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Women of the World Festival

Gillian Mackenzie24 April 2018

Astrea’s Policy Management representative, Louisa Ball, attended the Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre and shared her impressions of the event. This post also contains links to the Southbank Centre’s WOW 2018 website, where you can watch and listen to the content Louisa reviews for us here.

So on the 9th, 10th and 11 March I attended the Women of the World Festival, also known as WOW, at the Southbank Centre in London, and wow really is the best word to describe it!

The feeling of attending an event that includes so many huge names in activism of all kinds, and the sense of sisterhood and solidarity the festival gives you really can’t be overstated.

The festival has grown many legs since its birth in 2010 and now takes place in over 50 countries worldwide over 5 continents.  The visionary and heroic yet humble driving force behind it is Jude Kelly CBE, artistic director at the Southbank Centre, who told us that WOW came to life after she thought “someone should really do something like this, oh it’s me!”

After waiting over a year to be able to get hold of tickets for the London festival I was definitely not disappointed, and with 2018 being the centenary of some women getting the vote in England, it was definitely a year not to miss!

Throughout the weekend I listened to talks and panel debates on homelessness, systemic racism, refusing to be silenced in conflict zones and breaking the silence around sexual harassment, and of course many others. It was full on, with talks starting at 9am on Saturday and 10am on Sunday (it ran from 7th – 11th March but I had a weekend ticket), you can take in as many as 7 or 8 talks per day, until 6pm and if you buy tickets to an evening WOW event, you can expect to be on-site until at least 9pm (as I did on Friday and Saturday). There are plenty of rest breaks in between sessions though and since it’s nestled in the iconic South Bank there is plenty of food and drink to be sourced in the nearby area.

The one downside to WOW, and it’s definitely a good one to have, is that there are so many talks happening simultaneously, that having to choose between them was at times absolutely heartbreaking. Throughout the weekend, Jude Kelly encouraged everyone to “attend something they wouldn’t normally” and “talk to someone you don’t know”.

There was much more besides talks as well, including the WOW marketplace, with bookstalls, handmade trinket stalls and stalls where you could speak to the volunteers and staff running charities and initiatives, such as Bloody Good Period. We were treated to performances from Louise Marshall, one of Scotland’s finest bagpipers, interpretative dances, choir performances and were taught how to say words like feminism, vagina and period in British Sign Language, by one of the BSL interpreters.

The organisers of WOW really make it their business to make the event accessible, with workshops and sessions for children taking place throughout the festival, an on-site crèche, BSL interpreters present for many of the talks, on screen live text and babies and buggies welcome in the talks themselves.

Every talk and panel I attended taught me something new and moved me. Some moved me to get angry, to feel inspired, to cry, to laugh, to change a certain outlook on life or to go away and actually do something.

Not being able to write about every talk I attended throughout the weekend, I’ve chosen my highlights:

No More; Friday evening; Jude Kelly CBE, Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Laura Bates. 

What a start to my weekend this was! The atmosphere in the room was such a buzz. Having as I did a seat at the very front row, I felt the palpable excitement in the room being launched forward toward the speakers, and the anticipation we were all feeling was well placed, because what followed was an invigorating, moving and passionate panel. The panel convened “women on the front lines of global movements who are transforming the future by demanding ‘no more’”. The panel was preceded by Megan Beech, performance poet, performing her poem “The present is female”. Throughout the panel each of these movement leaders talked passionately about their global movements before fielding questions from the eager audience. Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism movement described how her platform for women who experience sexism in their everyday lives to share these experiences “collected testimonies of inequalities” and gave women a “collective voice”. The hundreds of thousands of testimonies from women the world over shows that “we can’t be told to ignore the small things anymore”. Laura takes these stories and “puts them in front of the people who have the power to change things”. Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, co-founder of the Women’s March London and the Women in Leadership Publication, reminded us all that “each one of us is a leader” and that too often we “wait for someone to call you a leader to step up”. She spoke to her personal journey into leadership, called for more women of colour at the front and implored us to drive the change we want to see – “you become an activist because you choose to be”. Patrisse Khan-Cullors read aloud a hard hitting passage from her book – When They Call you a Terrorist, and described her journey into activism and then founding the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). She described BLM as a call to action, an intervention, and as part of a legacy of black people who’ve been fighting for years. She spoke about entering into activism because “our lives depend on it” and that the skills to steer such a movement come later. She urged us all to remember that “wherever black people are, racism exists” and that we shouldn’t believe those who say that [racism in the UK] is “not that bad”. The panel finished up with a standing ovation, which sums up the elation in the room at having heard these giants of global activism speak so eloquently about their experiences.

Ruby Wax – How to be Human: The Manual; with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC

If nothing else, we were always going to come away from Ruby’s talk having laughed out loud, but there was much more to take away besides. Ruby was her usual witty and razor-tongued self and enjoyed good chemistry with her good friend Helena. Ruby talked us through her book – How to be Human: The Manual and interweaved personal anecdotes through her narrative of carrying out the research for the book. She implored everyone in the room to remember that they were built for a time before the internet, that we all have intrusive thoughts and that listening to them is what causes us to have anxiety; that we all get old and natural physical changes go along with that which affect each and every one of us. Along Ruby’s research travels she discovered that negative thoughts once helped humans survive, but that they can be crippling if you let them take hold. She advised that we treat them like a “radio in the other room” and to remember that “you are much bigger than your thoughts”. She was full a hilarious nuggets of advice, such as “never marry someone when you’re ovulating” “don’t pass your garbage onto your children” and “you can’t get oxytocin from a screen”. Perhaps the session can be summed up nicely though by my favourite quote: “things went wrong when we stopped being fish”!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Reni Eddo-Lodge in conversation

I was absolutely ecstatic to get tickets to this talk and it didn’t matter a jot to me that I was 6 rows back up in the balcony – in fact watching these two speakers spellbind the whole room was an upside to being so far back.

Reni wrote the groundbreaking book – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, following a blogpost of the same name some years previously, and has brought the issue of systemic racism in frank and no uncertain terms firmly into consciousness for many, not least myself. Chimamanda is an internationally renowned novelist and writer, famous for her novels including – Half of a Yellow Sun and her non-fiction books – We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ijeawele.

The room was practically pulsing and the anticipation almost tangible, with every single seat of the Southbank Centre auditorium filled – the event was a sell-out. Reni and Chimamanda were amazing. I hung off their every word. The two of them, in conversation for the first time on stage, seemed to have instant chemistry.

They talked about the pressure they feel to take responsibility for the emotional responses of their readers to their content and teased apart white privilege, including how they themselves enjoy certain privileges. A particularly fascinating part of the conversation was Chimamanda recounting conversations she has had with readers who challenge the conclusion given to a white, non-central character in one of her novels and how she positions those responses within the wider issue that is white people feeling affronted by discussions around racism. They discussed deliberate omission of black culture in the west, becoming a feminist, being “suddenly black” when coming to America, how identity can be forced upon us, receiving abuse on social media, the colonization of Nigeria, preferring to read stories to theories and marriage. Despite covering all that content it was a relaxed and naturally flowing conversation and there were really wonderfully funny moments shared between them. I for one could have listened to them both for hours more.

I’d love to write about all the talks and panels I attended, but I would probably have to write a book! All of that said, what’s wonderful about WOW is that everyone else who attended would probably write a completely different summary. Because there is so much to do, see, hear, buy and take in that the experience really is what you make it and I for one will be going back each and every year I am able!