Walker is extremely critical of African society when it comes to sexism, but she also finds sexism in American culture. The central topic in the novel is Tashi’s female genital mutilation (FGM, also known as circumcision) in a village of rebels made up to look like an ancient African village. They insist on following the old customs, which include not only scarring of the face but removal of a woman’s inner and outer labia and the sewing together of her vagina, leaving only the narrowest opening for urine and menstrual blood. FGM is practiced in unsanitary places with dirty instruments, and often leads to severe infections and not infrequently leads to the death of the girl. Tashi’s sister had bled to death during her FGM, a memory which leaves Tashi with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The leader of the Olinka tribe, in an attempt to preserve the ancient culture of the Olinka in the face of its disintegration under colonialism, insists that the ancient practice of FGM be continued, even though—or precisely because—it is not approved of by the white colonialists or the African-American missionaries. Tashi did not suffer the circumcision at the right age because her mother had converted to Christianity, which outlawed it. But she is not accepted by the other women in her tribe, and she can never marry an Olinka man if she doesn’t have the operation, so she undergoes it at the hands of M’Lissa, a midwife who cares for nothing but the money she is given for performing this cruel and extremely painful operation. Tashi slowly recovers from her FGM, but she is never the same. She can barely walk at first, and she never regains the springy joyful walk which was her trademark before the operation. She realizes that she has lost her physical freedom and feels that her soul has been ripped from her body. Her eyes are flat and lifeless.
After her FGM, Tashi marries Adam just because he is there and will have her, but they can never have vaginal intercourse. This leads to Adam taking a lover, the Frenchwoman Lissette, with whom he has a child. Tashi suffers many extremely painful years as Adam’s wife in America. She is depressed, suicidal, self-mutilating, plagued by horrible nightmares, always in therapy with a psychologist, and intensely jealous of women who have not had FGM, especially her husband’s mistress. She finds the Christian religion that Adam preaches to be too patriarchal, as it revolves around worshipping a male Jesus Christ and a male God the Father, and nowhere in the religion is there a place to acknowledge the suffering of a woman, but this is the only thing she finds sexist about the United States (even though there are occasional instances of FGM in this country).
As a mature woman, Tashi returns to Africa to find the midwife M’lissa, who performed her FGM, so she can kill her. Only M’Lissa’s death can avenge the lifetime of suffering Tashi has endured. She finds that the Olinka neo-tribal culture has made M’Lissa a national monument for her role in performing circumcisions. Tried in an African court for M’Lissa’s murder, Tashi testifies that her life was not ruined by white people. It was ruined by an Olinka sacred ceremony that kills and maims thousands of girls every year in Africa. While Tashi understands that the Olinka felt that their very existence as a tribe was being threatened by colonialism and even by American missionaries, they still do not have the right to mutilate their little girls. Although female midwives perform the operation, the practice is extremely patriarchal and sexist. Men use it to control their women sexually and physically. On her wedding night, an Olinka woman has to be cut open with a hunting knife so that the marriage can be consummated, and intercourse is so painful and bloody that many women run away from their husbands. Some even commit suicide.
Sexism is the foundation of the Olinka religion and customs. It is a way to make women powerless, an attempt to control a woman’s sexuality, a ceremony performed strictly so that males can feel completely in control of females. While Western culture is criticized for being racist and imperialistic, it is African society which the more sexist in this novel.