Excavating the Matri-archive:The Author's Response
This response by the author of An Intimate Rebuke relays how the book's subject, female genital power (FGP) and the principle of "matrifocal morality," emerged from fieldwork. Taking up key questions by four commentators, it emphasizes the need to make Africa the source and subject of novel critique.
Côte d'Ivoire, women, naked protest, morality, civil war
I sincerely thank my distinguished colleagues for the devoted attention they gave to reading An Intimate Rebuke and for their rich analyses of its contributions. Each of them has played a seminal role in my scholarly life and influenced this book project. My gratitude to them for their insights makes their magnificent appraisals of my work all the more gratifying. I also want to express my deep appreciation to Adriaan van Klinken, co-chair of the African Religions Unit, who demonstrated great faith in the promise of my book by first proposing the roundtable discussion. His choice of commentators was astute. Their collective expertise covers the range of fields and dimensions of critical inquiry that the book engages: myth and ritual performance in African indigenous religions, cultural anthropology and the ethnography of Côte d'Ivoire, the study of women and gender, and postcolonial theory.
My original project did not have such hubristic scope. Perhaps it is inevitable—even desirable—that a book born of that elusive thing we call fieldwork ends up being a work of a very different subject, character, and scope than we could imagine at the outset. That, at least, is certainly the case here. Initially my fieldwork had little to do with what became the main subject, the phenomenon I call "female genital power" (FGP). Its aim was simple and open-ended: to return to witness once again an initiatory ritual called Dipri about which I had written my master's thesis thirty years earlier. During Dipri, initiates are consecrated to the river genie and succumb to possession trance. As spiritual power mounts in them, initiates feel compelled to stab themselves to release it. Elders who have mastered that power, sékè, use it [End Page 316] to heal the wounds instantaneously. I was curious about how the ritual had changed over time and in the shifting social landscape. In the years since my initial fieldwork, a virulent form of Pentecostal Christianity had done much to demonize and dismantle African traditions. Moreover, Côte d'Ivoire had been through a civil war that pitted northern Muslims against southern Christians and splintered the country into ethnic factions vying for claim to fertile territories and cash crops. Did indigenous tradition still have salience in this globalizing situation?
To my surprise I found villages newly animated, peopled with refugees from the bankrupt city that no longer offered prosperity or security. The cadres had become farmers. The roads were full of children. Dipri had become even grander in scale and more energetic. Because the execution of the stab is dangerous and the neophytes are vulnerable, women elders come out the night before to set a snare for witches who might try to harm the youth. They strip naked and slap their genitals to activate their own spiritual power and curse evildoers by pounding the ground with old pestles. In interviews the masters of sékè repeatedly asserted that the women's rite had nothing to do with Dipri, but was its own separate affair. Women undertook it on their own initiative whenever the community was threatened with evil: famine, epidemics, or war. Woman's spiritual warfare was even stronger than sékè. They reported that when the first civil war erupted, five Baoulé women performed the rite continuously, until rebel soldiers kidnapped and killed them. Later I learned that women elders had stripped in broad daylight during public protests against the state's immoral rulership, as they had done in 1949 to protest French colonial forces. The discovery that the women's naked curse was not only an esoteric rite but a wider interethnic phenomenon with deep historical roots was just the beginning. Once I returned to dusty libraries I began to string beads of evidence, connecting disparate records of women's collective ritual manifestations—some buried in ethnographies and portrayed as isolated and esoteric ritual events and others represented essentially as political acts of resistance. Drawing a thread through these cases revealed the consonance between religious and political acts, gathering a portrait of a single phenomenon. Most essential is the appeal to the genitals as the seat of the innate power that postmenopausal women bear as guardians of the moral order. Its ritual evocation is what I call female genital power.
