Birthing New Worlds - A Day at WOW Festival
“We are still in a place of progress, providing we don’t lose courage” - Jude Kelly, Founder Wow Festival
“It is the role of the writer and creative people to articulate and document the world and to imagine new better worlds and propose new ideas”- Roxane Gay, Writer and Cultural Critic
To walk into WOW is to walk into not just one but many new worlds being dreamed and birthed, articulated and curated by women and non-binary people. Since 2010, Women of the World Festivals have taken place in 45 locations in six continents, involving five million people. It’s a wonderful annual treat to wander and wonder at the worlds emerging on the stages and spaces of WOW’s birthplace, the Southbank Centre.
Founder Jude Kelly, opens the day with a review of the news, and from the get-go there’s a special warm, nurturing atmosphere as if we’re all one big family in our pyjamas reading the morning papers together. That might sound fluffy but there’s also an intense sense of focus as we get down to the day's business which includes incels, revenge porn, war, breakups, addiction, kickboxing, and female anatomy. Whilst each topic is a world unto itself, moving through them, it’s possible to draw out the threads of shared themes.
Back in the morning papers, Jude is joined by Renata Peppl, who is pioneering Wow Rio. Their reflections on UK news are peppered with updates on the situation in Brazil, where far-right evangelical Bolsanaro has recently been defeated, resulting in immediate reversals of misogynistic policies - free menstrual healthcare kits have been reinstated and 14th March has been designated Marielle Franco Day in honour of the activist assassinated in 2017. These victories are fragile - Lula was only elected by 1% of the vote.
There is an ominous sense throughout the festival that women’s rights are, as Jude says, conditional. Movements of change include phases of progression accompanied or followed by violent kickbacks and regressions. Bodily autonomy sees continuous advances and reversals, with basic reproductive rights including access to contraception, abortion and maternal healthcare being continually placed at the mercy of political and religious regimes and ideologies. Roxane Gay reminds us that we are only a few decisions away from what could be a world war with “far worse weapons and far more evil people.” Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, marking the one-year anniversary of her release from imprisonment in Iran counsels: “we underestimate how amazing it is to be free. We don’t realise it can be taken away from us… Just enjoy today. Today is the only thing we have.”
Bristling with knowledge, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves MP sheds light on the back and forth of women’s advancement in UK politics. She cites the sacrifices and victories of the first female MPs including Alice Bacon who campaigned for the Abortion Act (1967) and Barbara Castle who fought for the Equal Pay Act (1970) Early trailblazers made political careers more viable for women - 225/ 650 MPs are now female, who do, Rachel says, support each other across party lines. Whilst this is immense progress, abuse of female politicians is now significantly worse - no longer required to write and post letters, social media trolls can post virulent hatred, hide behind fake identities and garner support with the click of a button.
WOW is a glorious celebration of female and non-binary resilience, courage and creativity in the face of extraordinary challenges. As Jude says, it’s a festival, not a conference and we’re encouraged to follow our noses, dipping in and out of sessions. The marketplace is packed with colourful wares, Lips Choir burst onstage in a sequinned flock of harmonies and Samba Sisters Collective (pictured above) send a wave of infectious rhythms rippling through the crowds. There's also plenty of belly laughs - “laughing with someone is one of the most freeing and intimate things you can do,” says Alix Fox in a lively, myth-busting conversation about relationships, breakups and sex with writer and comedian Rosie Wilby. Tears of grief and laughter are part of the magic at WOW, often in quick succession.
Finding imaginative and innovative intersectional and non-binary ways of thinking, being and doing are continually advocated. In response to a question about how to respond to fascism in Italy, Roxane Gay advises “you draw the line at anything that attempts to extinguish multiple points of view.” The bridging of polarities becomes possible at WOW - two extraordinary Russian and Ukrainian woman embrace and are awarded the RAW (Reach All Women in War) Anna Politkovskaja’s Award. Half-Russian, half Ukrainian activist journalist Anna Politkovskaja, authored a critique of Putin and continued to report on the Second Chechen War despite facing violent intimidation until her murder in 2016. “What is love? - it is an act of will,” affirms octogenarian human rights activist Svletlana Gannushkina, who founded the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation Memorial, which supported refugees and investigated breaches of human rights in Russia until she was banned and branded a “foreign agent” for attending anti-war protests. Tetiana Sokolova, a Ukrainian midwife, accepts her award on behalf of a team forced to move their maternity ward into a basement after the bombing of hospitals in Mariupol. She describes loving acts of will displayed by mothers who had to cross streets of corpses to access medical services and other mothers who helped breastfeed newborns -“there was no such thing as someone else’s child.”
The power of collective loving acts of will is honoured by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose husband Richard said “it took a village to get Nazanin home.” She shares her story in conversation with her MP Tulip Siddiq who campaigned for her release. Arrested whilst on holiday in Iran and released when the British Government finally agreed to pay a £400 million debt to Iran, Nazanin spent 9 months of her 6-year imprisonment in solitary confinement. Once moved to a ward, she formed unique friendships with other female political prisoners, including conservationists and leaders of the minority Baháʼí religion. “Freedom,” she says “is not complete without them coming out.”
Being a good ally to one another - including the importance of male allies - is emphasised throughout the day. Men showing up at the festival include Mayor of London Sadiq Khan who confesses he did not notice all the statues in Parliament Square were men until Caroline Criado Perez launched a campaign to add suffragist Mellicent Fawcett to the lineup. He also admits there are more statues of animals than women in London. Former Chief Prosecutor against male violence against women Nazir Afzal, OBE said he started a campaign to gather one million men to join his cause and only 52 turned up. Jude quotes Toni Morrison's enquiry:“I know you’re standing beside me, but how near can you get?” and commits to stop thanking men who show support. Women, she feels, are left to do the work - to win equality whilst being expected to “keep all the patriarchal balls in the air.” Instead of gratitude, she counsels, the response needs to be “at last! - now do as much as I do.” Next year we must all bring a man - so please consider this an invitation to all my male colleagues, friends and readers ;)
“We have to keep believing that there can be a better world and keep campaigning and reaching out to each other. We have to speak out,” entreats Baroness Helena Kennedy. Our voices are there Roxane Gay affirms - we just have to develop the confidence to use them. She shares that she overcame self-censoring in the face of real and anticipated criticism “just by doing it,” - following her love of writing. Sharing how the Seychelles government are leading the way on issues such as climate change and appointing experts rather than career politicians (- when can we start this here!?!) Marie-Celine Zialor encourages us “love is the highest and most powerful vibration.. Magic happens when you work with what you have and with nature…. I’m a very powerful entity and I’m going to use that power for good.”
Thank you WOW for 13 years of powerful global magic, may it inspire us all to keep dreaming and building better worlds.
Katie Rose attended some of the many sessions available at WOW on Sunday 12th March 2023.