SAVAGE Journal: Territories Print Edition

The below article – Our Bodies – was published in the seventh print edition of SAVAGE Journal, TerritoriesAs President, I contributed to the creative direction, editing and curating of this issue. You can read the full issue here.

TW: sexual assault, sexual misconduct

Our Bodies Territories 1our bodies territories 2our bodies territories 3The article introduces the social initiative I am co-founder of; you can learn more about Our Bodies here. Look out for more information coming soon!

SAVAGE Journal: AWOMENfest Preview

This article was initially published on SAVAGE Journal

Picture the scene: nestled in a DIY arts venue in Peckham, a group of rugby lads sit around a table to discuss the relationship between tears and feminism with The Colour of Madness Project. In the next room, more of these men – stereotypically masculine and disengaged – compare notes on the artwork of Damaris Athene and Fee Greening, whilst others, perched in the zine corner, soak up the atmosphere and contemplate the body positive life drawing session they just attended. This is AWOMENfest founder Raniyah Qureshi’s ideal for the new feminist festival. “The people you want to come the most are not the ones who are already engaged. In my dreamworld, the room would be full of rugby lads who don’t give a shit.”

This might seem like a strange statement for the founder of a feminist arts festival to make, but AWOMENfest is no conventional feminist space. The festival celebrates “radical softness”: the idea that feminism doesn’t have to be a fight or a militant struggle; it can be imbued with softness and emotional vulnerability. For Raniyah, “Feminism can be an avenue for possibility instead of this difficult battle that lies ahead of you, because that can be really exhausting.” Radical softness is about engaging people who previously felt alienated from feminism; it reframes the movement within a calm, comforting and healthy space where anyone and everyone is welcome.

Raniyah discovered the term through the artwork of Lora Mathis, so art seemed like a natural means through which to explore it. The universality of art, as “everyone loves beautiful things”, offers a unique chance to capture people’s imaginations and engage them with difficult and sometimes confronting topics in a gentler way. “The really nice thing about art,” says Raniyah, “is that you can completely expose yourself, but through a beautiful thing that doesn’t leave you as vulnerable or emotionally exhausted.”

AWOMENfest is about provoking a gentle revolution, starting with the people around you. “The way people think is so informed by their background. How do you unpick that at a micro level to affect the macro level? We’re engaging in this feminist dialogue because we believe that the people can improve; the oppressor has the capacity to get on our side.” Many of the issues AWOMENfest is trying to tackle are systematic, something which Raniyah and her co-curator Alina Khakoo have accounted for: “At some point you have to detach bad actions from the person themselves. Of course people can read and educate themselves, but some people need more help. Just one conversation can go such a long way, so if you can change the people around you a little bit then maybe they can change other people and, slowly, everyone will get nicer.”

Every element of the programme has been carefully curated to fit with their ethos of radical softness. “We’ve either seen or experienced every workshop or artist’s work before, so we know their vibe fits with ours.” The festival is split into four main topics: spirituality, vulnerability, solidarity and desirability. It kicks off with a party on the Friday night, where Drag Kings from The KOC Initiative will get the ball rolling before a series of female and non-binary musicians take to the stage. In the “comfort haven”, there will be tarot readings and a zine corner, offering a taste of the calm to come. Over the course of the weekend, this optional approach will reign, as events and workshops run simultaneously, offering festival-goers the chance to step outside or sit and reflect if they become overwhelmed.

The first topic they chose was spirituality. For Raniyah, this addressing faith prompted the realisation that feminists really aren’t all on the same wavelength: “I’ve always had quite a complicated relationship with feminism, just because I’m quite religious – not that religious, but enough that a lot of the strains of feminism I was exposed to when I was younger were alienating. That’s where my feminism has hit the biggest stumbling block.” Raniyah and Alina saw that feminism “affects you mentally, it affects you bodily and it affects your engagements with other people.” From there, desirability, vulnerability and solidarity seemed like natural choices.

Throughout the curation process, Raniyah and Alina championed intersectionality and accessibility. “When people think of feminist art, they often think of bodies. There are a lot of nude paintings, or bold red lettering on a white background. That’s great, and it definitely has its place in the feminist canon, but it doesn’t work for radical softness.” For film, this meant turning to animation and more experimental forms, all within an accessible framework. For performance, intersectionality meant staging productions from Transgress’ ‘Everything is Going to be KO’ to a female-led tisch (a Jewish song-prayer and transcendent ritual) and poetry readings by female and non-binary poets of colour from Octavia Collective. The people involved in AWOMENfest represent a whole host of voices, from myriad backgrounds, covering topics that others involved won’t ever have considered before.

