A girl, a knife, and Hawa Gréou

About the author

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between North Africa and France. KA Dilday is currently planning a New York office for openDemocracy.

At the end of the last century Hawa Gréou spent five years in prison in France. Those years, she said, were the happiest of her life. She was able to pray to Allah in peace in a little room of her own; never mind that it was locked and that she could not walk in the courtyard during recreation because veils are not allowed in French prisons. In the book Exciseuse, journalist Natacha Henry and Linda Weil-Curiel, the woman who prosecuted Gréou, help Gréou tell her story.

Hawa Gréou moved to France from Mali in 1979 and became France's best-known exciseuse, illegally performing clitoridectomies on babies and young girls in the African expatriate community in France until her conviction in 1999. In 1961 in Mali, Gréou was considered fortunate in marrying her cousin because he had French citizenship and she was able to follow him to France, a land of plenty and opportunity. She was 15 years old and he was 26 when they married. After 1979 she continued to live in a kind of Mali in France, speaking only rudimentary French, preserving her native customs and existing in an entirely African community. Now a convict, discarded wife, legal pariah and illiterate, she lives in a country where she will never be a full member of society either legally or socially. Gréou is the face of a new sort of voluntary colonialism.

KA Dilday's latest column is also part of a series of openDemocracy articles in our 50:50 debate on women and the G8 in the approach to the Heiligendamm summit on 6-8 June 2007 See also, "Women talk to the G8 – an openDemocracy blog", and among our relevant articles: Sarah Lindon, "Gendered states" (8 March 2007) Solana Larsen, "How power works for women" (9 March 2007) Patricia Daniel, "Merkel's G8 – spot the difference" (15 May 2007) Roselynn Musa, "Globalisation's broken promise" (23 May 2007)

Gréou's practice as an exciseuse was discovered when an 18-year-old woman ran away from her family and asked the police to protect her younger sisters from being mutilated. The young woman had been excised at a fairly late age, 7, thus she was old enough to remember that it was Hawa Gréou who had done it. When the woman gave her name, Hawa Gréou was already known to the authorities: in the early 1980s when Gréou lived in central Paris, neighbours had called the police because people lined up outside her door with babies and their screams constantly emanated from the apartment. The police had watched her then but they were unable to find anything. With the young woman's information, the police obtained permission to tap Hawa's phone and her extensive operation was discovered. It extended as far as Marseille on the coast of Paris. She was respected because unlike other exciseuses in France, she had never had a baby die.

Law or custom?

The trial exposed the African country within France since the justice department prosecuted families of girls whom Hawa had mutilated too and in the trial, the extent to which the families lived in a separate world became clear. The girls' families claimed innocence. They said that they didn't know it was an illegal practice in France so the prosecution asked why then, the parents had their sons circumcised at a hospital and their daughters at home. They said they didn't speak French but the police had recorded them having conversations in French. The recordings revealed that the families and Gréou arranged the clitoridectomies during vacations "when the white people would be away," so the cries of the girls would not be reported. Gréou's family - her husband and co-wife - lied easily and extensively to the police.

As I read Exciseuse I could not help thinking of a scene from The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene. Scobie, an English police officer in a colony much like Sierra Leone interviews a native Sierra Leonean about a complaint; the woman lies repeatedly in her answers as do most of her compatriots when interrogated by the officers. Scobie is somewhat in awe of the people who have subverted so ancient a justice system with such a simple method. The families trapped in the Gréou case lied as if they too were faced with unwanted colonialist intruders in their native land. In short their defence was that they were simply "ignorant" Senegalese, Malians or Mauritanians in France. We are a mobile colony, they countered. We may technically be part of France, contributing and profiting from its economic system, yet we hide our customs from the judgments of western laws and the mores. For some economic migrants that is what immigration is.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between North Africa and France. Also by KA Dildayon openDemocracy: "The freedom trail"
(4 August 2005) "France seeks a world voice" (8 December 2005) "Europe's forked tongues" (16 February 2006) "Zidane and France: the rules of the game"(19 July 2006) "Barack Obama, Moroccan Ali, and me"(5 February 2007) "Sister in spirit: Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel"(6 March 2007) "The discomfort of strangers"(24 April 2007) "France's two worlds"(8 May 2007)

hroughout the last two decades in France the laws that concern genital mutilation have been evolving to provide more protection for girls. Mutilation was always forbidden, but the degree of culpability for the families has grown. Since 2006 it is illegal for any girl who lives in France to be circumcised whether it happens in France or not and whether the girl is a citizen or not. Doctors are obligated to report if they discover it and if the authorities discover that a child has been mutilated whether in France or on a trip to Africa they prosecute the parents for neglect even if their parents claim ignorance - if they say it was done by say a grandmother or aunt without their knowledge.

