An Intimate Rebuke

Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics in West Africa

An Intimate Rebuke

Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People

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Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 10 illus, incl. 4 in color Published: November 2018

Author: Laura S. Grillo

African Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Religious Studies

Throughout West African societies, at times of social crises, postmenopausal women—the Mothers—make a ritual appeal to their innate moral authority. The seat of this power is the female genitalia. Wielding branches or pestles, they strip naked and slap their genitals and bare breasts to curse and expel the forces of evil. In An Intimate Rebuke Laura S. Grillo draws on fieldwork in Côte d’Ivoire that spans three decades to illustrate how these rituals of Female Genital Power (FGP) constitute religious and political responses to abuses of power. When deployed in secret, FGP operates as spiritual warfare against witchcraft; in public, it serves as a political activism. During Côte d’Ivoire’s civil wars FGP challenged the immoral forces of both rebels and the state. Grillo shows how the ritual potency of the Mothers’ nudity and the conjuration of their sex embodies a moral power that has been foundational to West African civilization. Highlighting the remarkable continuity of the practice across centuries while foregrounding the timeliness of FGP in contemporary political resistance, Grillo shifts perspectives on West African history, ethnography, comparative religious studies, and postcolonial studies.


"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. . . . 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. . . . The work is inimitable—Grillo is sensitive, sensible, and devotes attention to detail." — Dianna Bell, Reading Religion

“Ultimately, Grillo demonstrates how knowledge of the moral authority of women elders remained and remains embedded in West Africa and that women enact FGP to defend not only social equity and justice but also their own rights. An Intimate Rebuke will be required reading for all future analysis of women’s authority and mobilization.” — Jill E. Kelly, African Studies Review

“Grillo’s work redefines our understanding of the use of ritual and moral values in the current postcolonial political order by focusing on the ignored phenomenon of Female Genital Power.... Grillo’s work is an important contribution to the study of gender, religion, history, and politics, particularly in Côte d’Ivoire but also in the whole West African subregion.” — Carole Ammann, Religious Studies Review

"An Intimate Rebuke is strikingly original and unprecedented. Laura S. Grillo's anthropological investigation positions Female Genital Power as a powerful reminder of the agency of African women as the bearers of moral authority and the embodiments of ancestors." — Chantal Zabus, author of Out in Africa: Same-Sex Desire in Sub-Saharan Literatures and Cultures

"This remarkable book offers a new and insightful understanding of West African women's rituals that feature public genital display, highlighting the central role that postmenopausal women have long played in the moral life of their communities. Presenting a complex, detailed, and revolutionary argument, An Intimate Rebuke could change the face of African studies, opening the field to a heightened sense of women's ritual activism, critical political acumen, and resistance to male tyranny." — Joseph Hellweg, author of Hunting the Ethical State: The Benkadi Movement of Côte d’Ivoire


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
Part I. Home and the Unhomely: The Foundational Nature of Female Genital Power  19
1. Genies, Witches, and Women: Locating Female Powers  21
2. Matrifocal Morality: FGP and the Foundations of "Home"  54
3. Gender and Resistance: The "Strategic Essentialism" of FGP  81
Part II. Worldliness: FGP in the Making of Ethnicity, Alliance, and the War in Côte D'Ivoire  117
4. Founding Knowledge/Binding Power: The Moral Foundations of Ethnicity and Alliance  121
5. Women at the Checkpoint: Challenging the Forces of Civil War  152
Part III. Timeliness: Urgent Situations and Emergent Critiques  171
6. Violation and Deployment: FGP in Politics in Côte D'Ivoire  175
7. Memory, Memorialization, and Morality  198
Conclusion. An Intimate Rebuke: A Local Critique in the Global Postcolony  228
Notes  239
References  255
Index  275
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Finalist for the 2019 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the Best Book in Africana Relgions

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0155-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0120-1
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