By Aoife Ellis Bagnall
As of 2016, it was estimated that at least 200 million girls and women across 30 countries had experienced female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM). This is the practice of partially or fully removing the external female genitalia and other forms of unnecessary injury, usually before the girl is 5 years old. This practice stems from archaic views on female purity and virginity and misogynistic efforts to control female sexuality. Female genital mutilation can have dire effects on the girls and women it is inflicted upon, including difficulties with urination, menstruation, intercourse and childbirth; chronic pain; and depression. One country wherein FGM is hugely common is The Gambia, where approximately two-thirds of the female population has been affected. One such person is 27-year-old Jaha Dukureh, a woman who has made it her life’s mission to put an end to FGM, not only in her birth country, but all over the world. The recent release of Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan’s documentary, Jaha’s Promise, shows the story of her life and activism against the brutal practice.
The film is narrated entirely by Jaha herself. It opens with a shot of her home in Georgia, where she now lives with her husband and children. She appears to have the average American life, however Jaha is far from average. She begins her narrative by recounting her own personal experience with FGM. Unlike most girls in The Gambia, Jaha received an education from a young age and speaks of her feminist beliefs throughout her early life. Despite this however, she tells us that she didn’t even realise she had been cut until she was 15 years old. Forced into a child marriage with an older man in New York, her teenage self discovered what had happened to her only when she was unable to carry out her conjugal duties. In the years that followed, Jaha fought her own personal battles with what had been done to her, escaped her arranged marriage, received a high school education, and became involved in women’s rights groups – all leading to her decision to try put an end to female genital mutilation.
The film follows her as she travels back to The Gambia in an attempt to re-educate people about the practice and try to come to terms with why they even do it. Interviewing men and women, she is given myriad reasons as to why FGM is needed – for men’s sexual pleasure, to control women’s emotions, to make child-birth easier, to respect the word of Allah (FGM is not endorsed anywhere in the Qu’ran) – none of which make any sense to Jaha as a reason to ruin a woman’s life. Uneducated and ignorant in a patriarchal society, many people just do it because they are told they should, without really thinking about why, leading to a culture of silence on the subject they call “a woman’s secret”.
We follow our protagonist, throughout Jaha’s Promise, in her campaign which began with an online petition that gained an unprecedented amount of support from the public, from celebrities, and even then-president Barack Obama. We watch as she builds her organisation for FGM survivors, Safe Hands For Girls, and begins a movement that gains the attention of the Western governments and even the UN. Her mission to spread awareness is an incredible one, however, it is her personal struggle with inciting change in her home country and family that is her hardest battle, as she tries to change the ways that are so ingrained in their society. She is an inspiring figure throughout and by the end of this film, it is hard to believe what she ultimately achieves in her mission to end FGM both in The Gambia and the wider world.
Jaha’s Promise is a beautiful and under-stated film. Although it documents one of the most brutal practices carried out on women, the focus remains on Jaha herself and her personal journey without the need to rely on the sensationalism of the grotesque act. She alone captures the audience’s attention as we are awed by how much she has done at such a young age. The documentary’s compassion and sympathetic tones also stand to it greatly. It mirrors Jaha’s desires to educate but not to place blame. We are introduced to believers and practicers of FGM but not one is presented in a villainous way. Instead, we are encouraged to see their points of view without judgement, but with the understanding that this is the only way they know.
Jaha’s Promise also helps in educating its audience about a practice many aren’t even fully aware of in the western world, and although FGM is a truly awful thing, it explains this tastefully through survivor’s accounts and experiences, without the need for gory diagrams and gratuitous imagery. More than any of the film’s other attributes, this documentary’s greatest aspect is the importance of the story it tells. Jaha Dukureh’s story is an incredible one and deserves to be told the world over, as it inspires its audience and shows the merits of personal belief and how one woman can really change the world.