“During school, I was like, ‘what is [FGM]? Why have I never heard of this? This is not in the news, what is this?’“
Tsion Habte – who plays the character of Iqra, the shy Somali immigrant starting at an inner-London comprehensive in Cuttin’ It – talks of her previous ignorance about Female Genital Mutilation.
Playwright Charlene James’ production sets out to answer these questions, confronting the audience with the reality of FGM in contemporary Britain, a reality audience members might not necessarily be aware of. Her play is an honest and brutal exploration of FGM, a practice that refers to the partial or total removal of the external female genital organ, or any damage to the female genital organ, for no medical reason. FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985 under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, and yet since then there has only been one (failed) prosecution.
Cuttin’ It is the story of two 15-year-old girls, Iqra and Muna (played by Adelayo Adedayo). While Iqra is shy and reserved, coping with the psychological consequences of her family’s death back in her native Somalia, Muna is lippy, lively and Rhianna-loving. Living in London since she was three-years-old, she has grown up westernised, continually glued to her iPhone and dressing herself in Topshop jeans.
Though on the surface these girls seem worlds apart, they are united not only in their shared heritage, but in their joint experiences of the horrifying procedure of FGM.
FGM takes place worldwide, occurring in 28 African countries, as well as the Middle and Far East. Yet, as Cuttin’ It puts it, it is as alive in our own country as it is elsewhere. According to recent reports by the Home Office, 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at risk of FGM in the UK. An estimate of 170,000 women and girls are living with FGM in the UK, and since September 2014 more than 2,603 women and girls who went through FGM have been treated by the NHS. London has the highest prevalence in England and Wales, with an estimated 2.1 per cent of women affected by FGM, followed closely by Manchester, Slough, Bristol and Leicester.
Yet despite this evidence, FGM is still seen as a distant phenomenon. It is constantly perceived as a problem that “doesn’t happen here”, a belief that James looks to tackle. A play like Cuttin’ It gives a voice to these 170,000 girls living with FGM in the UK, confronting the audience directly and intimately with a frightening reality of its own society. This is achieved literally, as these girls are coping with the consequences of their mutilation in front of the audience as they occupy the stage. But it is also done through James’ characterisation of two adolescents coping with relatable human experiences of friendship and alienation, navigating the same world as the audience does.
James makes it apparent that FGM is an issue that takes place around us – it happens in the flat you walk past on the way to the shops on a Saturday morning, it has happened to the girl on the number 4 bus listening to her iPod and the young child that sits next to your daughter at school.
Joanna Scotcher’s set design consists of brutalist concrete steps, providing several levels for the girls to occupy on stage. In the final scene, these steps light up to reveal a display of young girls’ shoes – symbolic, perhaps, of the 17,000 wounded girls in Britain. The dramatic monologues that form James’ script spill into spoken world. Muna, especially, commands the rhythm and metre of poetry in her speech.
Cuttin’ It is a political statement. James’ writing constantly challenges the patriarchal customs and practices of society. Iqra speaks of FGM as necessary because “it is important for you to be clean”. She sees it as crucial in order to become “a decent woman” and states that her husband will be happy she “is pure”. The World Health Organisation recognises there is no religious necessity for FGM. Rather, it is tied up with cultural understandings of “ideal femininity”: the pure and virginal woman.
There is something incredibly poignant in having Iqra, the victimised 15-year-old who has herself experienced the suffering of FGM, go on to express a belief in these patriarchal customs. She seems indoctrinated. Indeed, James avoids demonising the perpetrators of FGM. She does not depict them as barbarous and violent abusers, but rather individuals, loving parents even, who have been caught up in a brutal cycle of indoctrination. “It’s just something your mum told you ‘cause that’s what her mum told her, and hers before that,” Muna says.
Cuttin’ It will be performed on 14-17 July at Latitude Festival, 20-23 July at the Sheffield Crucible, and 26-30 July at The Yard Theatre.