From the session that brought together some 800 middle-school-aged girls to explore the meaning of feminism in their lives, to the one in which the festival’s founder and curator, Jude Kelly, led a multi-generational conversation about how feminism survives differences of opinions, my experience at WOW - Women of the World Festival 2016 greatly strengthened my faith in the global women’s community to move more strategically towards greater solidarity.
WOW has recently been recognized as the largest women’s festival in the world, and it’s certainly among the best — and that’s coming from a self-professed women’s conference addict.
The large and diverse group of attendees demonstrated how women are finding new ways to collaborate with each other, and with men — and we must do both in order to create real and sustainable change. Over the three days of the festival, which took place at the Southbank Centre in London, an impressive slate of talks, panels and performances explored ways for us to realize our collective power to create solutions to entrenched problems, as well as ways to uncover our own personal potential.
The agenda also shared learning between cultures and countries, and encouraged us to embrace the intersectionality of the challenges we face as women of the world, from racism to sexism, poverty, and lack of access to education and economic opportunity (Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw of Columbia University led a discussion on intersectionality, a concept she originated — this session, which you can watch here, ignited a conversation that continued throughout the conference).
Jude and her team are not afraid to tackle the hard stuff. There were panels on honor killings, female genital mutilation, and domestic abuse. We heard the kinds of personal stories that are inescapably painful but also purposeful, with actions put forward about how to get involved (and I witnessed people taking action immediately, based on what they’d seen).
There were also famous faces. Annie Lennox spoke about her experiences as a prominent activist for HIV/AIDS and women’s rights. Eve Ensler premiered a new play, The Fruit Trilogy, one of the festival’s most profound and affecting experiences. Eve also led a panel of V-Day and One Billion Rising activists from the Phillippines, Croatia and Congo, who recounted the horrific ways in which poverty, climate change, political oppression and war all disproportionately impact the women in their communities. Their struggles and challenges are ours, too.
WOW is a festival, too, with music, dance, and comedy. The closing session featured the largest women’s orchestra ever put together and this impressive ensemble of more than 100 women played classical compositions by women composers (also present). Sandi Toksvig, one of the UK’s funniest and smartest women, who co-created the Women’s Equality Party in the UK, hosted this evening of “Mirth,” as it was titled. She was the perfect close to a convening of women and men that leaves me grateful for the opportunity to have participated.
There was another aspect to my participation at WOW this year, and I will reveal more about that in a later blog as there is a big announcement coming in April. But for now, I’m pleased to have this format to share some of what I felt and what I take away. Convenings like this around the world provide significant opportunities to learn from each other. They provide a space where we can surface areas of disagreement, while strategizing constructively about how to work together towards shared purpose and better outcomes for our families, our world and ourselves.
On that note, I want to share something that WOW’s founder, Jude Kelly, told me. She explained that she has decided to love all women unconditionally. This doesn’t mean she must always agree with other women, rather, that she first seeks a place where her values intersect with theirs – rather than starting from a place of judgment, comparison or competition, all of which only serves to keep us divided, and throwing away our power.
I think this is a wise approach indeed.
As I hope I’ve made clear, WOW was a “wow” for me in many ways. For more photos from the festival, explore my gallery on Facebook. And be sure to check out the schedule of upcoming WOW festivals worldwide, from Baltimore to Karachi.
With much admiration and gratitude to Jude Kelly and her team at Southbank Centre –