21 Aug Playwrights explore trauma and psychological damage of FGM
The poster is stamped with the statement that 137,000 women in the UK are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation. But for the team behind the play Little Stitches, opening at a London theatre on Friday, it is the individual stories behind the statistic that really matter.
The four writers of the play, opening at Theatre503 in Battersea, spent months talking to those affected by FGM, as well as to campaigners, doctors and teachers. Each of them – Karis Halsall, Raul Quiros Molina, Bahar Brunton and Isley Lynn – used interviews and accounts to write a piece tackling the issue and, as the director Alex Crampton said, to give FGM a “living breathing presence that makes it hard to ignore”.
The decision to take on the issue came from Melissa Dean, founder of BAREtruth theatre company, which is staging the play. She said theatre was a powerful vehicle that could break through the taboos and secrecy surrounding FGM and bring real-life stories to an audience who might otherwise be at some distance from the issue.
Recounting one particular account she had come across early in the play’s development, Dean said: “I met a headteacher of a primary school in Brent who recounted how one survivor had said to her ‘this procedure was done to us to make us pure for the men and our husbands and supposedly better women, but because we can’t have sex comfortably the husband ends up leaving or getting other women; your children will leave eventually and so you are left completely alone’.
“I thought this was really haunting and I wanted a play that would explore how traumatic but also how isolating and lonely FGM can be for women in the long term.”
Halsall, whose section in Little Stitches interlocks the monologues of 14-year-old Safa, who is subjected to cutting, and a doctor later confronted with her case, said she was keen for the piece to explore the long-term psychological damage caused by the practice, rather than the physical trauma alone.
“What I think happens when you read newspaper articles on FGM, they are just figures and statistics. We wanted to look at the impact on the individual that such a horrific act can have and explore that, not just from the perspective of survivors but from the perspective of people who have worked with survivors, campaigners, nurses and the individual effect it had on their life as well.
“I think people think of it as a simply barbaric physical act, but it’s also a violation by members of your family, people that you trust. So we wanted to use the play to explore that side of it as well.”
The playwrights and Crampton worked closely with Leyla Hussein, an FGM campaigner, and went to Amnesty International seminars. They spoke to parents at local primary schools who had undergone the procedure, using the stories and narratives they heard to piece together a play they felt penetrated the heart of the issue. Hussein will also be leading several talks after the shows.
“It does feel like a huge responsibility,” Halsall said. “I’ve never done so many drafts of a play in my life because every time I met someone new or discussed the issues, I was made aware of another element. In one of my earliest drafts I talked about the idea of education as a tool to push for eradication of the practice, but then I spoke to one of the survivors, who said ‘I don’t think it’s got anything to do with educating because everyone who perpetrates this knows exactly what they are doing’.
“It is a difficult line to tread but this play is part of the conversation to re-frame FGM from being a cultural practice to being acknowledged by everyone as simply child abuse.”
The timing of the play is not coincidental. It is intended to reflect the fact that many girls suffer the mutilation during the summer holidays, a time when they can be flown abroad for the procedure and heal before returning to school. It also coincides with the opening of Britain’s first FGM clinic at the beginning of September.
The cast of the play, which will move to the Arcola theatre, in Dalston, London, at the end of August, and then be performed at Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre, will also be touring London libraries, giving readings, with free admission, in six boroughs where women are thought to be at risk of FGM.
Crampton said she wanted the play to be more than a “didactic piece of issue-based theatre”, adding that the risk of the play being seen as “culturally patronising” was something acknowledged by both the playwrights and director.
The writer Molina, whose play entitled Where do I start? uses verbatim quotes from an FGM survivor named Felicity, spoke about the difficulties faced by all of those involved in the project. He said: “One has to be very mindful of what bias and prejudices one is bringing to the interview, because it can impose your own interests and opinions, and unconsciously manipulate the interviewee to serve your own agenda.
“Through the project I realised that letting people talk freely about what they feel and think about FGM, how it relates to their lives and to those who they love, and actively listening to what they have to say, can be more provocative and political than a play solely drawn from my own opinions.”
He said the potential backlash was a risk but added: “The other option is to remain silent and ignore the issue. The way I see it, FGM is not a problem of a particular community, it is a problem of the society we are living in, it is an injustice that has to be dealt with from all sectors of our global community. What we are doing on stage is creating a space where we ask people to listen and see, and extract their own conclusions. I truly believe this is where the power of theatre comes from.”