mon 08/08/2022

First Person: Tackling FGM | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Tackling FGM

First Person: Tackling FGM

In 'Cuttin' It' the Young Vic confronts female genital mutilation. Playwright Charlene James explains her approach

Adelayo Adedayo (Muna) and Tsion Habte (Iqra) in rehearsal for 'Cuttin' It' Photographs © David Sandison

I knew that if I was going to write a play about female genital mutilation, I would have to try and understand why any mother or grandmother would make their child undergo such a brutal procedure. In my research, I read many articles and accounts of young women who were living with the emotional and physical consequences of FGM.

I’d watched disturbing and devastating footage of young girls being cut, so it was difficult to comprehend how anyone could allow this act to happen, let alone celebrate it.

But what I learned was that many of these mothers weren’t the villains I wrongly cast them as. When FGM is a long-standing tradition in your community there is a pressure and a duty as a parent to ensure your daughter is cut so she won’t be ostracised by the community, called names, refused marriage or be made to feel a deep shame for not conforming.

Most of the accounts in the research came from women and girls in African countries, so I believed FGM to be a problem happening thousands of miles away, until I read a shocking article claiming that cuttings were taking place in Scotland. The problem stopped being just theirs; it was now ours too. I dreaded to think about where else in the UK this could be happening. Horrific thoughts of young, British girls being cut on our very own doorstep filled my head and this was how Cuttin’ It was conceived.

I worked as a teaching assistant in primary schools for many years so I would often get on the same bus as the teenagers coming from secondary school. What I noticed was that nothing much had changed about that setting from when I was their age. It’s a raucous atmosphere being on a bus after 3.30pm surrounded by school uniforms. There’s a sense of freedom being expressed and celebrated on that journey. Freedom from the institutionalisation of school and home life. No teachers or parents condemning what you say or how you act. (Pictured below: playwright Charlene James with director Gbolahan Obisesan)

My protagonist, 15-year-old Muna, would definitely be among this rowdy mob. She’d be up-to-date on the latest slangs, styles and music. It was important that she be an ordinary teenager who misses buses, sometimes bunks off school and follows her pop idols on Twitter. She had to be relatable.

I remember a Somali boy at a school I worked at telling me that when he was at home, he and his brother would talk in English if they didn’t want their parents to know what mischief they were getting up to. Their parents couldn’t speak English, just like Muna’s. I think there’s something interesting about an immigrant parent who feels their child is losing their cultural identity and I questioned if this could be part of the reason why British girls are being cut.

Although the subject matter of FGM is a massive one, I wanted the story to be told by two characters. I wanted Muna and Iqra’s interjecting monologues to have an intimacy with the audience, almost as if they were sharing their diary entries with us. We see and hear the truths that they don’t share with the other characters talked about in the play. The audience have been confided in, secrets have been revealed to them. I hope that when they walk out of the theatre they feel educated enough to do something about what they’ve seen, to raise awareness and keep the conversation going as there are thousands of British girls, who can’t speak out, still at risk of female genital mutilation.

There’s something interesting about an immigrant parent who feels their child is losing their cultural identity

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters