I have been going to Women Of the World festival at Southbank’s Royal festival Hall for years on my own. I sometimes feel tentative about talking about women’s rights with friends and family unless I know for sure someone will be on board. This has worked well it seems, as gradually, and through being vocal online instead, more and more friends have become interested in finding out more. This was the first year that I brought a friend along one day, and a family member (Feminist Gran).
I believe I could also do something different to get more friends on board, especially those who have been curious in the past, but remained relatively untouched by my ranting. In this piece, split into two parts to accommodate the weekend events, I will review and discuss some of my personal highlights of the festival, with the intention of raising more awareness and showing what WOW is about.
Laura Bates is one woman who always stands out as representative for Feminism today. Her book, Everyday Sexism, is a must-read, and similarly, her “sweep through the year” – 12 months in 12 minutes – firmly asserted why the fight for gender equality is not over. This is what started my weekend of talks, debates and shows, making up the “festival”, as founder Jude Kelly later drew the audience’s attention to her intentional naming of the event. The arts play a central role to the event, with it being impossible not to stumble upon song and dance throughout the building.
One of the more harrowing parts of the festival are the various discussions around rape and sexual assault. In this particular one, four women shared their own stories and experiences – something I feel is vital to share, as reminders that the personal is political, and to fight against the other stories we are bombarded with, filled with myths and lies: those of the mainstream media.
One woman had not told her story before, and had written down her testimony. We were told that she would read from it, but she hardly needed to look at the paper she held. It struck me, the way she almost performed the story, with such expression and not only communicated with her words, but with her body language. We heard stories of stranger-rape (termed “classic”, and the one that the media likes to perpetuate), a life littered with multiple rapes by different men, and two strikingly similar stories of familial abuse. All of them would agree, as one commented, that “there is no hierarchy of rape”. Rape is rape, and as Maya Angelou stated when describing her own rape, “I won’t say severely raped; all rape is severe.”
The programme seemed cleverly designed to take you through different levels of intensity, and next I went to a discussion “The men of WOW”, led by Michael Kimmel. Charlie Condou and Jake Mills stayed from the previous session. For the most part, this was a great representation of men as allies. Although I felt that Mills could have gone beyond the idea of men getting into Feminism for their own benefit, Kimmel brought the conversation back round, often using witty language, drawing on the irony of women being mansplained. Perhaps Mills might note the gender balance between the audience at BAM (Being a Man) compared to WOW. By my estimations, BAM has a more equal balance, whilst WOW has a majority of women, suggesting that perhaps men could do with caring about Feminism for women’s benefit too.
Next, Kimberlé Crenshaw gave a keynote on intersectionality – a term that she coined herself, particularly regarding race, but applicable to what one audience member had previously termed “multiple oppressions”. Crenshaw shared her work on the #SayHerName campaign, and provided a short film, along with pictures, to raise awareness of the innumerable black women who have been killed by the police. The footage was distressing, but necessary, and the amount of women named overwhelming, ranging from the ages of 7 years old to a woman in her nineties. The next panel, Sexism Makes Us Sick, seemed on the surface to be a lighter option, but left me feeling woeful about the state of the NHS, especially with regards to mental health care.
The day ended on a powerful and rousing speech by Jude Kelly, and an interview with Pat Mitchell on her project MAKERS. The premise of this project is that so many women’s stories are left untold, and the importance of counter-narratives and visible story-telling was highlighted once again. The project itself is a collection of over 300 women’s stories in order to inspire women’s progress. From Kathleen Hanna, to Alice Walker, to Oprah Winfrey, and from a wide reaching areas from company CEOs to astronauts to sex therapists. Although there is a question mark on what seems to be the “lean-in” philosophy, there is no doubt, after watching some of the stories, that they will inspire current and future generations of women.
The second part of this piece will focus on the events taking place on the Sunday, and will published on The Norwich Radical next weeks.
Featured image © Pete Woodhead; WOWLDN