With candor, humour and courage, a group of African-Canadian women challenge cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality and fight to take back ownership of their bodies. Co-director Habibata Ouarme introduces us to some of her radiant, endearing friends who, like herself, come from a culture where female genital mutilation (FGM) is a common practice. By interweaving different personal accounts, KOROMOUSSO: Big Sister explores the phenomenon of FGM from the perspective of those who’ve experienced it. In their quest for individual and collective healing, the film’s main characters support each other in a journey that helps them to overcome the trauma of female genital mutilation and rebuild their self-esteem. With great sensitivity, the film examines the shame felt by women who’ve been subjected to FGM and now live in Canada, a country largely unresponsive to their experience because while it has banned the practice, it does not offer the reconstructive surgery that could lead to better sexual health.
A group of women break cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality, support each other in overcoming the trauma of female genital mutilation, and take back ownership of their bodies.
With candor, humour and courage, a group of African-Canadian women challenge cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality and fight to take back ownership of their bodies. Combining her own journey with personal accounts from some of her radiant, endearing friends, co-director Habibata Ouarme explores the phenomenon of female genital mutilation and the road to individual and collective healing, both in Africa and in Canada.
With candor, humour and courage, the main characters in KOROMOUSSO: Big Sister challenge cultural taboos surrounding female sexuality and fight to take back ownership of their bodies. In their quest for individual and collective healing, these radiant, endearing women support each other on a journey that allows them to overcome the trauma of female genital mutilation and rebuild their self-esteem. Speaking for themselves and on their own behalf, they oppose social control of their bodies, inspiring an entire generation of young Canadians and immigrants. “I want the missing piece of me back. I want to be an accomplished woman, a complete woman,” confides Safieta, determined to begin the restorative process undertaken by the film’s co-director, Habibata Ouarme, in 2013.
According to UNICEF, at least 200 million girls and women aged 15 to 49 from 31 countries have been subjected to FGM. Today, many of these women live in Canada, where although the practice is banned, reconstructive surgery is not offered. By interweaving personal accounts of victims of FGM and Habibata’s own journey, KOROMOUSSO: Big Sister explores the phenomenon of FGM as experienced by African immigrant women in Quebec.
Taking a collaborative, inclusive approach and demonstrating immense cultural sensitivity, Habibata and co-director Jim Donovan also examine the shame that can be felt by women subjected to FGM, both socially and when engaging with the Western medical system, which is largely unresponsive to their experience. While attitudes in Africa are slowly changing, the film shows that if all Canadian women are to have access to equitable sexuality, more education is needed within the Quebec and Canadian healthcare system—a task that may well be initiated by these brave sisters in struggle.
Why make this film?
HO: I wanted to use my own experience to tell the story of many different women without looking at them through a lens of sadness or pity, or seeing them as victims. It always seemed to me that the fight to eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) was ubiquitous, but I found that women living with its consequences had few options. I also wanted to talk about what bonds us with our families, despite the pain.
JD: As the partner of an African woman, I found Habibata’s anti-FGM battle, waged in solidarity with other women, very compelling. These acts of violence shouldn’t exist in 2023. It has been an honour for me to support this cause through my experience as a filmmaker and to support my co-director in making her first feature-length film.
Habibata, you are both the film’s co-director and subject. How did you and Jim Donovan view this partnership and implement it?
HO: First, I brought Jim up to speed on the issue, because he didn’t know much about it. We worked on the concept together for a month, with the assistance of producer Denis McCready, and we came to the realization that I would have to be a sort of ‘big sister’ in the film and be on camera with the others. So Jim naturally became the one who would ask the questions, and I became the ‘keeper’ of the story. The great thing about working with Jim was that I could really count on him when emotions ran high. Our partnership was based on a lot of dialogue and listening, from beginning to end.
Was it clear from the start that you would be one of the main subjects? Did sharing your own experience on screen scare you?
HO: Initially, I wanted to tell my own story by observing someone else’s experience. But it was hard to find someone; it’s a very delicate subject, and the women often prefer to stay anonymous. Then I realized that as an activist, I would have to set the example if I wanted the women to trust me and get fully on board. I dislike seeing myself on screen. It was tough, but it was necessary.
The issue of FGM is frequently covered in documentary cinema from the outside, with a sometimes paternalistic or despairing gaze. But your film examines the issue from the point of view of those who have experienced it; and it’s bright and hopeful. Did you feel it was time to give the women directly affected by FGM a voice and agency?
HO: Absolutely. These women are in the best position to talk about a practice that directly affects them, and about the challenges it creates. More and more of them are supporting each other and reclaiming their right to live on their own terms. They recognize the suffering and consequences of FGM, but they don’t want to be defined as victims their whole lives. In Koromousso, they’re in control of the narrative.
JD: I think that’s the film’s raison d’être—to give these women who’ve been affected by FGM the power to tell their stories, to reclaim their rights and to grow in front of the camera. I hope the film will open a door and amplify their voices.
