Learning from experience

Love, respect and celebration

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I FOUNDED WOW – Women of the World Festival eight years ago out of sadness and love, and my belief in celebration. Sadness because I met so many women who had been persuaded that issues of gender equality had been largely solved, so they struggled in isolation to deal with injustices for which they blamed themselves. Sadness because they were separated from other girls and women across the globe who were in no doubt that patriarchy shaped and distorted their choices, so the chance for solidarity and shared solutions was being squandered. Sadness because some of us had dropped the baton passed so bravely between women from history and, in doing so, endangered their achievements and legacy.

Equally, my love and admiration was for the talents, compassion, fortitude, humour and resourcefulness of women and girls in the face of systemic inequity and levels of violence sometimes unbearable to contemplate. I wanted us – all of us, together – to both examine and celebrate the extraordinary achievements from the past and present that have been steps along the path to change. I was sure that a festival was the way to unlock dreams, convictions and solutions, and to galvanise us all to keep moving forward with optimism. Optimism creates energy and we need a great deal of energy to both create and embed change.

I should add that love for men was also a galvanising factor. Many of us have marvellous men in our lives who have encouraged and supported us – but perhaps too few and their acts of support too random. Entrenched aggression and mistrust will not result in the gender-equal world that many of us envision and long for. But under what circumstances would women and men trust and rely on each other?

And I created a festival, not a conference or symposium, because I wanted, above all, to attract and celebrate women from all walks of life. The word ‘festival’ is not elitist – almost everyone has been to a festival of some kind. Festivals conjure fun, energy, spontaneous encounters, unexpected delights, adventure and levity of spirit. You expect to find good food and drink at a festival, as well as the chance to buy things, meet friends, relax, maybe dance, laugh and try out something new. I was adamant that despite the gravity and seriousness of the issues we would examine, we needed to build a place of warmth, inclusiveness and fun, and not create barriers by somehow insisting that everyone used the ‘correct language’ or had reached the same conclusions about the complexity of gender issues. Festivals also commemorate historical events, ancestors and endeavours, and they allow us to learn and reflect on past tragedy with respect and the desire not to repeat similar horrors.

I called it WOW – Women of the World because I wanted that comic-book explosive sound: a whoop of admiration and amazement for women of all kinds and from everywhere. It says, ‘If you’re a woman, or you know a woman, this is for you.’

Every community has its feminist leaders, commentators, activists and journalists, and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude for their courage and perseverance. But the big debate is made immensely richer by the addition of a wider range of voices and perspectives from the everyday world. ‘Feminist’ is a term I use to describe myself, but for many reasons it doesn’t chime with many women across the globe. I wanted everyone to self define because I envisioned WOW for everyone.

All these ingredients make up the WOW – Women of the World Festivals.

There is so much to celebrate. The quest for women’s rights has a glorious history but it is rarely told. We have made extraordinary progress in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, often under extreme duress. Yet there is nothing that women haven’t been able to achieve, given the right circumstances (and the right brave women). A strong future for women is compelling, exciting and tantalisingly close if we work together to combat prejudice and misogyny, and recognise the intersections for women that need tackling in order to achieve equality.


IT IS NO accident that WOW was first started at the Southbank Centre in London, where I am artistic director. Southbank was itself the child of the Festival of Britain in 1951. The festival was an event designed as a ‘tonic for the nation’ after the cataclysmic scale and violence of World War II. A third of the UK population engaged with the festival and envisaged a future of modern life, built around fairness, peace and harmony. It celebrated the many progressive ideas that influenced the world at that time. Huge numbers of people had settled in Britain after the war, and 40 per cent of the artists who worked on the Festival of Britain site were refugees. Their contributions changed the way we saw ourselves.

In the eight years since that first WOW, we’ve held forty-nine festivals in twenty-three countries across five continents. Some are one-day events, some longer – WOW London is now a week long. Over two million people have become involved and turned the festival into a movement that is growing rapidly.

Perhaps counterintuitively, I believe that in addition to the immense happiness and confidence that the festivals bring, trauma and outrage have also been important in accelerating WOW’s popularity: trauma of the attempted assassination of fifteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai in 2012 for trying to secure the right for girls to go to school in Pakistan; trauma of the barbaric treatment of Jyoti Singh who was raped and murdered in New Delhi in the same year, and the resulting realisation of the epidemic scale of sexual violence in India and across the world; outrage at the inaction of governments after Boko Haram militants kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls two years later; and more recently, outrage at the allegations that many in Hollywood, including Harvey Weinstein, abuse their power to harass and rape.

The accumulation of these shock waves has created a new climate of solidarity between women of all backgrounds. Movements such as #SayHerName, born from Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the Everyday Sexism Project, have flourished on social media platforms and other online spaces to build awareness. WOW festivals provide a physical place and time to convene, share bewilderment, pain and uncertainties, and examine face-to-face the issues raised by these movements. We need to talk, debate, listen to stories of all kinds to deepen our own understanding of the complexities of women’s lives.

Through our Giving Testimony sessions, where women share their experiences of rape, and panels on domestic abuse and violence, we support girls and women to recognise that remaining silent reinforces personal shame and blame that needs to be placed at the feet of perpetrators. The outcome of these sessions has been amazing, with school programs being launched, YouTube channels coming into being, and self-help forums being established allowing girls and women to own these violent experiences while not being defined by them. The confidence to own all our stories, whether harrowing, heartbreaking or hilarious, is a key aspect of the WOW style, where stories told by women help all of us to learn and understand experiences that differ or reinforce our own.


