCKIN’ IRENE:    THE BATTLE OF MOGADISHU

In late ’97, a story appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the United States’ more serious dailies.  The format chosen – serialization – was unusual; long fallen into disuse, even in its heyday the serial had been more common as a forum for fiction than a setting in which to report fact.  Still, readers were assured, the story was fact – “superb as both journalism and literature … one of the finest pieces of investigative journalism of our time.” The author was a staff reporter for the Inquirer, one Mark Bowden; the title of his piece was “Black Hawk Down.”

Over the course of twenty-nine days – one for each of twenty-nine chapters – Bowden’s account took center stage in the Inquirer.  The story it told, immortalized thereafter in a Ridley Scott film of the same name, was that of an elite corps of US soldiers whose two Black Hawk helicopters crashed in Mogadishu on October 3, 1993, setting the stage for a bloody, eighteen-hour battle on the streets of the Somali capital.

Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down” makes for fascinating reading.  The battle it describes was a rout for the Americans – 18 dead, 73 wounded, hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment lost – and Bowden is clear about one of the key reasons for its failure:  lack of coordination between higher-ups looking on from a safe distance and personnel on the ground woefully unprepared for the street-to-street combat the situation required.  In this sense and in terms of the detail it brings to bear in its account of discrete incidents – a truck barreling around corners only to find itself where it started, its driver completely disoriented by a warren of streets incomprehensible to him or his men; a helicopter’s rotors lost mid-air; the silence before its fall; the texture of blood mixed with oil on the floor of an overturned humvee – it is, indeed, good reportage.  The multiple American perspectives it offers – the battle as seen by various soldiers, some from above, others at ground level, still others hearing it over the radio, in a series of overlapping time frames – suggest that the author conducted detailed interviews; the ease with which one follows the action and the multiple story lines weaving in and out of it demonstrate a real talent for making accessible and engaging what might otherwise be a body of dry and confusing data.

The undeniable qualities of Bowden’s text make its failures all the more striking.  His description of the Somalis and their capital – indeed, of any and all things non-American, Malaysian coalition fighters and United Nations personnel included – is quite simply appalling.  No cliché proves too low for the pandering.  The Black Hawk crews – “sleek,” “fit,” “fast,” “buff” – are contrasted with Somalis “ragtag” and “wispy,” their emphatically Caucasian “crew cuts” and surnames with “bushy-haired afros” and unpronounceable monikers.  The Americans – “Rangers,” “Night Stalkers,” “pilots,” “infantrymen” – are “cool,” “calm,” “collected” (alliteration serves Bowden well); they are “true pros” who “practice,” “prioritize” and have “presence of mind”; they are “deadly accurate … crack shot[s].”  Their “rounds tear through a crowd like a scythe,” leaving “swaths of dead” behind them.  The Somalis – “militiamen,” “armed street fighters,” “bandits,” “skinnies” – are another matter. Where the US soldiers “insert themselves at targets,” their African counterparts “pour,” “spill,” “swarm” and “surge,” “racing from all directions” to “home in” like “a hornet’s nest” on the carcasses of “downed bird[s].”  The American Rangers “swoop from the skies”; the Somalis “shuffle” in “thickening crowds,” “gangs,” “brazen and angry mobs”; they “shout” and “jeer,” “cackling” where their US counterparts “crackle with emotion”; they “cower,” “squint” and “quiver,” “curl into a ball” from which they emerge to “pop” or “poke” a “head around corners.”  The world they inhabit is unfathomable to their American opponents:  “a post-apocalyptic nightmare … crumbling and littered with mountains of trash and debris … a teeming [place of] narrow dirt alleys … and drifting sand … donkey carts … mud-stained walls [and] musky odor[s] …”

The stench was what hit him first … In this African city people spent their days lounging outside their shabby rag huts and tin shacks. There were gold-toothed women in colorful robes and old men in loose, cotton skirts and worn, plastic sandals.  When the rangers searched the men, they would often find wads of the addictive khat plant they chewed to get high.  When they grinned their teeth were stained black and orange.  In some parts of town the men would shake their fists at the rangers as they drove past.

