Like so many British people, playwright Charlene James began to think more deeply about the horrors of female genital mutilation after being introduced to the details of the crime by campaigner and Daughters of Eve co-founder Leyla Hussein.
“I have no personal experience of it whatsoever,” she says, “[But] I’d watched a documentary by Leyla Hussein called the Cruel Cut – I always thought I knew what FGM was, but I think I thought of it more as female circumcision, and I didn’t realise there were all these different types of cutting. After watching that, I was really shocked, so I did a bit of research on it, and from there came the inspiration to write a play.”
Her play, Cuttin' It, opening this week at the Young Vic theatre, explores the subject by focusing on the stories of Muna and Iqra, two Somalia-born London teenagers, who each have a different outlook on FGM.
Thirty-three-year-old James was very clear that she wanted to portray the fact that female genital mutilation happens to girls and women that we know, and work with, and chat to every day in the UK. “I used to work at a primary school where there were a lot of children from Somalia, and to think that it could’ve been any one of those girls there…” She trails off, shocked. “So it was really important to set it in the UK with British girls as British female protagonists.”
Her aim with this play, which is being co-produced with the Royal Court and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and will also tour to the Yard Theatre in Hackney and to Sheffield Theatres, is to begin, or continue, a national conversation about the cruel horrors of female genital mutilation.
Even though, James and I repeatedly refer to ‘FGM’ throughout our chat, she believes that it is important that we say ‘female genital mutilation’ allowing us to acknowledge the stark horror of those words
“I really hope it raises awareness,” she says. “I really hope that people leave the theatre and talk about FGM and have that conversation. If they still need to learn more about it that they research it. Maybe donate to a charity. Just to keep that conversation going is the most important thing.”
As a black woman working in theatre – a field that, like so many others, has been historically dominated by white men – James does feel a responsibility to represent those who have been neglected in our culture.
“It’s just about telling stories of people that don’t really have their voices heard. I think that’s more important than anything else – finding these characters that aren’t really seen and aren’t represented enough. Like the characters in this play: British Somalis, Somali immigrants – we don’t really hear too much about them. Representing them in a way that isn’t just negative [is also important]. These people who we don’t hear about are ordinary, normal people, who are funny, and all these things about them that we don’t get to see. I think it’s just representing people in a new way and not going over those same stereotypes.”
By representing those who are so often marginalised, perhaps we can smash the taboos that lead to the reticence to tackle female genital mutilation – it has been a crime for more than 30 years, but there hasn’t been a single conviction.
“The more we talk about it, the more it stops being a taboo subject that we’re not allowed to talk about because of cultural sensitivity,” James says plainly. “I think, for a long time, police and people in authority felt like they couldn’t go into those communities. It’d feel almost like an attack on a tradition and a culture.”
And, within those communities, conversation is vital too; we must educate girls, telling them that the practice is wrong, and equipping them with the power to report it. “A lot of the time when girls are cut [in the UK] they don’t go through with reporting their family, because at the end of the day they are their family – their mums, grandmas and aunties. They wouldn’t want to see them convicted, so it’s a really challenging thing to see that through.”
Even though, James and I repeatedly refer to “FGM” throughout our chat, she believes that it is important that we say “female genital mutilation”, allowing us to acknowledge the stark horror of those words. And she’s eager for us to refer to it as “child abuse” too, hoping that the use of such terminology will help to shift mindsets. “As well as it being illegal and wrong, it’s also child abuse. I think once we hear that it gives us a different view of it. I do think terminology plays a big part.”
2016 is the year that, after eight years of writing, Birmingham-born James has been able to survive solely on money earned through her writing projects, giving up her side job as a primary school teaching assistant. And while it’s easy to imagine that there are classrooms full of children who miss seeing the warm, intelligent James every day, it’s clear that by creating work like Cuttin It, she is helping to educate, protect and empower thousands more young people.