KARACHI: The two-day Women of the World (WOW) Festival organised by the British Council in Pakistan in partnership with the WOW Foundation kicked off on Saturday. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fourth edition of this annual festival is being held online.
Founded by Jude Kelly, WOW celebrates the achievements of women and girls and looks at some of the obstacles they face across the world. Working with and through the WOW Festival, the British Council is supporting platforms to encourage connections, understanding and trust to build an equitable world for both women and men. Since 2016, the British Council here has been hosting the WOW Festival. The third festival last year attracted over 16,000 people from all walks of life at a hotel here.
As per its motto of empowering women and girls, and achieving gender equality is crucial to creating inclusive, open and prosperous societies, this year’s festival theme is ‘Women and girls in a time of crisis’.
‘I didn’t go out for a swim when the sun would be out because I was afraid that I would get tanned’
In times of Covid-19, the WOW Foundation plans to keep the conversation going through ‘the first ever free 24-hour online festival’. It was pointed out during the online transmission how during these difficult times and with the pandemic wreaking its havoc and the economic slowdown resulting from it for all people, especially the vulnerable groups, the challenges for women who make up a significant part of vulnerable groups have tripled. How women entrepreneurs are finding it very difficult to sustain themselves and work. The women, especially those who are single parents, are finding it harder to juggle work with their caring responsibilities. With marginalised communities and low-income households, an economic slowdown might mean fewer girls being schooled and forced to be married off at a younger age to ‘ease’ the supposed economic burden.
Sessions from Pakistan include a discussion on the environmental impact in these times of Covid-19, with intermittent sessions of soulful performances, poetry readings and inspiring talks on subjects such as health, education, climate, money, justice and violence.
During a panel discussion about ‘Creating heroines’, young actress, puppeteer and puppet creator from Pakistan, Yamina Peerzada, spoke about a fairness cream that was creating a very unrealistic idea of beauty among women. “As a teenager, I used to find every girl using the cream. Of course, now there is much more awareness and things are changing,” she said.
“But as a girl I used to look at my mother who had very fair skin though my father had a tanned complexion. I didn’t go out for a swim when the sun would be out because I was afraid that I would get tanned. For years, I used to wait till sundown. Meanwhile, the men and boys enjoyed life playing cricket under the sun as we had this complex at the back of our minds that it was okay for men to be doing what they felt like under the sun but not for women as dark complexion in women was quite an undesirable thing,” she said,adding that she was glad to see the narrative changing now as women are learning to accept themselves the way they are.
“Now I mix an extra brown to make the skin colour of my puppets to make them look more realistic,” she said.
Nighat Dad of Helpline, meanwhile, spoke about her work, especially now during the ongoing pandemic when several helplines and shelters for women were closing due to lack of standard operating procedures. She also said that in these times, her Helpline is glad to be of service. She said that in March and April, just like there was an increase seen in cases of domestic violence, there was also an increase in online violence or cyber harassment that hinders women’s access to knowledge. “Online violence against girls includes stalking, using their pictures without their permission to hurt their reputaion, rape threats, etc., in digital space,” she said, adding that how young women and girls reached out to them and how they were able to help and advise them.
Television and radio presenter Anoushey Ashraf said that she was away in England when the lockdowns were announced. She returned to find too many people in Pakistan worried about the lockdown. “I was also facing a dilemma after my trip about whether to go into isolation, which I did go into. But afterwards, I concentrated on just helping people. I arranged for ration bags for needy families. I found so many things to do which I didn’t have time for earlier,” she said, adding that she also adopted five beautiful animals from an animal shelter, who also keep her busy and happy.
“As a presenter, I also needed to keep my viewers and listeners motivated. I went live on my Instagram, too, to speak about mental health and how people can cope in these times. I am also discovering who I am as I have started taking art class while also indulging in meditation and gardening to stay positive and spread that positivity to others also through my shows,” she said.
A woman research scientist
Dr Fozia Tahir, a research scientist from Karachi, said that as a woman research scientist working towards her thesis some years ago, she found her supervisor suggesting topics that did not require going out in the field. “Even other women researchers themselves came up with topics that didn’t require much running around,” she said. “But women scientists can also think of ideas that take them to things the male scientists don’t even think of, such as my research topic, which was micro plastics,” she added.
“Now when I give presentations, people say that they didn’t expect me to give such a technical presentation. But a scientist is a scientist. We all do research. But biases are also biases,” she said.
About the holding the WOW Festival on a virtual medium, she said it was a great thing as there are many webinars happening these days everywhere due to the pandemic. “We are having this discussion online so there is no travelling involved in our meeting, which also means less carbon dioxide emissions,” she pointed out, adding that earlier they used to hold discussions regarding the degradation of the environment and what to do about it in halls with lots of air conditioners running.
She also said that there have been both negative as well as positive impacts of the pandemic and the shutdowns that followed. “With businesses and the industry shutting down, everyone who had migrated to the big cities for jobs is now coming back to their regions and agriculture has become our main source of income again.”
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2020