It was hard to imagine what interest the United States of America had in such a place.

Of the reasons for the American presence in Somalia, nothing is said, save the fiction passed off at the time that the United States was spearheading “a humanitarian campaign.”  This, Bowden notes, was a bipartisan – in American speak a politically neutral and thus a disinterested – effort, “the latest symbol of the nation’s commitment to a New World Order.”  He concludes that the campaign, if not the mission that brought the Black Hawks to Mogadishu on that October day, was a success:  the famine that had Somalia in its grip was brought to heel.

Given much attention on CNN, the tale of an American quest to allay Somali hunger played a central role in the US public’s collective shrug of disgust with Africa post-Mogadishu.  Told over and over that humanitarian ideals had brought “their boys” there, Americans viewers could not make sense of the hostility on the streets of the Somali capital.  In Bowden’s account, this confusion, and ultimately the anger it breeds, finds expression in one very particular setting:  the author’s description of Somali women.

There are no American women soldiers in Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down.”  The Somali women who appear occupy a peculiar twilight space:  with but one exception, it is never established whether they are civilian non-combatants, combatants masquerading as civilians or, simply, women gone berserk.  These are not the helpless female bystanders we have come to expect from accounts of men waging war. When they do not wield weapons, Bowden’s Somaliennes fling themselves at the American soldiers, running at them, drawing their fire for no plausible reason; one is put in mind of insects gone haywire seconds before an earthquake.  When the inevitable happens, the women are denied pathos or grace:

A big … woman came running from a narrow alley, right in front of the soldier.  Startled, he quickly fired his weapon.  The woman fell face forward, dropping like a sack, without putting out her arms to break the fall.

When the women are armed, they are particularly pernicious.  One hides a pistol behind an infant.  Another, “creeping toward … a ‘pig’ (an M-60 machine gun)” shields a rifle-wielding man, his weapon tucked under her arm.  Two others provide cover for a militiaman taking aim.

These armed women prove troubling for the Americans on several levels.  First is the matter of their status. My Lai notwithstanding, Bowden makes much of the American soldier’s reluctance to endanger women, children and civilians more generally.  On several occasions he notes the horror of the Rangers before Somali men seeking cover among noncombatants.  Even more upsetting to them is women they see as putting their offspring in the line of fire:

“Don’t shoot,” Spalding shouted … “She’s got a kid!”

At that moment the woman turned.  Holding a baby on one arm, she raised a pistol with her free hand.  Spalding shot her where she stood.  He shot four more rounds into her before she fell.  He hoped he hadn’t hit the baby.  They were moving fast, and he didn’t get to see whether he had.  He thought he probably had hit the baby.  She had been carrying the infant on her arm, right in front.  Why would a mother do something like that with a kid on her arm?  What was she thinking?

What was she thinking?   Clearly, these women are not reacting as do “normal” women “back home.”  The point is underscored by vignettes of the American soldiers’ married life, references to nuclear families in which wives and mothers take pride of place.  Against the background of violence spiraling out of control on Mogadishu streets, the effect is striking:

He told her he loved her.  He was such a gentle, loving man.  It seemed so odd how he made a living, that he was a warrior.

There had been just enough time to drive home and spend 15 minutes with his wife, Lorrie, and his baby son, Joey, and to explain he would have to miss the child’s first birthday three days later.

These brief passages are more than mere maudlin interludes.  By way of reference to a well-established cult of domesticity – a set of beliefs and symbols the reader is meant to identify as quintessentially Western – a point is being made about absences and failures articulated as quintessentially non-Western phenomena:  an absence of love, a mother’s failure to take even the most basic precautions to save her child from certain death.

In more general terms, a point is being made about the failure to respect human life.  Reflecting on the tactics of the enemy, a soldier named Eversmann sums things up for the reader:

He felt these people must have no regard for even their own lives. They just did not care.

