Women of the World Festival Travels to Karachi

On May 1st, as the world celebrated Labour Day, Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, was host to the first Women of the World festival in South Asia.

The British Council of Pakistan had collaborated with Southbank Centre to host the Women of the World (WOW) festival in the port city after a Think-in, in January. Think-ins are how WOW festivals happen. They are a way to help plan festivals and the Karachi session brought together women from various professions and backgrounds to share their experiences and design an event that celebrated the women of Pakistan. And as the festival's event listing states, this is "a time when female voices have become immensely powerful as a force for positive change".

More than 9,000 people attended the one day event at Beach Luxury Hotel to hear speakers from the wide spectrum of Pakistan's broad civil society movements, take part in debates, watch performances and celebrate the achievements of women and girls. Global Partner Council Member and MAKER Jude Kelly set the tone for the festival by proclaiming, "we are here to make a better world – let’s make it!"

Mukhtaran Mai, the social and education activist who survived a gang rape in her village, was one of countless powerful speakers.

Mai talked about women surviving and having the strength to fight for justice in a country where women are silenced by their families, societies, culture, and by the police. Mai's refusal to be silenced, she said, was not just for herself, but also for every woman and girl who was not able to speak up. Emphasising the importance of education for young girls and its role in her village Mai said, "Education changes everything for a girl and when a girl is educated she has a chance in our society."

Syeda Ghulam Fatima, a Pakistani labour rights activist dedicated to ending bonded labour in brick kilns and the General Secretary of Bonded Labour Liberation Front Pakistan, also added to Mai's view that too many are silenced by the State, culture, and communities.

"I saw everything at a young age, I saw the injustices with my own eyes,” Fatima recalls. “Many of the people I meet and work with have given up on life – their condition is less than a human’s condition. These stories are still largely ignored and not seen or heard in Pakistan. The injustices are deep and will continue until our society takes responsibility for what is going on."

On the Conflict In The City panel, the theme of voice and support continued with Dr. Fatima Ali Haider – who set up a bereavement project after her husband and son were killed in a targeted sectarian attack. Dr. Haider talked about how violence changed their lives and how she, along with other women, was working to provide support for women and families impacted by violence. In her talk, Dr. Haider spoke about how a mother never expects to bury her child, she was not to show weakness or speak of her pain. But with the support of her own mother – who she credited as her biggest inspiration and source of strength this has changed – women are coming together to grieve, heal, and celebrate.

Alongside the activists, WOW Karachi also brought together many artists, musicians, minsters, and athletes, including legendary Ghazal singer Tina Sani and the Captain of Pakistan’s National Women's cricket team, Sana Mir.

Mir, a sporting hero, spoke to a room full of captivated girls and women from across Karachi, talking about the challenges she faced playing cricket as a girl and the support the sport has gained in particular from women. Her speech focused on the strength and support from Pakistani women gave her and her team. "When things were really tough, it was the amazing support from women who kept us going and gave us the power to keep fighting," she told the crowd.

Mir encouraged the young girls in the audience to play sports and to block out the negative and sexist comments from society. She said she and her team were overwhelmed with the love they’ve have been shown by the people of Pakistan.

Parliamentarian Nafisa Shah, talked about the journey of her mother that had inspired her to be a feminist and the formation of the women’s parliamentary caucus in Pakistan seeking to amplify the presence of women in parliament and to rise above party divides.

The Festival reverberated with the stories reminding us of the ways in which the imagination and national borders interact. The power of social change connecting with the dazzling achievements and contributions of women across Pakistan made WOW Karachi a real game changer. From those in the 'Under 10’s Feminist Corner,’ to the ministers on the main stage, this one day event has planted the seed of a new dawn.

NEXT: Get to Know Jude Kelly »

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