A celebration of women and girls. This is what Judith (better known as Jude) Kelly, the dynamic Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, London, set out to do back in 2011 through the groundbreaking Women of the World (WOW) festival. Since then, the festival has spread across 53 countries, bringing together inspiring, high-achieving women who have shared their stories of strength, courage, perseverance and brilliance to audiences around the world.
Although established in 2010, the first WOW festival itself was held in 2011. It broke new ground as it brought together women from around the world who had broken through glass ceilings, to discuss a range of topics that covered art, literature, politics, science, religion, lifestyle and beauty, and experience.
One of the main objectives of the festival is to tackle the various obstacles that stop women from reaching their potential. For millions of women across the world, these obstacles are many, and with the festival now hosting editions across three continents, it has been able to further narrow down its focus to obstacles that are unique to women from different communities, while asking the same question we have been asking ourselves for years—“why is gender equality taking so long to achieve?”
Throughout history, stories of triumph and accomplishment by women have been heard far less than those of successful men. We know that women, especially in the last century and a half, have had to face hardship and adversity at different levels—at school or university, in the workplace, and within their own communities—to reach their aspirations. However, women were rarely given a voice to discuss their own contributions to their fields of work and the broader impact it had—and continues to have—on culture and society.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2011, Kelly said of her decision to host a festival for women: “I wanted to do it, because if culture is the expression of who we are, and if women’s stories are tiny on that landscape, you’re continuing the idea that women don’t really play a role in the world. And that’s bad for everybody.” As a woman in the arts, a male-dominated industry around the time she entered it in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kelly encountered sexist attitudes towards the abilities of women to hold important positions or influence culture. In 2015, she told the Evening Standard: “If you are a woman or you know a woman, this is a festival you will enjoy. There’s a lot more sense now that this is not only about women. It is a better world because girls are educated and women have the vote. So why would we stop now?”
Since 2011, the WOW festival has evolved from singular event held in London to one that now takes place across three continents. The festival is held for a week in early March, around the time of the International Women’s Day. Although talks are often the highlight of the event, it follows a festival format, with a diverse programme that comprises debates, lectures, speeches, mentoring sessions, musical and comedy performances, and more. Each festival that takes place as part of the larger festival, focuses on issues that are local to its host country, but remain connected through the sharing of stories, which inspires and feeds into each other.
Over the years, the festival has seen many high-profile participants including Cherie Blair, barrister and wife of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair; Dr. Kiran Bedi, social activist and current Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry, India; Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist; Malala Yousafzai, education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner; Dame Vivienne Westwood, British fashion designer; Salma Hayek, Mexican and American actress and producer; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian author; Angela Davis, American political activist and author; and Gillian Anderson, American-British actress.
The festival has become one of the most anticipated events for around the world not only because of its famous speakers, but because its ever-growing list of focus areas resonate strongly with the experiences of women across the world. Most women who have participated at the festival have retold their own stories of struggling through sexism, bigotry, racism, poverty, violence, and lack of access to basic needs such as education, nutrition, and healthcare. Each year, the festival addresses the most current issues and crises faced by women and girls around the world and identifies ways in which both women and men can work towards the empowerment of girls and women, and realize their aspirations. Its international pool of speakers is one of the festival’s biggest strengths, as their diverse identities and personalities enrich the programme and bring in a wide range of perspectives.
Kelly’s own unprecedented work, both at WOW and its host the Southbank Centre, have also achieved much recognition. The Southbank Centre has been listed as one of the Top 50 Employers for Women by The Times and WOW was nominated twice at the Business in the Community Workplace Gender Equality Awards in 2016. Kelly was also named one of the 100 women in The Power List by BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’.
In keeping with its ethos of creating a festival for everyone, WOW continues to blaze a trail across all continents and will make its way to Sri Lanka at the end of this year. The WOW festival in Colombo will be held in partnership with the British Council Colombo, on the 2nd and 3rd December 2017. The British Council has successfully partnered with the festival in its foray into South Asia, having previously held editions in Nepal and Pakistan. Similar to WOW festivals that have been appreciated worldwide, the programme of Colombo’s edition will also create a space where hundreds of women’s stories can be shared, feelings vented, fun had, minds influenced, and hearts expanded.
For more details visit: https://www.facebook.com/events/501128670244730/
Cover image courtesy: southbankcentre.co.uk