That the people of Mogadishu have no respect for American lives is made clear over and over again, in gruesome detail.  The reader is regaled ad nauseam  with tales of soldiers’ corpses dragged through the streets:

They were dragging a body … at the end of a rope, kicking and poking the lifeless form.  It was ugly and savage.

These people were wild with anger and revenge.  It was a festival of blood.

Once again, it is the women whose behavior is the most striking.  The men “shout and laugh”; their womenfolk “scream curses” (one woman will later spew such invective that a Ranger shoots her).  Callow though they are, the men show some restraint:

A man started unzipping [Durant’s] pants, but when he saw the pilot wore no underwaer (for comfort in the equatorial heat) he zipped the trowsers back up.

A woman shows no such compunction:

He was buffetted from all sides, kicked, hit with fists, rifle butts.  He could not see where they were taking him.  He was engulfed in a great chorus of hate and anger.  Someone, he thought a woman, grabbed his penis and testicles and yanked at them.

Whether or not a woman was the culprit, or if this even happened, is immaterial.  What is relevant here is that the incident, as recounted, reflects profound castration anxieties on the part of the American soldiers.  One need not invoke Freud to argue the point:  the matter of exposed (American) genitalia is raised no fewer than five times in the accounts of different men Bowden interviewed.  It was also a concern for the media. The now infamous photograph of a Ranger’s bloated corpse being dragged through the streets of Mogadischu – an image shot by a Magnum photographer – was retouched before it hit the news stands.  In the original, the soldier’s left testicle shows through a tear in his trousers; in the image as beamed across the globe, the tear has been digitally patched and, to use a phrase Bowden employs several times in related settings, “the man’s dignity restored.”

Durant’s brush with castration at the hands of a Somali woman echoes his fellow soldiers’ near-death experiences with pistol-toting mothers and female bodies serving as cover for male weapons.  As far as the Americans are concerned, the Somali men are barely worthy of the name; though it seems clear enough that most are older than the Rangers they are fighting, in Bowden’s descriptions and the mouths of his characters, they have the appearance of adolescents.  Hiding behind women to get closer to or take better aim at their American prey, they are unremitting cowards:

“What do you want to do?” [one soldier asks another at the sight of man crouching between two women].

Nelson threw a flash-bang at the group, and they fled so fast the man left his gun.

This and other passages make it clear:  the Somali men have no balls.  The Somaliennes are another matter.  Literally and figuratively, they are women behaving like men.  This is most forcefully brought home in the fleeting but powerful image of a man’s weapon jutting from between the legs of two crouching women. The scene is properly pornographic:  vaginas are about to fire bullets.  Disaster is averted (Nelson’s flash-bang gets in the way), but the fact of it remains:  women, in this place, birthe death.

In a sense, Bowden, here, is telling a tale against the grain.  He is asking his readers to dispense with stereotypes long an integral part of their culture’s approach to Africa.  Mother Africa; Africa, cradle of humankind; land of destitution, but also (how many times have we seen this image in National Geographic, on the news, in Save the Children campaigns?) of women giving their last breath to save the lives of their soon-to-be-orphaned infants.  The Somali Mata-Haris of “Back Hawk Down” do not square well with these clichés.  But the clichés are fast disappearing, ceding the way to others more pernicious still.

In response to the death-dealing, ball-yanking world gone mad they encounter on the streets of Mogadishu, Bowden’s Rangers resort to the two most powerful tools of the White man in the Dark Continent:  religion and machismo.  They pray assiduously, always to the Christian God, underscoring thereby the justice of their cause.  Chapter 1 is entitled “Hail Mary then Hold On”; it opens with Eversmann saying a prayer at liftoff:

. . . Pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.

