Violence on the Page: Sharanya Manivannan writes on “Possessing the Secret of Joy” by Alice Walker

Alice Walker’s Possessing The Secret of Joy lays bare two secrets deep at the heart of misogyny. The first is that female sexuality is a threat, and must be controlled. The second is that sometimes, it is women who do the controlling, who act as the agents – and therefore are the perpetuators – of the establishment known as ‘the patriarchy’.

The first of these secrets is not really a secret, at least not among people who consider women’s issues, even superficially. It’s the second of these that is so difficult to speak about that it is almost unspeakable. Walker’s 1992 novel revolves around female genital mutilation (FGM) – a practise that still continues in various places in the world, and can range from a ceremonial ‘nick’ of the clitoris to the removal of all the external genitalia, leaving only a small wound through which menses and urine can pass (the woman is later cut open for intercourse and childbirth). FGM brings a variety of physiological problems, but arguably its deepest wounding comes from the motives for its existence: to curb sexual agency through the restriction of pleasure and desire. It is generally, as in Possessing The Secret of Joy, performed on girls by women, who themselves had it performed on them as children or adolescents.

There is violence – the act itself – and then there is scarring. Scarring occurs with and without explicit intent. It occurs in flippant ways. It occurs above all in an elision – an elision of meaning, sentiment or consequence. A clitorodectomy is all these things. It is also only the most extreme manifestation of the oppression of female sexuality that occurs almost everywhere, in myriad ways.

At this juncture, I will confess that it has been several years since I read this novel. I did not reread it for purposes of this note. I did not think I had to, because of how deeply its most shocking scene is embedded in my mind – I clearly recall gasping aloud when I encountered it. I am nauseous to think of it now. It is a simply described, absolutely horrifying scene. I reproduce it here without further comment:

“…I knew instinctively that it was Dura being held down and tortured inside the hut. Dura who made those inhuman shrieks that rent the air and chilled my heart. Abruptly, inside, there was silence. And then I saw M’Lissa shuffle out, dragging her lame leg, and at first I didn’t realize she was carrying anything, for it was so insignificant and unclean that she carried it not in her fingers but between her toes. A chicken – a hen, not a cock – was scratching futilely in the dirt between the hut and the tree where the other girls, their own ordeal over, lay. M’Lissa lifted her foot and flung this small object in the direction of the hen, and she, as if waiting for this moment, rushed toward M’Lissa’s upturned foot, located the flung object in the air and then on the ground, and in one quick movement of beak and neck, gobbled it down.”

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