International Women’s Day, part ii: Widening Our Circle at the WOW festival

On 10 and 11 March, The Circle and our team of fabulous volunteers set up shop at the Southbank Centre’s WOW — Women of the World festival with the aim of meeting as many women as possible, discussing our current projects and our goals for the future, listening to the incredible line-up of speakers and, of course, widening our circle. Here’s a little look at what we got up to…

We met…

Hundreds of inspirational women who were not only keen to learn about The Circle but also wanted to share the ways in which we work to empower women worldwide. This included one of our lovely new members Katie Rose from Sing For Water, who joined after being inspired by our founder Annie Lennox’s talk at #March4Women on 5 March.

We also chatted with women like Nazzy Amin from Restless Development about our accountability in pushing for gender equality and shaping the future for women. Carolyn Thom, from Their Voice Modern Slavery, told us about their Day 46 initiative, which aims to help protect and rehabilitate victims of modern slavery and human trafficking in the UK, once their financial support and assistance from the Home Office ends after 45 days.

Our time at WOW ended with us meeting the brilliant Gemma Cairney, who has supported The Circle in the past and was there signing her brand new book Open.

We listened to…

Sandi Toksvig’s 2016 Year in Review, where—all while wearing a #pinkpussyhat—she discussed everything from Boaty McBoatface and Brexit to Trump’s inauguration, which paved the way for the ‘first truly global feminist movement’ with January’s worldwide Women’s Marches.

We heard from Iona Lawrence, director of the Jo Cox Foundation and best friend of the well-missed MP Jo Cox, who was tragically murdered last year. She told the audience how Jo never asked ‘what do you think?’ but simply said ‘what can we do?’, continuing on to say that ‘Jo was a true activist and a passionate force for good in this world’.

We also listened to the remarkable stories of three extraordinary women in the Honourlogues: Shame performance, which was moved to the Royal Festival Hall due to the huge crowds of women queuing.

Founder of Karma Nirvana Jasvinder Sanghera CBE discussed how at sixteen she ran away from her home in the UK after her parents tried to force her into marrying a stranger from India and hasn’t spoken to them in 36 years since, after they told her that she was dead to them for dishonouring the family. Her sister later committed suicide by setting fire to herself after her family shamed her for divorcing the man she was forced to marry and who abused her. Jasvinder now runs a charity which supports victims of honour crimes and forced marriages.

Irish Times journalist Róisín Ingle spoke about how her own country turned its back on her when she was in need of an abortion and how, after fifteen years of staying silent due to shame, she decided to write a column on her abortion, which in turn helped thousands of Irish women stand up and say ‘me too’. She is now campaigning as part of the #Repealthe8th movement.

Last but not least, Fiona Broadfoot spoke on her experience being trafficked from Bradford to London as a fifteen-year-old girl, where she was forced into prostitution for eleven years of her life before escaping. She discussed how her past still follows her today, as her criminal convictions for prostitution have led her to being frog-marched out of jobs, denied by colleges and even recently by two male councillors when she launched her Build A Girl programme, who said they would keep a copy of her criminal record ‘just in case’. Since launching her programme she has helped empower dozens of girls, and speaking out about her past has helped her reclaim the shame that consumed her for so many years. Her final statement ‘and still I rise…’ was met by a standing ovation from the capacity crowd.

We cried at…

The Women on the Move Awards. The awards are held every year at the festival and, as Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly MBE says, ‘it wouldn’t be WOW without it’.

The ceremony had four incredible winners, including 17-year-old Yazidi teen Rozin Khalil Hajool, who moved to the UK with her family in 2008 after it became too dangerous to live in Iraq and launched an online petition to help Yazidi women and girls who have been kidnapped by ISIS. The petition has gained over 275,000 signatures and continues to rise.

Sunday Times foreign correspondent Christina Lamb OBE was awarded the Sue Lloyd-Roberts Media Award for her series of articles on refugees in 2016. She has reported from some of the world’s most dangerous hotspots and shared some emotional stories with the audience, which left both Christina and us a little bit tearful to say the least.

Lord Alfred Dubs won the Champion Award for his work championing and winning support for The Dubs Amendment to the Immigration Act of 2016, which compelled the UK government to resettle and support unaccompanied refugee children from other countries. Coming to the UK at the age of 6 as one of 669 children who escaped the holocaust, Dubs has spent most of his life being an advocate for refugee rights and continues to fight for the implementation of The Dubs Amendment today.

