An Intimate Rebuke

Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa

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Laura S. Grillo
Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , November
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Laura SGrillo’s An Intimate Rebuke: Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa, offers a previously undocumented account and analysis of the women of Côte d’Ivoire who have used nudity and appealed to the power of their genitals—beyond their reproductive and sexual capacities—as the seat of women’s innate spiritual and moral authority. Grillo’s inquiry begins in a remote village in Côte d’Ivoire where she first witnessed women carrying out egbiki, asequestered ritual performed at night and in the nude, to serve a variety of ends—typically to ward off evil. Grillo illustrates how the slapping of the breasts and genitals that occurs during egbiki becomes a “rebuke” during more public protests in which women appeal to their “Female Genital Power” (FGP) in condemning the immoral use of secular power. The book offers a detailed and thoughtful history of Côte d’Ivoire that gives due placement to civilian women who have largely been ignored in the definitive historical monographs. Indeed, Grillo has accomplished a feat that Howard Zinn would surely laud: in many ways, this is a women’s history of Côte d’Ivoire. Grillo’s aim is to make their subjugated moral and ritual knowledge visible as a valuable “matriarchive.” 

Grillo is not bound to a singular academic category, and accordingly takes up her analysis using three new areas that both overlap and diverge from one another in meaningful ways throughout the work: homeliness, worldliness, and timeliness. First, the work considers the ritual’s religious and spiritual contexts as foundational to “home.” Second, the potential of FGP to build alliances and consolidate worldly relationships—including ethnic identity—is examined. Finally, the book considers the timely way in which protests integrated female nudity and deployed FGP to assert moral authority against a patriarchal state whose iniquitous grasp caused two civil wars. Each section is thoroughly researched, unflinchingly honest, and Grillo never forgets her main source of information: women. In addition to the invaluable documentation of women’s lives, Grillo takes care to remember and note the full names of the women and women’s associations she engaged with during her long-term fieldwork and presents the voices of all her interlocutors in a dignified manner. Grillo successfully demonstrates that, although women may still lack formal, structural authority in Côte d’Ivoire, they continue to effectively protest against any insult or debasement in their communities by appealing to their deep spiritual power and uncontested moral knowledge. 

Rituals invoking FGP have a history in public political protests that Grillo documents through case studies dating as far back as 1894, drawing from French anthropologist’s Maurice Delafosse documentation of adjanou, a female-led ritual used to draw attention to violations by male authorities. Despite Grillo finding an abundance of written and oral primary source material, protests led by women that evoke FGP are demonstrably missing from the country’s current written political history—attributable to their perceived lewdness and “disgracefulness” (as described by a 1913 British editorial, which was naturally written by a man). Grillo argues that the continued failure by scholars to recognize such displays as demonstrations of FGP has resulted in the obscurity of an entire dimension of history, specifically women’s struggles in colonial and post-colonial Côte d’Ivoire. Grillo’s work offers an enlightening alternative reading of that history. 

Grillo’s scholarship has groundbreaking strengths. For those interested in religion, her detailed documentation of myth, ritual, secret societies, symbolism, witchcraft, and the appeal to the spiritual domain—and her defense of the inclusion of this knowledge as a requisite in understanding a country’s history—is utterly exquisite. In her recounting of myths and rituals connected to FGP, Grillo includes information on similar practices in neighboring countries—principally Nigeria, Togo, Liberia, and Ghana—which expands the geographic relevancy of this work. Grillo explains how FGP has historically worked to anchor and defend the values that governed life along the West African coast. In the contemporary era, women still use FGP in protests. Grillo has brought her inquiry on FGP into the present day, documenting the circumstances that lead women to demonstrate civil disobedience aggressively using FGP, even as 21st century social media threatens to make these moments more vulnerable to voyeuristic visuals alongside incomplete or missing context. Therefore, the use of FGP to demonstrate against the condition of women in Côte d’Ivoire shows courage, hope, and a willingness to confront and hold (predominantly) male powers accountable for injustices including—but not limited to—sexual violence against women as untenable violations of foundational African morality. 

Grillo’s writing is dense with information yet smooth and easy to follow. This research adds plenty of new material to the field of gender studies and West African history alike and should be added to the libraries of scholars of these areas. Its concentration of information ensures that scholars will return to the book repeatedly, both for detailed information and for inspiration on how to offer complete research records. The work is inimitable—Grillo is sensitive, sensible, and devotes attention to detail; she utilizes her contacts and language skills, and has the ability to write about the women she researches without devaluing or disparaging their actions. Scholars who write about gender, sexuality, and nudity can draw attention to their projects by adding shock value. Grillo never minimizes herself or her subjects by resorting to such gimmicks, instead offering fine, detailed documentation. In addition to all of the aforementioned merits, this work significantly stands out for its selflessness.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dianna Bell is Associate Research Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laura S. Grillo is Affiliated Faculty in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University.


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