‘We’re insisting on taking our places at the table’

From environmental activists to Saudi Arabia’s first female film director, women are speaking out in increasingly diverse ways. Lucy Purdy meets those making their voices heard

Under cover of night, at 4am, Victoria Henry stood alongside five other women, laden with harnesses, helmets, clips and ropes as they prepared to scale western Europe’s tallest building: London’s Shard skyscraper. The ambitious and meticulously organised climb on 10 July 2013, in protest at Arctic oil drilling, was livestreamed from the women’s headcams right up to their eventual summit of the 72-storey building. It became one of Greenpeace’s most successful ever campaigns.

Through activism such as this, as well as through social media, blogs, the arts, and humour, women such as Henry are quietly unleashing a new wave of female empowerment across the world.

The Canadian-born 32-year-old shared her thoughts with Positive News on the significance of the Shard climb being an all-female protest. “Well why not?” she says. “It wasn’t the focus of the action but it was a really nice element of it and it did help dispel myths about who does this type of thing. Often protesters wear uniforms, but we were very much seen as individual women. We were able to tweet and blog about our motivations and emotions, which showed us simply as ordinary people who wanted to do something big.”

And Henry was pleasantly surprised at the group’s reception in the media – something she had anticipated with trepidation.

“Often when women are plunged into the spotlight, it’s made about looks, age or marital status. I think that ours being a big and difficult physical action helped change the focus. I never once felt worried about those elements and it was really nice to be able to speak clearly and publicly on something I feel so strongly about.

“I think that women’s voices are being better heard now generally. We’re insisting on taking our places at the table.”

Despite some strides made since feminists stormed the stage of the Miss World beauty contest in 1970 to protest at its “demeaning” depiction of women, equality between the sexes in the UK remains a remote prospect. Equality campaign group The Fawcett Society says there is a 15% gender pay gap in the UK and the 2010 Global Media Monitoring Project, Who Makes the News?, showed that just 24% of the people featured across global news channels between 2005 and 2010 – the ‘subjects’ of the news – were female. Perhaps most telling is the fact that just 23% of seats in the UK parliament are held by women.

On the other hand, there has been a marked increase in the number of feminist societies being set up at UK universities. And In July this year, feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez successfully campaigned to see women’s faces on UK banknotes when it was announced that Jane Austen’s image would be placed on £10 notes. This prompted a deluge of hostile social media messages, but even this launched a useful debate about how women are received in public discourse.

“Women who spoke out about things may have felt very alone in the past, there is a sense of unity now”

Fresh, relevant and strong female voices are helping modify the landscape of a media that has been dominated by men since its inception. These include columnist and author of How To Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran, who wrote in her award-winning book: “I’m neither ‘pro-women’ nor ‘anti-men’. I’m just ‘thumbs up for the six billion’.”

The eldest of eight children and famously having been home-educated on a Wolverhampton council estate, Moran penned a snappy feminist manifesto, as hilarious as it was eloquent, which framed female equality as something to be embraced and debated by ordinary women, and men, everywhere.

Ally Fogg, journalist and author of gender issues blog Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men, acknowledges that women both speak from a different context than men and also into a different reception.

“It is harder for women to be heard on many issues, particularly ‘big politics’, culture, society etc,” he says. “On the other hand it is probably easier for women to speak and be heard on relationships, sex, families and parenting, which are traditionally considered women’s realm. I have a problem with both sides of that equation, not least because I reject the idea that those so-called soft issues are less important than others.”

Mutual support

A particularly personal response to a harrowing experience and a subsequent call-to-action came in March from 26-year-old engineer Ellie Cosgrave. A year after being subjected to sexual assault on board a London tube train, she chose International Women’s Day 2013 to perform a dance in the same carriage where the assault took place. Standing next to a sign which detailed what happened to her and proclaimed her intention to “stand up against sexual harassment everywhere,” Cosgrave’s emotive performance helped her deal with her experience and inspired others to speak out.

Cosgrave was soon joined by a chorus of other voices from people moved by her act of bravery. Many used the #takebackthetube hashtag on Twitter to condemn what happened to her and support British Transport Police’s Project Guardian – a move to encourage victims to report sexual harassment and assault on London’s buses and trains.

“I shrugged off what happened at first and didn’t deal with it emotionally, but then I realised it affected how I was behaving and acting. I got angrier and angrier,” Cosgrave tells Positive News.

“One evening I just decided to dance about it, and suddenly I had choreography. Even if just one person feels a sense of relief about their own experience knowing it happened to someone else too, then it was worth it thousands of times over. People have sent me messages saying they are talking about sexual assault with their friends and being more supportive of each other.”

Cosgrave believes social media and the internet are helping to newly bolster women in making their voices heard – and not just more women, but those from ever more diverse geographical and social positions.

“Whereas women who spoke out about things may have felt very alone in the past, there is a sense of unity now. There is a community behind you now and, while women are perhaps more exposed because of social media, they are more empowered too. And I think that’s quite amazing.”

But is hearing more voices always a positive thing?

“I think one of the most profound changes the internet has made has been replacing a handful of very powerful voices with a multitude of less powerful ones,” says Fogg.

“Occasionally, what they do and say strikes a chord with that multitude and that becomes the amplifier and the chorus – so it is more powerful than any individual of any status could be. The downside – or perhaps it is an upside – is that feminism has lost the influential leaders of the past, the people whose books, articles or speeches would shift or inspire the entire movement. We won’t see any Betty Friedans or Germaine Greers in the 21st century, perhaps because they are not needed.”

New voices across the globe

From the bravery of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by Taliban gunmen after campaigning for girls’ right to education, to the legacy of Indian gang rape victim Jyoti Singh Pandey, women worldwide – supported in many cases by men too – are uniting to piece together fragments of positive promise in the wake of some terrible circumstances.

Six women climb the Shard, London to protest against proposed oil drilling in the Arctic. Photo: © 1) David Sandison / Greenpeace

Six women climb the Shard, London to protest against proposed oil drilling in the Arctic. Photo: © David Sandison / Greenpeace

In Saudi Arabia, the film Wadjda has helped shed new light on a country where all-encompassing control over women is a daily reality. Director Haifaa-al-Mansour became the first woman ever to direct a film in the male-dominated kingdom. Its tale of the cheeky 10-year-old schoolgirl Wadjda and her battle to get the green bicycle she covets, has won plaudits for both its simple cinematic style and eloquent exposure of the country’s denial of women’s rights.

Al-Mansour, who had to direct some scenes from the safety of a van in more conservative areas of the capital city Riyadh, offers what is arguably a particularly female approach to progress: she believes that change and cultural modernisation should be done slowly and with support from both genders and all levels of society. Only this, she argues, can bring about truly sustainable change.

“I don’t believe in stirring up trouble for its own sake, I just think we should be working to figure how to incorporate inevitable change in a reasonable way,” she tells Positive News.

“Although it is hard to deconstruct the deeply rooted traditions that deny women a dignified existence, especially since they are mixed with narrow interpretations of religion, it is a purpose worth striving for.”

If these women have one thing in common, it is perhaps that each has taken risks to make herself heard. By building on progress already made, yet thinking ever more ambitiously, and by making use of technological advances that may soon offer a woman in a remote African village the same opportunities for global connection as her counterpart in any Western city, women are finding brave, new and innovative ways to challenge received gender wisdom.

While not devoid of setbacks, disjuncture and perhaps even contradiction along the way, buoyed by a sense of global female unity a newly connected and powerful sisterhood is taking centre stage.