When The Book of Mormon, the acerbic, wilfully offensive, sharply funny musical, hit London’s West End this month, the reviews divided into two camps.
Firstly, gleeful folk like myself who honked the whole way through two hours of unpalatable truths about Africa – female genital mutilation, infant rape, the Aids epidemic, blood-drinking warlords, and the glib, toothsome American visitors who advise prayer as the answer. Then there were critics who called the show “puerile”.
Now, while I accept that a Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez musical is not to everyone’s tastes, the word “puerile” troubled me. Puerile means “silly, childish, trivial”; but the subject matter that this show is hammering home to audiences – taking our money and punching us in the face with catchy songs about clitoris removal – is far from throwaway.
One of the show’s opening numbers, “Hasa Diga Eebowai”, is a full-throttle, all-singing, dancing, tribal-chanting extravaganza, melding the deft touch of South Park’s “Shut Your f***ing face Uncle F****er” mixed with “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers, all set to a Disney Lion King/Bobby McFerrin style cod-African beat. It is gloriously offensive and frank about female circumcision in Uganda. The same bleak practice is happening in another 22 countries – and, crucially, right here, to British girls, during “cutting parties”, or summer holiday trips to see relatives.
“All the young girls here get circumcised! Their clits get cut right off! Dayyyyyo!!” the cast sings. The audience gasps, then giggles. By the interval, with no prior plans to be, we the audience are fully informed about this “cultural problem” of genital mutilation. We’re rooting for the female characters to retain the basic female right to own labia and a clitoris and to have sexual feelings. So, thank you, Trey, Matt and Robert – let me welcome you into the sisterhood. I’ll fit you for dungarees and a Best of Joan Armatrading CD in a moment. In four weeks working out of the Prince of Wales theatre, you’ve done more to raise awareness in Britain about the grim, widespread practice of “FGM” than our own media, Government and law enforcers have done in three decades.
By rough estimates, there are 20,000 girls at risk of FGM in Britain and 66,000 coping with the botched consequences. There has never been a prosecution, either of a mother taking her child out of the country, or a cutter travelling into Britain. I’ve read cases about little girls in Stratford – home of Olympic hope – being whisked off to Mogadishu. Or of the Somali community in Glasgow where a three-year-old girl and a small baby were sabotaged with scissors.I don’t think polite, concerned mumblings about FGM wholly prepare anyone for the fact that in the majority of cases, after these botch jobs, the whole lot is gone. Here, we have women with missing sex parts.
FGM is not performed for religious reasons, but more as a cultural tradition which says: “Look at my daughter: her vagina is stitched up so she’s a virgin and she has no way of having sexual pleasure. She’ll be a brilliant wife.” I’ve seen footage of an African father talking openly about how he is swapping the vagina for a big dowry. A vagina for some cows and land and beer. In Britain, there is a hazier sense of why FGM is happening: it’s not for God; it’s not for cows; it’s more “just what people do”. And how I wish they didn’t.
Mutilation is going unchecked in Britain for a mesh of reasons which only big, bolshie protests like “Hasa Diga Eebowai” can begin to tackle. It needs full-throated protest and some people possibly being offended. But this is a problem about vaginas – and that’s enough to make many men irate to find me filling this page with it. And obviously at this point I’ll attract a man shouting “Jewish boys get circumcised, too, why don’t you care about them?”, because we are still at a point with women’s rights where all sadness about centuries of ingrained female denigration must be met with a man hoping to upend protest by claiming he is more wronged.
Also problematic is the fact that FGM here affects mainly young British African girls of Muslim heritage. In Britain, we are at a sticky point with feminism, where large numbers of women have spent four or five decades being permitted education, the right to work and use contraception, and now believe feminism isn’t needed. No more rights needed here, thank you! “I’m not one of those feminists,” young British women bleat, as nearby, young girls are being whisked off to sunny Mogadishu or being hacked at in a back room in Stratford. This odd idea that “I have my rights, to hell with women globally” shames us. “I have my rights, but I don’t want to say anything remotely culturally insensitive” is a far graver problem still.
And why do the Metropolitan Police have no real evidence of FGM being performed in the UK, but admit that anecdotally it is happening? Border controls must see girls limping through Heathrow in dire need of antibiotics. Don’t teachers notice when girls can’t do PE? And what about midwives, health workers, ambulance drivers, beauty therapists, gynaecologists and all those private fertility clinics in Harley Street? No evidence? No whistleblowing? Surely someone is noticing this brutality.
No, the only people shouting about FGM in Britain right now are those guys who wrote South Park. The Book of Mormon may be hilarious, vile, obnoxious, joyous, profane and shocking, but it’s message is certainly not “puerile”.