When Shami Chakrabarti got up on stage at Women of the World festival last weekend and declared that feminists “don’t want a petition, we want a fucking revolution,” she was met with a storm of cheers and applause.
Boosted by the internet and social media, the feminist movement has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Initiatives like the Everyday Sexism Project and Vagenda magazine have helped draw activists together. More feminist voices are finding space in the mainstream media: Everyday Sexism’s founder Laura Bates is a regular contributor to the Independent, while Vagenda’s co-founders Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter write the V Spot blog for the New Statesman.
The Southbank Centre’s annual WoW festival is more evidence of feminism’s current strength. Now in its third year, it involves five days of events and lectures, organised by the Centre’s brilliant artistic director Jude Kelly, in celebration of International Women’s Day. The festival’s reputation is such that Malala Yousafzai unexpectedly showed up on the Friday. Still fragile, she remained backstage, her presence unannounced at the time.
The focus was on feminisms: embracing different voices as part of the same movement, rather than emphasising divisions. One of those voices came in the talk on “Global feminism and the Middle East”, a subject that has become more prominent since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Arab Spring. As the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif put it, “when the revolution happened, the western media wanted to know about two things: the Islamists, and women.” It’s a thorny topic because of the risk of patronising Arab women or imposing western concepts of feminism on them. But Nadje Al-Ali, a professor of gender studies at SOAS, kicked off proceedings by saying that “Iraq has a very long history of feminism going back to the early 20th century.” She reminded us that many Iraqi feminists “didn’t want to associate themselves with the occupation,” and in some senses, like gender-based violence, women there are actually worse off than they were ten years ago.
What the Middle East needs is a sexual revolution, said Shereen El Feki, author of the recently published Sex and the Citadel. El Feki believes that sexual liberation is an integral part of women’s liberation because what happens in the bedroom mirrors what happens outside it. She pointed out that although Islam is now perceived as anti-sex, as recently as a century ago it promoted the right of sexual pleasure for both men and women. But is the sexual liberation of women in the Middle East completely desirable? In the west it has caused problems of its own, feeding back into the idea of woman as object. When I asked El Feki how the Middle East can avoid the same problem, she insisted that, as it retains a strong religious influence and is culturally dissimilar, things may develop differently. I’m not so sure. But in the spirit of embracing different voices, I’ll let it slide.
The hardest hitting event of the day was a panel discussion on rape. Joanna Bourke, author of Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present Day, began by noting that conviction rates in the UK have been getting steadily worse since the 1980s and are now the lowest in Europe, aside from Ireland. She also highlighted the “rape myths” that are widespread in our culture: that women lie about being raped or ask for it by wearing revealing clothes. Even a feminist friend of mine, when we discussed it that evening, suggested that you can’t trust rape allegations because they are so easy to lie about. But as Bourke pointed out, when you set aside cases where there is some element of doubt, for example when alcohol was involved and memories are blurred (and these can’t really be called lies), statistics show that 3 per cent of rape allegations are false—in line with all other crimes.
Three women then got up on stage and shared their experiences of assault. They too wanted to emphasise how deeply embedded these rape myths are. One recalled how her best friend’s first question was “What were you wearing?” Another woman decided that she could not speak on the panel and submitted a letter instead, which was read to the audience by Jude Kelly. She spoke of her concern that she might be at fault for what happened to her: “The worst bit is that I didn’t know if I had encouraged him. I definitely smiled at him… I feel I must tell my boyfriends [what happened] so that they know I’m damaged goods.” The persistence of such attitudes underlines how important a festival like WoW is.
Later in the evening, Naomi Wolf continued the theme of tackling difficult subjects, taking on every question the audience could throw at her without batting an eyelid—including topics so taboo I won’t even mention them. But it was wonderful to be in a space where these topics could be discussed openly. When Jon Snow, a speaker at the “conversation between the sexes” event, walked in, he confessed to feeling “a profound sense of envy” that women have this festival, such was the atmosphere of excitement and camaraderie. Don’t worry Jon, you won’t have to wait long—Jude Kelly has just announced that, as of next year, there’ll be a men’s festival too.