July 19, 2024

Mabel Evwierhoma’s ‘The Cut Across’: Echoes of female genital mutilation, cultural oppression against women

  • June 20, 2024
  • 13 min read
Mabel Evwierhoma’s ‘The Cut Across’: Echoes of female genital mutilation, cultural oppression against women

By Stephen Adewumi

IN Nigeria and across Africa, ancient traditional practices are rapidly disappearing as modernity advances. The eradication of harmful customs like twin-killing and the osu caste system, which dehumanized certain individuals, is a positive trend. However, one persistent exception is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also euphemistically referred to as female circumcision. Even with efforts by campaigners like Prof. Mabel Evwierhoma and other gender rights advocates, FGM remains a deeply entrenched challenge.

Despite progress in combating FGM, it persists in surreptitious and insidious forms, undermining previous successes. As depicted in Evwierhoma’s play, The Cut Across, which was performed at the Federal University, Lokoja, Kogi State, on April 15-16, 2024, this harmful practice has a long history. In ancient times, married young women were subjected to the gruesome procedure of clitoral cutting, a traumatic experience that has had lasting impacts. The practice was even more devastating when performed on heavily pregnant young wives shortly before childbirth. The consequences were shocking: some women bled to death, while others who survived were left with devastating scars that robbed them of a healthy sex life. The trauma of the encounter left some women sexually maimed for life, rendering them numb to sexual intimacy.

The Cut Across sheds light on the harmful practice of FGM which is often justified as a means to control women’s sexuality. Through her work, Evwierhoma joins the campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of this devastating act and to advocate for its eradication. The play emphasizes the importance of women’s autonomy over their own bodies and sexuality, free from societal interference and coercion. By tackling this sensitive issue, she encourages individuals and communities to confront the harmful consequences of the act and to work towards a future where women’s bodies are respected and valued.

It is perplexing that society feels the need to control a woman’s body, ostensibly to cater to male desires. Why should women be told how to use their own bodies? It is even more ironic that some women actively oppose the liberation movement, which seeks to empower them with autonomy over their own bodies. Although men are the primary drivers of this oppressive tradition, it is often women who are tasked with carrying out the harmful practice of FGM, depriving themselves and others of the right to own and enjoy their bodies freely.

The Cut Across, written by Evwierhoma, was performed by the 300 Level students of Federal University, Lokoja, at the University Auditorium, Adankolo Campus on May 6, 2024. The play was directed by Professor Ted Anyebe and assisted by Rotimi Churchy, both lecturers of Federal University, Lokoja. It was a Command Performance at the instance of the Secretary General of Committee of Vice Chancellors of Nigerian Universities, Professor Yakubu Ochefu.

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A scene from The Cut Across as recently performed the 300-Level Theatre Arts students of Federal University, Lokoja

The play opens with a vibrant and joyful atmosphere, as the audience is greeted with the festive salutations of the Isoko, Urhobo, and Itsekiri people of Delta State: “Isoko wadooo; Urhobo wadooo; Itsekiri wadooo!” The mood is further heightened by songs of celebration and merriment, led by a team of musicians which helped to tell the story using a musical ensemble. However, this jubilation is abruptly disrupted by a somber procession of mourners, the maimed and a bleeding young woman almost dead, being carried across the stage. The procession casts a dark shadow over the festivities. Even after the blood is cleaned up, an air of unease lingers. The scenery presents a picture of many blood-stained hands.

Meanwhile, Uruemu (Emu for short), returns to her village from Europe, where she resides with her husband. Emu (played by Folagbade Victoria) harbors a painful secret: she is a victim of female genital mutilation, a trauma that will soon be revealed.

After relocating abroad on scholarship and getting married, she struggles to experience sexual pleasure due to the traumatic effects of FGM, a traditional practice that severed her clitoris as a rite of passage to womanhood. When she confides in her mother, Oni Emu (Miye Tamara), about her suffering and her desire to launch a campaign against FGM, her mother responds by asking if her husband, Paul, is unhappy or complaining about their sexual relationship. Emu’s poignant response reveals her determination to protect future generations, as she believes she owes it to other young girls to safeguard their future from being stolen by a mere superstition.

