She turned tragedy into comedy and found the perfect way to heal. Now she’s inviting everybody to celebrate something divine: female sexuality
It’s a breezy February afternoon when I meet with San Francisco performance artist Sia Amma. She appears in a doorway looking fresh, draped in a flowing chocolate brown frock, her dark hair a passionate explosion of freedom, expression; her persona totally female, fully alive, absolutely happy.
A few minutes later, when we’re walking along the bristling Santa Cruz thoroughfare known as Pacific Avenue, Sia Amma tells me about her upcoming gig at Kuumbwa Jazz Center. It will be an unconventional showcase, she says, something that will celebrate female sexuality. I believe her. Five years ago, I witnessed one of Sia Amma’s performances locally and if her upcoming show—launched in celebration of Women’s Month and featuring other dynamic female performers—is anything like her previous endeavors, it’s a safe bet that audiences will walk away amused and smiling … if not a bit shocked by some of the subject matter.
For starters, the show is dubbed “Clitoris Celebration: Think Outside the Box.” And, with a tagline like “In the White House, there is a Dick and a Bush … Where is the Clitoris?” this is certainly not G-rated fare. Envelope-pushing, yes. Bambi, no.
Later, when Sia Amma meets a photographer at Pacific Avenue’s new hot spot, the Attic, she seems like a natural in front of the camera. Perched against a white wall, she tosses her head back, lifts her arms dramatically for a posture, and then laughs with complete abandon. This is, it seems, a woman who has fiercely sank her teeth into life and is not about to let go. She is, perhaps, a woman who loves being a woman.
On the way back from the photo shoot, I ask Sia Amma about her last visit to her home in Liberia, and it is at this point that I realize, perhaps in a state of absurd irony, that Sia Amma and I share something in common. We were both circumcised.
Luck Be A Lady
The word “celebration” and female genital mutilation don’t often find themselves occupying the same sentence. But if you are a woman like Sia Amma—and there are not many like her—using one’s own, brutal female circumcision as a catalyst for healing is certainly a dramatic twist in what could have been a fully tragic tale.
It began more than five years ago. Once an avid audience member at crowded open-mike nights in San Francisco, Sia Amma—thirtysomething and a wannabe comedienne—suddenly found herself being shoved onstage by a cabaret manager. With little preparation, she grabbed the microphone and just spoke about her life. More specifically, she talked candidly about the one thing she jokingly wanted to find: her clitoris.
She got laughs. People were moved. She was motivated.
Sia Amma soon found herself developing a one-woman show, which she dubbed, appropriately enough, “In Search of My Clitoris.” It was a poignant, often hilarious escapade, a theater piece rife with emotional twists that also came with a stunning re-enactment of the brutal female circumcision she herself had undergone at the age of 9 in Liberia. In the end, audiences—from Berkeley to Santa Cruz—walked away with more information than they could possibly imagine. But, they were also inspired by the complex creature they had just met on stage. Who was this woman? And how did she manage to take such a shocking subject matter—female genital mutilation (FGM)—and weave it into a performance piece that had everything to do with healing, transformation and embracing womanhood?
"In the culture I came from, there are so many myths about women," Sia Amma explains. "Mothers are afraid, parents are afraid—they're afraid that without this tradition, their daughters won't get married. Some people even believe that if the penis touches the clitoris, the man will become impotent. Others think that the clitoris might grow and spread. Sex is a taboo and so is sexuality for women. To think that a woman can actually enjoy sex more than a man is a hard for the culture to take."
“In Search of …” became a hit. But it was only the creative appetizer for something bigger.
Sia Amma launched the Web site celebrateclitoris.com in 2000. She had several goals: celebrating being female and celebrating female sexuality. Because of her own experience, she had come to realize it was something to appreciate, not destroy. When she discovered that one of the ways to raise to the level of awareness about female sexuality, and FGM in particular, was through her show, through laughter, she eventually gave birth to Global Women Intact (GWI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending female circumcision through education, information and outreach. From there, came another show—“What Mama Said About Down There,” a companion piece for “In Search of …”
Somehow, celebrating the nether regions of female sexuality had become her full-time job.
Then something startled her. During many of her shows, and in conversations with audience members afterward, Sia Amma came to realize that many American women were not in touch with their sexuality.
“I was doing live theater in San Jose,” she says, “and during the show I asked a woman if she knew where her vulva was, and she goes, ‘Oh yeah, I have a 1971 parked in my carport that was given to me on my birthday.’ And I said, ‘No, a vulva.’”
The vulva, for those seeking enlightenment, is the entire female genital “package.” The whole shebang—the labia, clitoris and vagina.
“I was also reading in the newspaper how women are now having labia reduction,” she adds. “And it’s really, really disturbing to see that Liberian women are being mutilated and American women are just slicing up their labias. What sense does that make? I don’t think women here are that in touch with their bodies—otherwise, why would they spend so much time trying to have them altered?”
These topics and more are illuminated in the upcoming Kuumbwa show, something, she says, that “celebrates life, birth, sexuality.”