“A good Christian soldier is just a click away from heaven,” another Ranger, “a devoutly religious man, had told his mother before leaving for Somalia.”  The soldier, a man named Busch, is a “gung-ho commando everybody called ‘Rambusch,’” underscoring the point that you can be a devout Christian and raise hell all the same.  And raise hell these soldiers do.  Mata Haris be damned, they are men and they are going to prove it:

The swell of the revving engines had made the earth tremble. The Rangers were eager for action. Bristling with grenades and ammo, gripping the well-oiled steel of their weapons, they felt their hearts race under their flak vests.

With these words, Bowden launches the Black Hawks into action.  These words and one more, the “code word” for that October morning, prefaced with an expletive and cried out by the man who would turn out to be the supreme hero of the day, Mike Durant:

“Fuckin’ Irene!”

The White man is setting out to conquer the African “other.” He is about to find out she won’t be giving him the lay of the land.

 

THE GREAT ‘FEMALE MUTILATION’ HOAX

In the months leading up to the battle of Mogadishu, much was made in the States, alongside famine, of the repressive rule of the “warlords.” This being Africa and a Muslim country – a double whammy – women in particular were portrayed as living under dire conditions.  “Human interest” stories on “investigative journalism” shows the likes of Barbara Walters’ “20/20” detailed the difficulties of life as a woman in this and oher lands of “lawlessness,” “clans” and “ancestral [read “barbaric”] traditions.”  Under the circumstances, the refusal of Somali women to welcome US intervention was experienced by many Stateside as a deeply wounding rebuke.

From this same period, in the early ’90s, dates a growing interest in the American mainstream for a cause until then mostly the concern, in the States, of a few dedicated feminists:  female genital mutilation.  In 1993, Alice Walker published her much-anticipated sequel to The Color Purple, in which clitoridectomy, described in gruesome detail, plays a prominent role.  In fashion magazines appeared the first-person stories of young African women who had fled to Europe and the United States to avoid excision; two of note (both Sudanese) had become successful models, piquing the curiosity of young readers who might otherwise have shown little interest in the question.  By the mid-’90s, the subject had drawn enough attention among the general public for mainstream publishers to bring out autobiographical accounts by women who had sought asylum in the United States to avoid mutilation.  The topic was hot.

It was about to get hotter.

In 2002, an article appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, entitled “The Great ‘Female Mutilation’ Hoax.”  The author, Michelle Malkin, put a very particular spin on the subject of clitoridectomy, one that has been gaining considerable attention in the American media of late.  Of course FGM was barbaric, Malkin argued, but entirely too much was being made of it by feminists and, as a result, the situation was becoming alarming.  Women from the developing South – Africans in particular – were using fear of excision as an excuse – nay, a subterfuge – to enter the US illegally.  In the process, criminals were making their way into the country.

Malkin’s article focused on one case specifically, the saga of Adelaide Abankwah:

In 1997, a West African calling herself “Adelaide Abankwah” entered the United States illegally. She was a perfect poster child for the feminist cause. Too perfect.

“Abankwah” landed on our shores from Ghana. She told immigration authorities in New York that she was the daughter of the dead “Queen Mother” of a Ghanaian tribe, the “Nkumssa,” which allegedly practiced female genital mutilation. The young “princess” said she feared she would be subjected to a cutting ritual, known as a clitoridectomy, if the tribe discovered she had engaged in premarital sex.

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service challenged “Abankwah’s” story and detained her, women’s groups, churches and Marie Claire magazine rallied.

The story was of particular note because it drew the attention of a rather famous cast of characters:  none other than Hillary Rodham Clinton, then still in the White House, Gloria Steinem and Julia Roberts.  Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Carolyn Maloney took interest as well, “join[ing] the campaign to ‘Free Adelaide’ – and open the gates to every alien claiming fear of female genital mutilation.”

As had happened to other African women before – Fauziya Kassindja, among others, who spent over two years in New York and New Jersey detention centers as immigration authorities sorted out the “legitimacy” of her asylum claim – Abankwah’s case bounced from agency to agency and court to court for several years.