MOST WOW FESTIVALS are held in major cities – Karachi, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, Colombo, New York, Baltimore, Melbourne, London, Helsinki, Alexandria, Brisbane, Hargeysa – but increasingly we’re launching in smaller communities too. Our most intimate WOW has been held in Katherine in Australia’s Northern Territory, where First Nation and non-Indigenous women of the town forged an enduring partnership by planning and presenting WOW festivals in 2013, 2014 and 2016.

Each festival is created around themes and ideas suggested by the local community with several Think-Ins held weeks, sometimes months, before the festival itself. This is where the first discussions of both shared and different experiences begin. We bring together many girls and women (and boys and men) for these Think-Ins and – within the WOW framework of talks, debate, pop-up projects, market place, speed mentoring, WOW Bites for shorter storytelling, spaces for very young people and how-tos – ask them to discuss and suggest the themes, ideas, projects and entertainment they want to include in their WOW. Local ownership of content is crucial, and so is our insistence on diversity at this early stage. Without that absolute commitment to inclusion, it is never going to be about a shared vision. And without that, it cannot withstand the inevitable push back that patriarchal systems apply to radical change.

We always hold a day for schools, and young girls often have an extraordinary knowledge of the nuances of injustice and fervour for change. Every WOW has an Under-tens Feminist Corner – it can be frightening to hear about power play, damaging stereotypes and access to pornography in the playground at that early age. Every festival has a marketplace where women’s entrepreneurship is on show and developed, as well as opportunities for campaigns to be given more publicity and support. But one thing you won’t find are stalls selling high-end fashion or any expensive items – this is for every woman. Every WOW embraces women as comedians, artists, legislators, scientists, engineers, military leaders, mothers, aunts, daughters, lovers, activists, sportswomen, journalists and women with no label at all.

So far WOW has reached about two million people, including men and boys who are welcome and needed. This is a human rights issue, so we are all involved. But in all of these festivals we hear women and girls tell their extraordinary and powerful stories of major legal, financial, religious and political restrictions, and truly shocking travesties of human justice. In a spirit of adventure and surrounded by music, arts, food, crafts, workshops and pop-up displays of everything from weightlifting to hair weaving, we get hard facts, heartfelt testimonies of real experiences and the chance to admire and love the massive variety of personalities, body types, cultural practices, sexual preferences, attitudes and tastes that make up womankind. We don’t want to be pigeonholed by society, and so we need to learn to enjoy and value difference in each other.


AT THE ROOT of WOW’s philosophy is the understanding that, in the words of American author and feminist Audre Lorde, ‘we do not lead single-issue lives’. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to resolving gender inequity. Giving proper respect to the realities of difference – intersectionality – is the only way the human race can resolve this. Making way for more women at the top of society, but at the same time perpetuating other outdated power systems – such as discrimination on the grounds of disability, age, sexual identity, class, caste or race – is merely a cosmetic makeover. We have to do better than that. WOW seeks to model the changes we would like to see and much of the planning around our festival content and contributors focuses on ensuring inclusiveness.

Some of the stories revealed by WOW festivals around the world, of big and small significance, inspire us in this ambition. Sana Mir is the captain of the Pakistan cricket team and the first Pakistani woman to play in a hundred one-day international matches. In the mid-1990s, when women’s cricket was first introduced in Pakistan, all the players received death threats. Sana and the young women she leads are very clear that they are forging a difficult path so that other girls can follow. She came to WOW Karachi, then to WOW London, and inspired a group of young Muslim basketball players from WOW Bradford to continue their struggle with family and community to have full permission to pursue their ambitions.

Negin Khpalwak, the first female conductor in Afghanistan, was told that being a female musician was shameful, but she persisted and formed an ensemble. As she explained at WOW Kathmandu, the WOW Orchestra was an inspirational influence. We formed the WOW Orchestra, the only all-female symphony orchestra in the world, as part of a campaign to show the music community that we need half of all the conductors, composers and players to be women. Audiences have become so accustomed to largely male orchestras that they are startled, and suddenly fully conscious of the reality of discrimination when they see women playing and conducting. As a result, the women in the WOW Orchestra have become more confident.

Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala is steadfast in her message that being told what they can’t and shouldn’t do has a direct impact on girls’ mental health and diminishes their sense of identity. She should know; she was the first Sri Lankan to conquer Mount Everest. Sri Lanka is a society that finds it difficult to accept major achievements by a woman, especially if a woman did it before men in her field. Her climb was about physical stamina, but even more about mental strength. She’s spoken at a number of WOWs and uses her story, not for self-aggrandisement, but for the metaphor of challenge and perseverance. Kuru-Utumpala will appear in WOW at Festival 2018 in Brisbane this April.

Sandi Toksvig and Catherine Meyer formed the British Women’s Equality Party in direct response to WOW’s influence. It now has more than sixty-five thousand members.

Nimco Ali and Leyla Hussein launched Daughters of Eve, their anti-female genital mutilation program at WOW, and now advise governments worldwide. These are just some of the hundreds of change programs and personal transformations born from WOW festivals. It is very rewarding for me to see these results of my festival dream.

WOW’s next project is to build an online WOW College to reach millions of girls and women who are thirsty for knowledge and connection. The college is designed as an online facility, always accessible – everywhere, anytime. Live events are irreplaceable and essential, but a global digital platform enables us to continue conversations worldwide.


THE CONNECTION WITH the Commonwealth Games, an idea proposed by women in Brisbane, is now part of our strategy: that is, to make WOW a core part of major events worldwide and to use the opportunity to illuminate and explore progress and obstacles to gender equality. Though the Commonwealth has its own fraught history and legacy, the women and girls of the Commonwealth can use the connections forged in different times to pursue a new and equal agenda.

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About the author

Jude Kelly

Jude Kelly CBE is the artistic director of Southbank Centre London and the founder of WOW – Women of the World Festival.

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