Hawa Gréou is a devout Muslim. She mistakenly believed that the Qur'ran mandated circumcision so it couldn't be wrong. The idea of harming the girls did not disturb her: "Didn't you know when the children screamed that it was hurting them?" Natacha Henry and Linda Weil-Curiel asked her. "Children scream when they go to the dentist", Gréou replied. Gréou changed her mind about the practice because she accepted that her residence in France constituted a civil contract. And this is very important distinction. Where I grew up, it was customary to pierce the ears of baby girls, something that is also an unnecessary and painful physical alteration. I bring this up not to diminish the activities of Hawa and her cohorts but to emphasise that the only protection against genital mutilation is the law, not education - there are a lot of things that can be rationalised and explained away. But the civil contract requires that citizens and residents obey the laws of a country not because they think they are just, but because they are the law and thus as member of society one agrees to submit to that civil contract or to observe the processes for changing that contract.

Gréou never really agreed that genital mutilation was morally wrong, but she did accept that it was against the law of the country she chose. Since then she has spoken out, exhorting her community to cease the practice and obey French law.

I wonder what it would have been like if Hawa had been forced to learn to read and write. She likely would have learned that the Qur'an didn't prescribe genital mutilation much earlier. Her inability to read the Qur'an wasn't the first time that Hawa's illiteracy had led her astray: it also kept her a prisoner in her own home. Her husband has long favored his third wife, some forty years his junior, although Hawa is the only wife recognised by the French government. Ignorant of the law, illiterate and living as she did in the country within a country, Hawa was never able to claim the citizenship that as a resident in France for more than five years was her right regardless of her husband's consent. Now that she has been convicted of a crime in France she can never be a French citizen.

When he was interior minister in the years immediately before he became France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy began aggressively insisting that people in France speak French (anyone who applies for a permit of more than a year must prove proficiency in the language) and know the country's laws. Since then, the free classes in French language that charity organizations have been offering in depressed economic communities have been filling. Husbands who prevented their wives from attending them now ensure that they do for fear that if they don't speak French, they will be deported.

Hand or fist?

When Gréou was released from prison in 2004 she returned to an unwelcoming home. Her husband has built fine houses in Senegal with the money Gréou made as an exciseuse. He gives her little money and in desperation she has turned to social services for food then sells some of those provisions for a bit of money. She hopes to make enough money from the royalties from the publication of Exciseuse - Hawa is listed as a co-author - to get a small room so that she can have the security and privacy she had in prison. She was happy there because she had a room of her own, she was free from the torments of her husband and his third wife. She could pray and listen to religious teachings. Hawa believes that life on earth is suffering. For her it has been. In Mali, they think of her as the lucky one. She emigrated. But she didn't really. She just picked up her piece of Mali and took it with her. Would Gréou be the same person if she had been forced to learn French and enter society from the beginning? Perhaps. Her husband's daughters, all of whom were raised in France and educated in the French system, still believe in many of these customs. Policing thought has never and will never, thankfully, be possible.

But thanks to Hawa's famous prosecution, girls in France have some degree of protection from genital mutilation. Yet while the young girls may have less to fear, the communities at a whole are frightened. Nicolas Sarkozy has also been aggressively expelling non-residents and he has made it difficult for those who are legal residents or citizens to bring their family members to France. Fear and confusion have always been a part of the migrant's experience, but if actions such as genital mutilation and forced marriage are wrong in France, aren't they wrong in another country? In France the government's hard line is "get French or get out." That would seem fair if the country also extended a hand: "Come in if you want to be French."