A lower federal court rejected “Abankwah’s” asylum claim, saying her personal fear did not constitute persecution. But the 2nd Circuit Court reversed the ruling. At a triumphal press conference, Steinem lambasted “Abankwah’s” doubters and praised her as a “wonderful woman who we should be grateful to have as a citizen.”

But investigators had gathered evidence that this royal was a royal joker. “Adelaide Abankwah” was actually Regina Norman Danson, a hotel worker who had stolen the real Abankwah’s identity and cooked up her story to help her gain asylum.

According to the evidence, Danson’s mother was alive when Danson made her claim, she and her mom had never been members of the Nkumssa tribe, and there was no tradition of genital mutilation in the region where Danson lived in Ghana.

Although the Washington Post exposed the hoax in 2000 and Danson admitted falsifying her identity, no effort was made to deport Danson or charge her with fraud – reportedly because of pressure from Hillary Clinton.

Finally, in September 2002, the government brought charges against Abankwah. The case was pending at the time Malkin’s article was published.

Female truth mutilation is, of course, nothing new [Malkin, a self-described anti-feminist, notes in closing]. The outrage is that we continue to allow our asylum policies to be exploited by liars, cheats, terrorists and political opportunists at the expense of the truly oppressed.

Malkin’s allusion to terrorism is not a throw-away line.  In a book published the same year as her article, she makes use of the Abankwah epsidode to bolster a case for the enactment of more stringent laws to protect America from a world she sees as intent on destroying it.  The book’s title makes her position clear enough:  Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores.  One suspects it has pride of place on John Ashcroft’s shelf.

The link Malkin (and others like her) see between terrorism and fear of genital mutilation as grounds for asylum, women’s sexual organs and violent death, echo the fears of Bowden’s Rangers.  Between Abankwah as putative death-dealer and the Somali women whose thighs cradle the barrel of a gun there is more than a passing resemblance.  African woman may once have been the incarnation of helpless motherhood, but now, these texts suggest, she is fast becoming something else.  At her hands, we face danger – worse, potential annihilation.

Elsewhere, similar fears run rampant.  Europe, a step ahead of the US in this regard, for some time now has entertained doomsday scenarios involving the bodies of African women.  Just as Malkin suspects the Abankwahs of this world of planning to flood America with their unwanted presence, European writers, politicians and editorialists have been decrying what they see as an invasion of foreign, mostly African, women determined to gain entrance not only for themselves but also for their children and offspring-to-be.  A campaign by French authorities in the late ’80s was particularly striking in this regard.  Billboards began appearing on major thoroughfares in Paris and provincial cities, showing a gaggle of sweet-faced infants framed by the words “La France a besoin d’enfants” (“France needs children”).  In theory, the campaign targetted plummetting birth rates. In fact – birth rates among French citizens having only moderately declined, as they did throughout the industrialized world in the final decades of the 20th century – the focus was something rather less palatable.  All of the infants depicted on the billboards were Caucasian.  The point wasn’t that France was in need of children, but that white children were needed, des bons petits Français to offset what was being (and continues to be) presented as a tidal wave of brown and black births.

Contradictory though the two positions may at first appear – Malkin’s a fear of death, the French authorities’ one of too much life – in fact they belong to the same register.  In both, what is at stake is no less than the survival of “the West.” In both instances, an us-versus-them argument has been constructed, in which the African woman functions as a stand-in for all those “others” (men, women and children) massed at the edges of the realm, straining at its gates to get in.  Like Bowden’s gun-between-the-thighs Somalis, Malkin’s Abankwah and the African mothers La France fears put their genitalia to ill use.

Such practices, as one might expect, require subterfuge – so the argument goes.  And subterfuge there is:  in the scenarios built around ideas such as those outlined here, much is made of secrecy.  What these women do, they do surreptitiously.  This is the kind of danger you don’t see coming.

