Bintou, a play by Koffi Kwahulé

Gender plays a very important role in this play. SPOILER ALERT! It’s about FGM (female genital mutilation). Bintou, the main character, is a leader of the gang called the “Wild Dogs”, living with her mother and ever absent father. The story details her rebellious existence, and results in the climactic mutilation of her genitals by a woman trained in such things, and her subsequent death. This all takes place in a ghetto, from what I can discern, in a Western country.

Gender touches many aspects of this story by the very nature of it’s subject matter. For the purpose of my brief analysis, gender will be taken to mean the socialized binary between male and female. A female character existing in a sexist culture, outside of the norms expected of her will create conflict. Bintou does this in several ways.

The first indication of conflicts about her gender is her interactions with her Uncle Drissa. A story told by Bintou tells of him assaulting her. He talks to her about how the way she dresses will attract sick people on the streets, and how she should wear a bra. His close attention to her clothing shows two things. The first is that Bintou exists in a society that victim blames. What she wears is used to shift the blame of sexual assault back onto her, as though she were asking for it. Furthermore, the dynamics between an unscrupulous and predatory uncle and his thirteen year old niece show a distinct power imbalance. Bintou uses her switchblade to chase him off the first time, but further in the play he strikes her, and forces her to remove her clothes for the mutilation to take place. In a patriarchal society, women are often forced to either go along with the will of their oppressors, or defend themselves through drastic means.

Secondly, Bintou’s leadership of her gang shows a female in power, but who possesses masculine traits. This is often how women get positions of power in a patriarchal society. Bintou is street-hardened, and merciless, a complex character who doesn’t wear panties and thrills at the killing of a man staring at her by one of her Wild Dogs. She asserts power through her sexuality – a powerful sedative of male force. She doesn’t wear panties, and often her gang members speak of seeing between her legs under her short skirts. They are eager to please, competing with the member who killed the man staring at her for her affections. The men she reigns over do not question her, despite being older. Her boyfriend is white, arguably holding even more privilege over the black gang members, and still he submits to her whims, which I found very interesting. She exists outside the world she lives in, acting as she pleases, and this is attractive to her gang members. Her outspoken and charismatic character evokes masculinity, yet she is still intriguing in a sexual way through her laid-backness, and her young body. The complexity of her character is reflected in her traditionally female vulnerability, and her masculine outspokenness and power.

Thirdly, the obvious gendered aspect of this story is the attempt to curb Bintou’s lustfulness through female genital mutilation. The kind of FGM depicted in the story is the removal of the clitoris, performed by an “expert”. Bintou’s uncle pays to have her kidnapped, and then have her held down while she is cut by her own switchblade. This act reflects more on the unnamed society that her family comes from, than on Bintou herself. She is subject to the demonizing of female sexuality, and it kills her.

FGM is an interesting issue, in that it is argued in the feminist context frequently from both sides. This story shows a heinous act done to a girl who is barely a teenager because her parents find her to be out of control. There is no question that this is a violation of her human rights. It is also done to a Western black girl, not someone submersed in an African culture that promotes the virtues of FGM. But many feminists argue that stopping societies from performing FGM is a form of colonialism. Many girls wish to have the operation done as they will otherwise not be able to find a husband, or will be outcasts. Simply outlawing FGM is not enough, it requires a change of society’s mindset and views surrounding it. To our Western eyes, the gut reaction is disgust and repulsion, and classing the society’s committing FGM as savages. Arguments have been made to request a thoughtful approach to FGM, rather than one built on emotion. There is no question that it is bad for girls and women, but the society must change the root cause rather than simply changing the legality of the process.

Though this play was remarkably hard to read (the part depicting Bintou’s mutilation made me feel dizzy), it was an interesting look at the demise of a woman who tried to exist outside of her the patriarchal constructs surrounding how she should act. It perhaps serves as a cautionary tale for the girls who aren’t angelic, the girls who are foul-mouthed and evil, the girls who don’t wear panties and who rule men. Eventually people tire of the “trouble”, of the stretching of their gendered categories, and they lash out. Society cannot handle a woman like Bintou, and so she was killed.

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