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Cuttin’ It: An incisive new play on Female Genital Mutilation in the UK today

11 May 2016 | Natasha Sutton-Williams

Charlene James’ urgent play on Female Genital Mutilation explores ritual, shame, identity and friendship through the prism of different cultural perspectives. A play that speaks to multicultural audiences across the UK, it highlights the issue of FGM here and abroad. London Calling caught up with this award-winning playwright to find out more.

London Calling: What inspired you to write this play?

Charlene James: A couple of years ago I watched a Channel 4 documentary called The Cruel Cut headed by Leyla Hussein, a prominent Somali activist against Female Genital Mutilation. I always thought I knew what FGM was. When I watched it and saw the different types of FGM being implemented I was shocked by what happens to these women. I decided from that moment on I needed to write a play about this.


LC: What was your process when writing two protagonists with very different views on FGM?

CJ: My main concern was that FGM is a terrible thing. How can a mother do this to their child? It’s a monstrous act. These people are barbaric for doing this. However I recognised if I was going to tell a story I couldn’t have only one point of view portrayed. When you look into it you see that a lot of these mothers are doing this out of love. They don’t want to torture their child, they don’t do it for their own enjoyment, they do it because if they don’t cut these girls they will be stigmatised, ostracised from their community, they wont get married, no one’s going to want to stick by them. That’s not the life you would want for your daughter. When you see it in that context, you can understand why it’s happening, even though it’s wrong.

I didn’t want to present the cutter in my play as this horrifying old woman violating young children. I wanted to write from the perspective of two fifteen-year-old girls. We can all relate to being fifteen, being on the school bus, being a normal teenager. Muna thinks FGM is undeniably wrong, has grown up in a Western society and doesn’t want this to happen to her younger sister. Iqra is from Somalia and has been in the UK for five months. These traditional pro-FGM ideals are inherent in her, she thinks it’s just something we do, it’s our culture. When we see Iqra we don’t think of her as a monster, we think of her as a young girl who believes in this practise because it’s always happened to the women in her family. It’s normal.


LC: What kind of research did you do for Cuttin’ It?

CJ: My two protagonists have Somali backgrounds. I used to work as a teaching assistant in primary schools in Tower Hamlets and there is a big Somali community there. It goes back to cultural sensitivity. Am I going to ask a member of staff who is Somali, ‘Have you been cut? Can you tell me about FGM?’ I would expect the response to be, ‘This is my culture, why are you prying into it?’ I spoke to these women instead about Somalia and what its like to grow up in that environment. I then did research on FGM from articles, interviews and footage of girls being cut. I had to translate this information so we could relate to it as a British audience; I needed to highlight that this isn’t a far away problem. This is happening to British girls in the UK today.


LC: You have the Young Vic, the Royal Court and the Yard Theatre producing this play, as well as a host of regional theatres. How do you want their various audiences to respond to this play?

CJ: It’s important that the best work doesn’t stay in London. It’s great we can take this play to the regions. Each theatre has a very different audience.  It’s about getting this message out to as many people as possible and for audiences to raise awareness, to have conversations like, ‘I saw this play about FGM last night, do you know about it?’ The main factor is that this isn’t just happening to girls in foreign continents like Africa, this is happening to British girls in Britain, in your capital, in your city, this is happening here. Being aware means you might know someone who is at risk of FGM and can report it. That is something I want the audience to take away. It could be happening on your street, to your child’s school friend, to the person you work with. It’s much closer to home than you think.  


Cuttin’ It plays at the Young Vic 20 May – 11 June, the Royal Court Theatre 23 June – 13 July and The Yard 26 – 30 July. It will also play at Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Latitude Festival and Sheffield Crucible.

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