There’s a woman in her 20s sitting in a Scottish university lecture theatre. Let’s call her Fara. She’s here for a talk on gender equality, but she’s not sure what to expect because she doesn’t recognise the initials in the title of the lecture. The phrase “FGM” isn’t used in her native Gambia.
Anyway, she’s keen to learn as much as she can, so she settles down to listen. Slowly it dawns on her that the letters stand for “female genital mutilation”. It strikes her as a strident phrase. Back home they’d have called it cutting or circumcision. And as the lecture goes on, and as she recognises what the diagrams on the screen are showing, she realises that the “mutilation” they are talking about was performed on her as a child.
Fara freezes. Without realising it, the lecturer has described her as a mutilated woman. Yet as she sees it, she was no different to any girl in her village. At the start of the lecture, she felt like one of the crowd. Now, she’s wondering if she should feel like a victim. It is a rude awakening.
And it changes her. She starts mentally picking apart her life, asking questions about the relationships with her mother and husband, wondering about her conversations and everything that has been left unsaid. It seems to affect everything about her.
It is this story that forms the spine of Rites, a new production by the National Theatre of Scotland that tries to make sense of an alarming practice. Pieced together by Glasgow director Cora Bissett and Manchester playwright Yusra Warsama, the verbatim show seeks to go beyond the distressing headlines about a tradition we define as child abuse. Like all good political theatre, Rites is about consciousness raising and precipitating change.
“We’re looking at the broader ramifications of FGM,” says Bissett in a lunchtime rehearsal break. “When a country has a human-rights law and it comes clashing up against someone who deems this cultural practice very dear and sacred, you’ve got two things at war. Chucking the mothers in jail isn’t going to help that child, so how are we going to deal with it? We’re asking, ‘How does a multicultural society work when our ideals are in conflict with each other?’”
Illegal in this country since 1985, female genital mutilation refers to what the World Health Organization calls “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. It is categorised into four types, depending on the severity of the operation, and affects more than 125 million women and girls. Most of those are in the Middle East and Central Africa, but the Scottish Refugee Council has found people born in FGM-practising countries living in every local authority area in Scotland.
“This is our culture and we’re all part of it,” says Bissett. “I don’t see those people as other, because they’re living here in Scotland. It is our problem and that’s why I feel I have got licence to talk about it.”
After working with the Scottish Refugee Council on her hit shows Road Kill and Glasgow Girls, Bissett became interested in the organisation’s work on FGM. To turn it into a piece of theatre raised two immediate questions. From an ethical point of view, did Bissett have the right to comment on such a sensitive issue? And from a theatrical point of view, would there be anything left to say once she’d made the point that FGM is wrong?
The answer to both questions came from the verbatim format. By canvassing the opinions of doctors, lawyers, campaigners and survivors and quoting them directly, she and Warsama could not be accused of presenting a one-sided point of view. For the same reason, they would be able to go beyond the platitude that FGM is wrong and present a more theatrical collage of opinions.
“You’d love to be able to go, ‘This is bad, let’s stop it,’ but if it was so sinful, why is it still continuing?” says Warsama. “Surely it is more complicated. If we presented something simple and singular, it’d be a boring piece of theatre. What’s the deeper argument? What are these worlds that we don’t get access to?”
In this way, the play avoids sensationalism and shock-horror headlines to give a more nuanced perspective. Their opposition to FGM is a given, but they have more subtle stories to tell. “We’re being very careful not to demonise the cultures that we’re trying to reflect,” says Bissett. “Those mothers don’t consider it mutilation. They truly believe that they’re doing the best thing for their daughter. They believe it will make them marriageable, that men will only accept them if they are circumcised, that it proves their virginity and that they are clean. That mother is not wilfully harming her daughter and that’s a very hard thing to unpack.”
Warsama, a Somali refugee brought up in Manchester, recognises she is in a privileged position, but when talking about such a fundamental human right, believes everyone should have a voice. Her responsibility is to represent women in all their three-dimensional complexity. That means going beyond the obvious and asking more penetrating questions. “Because I’ve straddled a few cultures, I realised there are different entry points for people in conversations about FGM,” she says. “A lot of people are not particularly interested in asking, ‘What is FGM?’ but, ‘How are we now seen as women that are affected by FGM? And how is the conversation going to help eradicate this?’”
Despite the weightiness of the subject, both women seem upbeat and purposeful. Rehearsals, they say, have been as lively as for any other play. Their intent is serious, but it would be a mistake to let the material get them down. “The women who’ve experienced it themselves, and some of the amazing people we’ve met, are full of humour, like anyone else,” says Warsama. “The last thing anyone needs when they go through something is pity. What they need is understanding.”
Bissett agrees: “You’ve got to have balance. There are a surprising amount of laughs in the rehearsal room. You have to. You can’t all stand around going, ‘This is awful.’ That doesn’t help anybody. You’ve got to try and make a piece of work and tell stories. That’s an energising thing.”
Both of them take inspiration from the way women who have been cut refer to themselves as survivors not victims. They don’t want to be patronised or pitied, but they do want things to change. “That’s a really key thing,” says Bissett. “Of course, I don’t agree with anything being done to a little girl against her will, but I’ve met women who’ve gone on to have fulfilled, strong, independent lives, so I’m not viewing them as these poor souls. If anything, they’re more remarkable because they’ve dealt with a thing that’s irreversible.”
Warsama feels the same: “It’s been affirming to see people filling the world with hope and working towards a greater good and greater humanitarian understanding. That’s been wonderful to absorb. The piece brings in that joyous voice and that hope.”
• Rites, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 5-9 May; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 26–30 May