When Emu shares her plans with her village friends, she is met with resistance from an unexpected quarter – her own female cousin, Esiri (Esemeje Osiunini). Not only does Esiri oppose Emu’s campaign against FGM, but she also manipulates the situation to create tension between Emu and their uncle, Pa Emuotor (Edeh Samuel). As the remaining family patriarch, Pa Emuotor is deeply rooted in tradition and vehemently disagrees with Emu’s mission, deeming it misguided and imprudent. The situation sets the stage for a confrontation that will test Emu’s resolve to challenge the entrenched beliefs of her family and community.

Like many staunch traditionalists, Pa Emuotor is resistant to change and sees no compelling reason to deviate from the customs and practices that have been passed down through generations. However, his opposition to Emu’s campaign is also fueled by a personal vendetta. Pa Emuotor has long harbored feelings for Emu’s mother, Oni Emu, and was rebuffed when he sought to marry her after his brother’s passing. This rejection still rankles him, and he is particularly irked by Emu’s defiance, which he perceives with the venom of a floored tyrant.

Meanwhile, Pa Emuotor’s wife, Oni Esiri (Abidemi Ojo), is consumed by her own suspicions and insecurities. She mistakenly believes that Oni Emu is making advances towards her husband and seizes every opportunity to antagonize her, hoping to prevent any potential liaison from blossoming. This web of unresolved tensions, unrequited love, and miscommunication further complicates the already fraught dynamics between Emu, Pa Emuotor, and their family members, making it even more challenging for Emu to effect change and challenge the entrenched tradition.

Fueled with jealousy on her rear, Esiri exaggerates Emu’s intentions, misrepresenting her campaign against FGM as a personal feud against Pa Emuotor. She falsely claims that Emu has threatened to imprison him if he refuses to abandon the tradition, which he oversees as the family patriarch. This fabrication sparks a heated confrontation between Pa Emuotor and Emu, causing a deep rift between uncle and niece. When Pa Emuotor seeks the intervention of family friends, they decline to get involved, viewing the dispute as a private family matter that he should resolve within the family. This leaves Pa Emuotor perplexed and frustrated, struggling to manage the defiant stance of his returnee niece, Emu. He is torn between his loyalty to tradition and his desire to maintain family harmony, unsure how to navigate this complex situation. The silence is deafening, and the audience is left wondering what fate has befallen the family.

This heart-wrenching event only strengthens Emu’s resolve to end the harmful practice of FGM. Seeking guidance from her supportive friends who are visiting her, Emu asks for their advice on how to effectively launch her campaign. They unanimously recommend a door-to-door approach, emphasizing the importance of direct, personal connections with community members. Emu takes their advice to heart and begins her grassroots campaign, which sparks a wave of protest throughout the community. The paramount ruler (Odaudu Ogili), is compelled to summon a meeting at the town square to address the growing unrest and Emu’s impassioned crusade against FGM.

As Emu’s campaign gains momentum, she faces opposition from some of the elders of both gender who accuse her of disrupting the peace and serenity of the community. They lay charges against her, attempting to silence her and maintain the status quo. Additionally, some of Emu’s mother’s friends in the marketplace turn against their colleague, blaming Emu’s mother for allowing her daughter to challenge a long-lived tradition. They claim that Emu’s influence is corrupting the girls in the community, instilling in them a stubbornness that will eventually destabilize the community. Despite the criticism, Emu’s mother finds support from a few who share her daughter’s vision. While the taunts and accusations are difficult to endure, she finds solace in the knowledge that her daughter’s decision and determination are inspiring change.

In the village square, Emu stands before the paramount ruler, facing charges brought against her by the community elders. When invited to defend herself, Emu seizes the opportunity to passionately argue against the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. She eloquently explains the irrationality of the tradition and how it has led to her people being labeled backward, while neighbouring communities have long abandoned the practice. The paramount ruler listens attentively, weighing Emu’s words against his own knowledge and understanding. After careful consideration, he delivers a verdict that sparks jubilation among the crowd. Emu’s courage and conviction have finally brought about a long-overdue change, and her people are ready to move forward. However, not everyone is pleased with the outcome, as some, like Pa Emuotor, struggle to accept the verdict and the demise of a tradition they hold dear.

