Female Genital Power in Ritual and Politics: Violation and Deployment in Southern Côte d’Ivoire

From the Series: Côte d'Ivoire Is Cooling Down? Reflections a Year after the Battle for Abidjan

Laura S. Grillo, Core Faculty, Pacifica Graduate Institute

Since Côte d’Ivoire’s attempted coup d’état in 2002, supporters of both former president Laurent Gbagbo and current president Alassane Ouattara have perpetrated violent assaults on the civilian population, especially women. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented heinous incidents of sexual violence, including sexual slavery and torture committed by combatants. The international community, rallying for democratic elections and a “non-violent” government transition, tolerated impunity, while news media at first ignored atrocities. The killing of seven women during a march on International Women’s Day to demand an end to post-election violence [1], documented in video on YouTube, finally grabbed international headlines [2].

The Ivoirian press recognized that women have long been at the forefront of stands for peace, spearheading demonstrations against abuses of power and calls for basic rights. When women took to the streets in 2008 to protest a sharp rise in food prices, it was likened to the now-celebrated 1949 march from Abidjan to Grand Bassam when a multi-ethnic coalition of 2,000 women walked 60 km to decry French colonial authorities’ arrest of liberation leaders [3]. But what local journalists referenced only obliquely, and the foreign press entirely neglected, was the powerful ritual rhetoric to which demonstrators regularly appealed. Women appeared smeared in white kaolin clay or stripped naked, wielding branches. The failure to interpret such symbolism offers a merely "political" rendition of events and misconstrues their true significance.

The historical record dating back centuries shows that, throughout West Africa, the female sex is potent and dangerous. As the living embodiment of the ancestors and guardians of moral order, “mothers” ritually deploy their genital power for blessings or curses. Woman, as the source of life, must sanctify rulers for them to enjoy legitimacy; kings were ritually invested with female qualities. African women still perform paradigmatic ceremonies that draw on the power of their sex: Naked and smeared in kaolin, elders dance, chant, and use waters with which they have washed their genitals, sometimes mixed with bodily effluvia, for libations. With well-worn pestles they pound the ground to curse those who breach ethical mandates. Aware of the ritual potency of their nudity and the conjuration of their sex, women use it to intercede in calamitous political situations.

In Côte d’Ivoire, women’s political activism has exploited this strong rhetorical form. In 1949, outside the jail in Grand Bassam, women stripped, sang, and ludely danced. In 2002, at the urging of “young patriots” to resist the attack that ignited the civil war, Nanan Kolia Tano, female chief of the Baoulé village of Douakandro, organized five elderly women to execute Adjanou, a “mystical” dance performed in the nude, to ward off the cataclysm. They danced for seven days until rebel soldiers abducted and killed them. Only the chief escaped [4]. In 2003, when the French intervened to broker a coalition government, naked women blocked Dominique de Villepin from exiting the Ivoirian presidential palace and urinated on his car’s wheels [5]. In February 2011 several dozen Adjanou dancers appeared in Treichville to protest “their children’s arbitrary abductions” [6] by Gbagbo’s Republican Guard (Figure 2). They brandished their kodjos (loincloths) to “thrash the enemy.” That month in Yamoussoukro hundreds of kaolin-smeared women occupied the late President Houphouët-Boigny’s residence to perform Adjanoucontinuously to condemn the deplorable state of the country’s affairs.” According to the organizer, theirs was a “spiritual combat,” conducted in a domain in which “the strength and the power belong to Woman” [7].

These history-making performances eloquently condemned power unchecked by spiritual and moral authority, whose source is Woman (Figure 3). Calling on female genital power to restore the moral underpinnings of the state shows the widespread sexual violation of women to be even more reprehensible and sets in relief the government’s critical missing ingredient: an attention to women's concerns. An important test of current efforts at truth and reconciliation will be the role that women play in those efforts and the importance given to injustices committed against them.


[1] BBC. 2011. Ivory Coast: Anti-Gbagbo Protesters Killed in Abidjan. BBC News Africa, March 8 (accessed May 26, 2012).

[2] CNN. 2011. Defiant Women March at Site of Grisly Killings. CNN World, March 9, (accessed May 26, 2012).

[3] Diabaté, Henriette. 1975. La marche des femmes sur Grand-Bassam. Abidjan: Nouvelles Editions Africaines.

[4] N.B.D. 2003. “Un génocide des Baoulé s’est mis en œuvre”: Massacre des danseuses d'adjanou – L'unique rescapée témoigne. L'Inter, March 3 (accessed May 26, 2012).

[5] Gueye, Julius Blawa. n.d. Sourires de l’Hôtel Ivoire. AbidjanDirect, n.d. (accessed May 26, 2012).

[6] Doumé. 2011. Abidjan: Manifestations des femmes danseuses d’Adjanou violemment dispersées. Sun News, February 24 (inaccessible).

[7] K.A. 2011. Yamoussoukro/Usurpation de pouvoir: La révolte des femmes de la cité et des villages. Le Mandat/Abidjan.Net, February 17 (accessed May 26, 2012).

[8] Connectionivoirienne. 2011. Des femmes danseuses d’Adjanou violemment dispersées à Abidjan. Koumassi-ci.com, February 24 (accessed June 21, 2012).

[9] Owono, Julie. 2011. Côte d'Ivoire: Who Killed the Seven Women Protesters? Neo-Griot, March 4 (accessed May 26, 2012).