My body belongs to me

Panorama 980 300 12

Laila Soliman . Ruud Gielens . Kairo . Ägypten | Antwerpen . Belgien

Performative activism for physical inviolability
Together with a self-organised group of women, Laila Soliman and Ruud Gielens will create a performance about FGM (female genital mutilation) for the Theaterformen festival. For the last three years women – mostly from Sudan, but now living in Hannover, Braunschweig, Soltau and Wolfsburg – who are FGM survivors or campaigning against FGM with those affected by it have been building a network. It’s about fighting FGM, but also about healing processes and dialogue: about dealing with it individually, with their families and in their home country, the legal regulations on FGM as a grounds for asylum and the medical care of FGM survivors in Germany. For the first time, the activists, mothers, housewives and working women will stand on the stage to celebrate the strength and the beauty of being a woman. And to let us share in their fight against FGM, which is closer to us than we think.

In the context of Entangled Histories funded by Kulturstiftung des Bundes
Funded by Goethe-Institut 

Concept . Direction Ruud Gielens . Laila Soliman Coordination of the group My body belongs to me Mai Shatta With Nihad Ahmed . Yodit Akbalat . Mona Habib Allah . Nadia Elsayed . Nagat Hamid . Abir Omer Production Manager Swantje Möller


25.06. 20:00 Uhr

26.06. 20:00 Uhr . Gespräch nach der Vorstellung

Admission VVK 18 Euro . AK 20 Euro
Concessions VVK 9 Euro . AK 10 Euro
Introduction 26.06. 19.30 Uhr . Cumberland
10 Minuten 10 Fragen after the performance 25.06.
Post-Show Talk after the performance 26.06.
Duration 1h10
Language Arabic, German and English with German and English surtitles

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Giving marginalised voices a stage

Laila Soliman and Ruud Gielens talked to Theresa Schütz about the way they work, the power of collaborations and the relationship between documentary theatre and activism.

Theresa Schütz: At the time of this interview, you’re on a research trip to Hannover to prepare for your new project. In collaboration with the organisation My Body Belongs to Me, it will deal with the topic of female genital mutilation. How do you find the topics you work on or do they find you?

Laila Soliman: Martine Dennewald saw our production Superheroes in Tunisia, which we developed with young people there, and asked us if we could imagine doing something similar in Hannover. However, we didn’t want to do Superheroesas a guest show or develop something analogue, instead we preferred to see what themes might attract us in Hannover. When we go on a research trip, the central question for us is always: who is marginalised in that place and why? What are these people’s histories? That interests us and is the starting point of every project.

Ruud Gielens: In an almost philosophical way, I trust that a project will find its way to us. We barely knew Hannover and it’s important to us to first find out – as much as is possible – what kind of people, what kind of urban society we’re dealing with. Who lives here and what are the issues that seem urgent to us in that place?  

Laila: I got to know My Body Belongs to Me by chance via personal contacts. Two women activists run it and it brings together women who have come to Germany from Sudan. The organisation was only founded recently and works on creating critical awareness about FGM (female genital mutilation) – namely in the community of Sudanese refugees and migrants from other African countries, as well as with regard to German society and its institutions. The activists’ main aim is to make people who work in medical facilities or schools more aware of FGM and how to deal with women who have been affected. The woman who was the first person to receive asylum in Germany on the grounds of FGM is also a member of the group. It’s about improving the legal situation for affected women, pushing forward changes to the law and educational work within the community, e.g. when a girl reaches the age at which she would normally be circumcised in her country of origin (4-10 years old), because that’s what tradition says. Through acquaintances, I found out beforehand that the organisation itself had already been thinking about doing a play to achieve their activist goals in a different way and be able to reach more people. Then I took part in some of their meetings in Hannover and the collaboration grew that way.

Theresa: How might we imagine the collaboration with My Body Belongs to Mein concrete terms? 

Ruud: We asked the members of the organisation if they would allow us to develop a performance that dealt with the issues, aims and strategies of My Body Belongs to Me and if they could imagine performing in action themselves. In the pieces that Laila and I develop together we always start with the people that we want to focus on in our work. We ask ourselves: who are they? What are their stories? What’s their mission? So first we get to know each other. A concrete idea for collaboration only crystallises after a while. Finding the ‘right’ form for the content is definitely a collaborative process with us. In this way, to a certain extent the project forms as a process via writing about personal experiences, improvisations, group choreographies and making music together. My Body Belongs to Meis made up of activists who are pursuing socio-political aims and trying to achieve these. What we develop with them should therefore not only respect their mission, but actually be able to become part of their movement.

Theresa: What’s your main concern bringing this issue to the stage? Is it the experiences of the women affected that you want to share or is it about participating in the discourse, which in Germany e.g. already starts at the ‘proper’ terminology: do you say genital mutilation or genital circumcision? Feminist discourse itself seems divided on that. Female genital mutilation is often used as theexample of the woman’s role as a victim in a patriarchal system of exploitation, through which affected women are doubly marginalised. The term genital circumcision tries to reduce this victim aspect a bit and open up a dialogue about cultural differences and traditions as well as the legal basis.