The Cut Across was directed by Prof. Ted Anyebe, and Mr. Olarotimi Olarewaju (Churchy), who are lecturers at the host university, while the 300 level students of the department of Theatre Arts, Federal University Lokoja executed the performance in a very skillful manner. In fact, they deserve accolades for their interpretation of such cognitively demanding play. The lead actor Folagbade Victoria (Emu) convincingly portrayed her character complexities through her carriage and flawless rendition, and the supporting cast added depth to the narrative. Even the Vice-Chancellor of the university, Prof. Olayemi Akinwumi, who also saw the production, was quick to give the directors’ performance credit for managing such a large crowd of cast and crew members so proficiently and efficiently. He did not only laud the mastery and delivery of the students who played different roles, but equally out of excitement, presented cash prize to them.

However, some actors struggled with diction and projection, making it challenging to hear their lines clearly. Notwithstanding, the play effectively conveys the narrative’s emotional depth. The directors’ vision was evident in the clever use of stage space, transitions, and pacing, which maintained the audience’s attention throughout. But some scenes felt slightly rushed, and a more balanced tempo would have enhanced the overall impact. The set design adequately utilized the auditorium’s space, creating a versatile environment that complemented the play’s themes.

The costumes were appropriate and visually appealing, reflecting the characters’ personalities and cultural backgrounds. The lighting design to certain extent enhanced the mood and atmosphere of each scene, while the sound effects and music complemented the narrative without overpowering it. However, slight technical issues with sound and lighting were discovered during the transitions, likewise, switching of scenes were not very smooth due to the architectural nature of the university auditorium which served as the venue for the production.

Overall, the production demonstrated the potential of the university’s Theatre Department. While some areas require refinement, the cast and crew’s enthusiasm and dedication shone through. With further development and attention to technical details, future productions can build upon the strengths showcased in The Cut Across performance to reach even greater heights.

Therefore, it is recommended that workshops on diction, projection, and voice control for actors be carried out periodically in the department, as well as technical crew training to eliminate inefficiencies, and to have more smooth scene transition. Also, as a university known for excellence, building a befitting performance auditorium should be considered without further delay. Equally, technical equipment should be acquired for the Department of Theatre Arts to help the students have hands-on experience and a more robust theatrical performance.

Again, the department should explore creative ways of getting the host community’s chiefs and stakeholders to come and see their productions or if possible, take some of its productions to the town, particularly play productions like The Cut Across which has elements of ancient traditions. This will strengthen the bond between town and gown. It will equally enhance artistic skills, and recollection of cultural heritage. In addition, this will help assimilation of its message get to targeted audience, reach larger audience, trigger action, as well as open a new vista for research.

The issue of female genital mutilation extends beyond the Urhobo and Isoko communities, making it a widespread concern. Although, the practice has declined in recent years, it is crucial to continue the campaign, particularly in healthcare settings. Some nurses and midwives still perpetuate this harmful tradition, often without consent from parents, especially mothers. They perform clitoridectomy on newborn girls, perpetuating the cycle of harm.

To eradicate FGM entirely, we must focus attention and action on these critical areas: Raising awareness among healthcare professionals about the dangers and illegality of FGM, educating parents and communities about the importance of preserving girls’ and women’s bodily autonomy and integrity, implementing policies and protocols in hospitals to prevent FGM and protect vulnerable patients and supporting survivors of FGM and advocating for their rights and dignity of women. By addressing these areas, we can work towards a comprehensive solution to end FGM and ensure a safer, more equitable future for all girls and women, and the society can breathe better.

The production of The Cut Across has catapulted the Department of Theatre Arts, Federal University, Lokoja, to global recognition, showcasing the immense potential of its students. This achievement has underscored the need for a dedicated performance space, equipped with state-of-the-art technical equipment. This is a vital investment in the university’s commitment to excellence in arts and education. The memorable evening has left an indelible mark on the hearts of theatre enthusiasts, and it is only fitting that the department receives the necessary support to continue pushing the boundaries of theatrical innovation.

The inspiring message and moral lessons conveyed through The Cut Across will have a lasting impact, serving as a catalyst for introspection and transformation for generations to come. The production’s thought-provoking themes and striking storytelling will resonate with audiences for a long time, engendering a change in mindset and behaviour that will echo for eternity. It was a spectacular performance, courtesy of the play Director, Professor Anyebe.

* Dr. Adewumi is of the Department of Theatre Arts, Kogi State University, Kabba

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