top of page



Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar turned to African activists for help in planning Warrior Marks, filmed in 1993.

Tobe Levin von Gleichen


Associated since 2006 with the Hutchins Center (formerly DuBois Institute) for African and African American Research under Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at Harvard, Tobe Levin von Gleichen (PhD Cornell University) has held visiting professorships at China Women’s University (Beijing 2011-12), at the Arts and Humanities Research Institute, King’s College London (2019-2021), and visiting scholar positions at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford (2014-2016), Mt Holyoke (2004), Brandeis University (2006) and Cornell University (2010) as well as serving as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Frankfurt since 1985. A professor emerita of the University of Maryland Global Campus (formerly UMUC Europe) where she taught for thirty-five years, she launched UnCUT/VOICES Press in 2009 specializing in books on FGM and co-founded FORWARD (in Germany) in 1998. Tobe’s contributions to the literature of FGM can be found in dozens of peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and three edited volumes. She is the author/ editor of Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against FGM. UnCUT/VOICES, 2015; Waging Empathy. Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy and the Global Movement to Ban FGM. UnCUT/VOICES 2014; and (with Augustine Asaah) Empathy and Rage. Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature. Ayebia, 2009. She is also the editor of Violence: ‘Mercurial Gestalt’. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008, containing her chapter on excision. As editor-in-chief and translator, she brought out a special issue of Feminist Europa. Review of Books covering an exhaustive reservoir of FGM studies in multiple languages published prior to 2010. Having begun campaigning against FGM as a student in Munich in 1977, she has been recognized in Germany as a movement pioneer. At KCL, together with colleagues Dr. Maria Jaschok and Comfort Momoh MBE, she planned and managed a ten-part series of virtual colloquia exploring the relationship between FGM, allied abuses, and “Patriarchal Inscriptions on Women’s Bodies,” from which two collections of essays arose.


7th and 8th from the left are UnCUT/VOICES authors Comfort Momoh MBE (book forthcoming) and founding president of EuroNet FGM Khady Koita, author of Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights. (2010). Tobe Levin is on the left.


Harvard Poster


The poster announces the presentation of Waging Empathy at Harvard in 2014.

about Waging Empathy




      In 1992, Pulitzer Prize-winner Alice Walker did something wonderful: she became the first author of international renown (1) to dedicate a novel “to the blameless vulva,” opening to public scrutiny an egregious abuse of girl’s and women’s rights -- female genital mutilation (FGM). 2012 marked the book’s twentieth anniversary.  In response, UnCUT/VOICES Press issued a call for papers that produced this unique collection:  essays on Walker’s revolutionary narrative by scholars who span the globe. From Japan and China to India and Europe, Africa and the USA: four continents contribute to this praise-song for an American native daughter with international appeal -- but a troubled domestic reception. Alone among nations I’ve studied, the United States stands out in the hostility expressed toward Walker’s writing against FGM. (2)


     Why was she so contested in North America alone? Here’s part of the story.
Evelyn C. White’s biography, Alice Walker. A Life (NY: Norton, 2004) opens its prologue with a scene in which Walker, guest at “an elite college near Boston in the early 1990s” (xiii) (3) has just read from Possessing the Secret of Joy only to be confronted by a “middle-aged white woman who identified herself as a college official” (xiii).  The very first question contains a rebuke, the “luncheon guests” having allegedly been so shocked by the words “clitoris” and “vagina” that a firestorm of ire is expected along with fading financial support. Asked how to deal with the “complaints,” Alice instructs the college employee to set the callers straight, specifically to understand that their issues as privileged, presumed rich white women differ from those of “impoverished women of color” (xiv). Clearly, Alice sees herself as representing African-American demography in terms of class and history. The exchange is therefore framed in terms of black and white.

    Imagine Walker’s pain on discovering that the categories slip, and that addressing FGM in the USA elicits even greater, more virulent hostility from those whose support had been taken for granted – namely “women of color” who had emigrated from Africa but were mainly not, like Walker, descendants of American slaves. The early outcry against the book was in fact fueled not by white opposition but by black: detractors dismissed Walker’s assumption of kinship and resented what this implied in terms of misrecognizing their status, conflating them with persons whose ancestors had been abducted and abused. Among outspoken African critics were the intelligentsia with ties to national leaders; turbulence in their countries, coup d’états, national impoverishment partly due to colonialism or other political upheavals had led to their resettlement in the USA. Not the daughters of sharecroppers, most belonged to the educated middle or even upper class.

    Chapter one, my contribution, cites several of these faultfinders whose clout enabled them to publish in places like the New York Times. In important academic positions, they set the tone for reception in major feminist outlets like The Women’s Review of Books, Meridians or JENdA. A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies (UMass Amherst). (4) And once Walker pushed on to reach an even broader audience through film, debate exploded. Co-authored and produced with Pratibha Parmar, Warrior Marks, a 1993 video (and book subtitled The Sexual Blinding of Women), elicited the following comments from biographer White: “Screened primarily at film festivals and at fund-raising events, Warrior Marks was repudiated, in the United States and abroad, by a cadre of activists who branded Alice a ‘cultural imperialist’ for bringing attention to a practice they asserted was a ‘private affair’ best left to Africans” (459). (5)

    White is mistaken.
    Perhaps the phrase “in the U.S. and abroad” slipped without thought from her pen. In fact, reception abroad was positive – in Europe, Africa and Asia. After all, Possessing the Secret of Joy and Warrior Marks were created in consultation with African pioneers in the struggle to end FGM – none of whom resided in the USA but included African women I’ve worked with for decades: Efua Dorkenoo, Comfort Ottah, Awa Thiam and others.

