Rites at Contact theatre, preview: Hidden practices, on stage

Polly Checkland Harding
Three women hold flowers in their hands

With uneasy subject matter at its heart, Rites tells a story that’s not easy to hear – but crucial to listen to.

“Let us start by listening” – Rites, 2015. It’s estimated that over 66,000 women and girls in Britain are living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM – underestimated, frighteningly, because this is an issue that, by definition, is hidden. FGM is illegal in the UK, and yet over 20,000 girls under 15 years of age are thought to be at risk. Yes, the NHS Choices page on Female Genital Mutilation (or FGM) does make for grim reading; but this, and a brand new production from Contact in Manchester and the National Theatre of Scotland, which explores this deep-rooted cultural practice, is where more attention needs to be.

Rites will have to tread a careful line between understanding and outrage

If we’re unclear about how many women are affected, or at risk, then finding ways to hear their voices is surely a priority. Rites, created by Olivier Award-winning director Cora Bissett and multi-talented writer Yusra Warsama, is based on true stories from women and girls affected in Scotland and the rest of the UK – including mothers under pressure to continue the practice, the experiences of midwives, and those who are trying to combat it. Rites is a way of shedding light on an ancient ritual to which millions of girls worldwide are still subjected – for reasons that are incredibly complex – despite the horrifying health implications that include chronic infection, kidney failure, infertility, organ damage and sometimes death.

“We hope to ask questions of practices contained within many cultures,” says Bissett, “and give space to discuss those very sensitive areas where cultural practice and human rights come into direct conflict.” This is a production, then, that will have to tread a careful line between understanding and outrage. I’ll admit that my gut reaction to reading that FGM most often takes place with no medical training, anaesthetic or antiseptics, so that “girls may have to be forcibly restrained” while some or all of their clitoris and labia is cut off doesn’t, initially, leave much room for accepting the motivations behind it. But, as the script entreats, “let us start by listening” – so that where the law is failing, perhaps better comprehension through projects like Rites might have more success.

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