I've spent the day surrounded by inspirational women. From The Lips choir who spent their week joining protests again female asylum seekers detained in Yarl's Wood to hula hooping and football workshops. From a senior advisor in the Labour party to a professor of English, to authors, performers, teachers and scientists. For six years now, the Women of the World Festival (that's me grinning like an idiot, top right) has hosted performances, workshops and discussions that examine a myriad of issues surrounding equality. Since its origins in 2010, it has reached 15 countries and 5 continents. This is the second year I've attended the festival, and I found myself leaving with the same sense of inspiration, empowerment and hope, tinged with frustration and a little bit of guilt that I don't do nearly as much as these women to have a positive impact. I might read, discuss and sign up to a lot of interesting publications, but if I look back over the last year, to the first time I left the festival, full of enthusiasm to get involved, what have I actually done? Not much. This year, I want that to change.
The simple fact of exposure to stuff I didn't even know existed is a start. Sportswear made from reclaimed fishing nets, jewellery and prints from all over the world, every corner of the Southbank Centre has spent the entire week brimming with women, men and children who envisage a hopeful new world where the contents of your underwear has a much less significant effect on your life.
With only a one-day ticket, I only experienced a snippet of what was on offer. In my first talk, I heard the incredibly intelligent and very funny Dr. Emma Rees talk about the associations of shame and mystery that have long surrounded lady parts. Which of course, is part of the problem. From froo-froos to front bottom, there is a distinct lack of a universal language to address it, and therefore issues surrounding it, that don't make it sound like a cartoon character or some sort of lurking shameful thing that must never be mentioned and kept fragrant at all times. You would think that we'd moved on from the 1940s, where women were encouraged to shove mercury chloride into their vaginal cavities (thanks, Lysol) in order to make sure you got regular 'interest' from your husband. Alas, no. On the way home, I browsed through the shop to find a powder to make me less 'moist' and a wash to make me more 'fresh.' In her book The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History, she engages with many debates around the linguistics of genitalia and how they result in the silencing of female voices. How can we talk about FGM until we aren't afraid to say 'vulva' out loud? So maybe I'll do for UK what 'Snoppen ach Snippan' did in Sweden - provide an unthreatening, unashamed way of allowing all children to understand and talk about their bodies, without distinction.
Or maybe I could write a gothic novel. For my second WOW experience, I listened to writers Ann Morgan, Sarah Perry, Naomi Alderman and Miranda Seymour talk about the lasting influence of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. This bold novel caused controversy at its release, and not only challenged traditional literary styles, it also challenged the dominance of patriarchal religion and class society. At the age of 19, Shelley, the highly intelligent daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote this book as a bet. Two hundred years later, we're still talking about it. Science fiction writers still create fascinating worlds and challenge accepted norms. I wouldn't mind joining their ranks.
The final possibility for how I could make a difference based on the talks I went to see is, depressingly, probably the least likely. Ayesha Hazarika spent eight years as a political advisor to senior politicians in the Labour party. In her very candid show that explores her experiences, she reveals that behind the scenes, things are very much as they appear out front. Small groups of white men from a very narrow sociopolitical background, unwilling or simply unaware of the myriad issues facing constituents that are in any way different to them. It is strange to reflect that, in the twenty-first century, we still have people in political power that represent a tiny, privileged minority, in an awful lot of countries. Ayesha found herself doing Ed Miliband's makeup. Feeling left out of the conversation because of all the 'military' jargon. Serving the tea. If it is still such a struggle for half the population's voices to be heard (or dismissed because, you know, they haven't had kids or they're old or fat or something) it's not surprising that people of colour, disabled and LGBT people still feel so marginalised. Not only this, but she exposes the limited advertising of jobs in important places in politics, which further entrenches the idea that it's not what you know, it's who you know. How do we still have the same glorified boys' club running the country as we did in the 1950s? As someone outside of the right gender, social and educational background, I do find myself a little at a loss as to how I can even begin to make political change in this country. Perhaps Catherine Mayer, co-founder of the Women's Equality party, can help me out.
The WOW Festival celebrates and encourages change. It highlights the success stories of women who have had an enormous impact on the modern world. It also shines a light on those still struggling to have their voices heard, the suffering that women still experience, and the myriad issues facing women and men in our unequal world. So this year, I'm going to do something. For a start, I wrote this. But we can all help out. From monitoring our language, teaching our children (or those belonging to other people) to the products we buy, everyone can join in to create a fairer world. What will you do?