DIR: Patrick Farrelly, Kate O’Callaghan
Jaha Dukureh is one of the millions of women from Gambia who underwent female genital mutilation as a child: in Dukureh’s home village of Gambisara, girls undergo the procedure when they are just a week old. FGM was talked about so little, that it wasn’t until Dukureh attempted sexual intercourse that she realised the extent of her injuries. At just 26 years old, Dukureh’s campaign to ban FGM in Gambia was successful, with the government outlawing the practice in 2015. In Jaha’s Promise, Irish directors Patrick Farrelly and Kate O’Callaghan follow Dukureh from her campaign in the United States – where she now resides – with a change.org petition, all the way to Gambia where her human rights work brought her home to Gambisara to interview her family and the women of her village, including the midwife who removed her labia and clitoris as a baby.
Dukureh’s voice guides us through the majority of the documentary, telling us the story of how her life in both Gambia and the United States has been influenced by patriarchal demands. Dukureh was unusual in getting an education, as girls in her village are married off as early as possible. Men, meanwhile, often have multiple wives. Dukureh’s first arranged marriage – at age fifteen she was shipped off to America to marry a much older man – she argues was “like rape.” Dukureh had many cultural assumptions to deal with when addressing the issue of FGM, something that has been mirrored in her own life: running away from her husband and residing with relatives, she made a new agreement with her father: she would, instead, marry another man, one with whom she had mutual respect. Now living a much happier life with her second husband and their three children, she has brought the same model of cultural negotiation to her human rights activism.
Durukeh’s mission operates at ground level, as she educates women, men and children on the realities of FGM. A common belief which Durukeh is forced to debunk is that FGM is sunnah (“the way of the prophet”), something which many of Gambia’s influential imams claim. We see her returning to her home village where she interviews local women on their views on the procedure. There is, we learn, not necessarily a consensus. While some see FGM see it as a way of curbing female sexuality, others believe women are not able to physically give birth if they are not cut. Some, meanwhile, believe that their lack of basic healthcare makes FGM a necessity. It is fascinating to watch Dukureh as she challenges the norms and regulations of both Gambia and the United States, bringing about social and political change but doing so by shaping perspectives around her, rather than shattering them. At times it can be hard to believe that her polite and deferential manner can hold any sway, but Durukeh’s strategy demonstrates the strength of long-term campaigning and of laying a foundation for a new way of thinking.
Jaha’s Promise is admirable for the way in which it interrogates the issue of FGM, demonstrating the importance of listening to the experiences of the women most affected by it. Perhaps most interesting of all, is how crucial opening up and talking about it is. Many of the women interviewed talk about how little knowledge they had of FGM for so long: and yet, once it stopped being a taboo subject, there was sudden and drastic change. Both the Obama Administration and the Gambian government quickly came onboard once it was clear that there was appetite for safeguarding girls against mutilation. Durukeh is not naive, however, recognising that enforcement of these new laws is the next step in a long road towards eliminating the practice for good.
Unsurprisingly, Jaha’s Promise is at times distressing, particularly listening to the horrific descriptions of female genital mutilation from women who themselves endured the procedure as babies and young girls. However, Jaha’s Promise is such a crucial story that it cannot be ignored. Not only does it serve as a pertinent reminder of the sexual violence and coercion girls and women suffer world-wide, Durukeh’s grass-roots campaign will hopefully be seen as a model for future movements in combating human rights violations.
Jaha’s Promise is released 1st December 2017