Subterfuge and secrecy play a key role even – indeed, in particular – where women such as these pages consider do harm to their own children, children whom it then becomes the beleaguered West’s role to protect.  Recent episodes of shows on American TV are given over to this concern.  One, on “Law & Order,” involving a North African family living in Manhattan, tells the story of a murdered doctor.  A police investigation reveals that he was not a cardiologist, as two suspects first claim, but a relative called upon by the family to arrange for the daughter of the house to be excised.  As the prosecutor in charge of the case, the lovely, very American and very white Elizabeth Ross, learns more about the practice – the viewer is treated to a quick primer on the differences between clitoridectomy, excision and infibulation – she becomes more and more alarmed.  Like the viewer, she comes to the conclusion that it is the girl’s father who wants to see her excised.  In fact, it turns out to be the mother.  The murderer is the father, a white American:  he killed the doctor to protect his child.  Once again, a woman has failed to ensure the well-being of her offspring, puting her child and, in the process, the life of still another human being in harm’s way.  It falls to the American court system to rectify the damage she has done (the father goes to prison, the child is put in care of her paternal grandmother and the mother is sent away, forbidden to see her daughter for several years).

Related yarns have been spun on other shows – tales of mothers failing to protect their US-raised daughters from arranged marriages “back home,” for instance.  As with the clitoridectomy episode on “Law & Order,” these are stories said to be “snatched from the headlines.”  Here again, the police and courts are forced to intervene.  They redress a balance set askew by African, Muslim or more generally “other” women behaving distinctly unlike “our women here” and in ways decidedly less candid than might be hoped (if they’re going to do it, the argument goes, at least they should have the guts to do it in the open:  here as in Bowden’s accounts of Somali fighters hiding among civilians, accusations of cowardice, implicit and explicit, abound).

As the “war or terror” gains ever more momentum, such practices as excision and arranged marriages are increasingly perceived as synechdoches, parts for the whole of an “otherness” many Americans would sooner see, itself, excised.  Much like veiled Islamic women, they are seen as belonging to a furtive, murky world one can but mistrust.  To wit, a final exchange between prosecutors as the North African episode of “Law & Order” fades to cut:

–    Rest easy:  you looked a three thousand year abomination in the face and beat it back.
–    Only because we heard about it.  How many others are there out there we don’t know?

Terror, burkad, lurks barbaric at the gates.  The days of pity are over:  Mother Africa’s visa has been revoked.

 

GENDERED MAPS:    SEXING AFRICA, ONE MORE TIME

Once a mother, now a killer, a liar, a thief … At first one is tempted to see in this shift less a development, the emergence of new images and tropes, than a return to the past.  The idea of female sexuality in Africa as a thing dark, dangerous and deceitful, and the equation of this imagined sexuality with Africa as a whole, after all, are not new.  But this is not a case of plus ça change. Neither in terms of simple description nor as an analytical tool will it do to speak of what we encounter here as a simple updating of ideas long held – a reiteration of Orientalism, barbaric savagery reinvented.  Like US pop culture’s obsession, of late, with the danger, the opacity, the sheer intractability of things “other,” the gendering of this obsession has its roots in a particular historical moment.

Cartography proves an interesting context in which to consider this issue. Two maps guide us. One, a sketch, dates from the 19th century; the other, a mere two years old, is a digital image. Both construct as female and explictly sexualized the African spaces they depict.  They do so, however, in very different ways, which reflect the political and economic circumstances, the social structures, intellectual bents and aesthetic predilections of different epochs.

The first map appears in a novel, King Solomon’s Mines, published in 1885 by H.R. Haggard.  Anne McClintock analyses its form and meaning:

The map, we are told, is a copy of one that leads three white Englishmen to the diamond mines of Kukuanaland somewhere in southern Africa … [It] promises to reveal the wealth of Solomon’s treasure chamber …

[I]nverted, [the map] reveals … the diagram of a female body.  The body is spread-eagled and truncated – the only parts drawn … those that denote female sexuality … At the center … lie … two mountain peaks called Sheba’s Breasts … The body’s length is inscribed by … Solomon’s Road, leading  from the threshold of the … breasts over the navel koppie straight as a die to the pubic mound … [which is] figured by a triangle of three hills covered in “dark heather.”  This dark triangle both points to and conceals the entrances of two forbidden passages:  the “mouth of the treasure cave” – the vaginal entrance [by way of which the Englishmen penetrate the mine] … and, behind it, the anal pit from which the[y] will eventually crawl with the diamonds.

