The Women of the World festival at the Southbank Centre in London is in its 5th year, and going strong. It lasts for an entire week, and involves hundreds of women and men from around the globe. For a mere £20, you get a full day pass on the Saturday or the Sunday. This gives you the opportunity to see bands and choirs, take self-defence classes, do yoga, laugh along to comedy, listen to inspirational women discuss current issues, take part in workshops, and listen to some brave women tell their personal tales of suffering. All of this in the lovely setting of the Southbank, with bright flags and colours everywhere, friendly staff to help you around. Even if you didn’t pay for an evening ticket for the big names (Salma Hayek, Hugh Grant) you still got to see and talk to some pretty awesome people. There were so many amazing experiences in just the day I was there, I wish I’d spent the whole week listening and talking to amazing women.
To pre-empt any backlash, no, it wasn’t in any way anti men. Or anti anything else. It concerns me that whenever something is held up as a celebration of a particular marginalised group, there are always cries of ‘what about straight people!’ ‘what about white people!’ Celebrating and empowering anyone isn’t about saying they’re in any way better than anyone else. A completely equal world (for gender, race and everything else) makes sense for all human beings. But people are marginalised. People are treated differently for who they are. And it felt pretty awesome to be in a space where being who you are was celebrated, encouraged and dissected. Through positive experiences like this, hopefully all people can appreciate how the struggle of a particular group is linked intrinsically to everyone else’s, and that the empowerment of one leads to the empowerment of the whole. There were quite a few men there, too.
We started out with a look at the news. A little depressing, to say the least. A ‘women’s day’ pullout in one newspaper had one story about a female sportsperson and some adverts for makeup. A large image emblazoned with the title ‘are men the new women?’ featured a man relaxing by a pool with some bubbly in his hand. The key words associated with women included ‘pores!’ and ‘angst!’ A case about an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal and a lawyer calling the teenage victims of gang rape ‘slags.’ So far so not surprising. After this initial look at how things currently are, the feeling was overwhelmingly one of how things are, and will, change for the better. The inspirational Leslee Udwin who made the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ was there and framed it in such a beautifully simplistic way. The rape and murder of that girl were awful. But who are we to say which of these is any worse than any other rape or torture. Her message was simple. From sex trafficking to objectification in the media, from rape to catcalling, from being denied basic human rights to being treated like a less employable or intelligent human being, they are all born of the same issue; the lack of value placed on females. In some countries this manifests itself far more shockingly and in others it is more subtle, but it still exists. The backlash from her film has led to criminal proceedings and a prisoner being stoned to death. While the average Jane wouldn’t expect something quite so extreme, the message quite clearly was that we can make a difference. What followed was a group experience where if a statement applied to us, we stood up. It was wonderful to realise how many people shared both happy and difficult life experiences, and set the tone for a sense of togetherness that lasted all day.
We heard from other people who are also having a massive impact on the world of equality and perception. The woman who devised #ThisGirlCan (if you haven’t seen it – the fantastic campaign around normal women exercising to feel great and look great, even if they wobble) and EverydaySexism (something which started out as a website and is now working to implement changes in government policy). Normal women who saw something they were unhappy about and tried to do something about it were making a difference. WOWNOW was produced by Gemma Cairney (Radio 1 DJ, I’m not cool enough to know who she is), and produced a shocking video where young teenage girls talk honestly about the way they feel about themselves, the pressures of things like exams, Instagram and ASKFM, and how porn is infiltrating their friendships and relationships (a boy was asked why he didn’t stop having sex with a girl when he saw she was crying. He thought it was normal). I was left looking at the different areas of my life and if I could in some way help to spread a more realistic and empowering image of women to the world. Watch this space!
As our day continued, we went into some smaller rooms for more specific discussions. In ‘Hollywood, Sci-fi, Computer Games and Rape,’ I discovered the term ‘fridging.’ This is when a female character is raped, murdered, or tortured, which is then used as a plot device to drive forward the protagonist’s desire for revenge. All too often, rape is depicted as an issue to do with men (look at Vietnam war films), power or control (Game of Thrones) rather than the horrific and terrifying thing it is for the victim. We also talked about the lack of male-male rape, or even female-male rape, and how the media supported the myth that false rape claims are more prevalent than they actually are. Where we go with this was left open. While using something horrific as a plot device is arguably lazy and insensitive writing, exploring the darker sides of humanity and its effects is something that art is often concerned with, so how to navigate through this is very interesting. Unless we want to return to the 18th Century idea of a novel being morally instructional, it is unclear. Obviously, each one of these sessions could have taken an entire day’s discussion!
The most harrowing was the personal sharing of victims of domestic abuse. I find it hard to write my response to this without feeling like I am trivialising these brave women’s experiences. Suffice to say that I was left with a sense of the tragedy people go through every day. We left the session talking about the need to connect more with others, to allow a greater support network so people don’t feel alone.
We finished with a talk with biographer Rachel Holmes and her work on writing books about women who changed the face of society. She talked about Eleanor Marx (I’m embarrassed to say I had never heard of her) and Sylvia Pankhurst. I’m definitely buying her books! She unfolded the stories of two amazing women starting to tread the boards of a life as yet unlived by most women, and the differences they made to socialism and women’s rights are phenomenal. Once again, the message we were left with was that not just at elections but in between, the things we do every day can raise awareness and bring about real change.
So where to leave this post? At times depressing, always frustrating and often heartbreaking, the plight of women the world over is a sad thing to behold, and unfortunately still seems to be something that needs to be defended as worth investigating and supporting. Having said that, the leaps forward made in so many areas of the world cannot be underestimated. But there is so much more to be done. Young women today are under such pressures and have things to deal with that we simply can’t understand, so our thinking and ideas around how to help them need to change in line with technology and other changes in the modern world. If so many people are prepared to gather in one place, of all genders, sexuality, races and creeds, and raise their voices in affirmation of a world where everyone is respected equally, surely the world our children grow up in will look different than it does now.