The final award of the night was given to Eritrean journalist Eden Habtemichael, for her work with refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. After seeking refuge in the UK with her daughter in 2004, with only a few words of English and no one to help her, Eden has worked tirelessly to welcome and support asylum seekers and refugees who have lost everything. She also helped establish Refugee Week and hosts a scheme for refugees in Oxford, where she has been named a ‘hero’ by the young people she has helped.

We also…

Played the drums with Girls Rock London—an NGO that creates opportunities for women and girls to make music—, took part in the dinahvagina lucky dip and each came away with our very own ceramic clitorises (as you do!), made personalised The Circle placards at the Activism in the Archive corner, made cut-out versions of ourselves for the Globella feminist zine, got Mehndi on our hands at our neighbouring stall Asha Projects, signed a petition at the 50:50 Parliament stand to get better gender balance in Parliament, left a note of love to rape survivors at the My Body Back stall, and bought lingerie from Taylor and Rani which gives back to girls around the world—whether that be with a pair of knickers, sanitary products or a monetary donation—with each purchase.

But most importantly, we met wonderful women who we hope will join The Circle and help us in our mission to empower women around the world and stand up to all forms of discrimination against women.

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@shanhodge
Shannon Hodge is a Journalism graduate and a member of The Circle.


Actress Shabana Azmi Celebrates International Women’s Day with The Asian Circle at the London Asian Film Festival

 
The Asian Circle celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) at the European premiere of Chalk n Duster, a film starring Shabana Azmi. With this year’s IWD theme of Be Bold for Change, we turned to Chalk n Duster, its fascinating story and an all-star cast, to learn about the commercialisation of the Indian private education system.

The film was screened to a full house at the Regent Street Cinema, in London, on 11 March 2017. The event was organised by Tongues on Fire in partnership with The Asian Circle.

Legendary actress and social and women’s rights activist Shabana Azmi made a special guest appearance to meet the audience and talk about the film. On the topic of International Women’s Day, Shabana said: ‘We live in a patriarchal society and we need to still do a lot more to change attitudes. Men and women are different. Not better or worse. Just different. In the UK charities like The Asian Circle are doing very good work but if all such charities could work as one that would be tremendous’.

The event was organised as part of the London Asian Film Festival, an independent film and arts festival organised by Tongues on Fire that has been showcasing South Asian films since 1999. Dr Pushpinder Chowdhry, Director and Founder of Tongues on Fire and the London Asian Film Festival, and a member of The Asian Circle Executive Board, said that ‘Tongues on Fire champions the rights of Asian women and celebrates South Asian culture’.

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Dr Santosh Bhanot, Founder and Chair of The Asian Circle, said that ‘education plays a critical part in helping to reduce violence. Education needs to be accessible to all. We are campaigning hard to change the abhorrent and tragic violence that women face. One in three women around the world are faced with violence [and this] needs to be stopped. We at The Asian Circle are passionate about supporting women.’

All funds raised will go towards The Asian Circle and Oxfam’s project in India, which is supporting women who have experienced violence and is encouraging dialogue about gender-based violence in rural communities in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. Click here to learn more about the project.


International Women’s Day, part i: #March4Women

Photo credit: Care International.

When I was younger I loved to swim. I was never a fast swimmer, my swimming teacher told me that I had stamina rather than speed. I remember there being an aggression, an impatience and an exclusion in swimming heats if you weren’t one of the main competitors. I remember feeling disappointed and frustrated every time I didn’t swim fast enough, despite hours of training. I was born with stamina over speed in a world where power and strength is perceived to be fast paced, aggressive, impatient and exclusive. Stamina seemed less ‘strong’ by comparison.

In reflecting on the Care International #March4Women event held in London on Sunday 5 March 2017, I am reminded of the strength of stamina when seeing Helen Pankhurst, who continues to hold the flame of her great-grandmother, who in turn had carried it for all the women before her. Protester banners and signs reading ‘Why do I we still need to protest this shit’ and ‘Same shit different century’ voice the frustration that is being felt even more by people living in the world today. For me this frustration and the events of Sunday marked a moment of solidarity, which Billy Brag aptly described as what happens when ‘we mix empathy with action’.