The second map is one of several aerial photographs of Lagos published in 2001, part of a  massive project to map the Nigerian metropolis set afoot in the late ’90s by the architect Rem Koolhaas.  For Koolhaas, Lagos is a city run spectacularly amuck. This approach reflects that of a writer whom Koolhaas, a prolific essayist, quotes at length,  journalist and travel writer Robert Kaplan.

In his best-known book, The Coming Anarchy (2001), Kaplan articulates a vision of sub-Saharan cities as a manner of metastizing cancer.  One passage in particular is striking:  aboard a plane, looking down on the coast of West Africa, he describes a world of urban sprawl gone mad, one shanty bleeding into another, creating a single, undifferentiated whole of shacks and cinderblock, trash and swamps.  Things spread, amorphous, ugly, devoid of all but the most tenuous structure.  Chaos, absolute and unremitting, looms.

Koolhaas’ descriptions of Lagos, like Kaplan’s of the West African coast, are descriptions from above.  Much of his time in Lagos the architect spent in the air, aboard a helicopter borrowed from President Obasanjo.  Only from above, Koolhaas insists, can sense be made of the city.  On the ground, one is swallowed – cannibalized, as it were (an argument that echoes still another description by Kaplan, of an African city so teeming with bodies it resembles an ant colony).

Granted the power of oversight by “first world” technologies, Kaplan and Koolhaas cast a gaze on Africa that does it extraordinary violence.  Neither man stays long.  Kaplan, whose books are constructed on the model of the travelogue, moves on to his next destination;  Koolhaas, famously provided with a private plane by the architecture school he directs, jets back to the US.  One is put in mind of a john visiting a prostitute.  She disgusts and attracts, repels and compels him. He does not fuck her.  He is a voyeur:  he wants to look.

Here, the fundamental difference emerges between the two maps under consideration.  The first gives form to a landscape meant to be physically penetrated, to a body that will and must be fucked.  The second tells a tale of plunder no less violent – the gaze, we know from Foucault, is an instrument of infinite power – but one that is materially different:  the relationship of the mapper to the mapped has changed.  The tools he possesses make it possible for him to capture his subject without engaging her directly:  to get the lay of the land, he need not so much as set foot upon it.

This, however, proves less than satisfactory. As Bowden’s Rangers discover, it is one thing to survey from above and quite another to be in the thick of things.   In an attempt to make theirs a landscape that escapes them, the Rangers rename a main artery in Mogadishu “Freedom Road.”  The directions they receive from their commanders – “Turn right!”  “Turn left!”  “Make a U!” – are all given in relation to this artery.  But the directions make no sense. Left becomes right and right left, causing trucks to collide and drivers to lose their bearings.  The city confounds the technologies deployed to make sense of it.  It will not let itself be mapped.

The “other” refuses to give up her secrets:  she will not be unveiled.  “Fuck you!” we cry.  And listen to the echo of our words as they bounce off the walls we have failed to lay low.

 

 

DM’s DESK

One World (December 2002).
The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The Philadelphia Daily News.
Fauziya Kassindja and Layli Miller Bashir.  Do They Hear You When You Cry? 1998.
Elsa Joubert, Poppie Nongena, 1981.
Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather:  Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, 1995.
Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1993.
Lisa Malkin. Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores.  2002.
The Coming Anarchy:  Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War, 2001.
Rem Koolhaas.  Mutations.  2001.
Rem Koolhaas.  “Fragments of a Lecture on Lagos.” In O. Enwezor et al., eds.  Under Siege:  Four African Cities.  2002.

SPECIAL THANKS TO JASON ROSEN

 

 

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One Response to “Sexing Africa, Again”
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