As this story of how my study unfolded attests, I did not set out to make broad claims about women, African women, or African woman's history. While a critical feminist analysis is an important dimension of my work, I—like most scholars of gender today—vigilantly avoided essentializing "woman" or allowing a Western feminist agenda to distort the facts of the local situation. [End Page 317] Nor did I begin this project with any pretense of identifying the elusive, inchoate cultural element that makes West Africa cohere. Mine is not a grand vision from the top down but an argument built from the ground up, beginning with the renewed inquiry into why only a subset of two different ethnic groups—the patrilineal Abidji and matrilineal Adioukrou—celebrate Dipri. Once I unraveled the knots of those entanglements, the common thread that emerged was a founding principle of social organization that I call "matrifocal morality." FGP is the binding force that cements peacetime alliances and strategic solidarity during warfare. My portrait of FGP is the result of what Foucault called genealogy, uncovering signs of what is ephemeral, overlooked, or submerged because it was not properly valued. Tracing the repeated executions of FGP from early chronicles to present-day manifestations, across vast geographical expanses, and in ritual and politics, I reveal a subjugated archive of African women's history, a "matri-archive." My colleagues have here joined me in the work of excavating this matri-archive by appreciating the new riches that it yields.
Jacob Olupona has long been a faithful champion of my work, going back to my comparative study of divination and the centrality of that ritual in African religious, philosophical, and ethical systems. So I was especially pleased that he underscores "the centrality of matrifocal morality." The book's organization lends itself to a meditation on morality in three registers: the cultural habitus of ethics as the foundation of "home," moral agency and the "worldliness" of ritual, and the moral grounds of African civil society in contemporary politics as a "timely" appeal. As my ethnographic and historical research demonstrates, in the open expanse of forest frontier that was once Côte d'Ivoire new ethnic alliances were only possible because of a shared moral principle, and new polities were founded on that matrifocal morality. The Mothers' rite is a spectacular recollection of that fundamental vision of the moral order.
Olupona points to the potential of this work to shift the field of religious studies by advancing appreciation for ritual. Indeed, ritual has gotten short shrift in a field that gives primacy to sacred text, making it a defining feature of "religion." Certainly the field privileges mythology over ritual as the initial vessel of philosophy. And antiquated and lamentable notions, like the Axial Age theory, still have currency. That theory argues that without writing there is no reflexive self-consciousness on which ethics, or any effective agency for that matter, depends. The logocentricity of the academy presents another acute dilemma for the scholar of Africa's ritual-based traditions: African languages are innumerable. To the degree that the field still privileges language and philology as the point of entry, it splinters the study of African religions into infinitesimal shards of linguistic esotericism. Turning instead to the [End Page 318] eloquence of ritual rhetoric as its own "indigenous hermeneutic" advances the understanding of religious systems that are organized around practice and that share fundamental visual codes and performative dynamics.1 Olupona's vivid accounts of Yoruba myths referring to the supreme potency of female power corroborate that the "ritual was embedded in mythology." The converse is just as true. Women's spiritual knowledge/power, to which mythology refers, is embodied in the ritual of FGP.
Sîan Hawthorne and Adriaan van Klinken organized a particularly inspiring and influential conference on gender, religion, and postcoloniality that I attended at SOAS in London. Its interrogation of "catachresis," a critical construct of postcolonial theory, provided me with the methodological framework I had been seeking just as I was launching this work. In her remarks on An Intimate Rebuke Hawthorne recognizes FGP as "an exemplar" of postcoloniality as praxis that does not divorce its theoretical principles from actual political engagement. But she asks, insofar as I suggest that FGP operates as a "catachresis," a form of critique that upsets conventional points of reference: What is it that gets "displaced"?
The outrageous spectacle of the denuded female genitals is a "willful disregard of decorum" that performs what Spivak calls "the impossible 'no.'" That is, FGP does not succumb to the pressures to conform to colonial standards of comportment or gender expectations even as it rejects the postcolonial subjugation thrust upon society by the state. Perhaps more significantly, the women's rebuke of immoral state politics is vehemently conveyed by the subjugated subaltern in her own terms—terms not derived from foreign constructs or even relying on the language of the colonial. In this way the Mothers shift the terms of contestation. They also shift the times of engagement by carrying on "in the meanwhile" (to use Homi Bhaba's phrase) with their supposedly obsolete traditions in the postcolonial present whose secular conception of time willfully excludes them from the time of "modernity."