There isn’t a set lesson they want people to learn here: it’s not about dictating a feminist dogma or indoctrinating people. The emphasis of AWOMENfest may be on learning, but its founders aren’t trying to narrow people’s views. “We don’t want it to feel like there’s a set view,” says Raniyah. “I want people to come away from the workshops wanting to go home and do more research, so they can form their own views. I’m very aware that I don’t have all the answers. Also, silent reflection is key: everyone’s best thinking is done in the shower.”

At the end of the day, radical softness is about balance. Balance between pushing an agenda and accounting for other people, between being bold and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, between unapologetic political feminism and self-forgiving self-care. It’s about a revolution at your own pace. Reflecting on her feminism before she discovered radical softness, Raniyah says: “I was terrified that if I became more of an activist then I would lose the soft parts of myself. But then I didn’t want to be overly palatable and water down my feminism.”

A big part of this is about promoting frank and open dialogue in respectful, safe space. “I know we’re called the snowflake generation,” she laughs, “but it takes five extra seconds to go through a programme and give people a trigger warning.” Fittingly, attendees can email their triggers in advance, so they can feel as comfortable as possible on the day and not be confronted by a difficult topic without warning. A little extra effort goes a long way in making people feel comfortable and safe; it’s just part of the radical softness package.

Raniyah and Alina aren’t naive about their goals; they know that a radically soft feminist revolution will take time. “There’s so much performative wokeness, and a lot of it is just creative aestheticisation. People talk about it being really cool and will happily list all the grime artists they like, but they don’t really engage with what that means. I know a festival isn’t going to solve that, but it’s a start.”

AWOMENfest is a pioneering feminist arts festival with a focus on intersectional activism and support. It will take place at DIY Space for London in Peckham from 23rd – 25th March. Tickets and further information are available here. The event is in support of My Body Back, which support women who have experienced sexual violence.

Featured image courtesy of AWOMENfest. 

Roundtable Journal: Fashioning Confidence

A challenge about taking up space with the clothes we wear, and finding a voice through colour.

Although I’m hardly a wallflower when it comes to dressing, a lot of the time I also hold myself back. I’ve noticed that I tone down my most conspicuous tops with black jeans, ditch the flamboyant  accessories as I rush out of the house and continuously dismiss certain items because I just don’t know how to wear them. I wonder if it’s a question of taking up space; if sometimes my clothes draw too much attention to me on days when I don’t feel confident enough or ‘worthy’ of the space.

So, for one week I challenged myself to push the boundaries. The shoes bought on a whim would finally get their star turn. The earrings I had forgotten about would dangle free and uninhibited. My initial urge to cower in a corner wearing all black would be firmly ignored. And somewhere, in a sea of colours louder than my voice, I might just find some confidence.3.jpgMonday: Fifteen-year-old me was something of a magpie. My friend and I used to rock up to antiques fairs at weekend and trawl through stall-upon-stall of bric-a-brac to find hidden treasures. These brooches have been adorning my bookshelves ever since, largely unworn due to how excessive they can feel for an average day of running errands and haunting the library. But, I actually really liked this look, and somehow wearing three brooches together (although one is technically an estranged earring fastened with a safety pin) made them feel less ostentatious. The beret presented its own challenges: I’m not normally a hat person, and the beret raised the question of what to do when you go indoors. I soon realised that the red line it left across my forehead was not a good look, so it stayed firmly planted (‘casually perched’) on my head all day.

5Tuesday: I look really tired in this photo and that’s because I was. Tuesday was a pretty dull day, and whilst I was still partially boycotting colour here, the snazzy shoes did brighten up my day a little. This was the first time they had gone out for a spin, and I didn’t get very far (they’re not the comfiest kicks in the cupboard). That said, I really liked how prim this look was and it made me feel like the kind of person who spends their days mooching around galleries.

