Warning: some of the ensuing post is absolutely grim, but please read it anyway.
Long years ago, as a callow undergraduate, I once debated cultural relativism with my late and much-lamented Prof. Marie Jahoda. I was for it, I said. ‘OK,’ she replied, ‘you are walking along and you hear screams. Some women are holding a young girl in the cold waters of a stream to dull the pain before they excise her clitoris with a sharp stone. It’s a cultural thing; a rite of passage, so of course you wouldn’t intervene.’ She had, as they say, got me there. I think I said something feeble, like I still upheld the principle while agreeing that the specifics were sometimes abominable and should be countered. Fast forward 30 years or so and a medical student comes to see me to ask if I will supervise her special project. She’s a Somali; a lovely girl with her head covered modestly in a scarf. Her project is on female circumcision. I assume that she wants to expose it as barbaric, but no. She wants to explore its cultural relevance and develop an explanatory paper about it. I am surprised but I keep my counsel. She’s bright and determined and has access to women’s groups from countries where it is practised, so she sets off to do her interviews. Some weeks later, she comes back profoundly moved and distressed by what she’s heard, and the project becomes about telling of the women’s experiences and suffering.
Fast forward another 20 years and I am in a SheWrites scriptwriting group led by the inestimable Angie Street. She challenges us to write about not-written-about issues for women and to start with short scripts about menstruation. Much of the writing is sharp, funny and liberating. Then we’re off on our own topics and I am drawn back to what we now call Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – which is not, by the way, an exclusively Islamic practice. It goes back at least to the time of Abraham and has been, and is, practised in some Christian subgroups and one Jewish sect. It is currently practised in many African countries, among others, and the prevalence varies across ethnic groups. (1). It may be performed during infancy, adolescence, or during a woman’s first pregnancy, usually by a woman. In some cultures, a woman is not marriageable unless she has been circumcised. In its least severe form, the clitoris is ablated. In other cases, the labia minora are also removed. In the worst form of FGM, the labia majora are cut away and the edges of the wound are stitched together until they heal and form scar tissue, which binds them together. This leaves a small hole for the passage of menses and urine. The horrors of intercourse and giving birth can hardly be imagined. I couldn’t NOT write about it, but how? I was absolutely bebothered for ages, couldn’t leave it alone, couldn’t do it, until the idea of a pantomime fell into my head. Thus, Little Red Ella and the FGM, which also stands for Fairy GodMother, of course. It’s written in panto doggerel. The FGM appears and asks Ella if she’s like to marry a handsome prince. Well, who wouldn’t? The only thing is, it requires a ‘small’ procedure: the amputation of Ella’s ‘nasty, hairy, stick-outy things (toes) so she can fit into dainty little shoes...never mind that she’ll be in pain crippled, etc. it’s cultural, traditional, and Hey! she’ll marry a prince! Except that she won’t, she announces. It’s her body, her toes, and to hell with any prince or Fairy, for that matter) who asks such a cruel sacrifice of her.
It’s very short, and to my surprise and delight has been chosen by Juno Women’s Theatre for performance at the Salisbury Fringe Festival. I can’t judge if it ‘works’ on the page, so seeing it in performance will be invaluable and if it is what I hope – a thought-provoking message delivered in an off-beat way, I hope it will be taken up by schools, etc. If anyone is interested, I’ll send it out after the October 4th performance.
( (1) Source: http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/2313097.html