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All the Challenges Facing Feminism on Show at Southbank Centre's Women of the World Festival

10/03/2014 13:41 GMT | Updated 08/05/2014 10:59 BST

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Photo credit - Southbank Centre

International Women's Day 2014 saw, for the fourth year, the Southbank Centre organise their spectacular and diverse WOW - Women of the World festival. And on show was the good, the bad and the ugly side of feminism today.

Undeniably the headline attraction was the gracious and phenomenally brave Malala. And all her passion, determination and extraordinary public speaking skills were on show in her rousing speech. "Our words are powerful" she said. "Women are discriminated against not because we are weak, but because women are powerful. People are afraid of the power of women."

It is the vibrancy and passion of the younger generation which has really re-energised feminism and that unequivocal belief that change is coming is personified in Malala. When Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, asked Malala whether she believed gender equality was achievable, Malala, without hesitation, replied "if we struggle for it, we will definitely achieve it."

It's invigorating that Malala can keep that conviction in spite of the horrors she has already been through. Certainly that bad side to feminism - the repercussions to speaking out - was reflected in other very moving and poignant sessions at the festival.

Caroline Criado-Perez spoke with great composure about the abuse she has received for working to promote women's rights. The scale of the online abuse she has received, and the viciousness of it, is eye-watering and she shared a large number of the abuse she has received with the audience. Routinely the abuse towards her was sexually graphic - a sobering reminder that male abuse to women is routinely sexually violent.

For me, the most stomach churning was "we will mutilate your genitals with scissors." But Caroline's response was brave and resilient "No I won't shut my whore mouth... To be silent is to be complicit."

This sexual violence against women, including the use of rape as a weapon, really came out in an incredibly moving session from RAW in War, chaired by Mariana Katzarova.

Mariam Suleiman founded The Voice of Darfur Women to bring attention to the violence against the women in that region and she confirmed that "one of the most destructive weapons used in Darfur is sexual violence against women."

Mariam said she was inspired to set up the movement by Halima Bashir, a doctor in the Darfur region during the conflict. Halima treated the victims of gang rape, including children, committed by the Janjaweed militia. She gave detailed witness statements to UN representatives of the perpetrators. As a result, she was abducted by Sudanese soldiers, held hostage and gang-raped for three days. In spite of this horrific experience, Halima still testified against the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir before the International Criminal Court. Extraordinary bravery.

Also speaking was Masih Alinejad who writes about government corruption in Iran, something which is so dangerous that she is now in exile and routinely receives death threats. As she ruefully observed "It's normal for female journalists to receive death threats in Iran. If you don't, then you think you must be doing something wrong."

And the violence is no empty threat. Also speaking at the festival was Elena Kudimova, sister of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Anna worked tirelessly to report human rights abuses in the Russian war in Chechnya and, subsequently, the corruption in Putin's Russia. "Anna had a sense of responsibility for everyone to know about what was happening" Elena said. "She wanted people to wake up."

As we watch the shreds of Russian democracy and freedom of speech being crushed in front of our very eyes, we realise how desperately the world misses Anna Politkovskaya's reporting.

Yet sadly the ugly side of feminism also reared its head in a contentious and heated debate over the future of Page 3.

One of the big challenges facing feminism is in embracing the diversity within the movement. Women are not always supportive of other women who have opinions they do not agree with. As feminists, we fight for women to be able to speak up without fear of intimidation and harassment. Sadly that support was in short supply for Katie Price who was speaking as a Page 3 advocate in the debate.

The warning signs were already there when Jude Kelly raced over from talking to Malala to introduce this subject, which she acknowledged was "a lightning rod," and encouraged the audience to recognise the freedom of speech we value so much. It was a vain attempt.

Katie Price tried to talk on how Page 3 had launched her career, how it was the "platform for my dreams... [and allowed me] to provide for myself and my children." And she had some interesting points to make such as "when fashion models are topless, it's considered art or high fashion." But her words were greeted with groans and mutterings from the partisan audience.

This turned into outright heckling when Martin Daubney, also there as a Page 3 advocate, started to speak. Martin wasn't even able to get through his allotted four-minutes without shouts from the floor. When he pointed out trolling from feminists to Page 3 models, his concerns were met with "well we suffer from trolling too." Indeed we do. But two wrongs do not make a right.

Even the moderator Eleanor Mills had to step in and warn the audience that if the attitude of some didn't change, the whole debate would be disbanded.

In the brief respite, India Knight spoke eloquently, referring to Page 3 as a "persistent splinter. There are things to get more worked up about involving women such as equal pay and sexual violence." India's wishes that The Sun should just drop Page 3 so we could all move on to bigger issues was something most could agree on.

But the hostility returned and it clearly unnerved Katie Price. It was uncomfortable to watch, leading Martin Daubney to step in and say that "there are as many ways to be a feminist as there are to be a human being."

This is an important point. All political movements are diverse and we must embrace that. Certainly the No More Page 3 campaign has always said that this is not about the Page 3 models but the decision by The Sun to keep running the page.

I am a supporter of the No More Page 3 campaign. Page 3 is a dangerous anachronism and I have written in support for the campaign before but as a feminist I was concerned by the zero tolerance of some in the audience.

To see such hostility aimed at other women left me with a hollow feeling, and a fear that gender equality may be elusive if some feminists insist on continually rounding on other women they disagree with.

But on the festival itself, there were many fascinating and informative debates and a variety of these will be available to watch on Southbank Centre's website. Please watch - and listen.