It was my third year of attending the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival, first envisaged and implemented by Artistic Director Jude Kelly, five years ago. The programme was full of interesting performances, discussions, and workshops. I’ll be focusing on some of the arts related events.
After work on the Friday, I caught Kelly’s discussion with radio DJ Lauren Laverne. It was refreshing to hear Laverne’s honesty about the music industry; when she started a band in the early 90s, they were asked who wrote their songs, and recently when interviewing an all-female band, they told her they were still being asked the same question. She emphasised the need for women to support other women, naming Jo Wiley as an important mentor, and how she has set up a new company with Sam Baker called The Pool, wanting to give other women opportunities they would not have otherwise.
To end this evening was a performance by Lady Leshurr and Friends, which included two incredible singers before the rapper took to the stage. Alicia Scott was first, performing reggae covers and her own material, and Ellie Carly joined the stage for a cover of Ella Eyre’s version of We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off. Lady Leshurr was the main feature, representing Birmingham and her Caribbean roots with a flow fast enough to rival any man. She adopted bravado for her performance, moved around the stage as if she owned it, but smiled throughout and spoke to the audience as if they were her best friends. She is definitely one to watch.
On Saturday, unable to go to my chosen discussion, I found myself with Katherine Hamnett, Betty Jackson, Sakina M’sa, Regina Jane Jer, at a discussion about fashion. The key points of this were about changing the infrastructure of the industry, with less focus on the usual conversation about models, but instead on how to make the clothing manufacturers use ethical factories. As it is, most mass clothing production comes from factories in conditions that were highlighted as worse than slavery.
One of the concerns was about the use of non-organic cotton, and that there was a need to reignite the use of factories within the UK, whilst also working to improve working conditions elsewhere in the world to show solidarity with these women. One of the questions we also have to consider is how we can work against consumer culture, and how we can also make sure these products are affordable for the general population. The points on modeling focused on the dress size of the models, yet as someone who is 5 ft 4, I also wondered why high fashion models need to be taller than average. In a subject that I wasn’t originally drawn to, I learnt more than I expected.
As it is, most mass clothing production comes from factories in conditions that were highlighted as worse than slavery.
Next, I continued to deviate from my plan and ended up at The Butch Monologues. There were a multitude of different stories being represented. I knew very little about what it means to be a masculine presenting woman and the varied experiences of these women ranged from binding breasts, to wanting a penis and using dildos and condoms, to wanting a femme woman as a partner and being a the ‘boy’ in the relationship. Some women’s stories made it clear that they didn’t want to give into the pressure to be binary, that to be a butch was a masculine female identity, whilst other had thought about transitioning, and others had done so.
It made me understand where some of the tensions between some feminists (TERFs) and transgender men and women may have come from, where individual experience and ideological arguments may clash. At various points, the women would stand in a row, taking it in turns to say a word. This provided an interesting comparison to Sirens, where instead of a list of beauty products, we heard a list of soaps and hair wax products.
Some women’s stories made it clear that they didn’t want to give into the pressure to be binary, that to be a butch was a masculine female identity, whilst other had thought about transitioning, and others had done so.
At another point, they made catcalling comments, until one of them said they ‘hated that.’ At first, I assumed this was a reference to being a woman in pre-butch life, yet it then became clear they were referring to being in butch groups where there was a culture to be misogynistic towards other women, as though it were another masculine trait to adopt. Overall, it showed the complexities of both human gender and sexuality, and the importance of both individual experience, and collective expression. This was emphasized by one woman’s answer to the question ‘are you a man or a woman?’ — “I’m twice the woman you’ll ever be, and ten times the man you’ll ever have.”
I ended the day with two discussions with Jude Kelly. The first was with Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. She discussed her latest book, touching on personal experiences such as having suffered from cancer, and past abuse, to Billion Women Rising, to the conflict in Congo where rape is used as a weapon of war, to the healing power of dance. Since the talk, I hope to read Emsler’s book In the Body of the World: A Memoir of Cancer and Connection. The second talk to end the day was Caitlin Moran in Conversation. Joining Moran were Bridget Christie and Shazia Mirza. Much of the discussion centred around the idea that women are waiting for the ‘perfect Feminist’ that has led to a lot of criticism on social media being from other Feminists.
Much of the discussion centred around the idea that women are waiting for the ‘perfect Feminist’ that has led to a lot of criticism on social media being from other Feminists.
It is understandable that criticism of this nature can be overwhelming, yet it is important to be able to see when it is valid, that when misinterpreted, followers are given an explanation, and when in the wrong, this can be admitted (exemplified by Shappi Khorsandi recently). That said, it is important to note that these women are all comedians, and that is their tool when addressing Feminist issues. Moran’s quilt metaphor had been mentioned at the beginning of the festival, and the idea behind this is that each individual is a square in a quilt representing Feminism, and we all have our different roles to play.
Part 2 can be found here.