Hawthorne laments that she was not persuaded that the Mothers had been able to locate an "outside" from which to speak. If there is no post for any of us in the postcolonial situation, in the sense that we cannot claim to be experiencing a substantively different period of afterward, there may be no outside either. The Mothers' rebuke and call to spiritual arms is a brave response to this very plight. Their performance makes a stand by drawing on a conceptual social imaginary that does lie outside that cosmopolitan frame. FGP reasserts the relevance of a uniquely African locus of knowledge/power. Far from reifying the state as centerpiece, the Mothers make no demand for representation as proxy. By embodying power as a spiritual and moral force, what they displace with their very bodies is the secular state.2 [End Page 319]
Hawthorne wonders, however, whether FGP is effective. Setting aside rumination on the possible truth to reports that some defiant men have been struck dead by the rite, we can see that the threat of the Mothers' curse alone is empirically real and consequential, as demonstrated by the incident at the crossroads. Confronted with a spectacle that reverses the order of things, turning power bottom-up, even armed forces flee. Nevertheless, I also explored whether youth—especially those unmoored from village life and local tradition—still recognize and understand the women's gesture, since the efficacy of FGP relies on whether its damning intent is conveyed. My surveys, albeit small and perhaps statistically insignificant, revealed that urban youth do understand these idioms to a remarkable degree. Even when online reactions to YouTube videos of the women's act expressed ignorance, misogyny, and cultural self-loathing, there was always an equal or greater number that offered corrections, explanations, and testimonies about their grandmothers' threats to strip that halted a crime or censured transgression. Therefore, I think the future of FGP lies as much in our ability as scholars of Africa and scholar-activists concerned with the fate of the continent to recognize radically different terms of postcolonial critique. Its effective reach in the wider postcolony may depend on the degree to which we are willing to appreciate that the "guerrilla warfare" that "seizes and reverses" colonial constructs can also be expressed in "local vernacular codes."
My friend and fellow Ivoirianist, Joseph Hellweg, was an early reader of the book, and his incisive feedback was utterly invaluable. His subtle challenges helped me tighten every seam. He especially prevailed on me to clarify the particular way that I understand the idea of "the local" in a globalized world. So I underscored that the term refers to those contexts in which particular views, values, and practices arose and were regularly rehearsed, giving charter to a common worldview. "The local" is constituted by constructs and customs that are recognized by Africans themselves to be real and to have value, and that therefore shape and orient their lives. My intent is to differentiate particularly African ways of understanding and organizing knowledge and meaning from supposedly "global" ones—which are, in fact, the consolidation of Western ideology that is circulated and adopted (or imposed) "elsewhere."
I was glad for Hellweg's discussion of the book as an intimate portrait of the Ivoirian civil war, and his emphasis on the Mothers' urgent and timely demand for justice in contemporary politics. While it is beyond the purview of this or any scholarly study to make prescriptions for social action on others' behalf, it is my hope that the work can have consequence beyond theoretical treatise. As Olupona noted, women's manifestations still have the potential to change African societies. At the very least, this rite of moral outrage offers an [End Page 320] eloquent commentary on power and condemns the source of Africa's current plight as a moral as much as a political failing.
Hellweg is right that FGP is a form of militancy, with its own aggressive character. Certainly the Mothers are not pure pacifists, and they do take political stances. This is the political dimension of the spiritual rite. By the same token, I would argue that the tradition is not complicit in the kind of military violence they condemn: immoral violence, that is, unwarranted aggression or force incommensurate with the immediate threat to society and its well-being, seeking pure power without accountability. By activating the original matrix, matrifocal morality, FGP seeks to restore the unity that Memel-Fotê felt undergirded the ethnic diversity of the country and region. That coherence is founded in matrifocal morality as the basis of alliance and serves the interest of peace. I see no contradiction in his suggestion that such a principle, which is not structural in nature, enabled diverse ethnic polities to coexist.