“It also enhances my work and offers a broader perspective in Africa,” she notes. “I want that sense of community in Africa to continue, and to do away with the actual [female genital] mutilation. This is why I continue this work—so another girl doesn’t have to be subjected to it. So that she can celebrate her body.”
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a widespread practice in East, West, and South Africa. In Egypt, 95 percent of women have their clitoris removed; in Ethiopia 90 percent; in Sudan, 80 percent; and in Nigeria, 50 percent. Here in America, some African mothers impose this practice on more than 100,000 girls each year. In an attempt to preserve what they feel is a tradition, or for religious reasons, they sometimes will take their daughters to Africa for the ceremony—but some do perform it in the states themselves, often risking imprisonment. The practice is so entrenched in tradition, it is difficult to persuade mothers—including those who emigrate to the United States—to stop the practice, which often is not just removal of the clitoris but of the entire labia. Sometimes the entire vagina is stitched closed until marriage. The term "female circumcision" itself unjustly describes the mutilation that actually takes place. Primitive tools—glass, razor blades, scissors—are often used with elements like a battery to cauterize the wounds. Many girls die from the mutilation, or when they give birth, and those who do survive most likely suffer the pain for the remainder of their lives.
These are the truths that Sia Amma deals with on a daily basis, and these are the truths that make her want to return to Liberia every year to raise the level of awareness about FGM. Those trips—typically two- to three-month jaunts—are fulfilling, yet often daunting, sometimes dangerous—the likes of which can be compared to a prisoner of the holocaust walking up to Hitler and telling the man how uncomfortable they are with the accommodations. The woman is working against a mindset that is not yet fully open to another view.
For her part, she places ads in papers, holds workshops and speaks in the churches because, she notes, most Liberians believe that female genital mutilation is done for religious reasons.
“I tell religious leaders that (FGM) is not in the Bible, not in the Koran, not in the Pagan practices. So I make sure that we have announcements in churches. It’s coming along. It’s very difficult.”
There is also the odd predicament of finding herself speaking to mothers who are in the process of putting their own children through the procedure—typically girls in the region have the procedure by the age of 9, some by 11.
“They receive a lot of gifts,” she says of some of the Liberian women who perform the practice on young girls. “Chickens and goats and clothing—these are some of the gifts. The same women who do circumcision are the same women who deliver babies. But to eradicate such things, there has to be a positive message in there. Because people say the clitoris is such a filthy, dirty thing—the belief has to be substituted with something positive and that’s why I decided to [include] ‘What Mamma Said About Down There’ as part of my work. It’s about mothers and daughters; it’s about celebrating the clitoris, rather than mutilating it.”
She does note that while there is no real method yet to compute if FGM is in decline in Africa, she’s hopeful that it’s not on the rise.
“The awareness has been raised. Now the health clinics are talking about eradicating it. There hasn’t been any law that ends it but, you see, the danger in having laws, is the fact that it will go underground. Last year when I was there, there was this issue of a woman who mutilated her child [via circumcision], and then she couldn’t take her child to the hospital and the child bled to death. And she was under prosecution. So the laws would be good if only they are enforceable; if not, it becomes as risky as the actual mutilation. Nobody manages the issue. It’s a very complicated thing. It’s like when they outlawed abortion in this country—women are going to go to Mexico to have it done anyway … I think what we should fight for, mostly, is the education, and making women feel comfortable with their bodies because a lot of the issues come from the message that the clitoris is a filthy, dirty thing. And if we can change that, and make into something positive, I think there can be some changes.”
In talking to Sia Amma about FGM, it raises the most fundamental question of all: why mutilate young children? And it’s not hard to draw parallels to male circumcision, although that practice is done under extremely different circumstance. Male circumcision, no longer fully condoned by the American Medical Association, has become a multi-million dollar industry. In the United States, more than 1.25 million infants annually—more than 3,300 male babies each day—are circumcised.
But for Sia Amma, her work in Liberia can be “very dangerous.” She recalls one excursion, during the recent election, an FGM supporter. Her mother, who lives in the area, as do Sia Amma’s seven siblings, forced her to leave the country, fearing for her safety.
“In the villages, where nobody knows I am there, it can be a good thing. In the city, it’s very dangerous … but I manage to do it anyway.”
And that’s a feat. Liberia, which sits on Africa’s west coast, has a history filled with political turmoil.
Lessons on Liberia
It became Africa’s first republic, interestingly enough, as a direct result of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which hoped to settle freed American slaves in West Africa. The ACS believed that the immigration of blacks to Africa was one answer to the problem of slavery. Over the course of 40 years, approximately 12,000 slaves were voluntarily relocated. Originally dubbed Monrovia, the colony became the Free and Independent Republic of Liberia in 1847.
