There is something terrible happening to girls and women all over the world, of which we are only just becoming aware. Female genital mutilation is a practice carried out every day, across many different cultures, under misguided ideas of cleanliness, chastity and female maturity, and a recent study has shown that as many as 170,000 women in the UK alone have been, as the practice is euphemised, ‘cut’.
Little Stitches is a collection of four pieces of new writing commissioned last year by BAREtruth theatre company. It sold out runs at Theatre503, the Arcola Theatre, and the Gate, and the company hopes to extend the tour not just to theatres around the country, but schools, libraries and other public spaces to raise awareness about FGM.
The show opens with a piece of interlocking verbatim-style theatre, where seemingly unconnected narratives by a teacher, an ice-cream vendor, an air stewardess and a postwoman eventually converge in glimpses of a little girl who has been ‘cut’. It’s a fascinatingly clever piece that demonstrates how invisible FGM can be unless you can see the whole picture. As Stephanie Yamson’s wonderfully likeable postwoman, proud of her ability with sleight of hand, says, it can be “right in front of your eyes, and you still don’t see it”. Shuna Snow puts in a funny and compelling turn here as a street cleaner who comes across a bloodstained little dress, and Taniel Yusuf is utterly convincing and dryly funny as the jaded air stewardess.
Next comes another verbatim-like piece, where various professionals advise us on how to put together a play about FGM. They talk about the origins of the practice and the difficulty of tackling it, but with Yamson’s FGM victim attempting to interpose her own story and being interrupted, it’s easy to see how those trying to help sometimes take over and talk over. Here our ‘cut’ girl from the first piece begins to surface, and is given a voice, but is censored by the debate and by fear of retribution for speaking out.
Then on to a scene where two women are charged with taking care of a girl who has just been cut. They celebrate her ‘womanhood’, comforting her with the perceived benefits of her circumcision. The presentation of the practice from the side of those who believe in it is essential to our understanding, elaborating the picture outward from that of simply a backward and vicious woman-hating violation.
Lastly, after three pieces in which the FGM victim has been either off-stage, interrupted, or silent throughout, she is finally given centre-stage in the fourth piece. Nadi Kemp-Sayfi’s sweet teenage girl gives an excruciating account of the experience and of her life before and after. Her monologue is interposed with that of Jude Owusu’s engaging Harley Street doctor, based on a real-life figure, who gives a moving and sensitive defence of his decision to perform corrective surgery on a woman who has undergone FGM.
The cast handle the demanding multi-role work with energy and commitment, and although the production rests largely on words rather than action, it is to the credit of director Alex Crampton that it never feels slumped or static, but constantly active and alive. Further development of this production could perhaps look at integrating the idea of FGM not as an anomaly, but as a feature of the worldwide landscape of patriarchal violence against women and girls.
An illuminating post-show talk with Dina Baky of ForwardUK, (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development) dispelled the myth that this is a minority practice based upon religion; rather, it is a widespread cultural practice, separated from religion, and is considered a social norm in many countries. Little Stitches is an important and challenging piece with real potential to raise awareness and reduce the occurrence of FGM, and it is very much to be hoped that its full potential will be realised.
Little Stitches played at Omnibus on 13-14 April. For more information, see the Omnibus website.