2.jpgWednesday: This top is one of my favourites, but it needs ironing before every wear and that’s normally beyond my early morning capacity. I finally made the effort this week and it made my Wednesday in the library feel like a Friday on the beach. The earrings were mostly just my attempt to balance out those ballooning sleeves, but they also make me feel all cultured and arty because I bought them at the V&A. I guess I was dressing aspirationally in that sense. The unexpected consequence of this outfit was that it made me take up space, not just physically (those sleeves are BIG), but also emotionally. It gave me a nudge when my self-confidence started to ebb and stopped me from shrinking into the background as soon as my energy started to fade.

4.jpgThursday: Most of the clothes I buy are second-hand or high street, but this Shrimps coat was a treat to myself after a really hard time, and therefore makes me smile every time I wear it. Between the pink faux-fur collar and the animal print (though which animal I have no idea), it’s pretty out-there, so it’s not the kind of coat I can wear everyday. But the most challenging part of this outfit was the necklaces. I normally find them too fussy and my complete lack of jewellery organisation means they took about twenty minutes to untangle. Whilst they looked quite cool standing still, every time I moved I was reminded why I don’t do necklaces. Fun for a day, but I don’t think they’ll become a permanent fixture.

6Friday: Wearing white trousers past October can feel quite brazen, as if you’re taunting the inevitable English mud, but this challenge was craving some white flares. The blazer I paired them with was a kilo-sale find, and hasn’t seen much wear since I pulled it out of the bargain bin. Admittedly, this is more of an evening look, and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in it until sunset. What I did love about this look though was the red lipstick. It’s called ‘Lady Balls’ and I think that sums up how it made me feel pretty well. I’d been apprehensive about red lips, but by the end of the week it had become my signature.

7.jpgSaturday: This outfit was my favourite by far and I think it shows in the photo. The skirt – which is Kenzo Kids but somehow wound up at Portobello Road market – has an unparalleled way of brightening a dreary day. It’s like a beaming middle finger raised to the lack of sunshine. There’s not really much else to say on that one.

1Sunday: I love this dress. It’s insanely comfortable for something that looks so good and the colour/print combination is (in my humble opinion) one of the best things I’ve spotted in Zara for the last three years. Normally, I do it a slight disservice by covering the top half in a bulky jumper (my lazy attempt to make it appropriate for daytime), but this cute little jacket shows off the dress in all its glory. Of course, my new favourite lipstick made a reappearance, and I topped the look off with another pair of V&A earrings (can you tell I’m a little obsessed?).

By Sunday, I had gotten into the swing of dressing up. In fact, I actually felt more productive having wholeheartedly committed to my outfits. And whilst wearing heels on a daily basis still seems like something only steel-toed, taxi-takers can maintain, it was nice to let my lesser-worn shoes see some sunlight. By the end of the week, I fell into the stride of confident clothing choices (albeit a slightly slower stride than my usual trainers would allow for). Overall, I didn’t feel as self-conscious as I thought I would. I suppose that living in London, where people tend to express their identities more freely, it was easier to explore a different aesthetic. But the small changes I made had a bigger impact on my mood than I thought they would. I felt more confident, less restricted by other people’s opinions and just generally happier when I was wearing brighter colours. This challenge cracked the invisible wall I had built in my head and has given new life to some items I’d long since given up on. I might just keep dressing this way…

This blog post was written for Roundtable Journal. You can read it in its original context here. Photography by Sophia Gaede, collages by me. 

SAVAGE Journal: Sex Beyond Bananas

I discuss sex education for SAVAGE Journal, after UCL Leading Women tackled the subject in collaboration with Men’s Rugby

Ask anyone what their experience of sex education was like in school and they will probably mention a traumatising demonstration of what happens to a tampon in water and a very rogue use of a banana. Fruit was always a common theme in sex education; first came the banana, then the condoms on cucumbers, and then the school nurse attempted to incorporate a pear into her description of fallopian tubes. The use of fruit seems to perfectly encapsulate the innuendo-laden inaccuracy of most sex education in schools, as well as Britain’s deep rooted discomfort with directly talking about sex. Clearly, using actual scientific models to explain bodily functions to children would be too much to ask.