The affective mother-child bond that is at the heart of matrifocal morality does not inevitably lead to matriliny. It is the moral foundation of strategic alliances—both within the family (among children of the same womb) and in politics (in terms of obligations owed to firstcomers). In the forest frontier, matrifocal morality most essentially operated as a principle on the basis of which new polities were established. Certainly it justified the structural arrangement of matrilineal societies, but as a lateral, antistructural principle, it sustained African society whether its organization was hierarchical or acephalous, matrilineal or patrilineal.
Hellweg's puzzlement over what seems to him to be a paradox stems from the fact that although the seat of FGP is not the womb or women's reproductive capacities, men used women's menstrual cloth and even menstrual blood as a symbolic metonym in rituals of alliance formation and oaths. I maintain that their use did not refer to maternity but stood for the Mothers in their absence, women's "firstness," and the inviolability of their moral authority. Yet, Hellweg's observation of a persistent ambivalence with respect to the authority of actual mothers and the Mothers may be valid. I suggest that the deference expressed toward one's biological mother is related to the fact that the principle of matrifocal morality is based on the primary affective mother-child bond and the moral responsiveness that springs from it naturally.
That brings me to Dianne Stewart's very provocative question as to whether a sharp distinction between mothers, as nurturing protectors of home, and the Mothers, as fearsome spiritual warriors, is entirely justified. Years ago, while I was at a very early stage in my thinking, I heard Stewart enjoin an AAR audience to recognize motherhood in Africa as an empowering office and consider it as a conceptual ground for peace-building. While sympathetic to her premise, I [End Page 321] noticed that prior scholarship on instances of FGP often faltered precisely on the problematic disjunction between woman in the image of nurturing maternity and the behavior of unruly female warriors. By making a clear differentiation between the generative power of the womb and the spiritual power and moral primacy instantiated in the vulva of postmenopausal women, I aimed to accentuate the unique self-identification of the Mothers that is uncoupled from actual motherhood or its structural function. The office of motherhood derives from childbirth and strongly informs structural social order, especially matriliny; the office of guardian of the moral order is not dependent on having become a mother, and its manifestation in FGP is not structural in nature. Also, the distinct subset of women who perform the rite of FGP further distances them from actual motherhood. Those postmenopausal women occupy a rank that defies and surpasses structural definitions of gender. They claim their agency on the basis of their own self-defining "essentialist" identity as women of a particular kind: endowed by virtue of age with a particular moral force. Because their exercise of this embodied power is voluntary, enacted spontaneously in times of crisis, is guided by a purity of intention, and is purposeful, I argue that this particular gender identity is a strategic essentialism. Nevertheless I welcome Stewart's invitation to consider further the ways in which this newly excavated matri-archive may offer us, as scholars in the Western academy, an entirely different, local conception of motherhood, one that may encompass both nurturer and warrior.
While writing this book I made a conscious decision to avoid comparative leaps or hastily drawn analogies between FGP in Africa and the increasing appearance of naked protests among women in the West, most notably the case of Femen. Such surface parallels do little to illuminate the true nature of the African case. But who can resist noting that in the spontaneous, collective "Me Too" movement women threw off their homely comportment to condemn immorality and male subjugation in public performances of rage? In this very charged moment of political history and cultural upheaval in the United States, women's moral outrage demanding respect and accountability is a timely matter. I hope it raises interest in the courageous and singular expression of African female genital power.
1. Jacob K. Olupona, City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
2. Laura S. Grillo, "Catachresis in Côte d'Ivoire: Female Genital Power in Religious Ritual and Political Resistance," Religion and Gender 3, no. 2 (2013): 188–206, http://www.religionandgender.org/index.php/rg/article/view/8329.