Laila: I wasn’t aware of this differentiation in Germany. In English and in translations from Egyptian and Sudanese, we use mutilation for women and circumcision for men. There’s a debate whether one should also describe male circumcision as mutilation, but not the other way round. This attempt to find a sensitive and precise language for talking about another tradition usually upsets a society that is already speaking from a position of privilege. We’re not that interested in a perspective like that. We’re interested in the position of the women themselves. What stories do they want to tell and how? And from a feminist perspective, I have to say that I’m generally not interested in stereotypes about victim roles. The word ‘victim’ should be avoided in general in my opinion. The women in the organisation call themselves FGM survivors and that’s what I’m interested in with regard to content and form: empowerment begins with your choice of words and the search for the right language to describe these women’s precious experiences.

Theresa: How might I imagine the way you two work together?

Laila: Since 2011, we’ve been working together in different constellations. I usually work in the areas of directing or dramaturgy. Ruud has a lot of skills he can bring to the project, e.g. acting, acting coaching, video art, light design. A lot of the time we direct and develop the project together, like here in Hannover.

Ruud:The exact way we work together depends on the project. The question of the form also always only develops during the process. While I rarely make documentary theatre alone, almost all the work me and Laila and me do are documentary in form. But I don’t think we can be pinned down to one particular aesthetic.

Theresa: For around 20 years now, there’s a been a boom in different forms of documentary theatre in Germany and in the European festival scene, whether it’s verbatim theatre forms, tribunals or autographical performances. In so-called ‘post-migrant theatre’, research-based work plays a central role too. How do you situate your theatre in this plethora of other forms? 

Laila: We’re less interested in the opposition between the real and the fictional or the debate about authenticity on the stage. For us, reality is more of a spectrum towards the imaginary. All our work moves within this spectrum: sometimes it’s closer to reality, sometimes it’s closer to the imaginary; often the content is taken from reality, but the form strives towards fictionalisation and aestheticisation. There are also variants in the way we deal with relationships of representation: sometimes the person themselves and their autobiographical experiences are on the stage, sometimes the stories are told by actors. We like to be able to decide that freely. The use of dance and music is also part of the documentary form in my understanding. For me, it’s also about pursuing different ways of writing history, which function via the body, sound and movement, and not just via language.     

Theresa: In your opinion, is there a problem taking pieces that have been purposefully developed from a local perspective on tour? To what extent are you already thinking about an international audience when you develop the project? 

Ruud: A member of My Body Belongs to Measked me why we were only producing the new piece for Hannover and if it wouldn’t make more sense to go on tour with it. I can understand that very well from the perspective of the activists. But in the work that Laila and I make together, we usually know at the beginning whether we’re developing a show for the local society – maybe even very site-specific – or whether we’re making something that’s intended to be shown in different places.

Theresa: A lot of your work is strongly motivated by political activism and the desire to change society. How do theatre and activism belong together for you? Is the former often not enough?

Laila: Maybe the problem is exactly the other way round! Especially against the background of the current political situation in post-revolutionary Egypt, I get very frustrated. This leads to me questioning activism itself and what can be achieved at all or precisely not achieved. My generation shared a special collective situation of great hope with each other, which was followed by a phase of the worst military violence that led to the imprisonment of many of my friends and acquaintances, and forced others into exile. So I have to confess that at the moment I doubt the meaning and purpose of almost everything. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop my artistic and political work and doing what I believe in. Because there’s no other alternative for me. 

This conversation took place on the 06.01.2019 in Hannover. 
My Body Belongs to Mewill be performed on June 25th and 26th in the Cumberland

Laila Soliman, born in 1981 in Cairo, has worked as a playwright, dramaturge and director since 2004. She studied Theatre Studies and Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo and graduated with a masters from DasArts at the University of the Arts in Amsterdam. In 2011, Laila Soliman took part in the demonstrations on Tahir square. The theme of the relationship between the state and the individual appears in many of her works – most recently in The National Museum of the State Security System(2015) and ZigZig(2016). Photo: Ebtihal Shedid

Ruud Gielens, born in 1977 in Belgium, studied Directing at the Royal Institute for Theatre, Cinema and Sound (RITCS) in Brussels. After completing his degree, he worked as an actor, set designer and video installation artist, shot short films and directed at various theatres in Belgium and abroad. As an actor he has performed in Luk Perceval‘s L. King of PainTuristaand Death of a Salesman, and in Woyzeckdirected by Thomas Ostermeier at the Schaubühne. From 2005 to 2010, he was a member of the ensemble at the KVS in Brussels as an actor and house director. Together with Laila Soliman he staged the production Lessons in Revolting. Photo: Foto: Bart Grietens

Theresa Schütz, born in 1986, is a theatre studies scholar and independent culture journalist. She studied German Literature, Cultural Studies and Theatre Studies in Berlin and Paris. She currently works as a research assistant in the Special Research Area “Affective Societies” at the FU Berlin and is writing her PhD dissertation on affective aesthetics and contemporary immersive theatre. Photo: Miriam Klingl