Courage and creativity: World Woman celebrates ‘dissident’ artists and activists

Deeyah Khan, January 2015


Courage and creativity: World Woman celebrates ‘dissident’ artists and activists

When I established the first World Woman festival in Oslo, the major theme was freedom of expression, both in art and politics. This was partly the result of my own experiences of being harassed and threatened for my singing career as a young girl. But the dampening of freedom of expression in service of protecting religious and political sensitivities are robbing the world of much more than a young girl’s voice. They threaten the participation of human rights activists who may be our best hope for solving the problems that beset humanity.

On one hand silenced through violence, pressure and harassment by the most repressive parts of their own communities, and on the other, ignored by a media that prefers to focus upon Islamist atrocities rather than courageous and creative voices which point the way to peace and progress. Since the Rushdie Affair, the most intolerant in our communities have not only harassed many of us into silence: they have been allowed to drown out those of us with the courage to speak. The media amplifies violent and regressive voices while campaigners for justice and peace remain unknown. Our cultures become to be seen as represented by their most hateful members, which serves to corroborate all the worst of our mutual prejudices and heighten our divisions. Artists, activists, peacemakers: these people have the potential and the vision to stitch across the divisions and to find some common, human ground between us. And it was these people who gathered together in Oslo, saluted by such luminaries as Kofi Annan, Patrick Stewart, Sinead O’Connor, Sting and Richard Branson, in order to take part in the first Fuuse World Woman Festival in Oslo.

At World Woman, we were able to give these people, whose potential value to our shared future is so great, and so neglected, a rare platform. What’s more, this was a rare opportunity for them to no longer feel isolated: for once, they were participating in event where, as the trailblazer of Arab feminism Nawal el-Sadaawi said, ‘everyone was a dissident’. It was also a rare event in which the participation was truly global, and where participants from the Global South outnumbered those from the North. As Mona Eltahawy observed ‘I have attended so many conferences where brown and black women have one panel and the rest is white women talking about us.’ With participants such as ‘Elders’ Hina Jilani of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, the experiences that were shared were always political, but also often personal, inspirational and moving.

In combination, this created a unique atmosphere of ‘solidarity, enthusiasm and goodwill,’ commented documentary film-maker Jill Nichols, within an event which she described as blending arts and activism seamlessly. As Farida Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights said, arts are not a luxury. They are, like a free press and civil society, essential to the functioning of democracy. Poetry, music, theatre and politics and human and women’s rights are interrelated: there are reasons why the most repressive of states are also the most restrictive of the arts.

As the Norwegian foreign minister Børge Brende observed, supporting women’s rights is not just morally right, but it is sound policy: development, democracy, peace and stability cannot be achieved without women’s participation. World Woman gives an idea of what that participation would look like, providing a vivid counter to the common media depictions of our communities as tradition-bound, male-dominated and insular, to show the dynamism and inspiration of women’s art, women’s activism and women’s voices, which cannot be silenced and which should not be ignored. As the poet Mihret Kebede reminded us, ‘women are capable of anything if you are not standing in their way.’



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