Penn Sunnath: First Malayalam Novel On Female Genital Mutilation
The story revolves around the fight of Kerala woman, who was abducted by a tribal community in Africa, against genital mutilation
When she read a report on the brutal and painful ritual of female genital mutilation (FGM) among the Maasai tribes in Kenya a few years back, young poet Anitha Sreejith had no inclination of such a practice here in Kerala, though she had heard of the Bohra community in India also performing it.
“Being a woman, I was startled at this, but at the same time I felt curious to read more about it and do a research on the subject out of sheer academic interest,” she says. But when she gathered more materials, she felt it is worth writing a novel based on that universal subject instead of making a report.
“That was how I conceived the thread of the novel, ‘Penn Sunnath’ (Female circumcision), but at that time I had never thought such a barbaric practice existed in our own society, clandestinely though,” shares the young writer who just released the novel, published by Current Books, Thrissur.
The story revolves around a young woman from Kerala who was abducted by a tribal community following an ethnic clash there when she was on a vacation in Africa along with her partner. She was forced to marry a man from a tribe. When she was in their confines she witnesses the barbaric ritual and there begins her fight against it.
Of course, this is a novel unraveled through the imagination of a female writer who amalgamates African tribal culture and the rituals along with the Indian though process, says Anitha. Just remember of a place like Somalia where the genitals of 90 percent of the women and girls are chopped off without their permission.
If you can imagine being there without knowing anything and follow me through such strange customs, you will be shocked, says Anitha, who confesses that she built these landscapes, customs and rituals using her imagination based on the reading. But 80 percent are real copies of the customs while 20 percent pure imagination, according to her. “This is my way of waging the war for those hapless girls, who are denied one of the most sensitive feels of their life,” says Anitha.
Not only the subject, but even the landscape and society appearing in the novel were alien to her, she says adding that it is a challenge to write a novel because she is basically a poet.
“Even after many levels of research, with the help of many friends in India and Africa, I had the strange feeling as to how could I make a narrative on an alien place and an alien practice. But I somehow overcame that hurdle, and decided that the protagonist should be an Indian girl, from my own state so I can infuse my own thoughts, imaginations and fantasies into it.”
Barring the facts regarding female genital mutilation, which she got from many sources including the websites of the World health Organization and many other organizations, it is a world of imagination. But the novel poses some perennial questions about the identity of women and her existence and sexuality in a male-dominated world.
The inputs she got from organizations like ‘28 Too Many’ based in Kenya was literally shocking but instead of reproducing such statistical data, she used it as the catalyst for the narrative which has a touch of magical realism, the author says. At the same time, it also gives a broader picture about various types of FGM practiced among different communities.
Though this is a novel on a brutal practice in the name of faith, she wanted to assert female sexuality through ‘Penn Sunnath’, Anitha says. Genital mutilation is performed to prevent a woman from having any kind of sexual feeling thus making her a tool for the pleasure of the man, but she too has her own feelings and desires that should not be suppressed by force, said the writer.
“When the genitals of 200 million girls and women are chopped off to make them ‘sexually frozen’ lumps of flesh for the men to enjoy, we cannot sit idle; we have to respond,” says Anitha, adding that it is not a critique on any religion or community. “Mine is not a feminist novel, but a tribute to females at the peak of pain, a battle fought with words.”
The row over the barbaric practice of FGM in Kerala began when she was in the final stage of writing the novel and this made her think of redrafting a bit with some more real-life experiences in Kerala, including those of researcher Shani S S who herself had undergone this ritual in her childhood. Anitha decided to incorporate such experiences in the novel to make it more relevant in Kerala, a state highly proud about its progress and development.
“When I read that FGM is performed not only in the distant ‘dark continent’ but in the so-called God’s Own Country, I was literally shocked which is also reflected here. Ultimately this is a novel on the rights of a woman on her body,” Anitha says. “Just imagine the ordeals of a woman who has just a hole in place of vagina and the pains she undergoes during sex to the time of delivery… that pain is reflected in ‘Penn Sunnath’, without dogmatizing the fights of femininity for their right over their body.”
The novel was the result of her enquiry as to what FGM is and how it happens. “In the beginning I felt it is impossible to get the details, because it is associated with God and faith. It is the same way as saying menstruation is impure and the menstruating becoming untouchable,” according to Anitha, who hopes this novel would be a tool to sensitize the society about such vices.