It’s no secret – and no surprise – that most people’s attitude to sex is a heady cocktail of misconceptions, misinformation and misled Google searches. As far as gendered expectations go, UCL’s Leading Women and Men’s Rugby societies would seemingly be on opposite ends of the spectrum. But, in reality, the lack of education on safe sexual practices and reproductive health spanned both groups. Female students who had been on the combined pill since the age of 14 had just as many questions about its potential side-effects and the available alternatives as their male counterparts who had never taken an oral contraceptive in their lives. This was not only an extremely valuable event for those in attendance, but it also exposed a much deeper issue of how our curriculum deals with sex. There are clearly many more questions that need answering, and many more people who need to know the answers.

As of March this year, the national curriculum details that Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is compulsory from the age of 11 onwards. Classes ought to cover ‘reproduction, sexuality and sexual health, without promoting early sexual activity or any particular sexual orientation.’ This is a vast improvement on the previous system, which allowed independent schools and academies to opt out of teaching RSE. There is still, however, a long way to go. Firstly, these changes may not occur for another two years.  And more worryingly, schools will still have the final say on  teaching methods and curriculum omissions, whilst parents will maintain the right to withdraw their children from RSE classes completely.

What the amendments have started to address is the disparity between those setting the curriculum and those learning from it. A survey of 16- to 24-year-olds carried out by the Terrence Higgins Trust in July 2016 showed that 99% of young people thought RSE should be mandatory in all schools, but 1 in 7 had not received this education. Furthermore, 97% of students thought RSE should be LGBTQ+ inclusive, but 95% were not taught about LGBTQ+ relationships. Both of these issues have now been partially ameliorated, but is it enough?

From a young age, children are left confused and ashamed by the countless, contradictory messages they receive about sex and relationships. Even if school programmes are amended to a satisfactory standard, it’s difficult to create a national curriculum that accounts for the influence of family members, community leaders and online platforms. The government now states that all RSE should be age-appropriate, but how is this defined? With the rise of grooming through social media, online pornography and sexting, children are exposed to sex earlier than ever and its presence is increasingly pervasive. An 11 year-old now may already have been exposed to sexually explicit or damaging content before the subject is even raised by their teachers.

As well as improving the feedback loop with students, we need to assess the environment in which sex education is taught. Even in co-educational schools, RSE is often provided in single-sex environments. This creates an atmosphere of shame and illusion around gendered differences in sexual health from a young age. To this day, I have no idea what the boys did in year six when we were first taught about periods. Few seemed to have any sort of empathic understanding of menstruation in later years; girls’ trips to the toilets remained shrouded in secrecy. If children of all sexes, genders and sexual identities were taught about healthy relationships and sex together, boundaries would be broken and much of the the stigma would be lifted.

Beyond the gender element, co-educational RSE classes may help to foster more open communication between students who may later engage in relationships with each other, or other people. Taking this further still, having external organisations teach children instead of internal teaching staff could help to create a safe space in which questions can be asked without fear of judgement. Online, anonymised question systems could also be incorporated. The way we experience sex and relationships has changed – the way we are taught to approach it needs to change too.

There isn’t space in a single article to address all of the questions that current forms of RSE leave open. Even at Tuesday’s event, the hour-long Q&A was over before the conversation had even moved beyond contraception and STIs. Going forward, we need more informed, open discussions about healthy relationships, zero tolerance to harassment and crucially, consent. Imagine the change that could be instigated if completing a course or online questionnaire about these topics was a condition of entry to universities or workplaces.

Tuesday’s panel was enlightening in more ways than one. Not only did it highlight the lack of basic knowledge about sexual and reproductive health amongst students, but it raised questions over the best way forward. The latter has a more complex solution, but the panel did offer some easy-to-enact advice. Firstly, use condoms. They protect from STIs as well as pregnancy and are given out for free in most sexual health clinics and Doctors surgeries. Secondly, get tested regularly for STIs. There are different incubation periods, but the general advice was to get tested each time you have a new sexual partner. The main take-away, however, was to get educated. Curriculum changes are all well and good, but for students who passed through the school system without gaining proper scientific knowledge of sex, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.

So where do you go if you have questions?

Brook are a sexual health and wellbeing service specifically directed at young people, with a clinic near Euston. They offer a range of services, from free contraception and STI testing to group education programmes and individual support sessions.

There is also an NHS clinic behind the Cruciform.

Lloyd’s Pharmacy have a service called Online Doctor, which provides web-based consultations and advice from UK registered doctors and pharmacists. If the thought of a face-to-face consultation seems too embarrassing, their anonymised online service could be a good alternative.

Featured image courtesy of Monica Garza.