    These essays by international scholars show how Walker’s fiction served the global movement against FGM. They broaden the parochial viewpoint floated in the United States concerning ‘ownership’ of the issue and present a counter-portrait of successful intervention, thereby adjusting this thorny aspect of Walker’s legacy.


  1 As a theme in fiction, female genital mutilation has a much longer history. See Chantal Zabus. Between Rites and Rights. Excision in Women’s Experiential Texts and Human Contexts. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2007; Tobe Levin and Augustine Asaah, eds. Empathy and Rage. Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature. Oxfordshire: Ayebia, 2009; Elisabeth Bekers. Rising Anthills. African and African American Writing on Female Genital Excision, 1960-2000. Madison: U. of Wisconsin P., 2010.


2 (“For many years, the United States has lagged beyond international efforts to end female genital mutilation.” Sanctuary for Families. Female Genital Mutilation in the United States. Protecting Girls and Women in the U.S. from FGM and Vacation Cutting. 2013. Web. Retrieved 22 February 2014.)

3 Though it might have been Radcliffe, I’m reminded of Wellesley where a considerable amount of criticism emerged in those years.

4  For instance, JENdA’s Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí contributes to a special issue on Women in Islam: “… when mother Africa, without due process, was arraigned in the international court of Euro-American opinion, mama could not be anything else but guilty and guilty as presupposed. Africa’s fancied accuser was none other than the ‘Blameless Vulva’, which was presumed innocent. I am, of course, referring to African American feminist writer Alice Walker’s assault on Africans in the guise of an evangelizing mission to eradicate female circumcision in ‘Africa’.” And Oyěwùmí continues: “In 1992, Walker published Possessing the Secret of Joy, a novel in which she purports to document the social practice of female circumcision in ‘Africa’. The novel is presented as part fiction and part fact; one could call it ‘factitious’. By the end of the book, however, there is no doubt that, for Walker, the story must be read not as a work of imagination but as a call to arms. In her final chapter, she addresses the reader and produces some ‘real’ facts and statistics to undergird her tale of horror. Playing the evangelist, she even promises to use a portion of the royalties from her book ‘to educate women and girls, men and boys about the hazardous effects of genital mutilation’ (285). How much more reality-based can one get?” Although Oyěwùmí blithely dismisses the benefit of funding, in fact, Walker kept her promise.  One recipient of her aid was the leading NGO, FORWARD in the UK.

5 In response to an American Anthropological Association panel featuring speakers against FGM – and FOR it--, and considering the fraught psychology among victims who defend “female circumcision,” Debra J. Dickerson accounts for women’s complicity: “Putting women in charge of circumcising other women is little different from slave masters putting loyal slaves in charge of whipping the rebels. It’s no different from any other gut-wrenchingly hideous job categorized, and despised, as ‘women’s work’. That the women made something exultant from the entrails of oppression is no different than what the slaves did with chit’lins.” Dickerson, Debra J. “Crazy As They Need To Be: Circumcised Women Who Support The Practice.” Mother Jones. 2 December 2007. Retrieved 8 February 2014.

Guest Preface by Nobel Laureate in Literature 2004 Elfriede Jelinek
Introduction by Tobe Levin
PART 1. Torture and Taboo

Chapter 1. Tobe Levin. "Alice Walker: Matron of FORWARD."
Chapter 2. Verena Stefan. “Mutilation of the Vulva and Circumcision of other Female Freedoms -- or the Perfect Vulva’s Aura and Revolt.” Trans. from the German by Tobe Levin.
Chapter 3. M. Giulia Fabi. “Sexual Violence and the Black Atlantic. On Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy.”

Chapter 4. Claudia Landi. “Animals in Possessing the Secret of Joy.”  Trans. from the Italian by Tobe Levin.

PART 2. Trauma and Treatment

Chapter 5. Elisabeth Bekers. “Walker’s Traumatized Woman Warrior in Possessing the Secret of Joy.”

Chapter 6. John Gruesser. “Breaking the Silence about Female Genital Mutilation in Possessing the Secret of Joy.

Chapter 7. Monica Jacobe. “Contextualizing the African Legacy: Teaching Alice Walker’s Africa as Southern Women’s Writing.”

Chapter 8. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez. “Resistance as the Secret of Joyful Global Feminist Alliance: Inner Work and Public Acts in Possessing the Secret of Joy.”


PART 3. Treasure and Text

Chapter 9. Sachiko Mitsumori. “Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy. Towards the Universal Self.”

Chapter 10. Hilda Twongyeirwe.  “Resistance and Choice: Possessing the Secret of Joy and Women Writers against FGM in Uganda.”

Chapter 11. Gulab Singh. “What Alice Walker Teaches Us: Critical Thinking in and about Possessing the Secret of Joy.

Chapter 12. Fangfang Zhu.  “Religion, Ecofeminism and Female Genital Mutilation: Cracking the Code of Patriarchy in Possessing the Secret of Joy.”

Chapter 13. Nick Hadikwa Maluko. “Reading the novel as a playwright. WAAFRIKA’s author responds to Possessing the Secret of Joy in ‘Becoming A Man: XXYX Africa’.”


Notes on Contributors

bottom of page