Since FGM is somewhat of a niche topic, how can your film potentially reach a wider audience?
JD: Today, we are witnessing a tidal wave of feminist activism sweeping the world. The issues are important and varied, but the common theme is to support women and ensure that their human rights are respected. Whether it’s the right to have an abortion, the right to get an education, or the right to experience sexual pleasure, all reasonable women and men are compelled by the need for solidarity. Our film is also the intimate and universal story of someone who undergoes a profound transformation.
HO: We give a voice to women who dare to talk about sexuality, taboos and the consequences of the patriarchy on their health and on their lives. Women’s and girl’s health is a global issue. Koromousso is a part of this years-long struggle.
Jim, you have a lot of experience working in film and television. How was this project different? What did you learn from making it?
JD: I’ve had a long career making dramas, but my work in documentaries is relatively recent. I’ve certainly never made a film as intimate and political as this one. I learned so much from my veteran producers, in particular Denis McCready, who has a ton of experience with documentaries. He taught me that patience and perseverance are key to making a film like this. The story is hidden and evasive, and you have to stalk it like a hunter, sometimes over a long time. That really sums up our experience in following the stories that unfold in the film.
The film focusses on a two-faceted problem: FGM in general, and the issue of women who have been subjected to it, emigrated to the West and found that their new home and healthcare system is essentially unreceptive to their experience. How was it important for you to talk about this in particular?
HO: Like myself, many women have turned to the healthcare system for help and come away frustrated, misunderstood and even humiliated. Immigrants contribute so much to the development of Canadian society, and it is important that they have access to healthcare that supports them.
JD: Canada projects this progressive image in terms of human rights and feminism. But if that’s the case, then we need to examine the reality of women affected by FGM and treat this scourge like any other public health problem. It seems to me that Canada could set an example by treating all of its citizens with equity and continuing to be an advocate of social justice in the world.
Are you hopeful that with support from systemic initiatives by various institutions, the younger generation of Africans (both women and men) can change things?
HO: Yes, I do have hope that things will change in the future. Social media plays a key role in this struggle. Young people are connected and have direct access to information, which was not the case for previous generations.
JD: The world is more and more connected, so I dare to hope that a film like ours will resonate with young people. As we were making the film, we noticed that women and men who emigrate to Western countries use their freedom of expression to become powerful agents of change in their countries of origin. Their power to educate, along with financial support, are keys to ending the practice of FGM. When women activists like the ones featured in Koromousso can make their voices heard, they can all become big sisters.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that consists of altering or removing a woman’s genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM has been internationally recognized as a human rights violation. An estimated 200 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM.
Rooted in gender inequality, this traditional practice has been conducted for centuries, passed down from generation to generation to control women’s sexuality. It is founded on myth and on the political, social, cultural and economic structures of the societies where it is practised. Some associate the practice with religious belief, but no sacred text advocates FGM. While it is especially widespread in certain African countries, the Arabian Peninsula, Asia and South America, it has also come to Canada through immigration.
Women and young girls subjected to FGM endure physical pain in addition to emotional trauma and subsequent medical complications. Coordinated and systematic initiatives involving entire communities that address fundamental rights and gender equality are needed in order to discourage the practice of FGM. Such initiatives must also meet the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls who are already suffering from its effects.
(Sources: United Nations Population Fund, UNICEF, Ontario Human Rights Commission)
Written and directed by
HABIBATA OUARME and JIM DONOVAN
Narration Recording Director
Sound Design and Editing
CATHERINE VAN DER DONCKT
With the collaboration of
GUITAR AND BASS – ANDRÉ COURCY
KORA – SADIO SISSOKHO
VIOLIN – CHANTAL BERGERON
OTHER INSTRUMENTS AND PROGRAMMING – JENNY SALGADO
SOLOIST – FABIOLA ALADIN
© 2022 National Film Board of Canada (SOCAN)
With the participation of
PAPA LADJIKÉ DIOUF
DR ANGELA DEANE
DR MICHEL AKOTIONGA
VANESSA ZANDI SIMBA
Special thanks to
JEAN -PIERRE GUAY
GOLI SAINTE ALIX KARELLE
RAFIQ (Action Network for the Equality of Immigrant and Racialized Women in Quebec)
CLINICAL TEAM (ABDOULAYE FOFANA, IDRISSA BORO, CHRISTINE DOUAMBA)
HAMED CHALA (Assinie driver)
KAZINGA DRISSA (Ouagadougou driver)
SAFIETA SAWADOGO FAMILY
OUATTARA MARIAM, Beauty shop
International Safety Study
BURKINA FASO/IVORY COAST
Online Editing and Colorization
Administrator and Line Producer
ALEXANDRINE TORRES DE FIGUEIREDO
Subtitling and Translation
A production of the National Film Board of Canada – Canadian Francophonie Studio