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The Wonderful World of WOW

WOW festival founder and Southbank Centre’s artistic director Jude Kelly CBE with the judges and winners of the the WOW Den winners

This year was my fifth year attending WOW — the Women of the World Festival at Southbank Centre in London. I first discovered it in 2013 when I went to see Vivienne Westwood speak, and by the time I was embroidering handkerchiefs with the Craftivists to send to UK MPs, I was hooked.

WOW is a celebration of women and girls that looks at the obstacles that stop us from reaching our potential and raises awareness of the issues we face. Running from March 7-12, it includes a packed program of talks, debates, performances, creative activities, comedy and networking. There is really nothing in the world like it. Launched by Jude Kelly CBE, the artistic director of the Southbank Centre, it’s perfectly curated each year, with topics that range from the light to the heavy, from mindfulness and intuition trusting, to discussing feminist foreign policies, to women empowerment and creativity, sexual abuse and violence, intersectionality, dating and old age. There’s something for everyone. You can attend whether you are a man or a woman, young or old, and you will be accepted and learn something.

There are speakers from many parts of the globe (though sadly, none from Southeast Asia, something I made sure to point out when I spoke to the WOW team) and from many fields — politicians, business leaders, artists, activists and refugees — all there to share their experiences, achievements, fears and advice. Apart from the sessions, there’s a marketplace each day where you can explore and discover charities and NGOs that support women and girls, or buy feminist books, or female-made products and goods. There are free speed mentoring events for women, sessions for children under the age of 10 in order to explore feminism, morning runs, choir performances, book clubs, even social dancing. There were, of course, the much-awaited talks by feminist icons like Angela Davis and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

 

 

 

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It was the first year that I went for a whole weekend, literally starting from the first session at 9 a.m. each day, not skipping any slots and going until it finished at 7 p.m. each day. While over the years I’ve chosen sessions that were directly relevant to me and were quite light, I made a conscious decision this year to really educate myself and become more “woke” and more intersectional as a feminist. I learned about the criminal justice system in the UK and how it dealt with sexual assault. I was inspired by the bravery of women who were victims of rape, but used this to fuel their powerful activism, women like Pavan Amara who founded My Body Back, clinics across London that help women who have been assaulted, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Jineth Bedoya Lima from Colombia. I opened my eyes to my privilege and oppression through the disability activist Lydia XYZ Brown’s keynote talk on intersectionality, and saw myself and my struggles as a woman in the session about the culture of shame across the globe, whether it’s because of honor, abortion, prostitution or just the pressure of conservative tradition and society.

My favorite moment came during the last session of the festival. It was during a discussion group on Faith and Feminism, and was the epitome of what I wish we could achieve at Grrrl Gang Manila, which has its first meet on March 25. The discussion group was so intersectional — multiracial, intergeneration and totally interfaith, with female Church of England priests, Methodists, Muslims, Christians, Catholics and Atheists.  And yet with all this diversity, we were having these amazing exploratory conversations. 

At some point, we were discussing motherhood, and an older woman beside me shared how she was, “a First Wave, bra-burning feminist” and how she chose to sterilize herself because she thought the whole pressure to be a mother and the importance put on bearing your own children was oppressive. This was her radical act of feminism, and she chose to express her nurturing mothering nature with her nieces and nephews rather than having her own kids. I thanked her for her feminism that changed the world and paved the way for younger feminist like myself, then pointed out how my view on feminism was at the opposite end of the spectrum — I think that motherhood and bearing children is a feminist act, celebrating the powers of our womanly bodies, and I went the opposite route and froze my eggs just so that I can make sure that I can have the whole experience of motherhood, with or without a husband. She looked at me and smiled and nodded her head.

I thought that moment of being able to have that exchange perfectly summarized the beauty of the weekend — a weekend where we celebrated both our solidarity and diversity as women in a really safe and intersectional space where respect was the guiding principle.   Where you can be completely opposite to someone, yet still feel appreciative of their struggles and opinions, and just listen and learn from everyone’s soul baring. Where we can celebrate what feminism truly is throughout the ages — having a choice, and respecting the choice that each individual has made.

I can’t wait until next year.

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