I am also reminded by my good friend Cara, an MBA student at the University of Oxford, that real change in society doesn’t happen in bursts, but in the moments connecting those bursts and through a persistence in shifting societal perceptions and norms. On Sunday 5 March, in London, there was a much-needed burst joining the message of activists including Bianca Jagger and Muzoon Almellehan with the status of celebrities from the UK and abroad. Emeli Sandé performed a new release for the first time to mark the occasion, while Annie Lennox spoke as an activist (re-enforcing the strange idea that a woman can be a feminist and a musician and an activist simultaneously!). There was a genuinely communal feel as the sound technology awkwardly failed VV Brown, Preeya Kalidas, Natasha Bedingfield, Kate Bush and Mel C, but they persisted in raising their voices to the rhythm of Aretha Franklin’s iconic Respect, in a unison call for gender equality. The singers then joined Bianca Jagger, Helen Pankhurst and Annie Lennox as they led thousands of people across Tower Bridge. I believe that in reflecting on these short, fast, prominent ‘bursts’ and carrying the messages heard at these events into every day discussions, we will continue to connect them to be the change that is needed.

During her interview with Gemma Cairney I was struck by Muzoon’s simple request for empathy. Muzoon, an eighteen-year-old activist who came to the UK in 2015 as a Syrian refugee and had begun advocating for refugees and their right to education at the age of fourteen, is wise beyond her years. During her interview, Muzoon answered the question I and many of my western friends ask ‘what can I do?’ with a simple ‘change your perception of who refugees are’. When we see refugees as people, we put the personal into the political and we can relate to them as our fellow-humans. In extending empathy to refugees we can begin to understand that their refugee status is a label masking the consequence of war that has forcibly taken them away from their homes, their livelihoods, their material securities and we can begin to imagine how that might feel and acknowledge that it could happen to anyone.

The energy on the day was positive and welcoming, so much so that when a man yelled ‘march for men’ someone yelled back ‘sure! How about you march for women now?’ I thus disappointed when I read some of the online responses to the event. Disappointed because of the lack of surprised I felt, but more because of the sheer ignorance of the posts. The common thread through most of the comments and tweets cage women into restricted identities where we can exist only as one or the other, but never more than one identity simultaneously. The tweet ‘When have women in Tooting ever been marginalised’ suggests that by living in London women cannot possibly be mistreated on the grounds of gender. If you, despite your gender, find yourself asking this question, I encourage you to discuss this with your female friends. I can assure you, you will be surprised to learn that simply being ‘an empowered woman living in London’ does not exclude you from gender-based harassment. From inappropriate commentary about her physical appearance, to a lower pay cheque in comparison to her male peers, to sexist views embedded in the unconscious bias of white men who remain at the top of the UK government and most commercial sectors, gender equality has yet to be achieved in this very ‘first world’ city.

Women who gather to march are sometimes criticised for being ’empowered and cosseted’ and told to ‘shut up’ or told to ‘march for girls in the Middle East being married off at ten…’, ignoring that many women marching across the bridge were in fact well-aware of the privilege we enjoy and the importance for us to use our empowerment to amplify the voices of those disempowered by gender-based inequality. The attacks on the intentions and physical appearance of the women taking part in the march are old and boring and shamefully uninformed and it makes the call for empathy all the more relevant.

I will therefore raise my educated, privileged, middle class, western English voice to echo the words of Annie Lennox, regardless of what you might say about my intentions, my class or my physical appearance, to amplify the voices of the women with less or without, in saying:

  • Globally one in three women will be beaten or coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their life time.
  • Every thirty seconds thirteen girls under the age of eighteen are entered into child marriage. This is a gross human rights violation that keeps girls out of school, endangering their health and sentencing them to a lifetime of poverty.
  • Around the world seventeen million girls will never have the opportunity to enrol in primary education.
  • Globally women are still paid less than men, earning on average only 60-75% of men’s wages.
  • Out of an estimated 3.8 million young people aged 15-24 living with HIV, 60% are female.
  • HIV is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age in the continent of Africa.

To the women who will never read this blog post, I promise to use my stamina and my strength to keep marching and using my voice to amplify the voice you may not even know you have. To the people, regardless of your gender, who have taken time to read this, I implore you to keep marching and raising your voices until gender inequality is something future generations, globally, will struggle to comprehend while sitting in their history lessons. ‘Inequality because of reproductive organs?’ they’ll laugh, ‘weird’.

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@PetaBB
Peta Barrett has experience in the arts and in Data, Research, Events and Operations and is a member of The Circle.