The country’s population is composed of 16 different ethnic groups. English-speaking Americo-Liberians, descendants of former American slaves, make up 5 percent of the population—the 2001 estimate sits around 3.2 million people—but, historically, seemed to have dominated the intellectual and ruling class. The government was—and this may or may not surprise people—modeled after that of the United States. In fact, Virginia’s Joseph Jenkins Roberts was elected the first president of Liberia. Another interesting footnote: Liberia's constitution denied indigenous Liberians equal rights with the lighter-skinned American emigrants and their descendants.
By 1920, opening up the country’s interior became a majority and some 30 years later, in 1951, the establishment of a 43-mile railroad pushed progress further. But political dramas seemed to always be in the background. Then, in 1971, president William V. S. Tubman, who was serving his sixth term—died only to be succeeded by Vice President William R. Tolbert, Jr.
Tolbert’s reign lasted about nine years. He was ousted in a military coup in 1980 by Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe. This was backed by the U.S. government. But even then, it was hardly the “high life” in Liberia. Doe’s politics were corrupt, often brutal, and this, in turn, spawned a major rebellion in 1989 led by Charles Taylor, one of Doe’s former aides, and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). One year later, Doe was assassinated.
Enter the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In an attempt to restore order, the organization negotiated with the government and the rebels, but civil war ensued. By spring 1996, factional fighting by the country's warlords had destroyed any remnants of a civil society. Finally, in 1997, the war ended.
Then came Charles Taylor, a politico who grabbed 75 percent of the presidential vote in July 1997. The country had hardly any health care system, and the capital was without electricity and running water. A supporter of Sierra Leone's brutal Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Taylor hoped to crush his neighbor's government—in exchange for diamonds, which would only fatten his piggy bank. The UN soon issued sanctions.
In 2002, the rebels known as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) intensified their own attacks on Taylor's government and by June 2003, LURD and other rebel groups took control of two-thirds of the country. Then, on Aug. 11, Taylor stepped down and went into exile in Nigeria.
Gyude Bryant, considered to be a coalition-builder if not insightful businessman, was selected as the new president. But Taylor would be remembered for years to come—by the time he was exiled, the man had bankrupted his own country. Major newspapers reported that Taylor left Liberia “the world's poorest nation.” Last year, international donors promised more that $500 million in aid.
And during all this, FGM was practiced without a blink of an eye.
“The village I am from is very remote, very unreachable,” Sia Amma says. (She’s not able to reveal the actual name of her village for safety reasons.)
“[During the civil war], it has been very difficult for supplies to get there. Because I come from that area, I can get there, bring supplies, and speak the language. But a lot of girls in the area have been subjected to FGM because there is not much education going and a lot of people are afraid to get into the borders there.”
Education, not condemnation, it seems is one of main thrusts of Sia Amma’s mission. In fact, Global Women Intact’s purpose clearly states: “We refrain from condemning those practicing female circumcision. For those women seeking to end their roles in circumcising others, GWI offer educational and economic opportunities which respect their cultural heritage. We offer these women education and employment enabling them to lead fulfilling lives in their communities.”
Because she went through the same procedure, raising awareness is really important to her.
“At the same time,” she says, “[the stage work] is much more of a celebratory thing now than actually reacting to the mutilation itself, because there is only so much you can talk about the negative. After a while, it gets old.”
She discovered that after performing “In Search Of …” for a number of years. It became difficult for her to be so “open” on stage.
“Instead of continuing the negative, and the negative acts, I thought it would be best to write a show about celebration because in a lot of my performances, it came out that many women did not even know their own sexuality. With ‘In Search Of …’ —because it’s about mutilation—a lot of American women couldn’t relate to it. There was this ‘oh my god, look at the poor girl!’ But ‘Clitoris Celebration’ is being embraced because women can relate to it.”
She Is Woman
“Clitoris Celebration” is a six-woman show that has won over Bay Area audiences since its inception several years ago—it’s been hailed for its honesty, sense of humor and, most importantly, the way it boldly tackles all sides of the female fold, as it were.
During its inception, Sia Amma wanted a mixed cast.
“It was important for me to have a cultured cast,” she says. “The Chinese; Filipinos—they all deal with female sexuality in a very different way and I wanted to bring that aspect into the celebration. It’s about a straight woman, a bisexual woman; it’s about a lesbian, about children, about men, it’s about periods. So people can embrace it, because they only relate to things they already know ….
“Because it’s women’s month, and because there is so much shame and secrecy [about female sexuality], this is the one day we can all go and laugh and talk and learn history and have fun, too. And, well, I think it’s a little bit of a shock, because I make fun of the president (Bush), but again, to get the word out about the clitoris, you have to be extreme—I think extreme issues demand extreme points.”
Point taken. In the meantime, Sia Amma plans to continue filling future with all things courageous.
“I am looking to take my show to Liberia in the next two years,” she says. “I don’t know if I am going to come out alive or not, but … I’ll try.”
She laughs but the edge of seriousness there is haunting.
“Every human being has a responsibility. We can either leave the world the way we met it, or, we can make a change.”
“Clitoris Celebration: Think Outside the Box” runs at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 11 and 12, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25, $20/students. For more information, call 421-9200, or visit celebrateclitoris.com. International Clitoris Day is March 19.
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