“I used to cry a lot, but now I’m happy. I’ve gone out and talked about my ordeal with Female Genital Mutilation. People are listening to me.”
The seated circle of women at the annual Hackney Women’s Forum, now in its 14th year, nodded silently in solidarity, hanging onto every word of the local woman who did not wish to be identified, opening up about her experience of FGM.
“I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor and I’m passionate about changing attitudes towards this cultural practice”, she told the room with confidence.
The honesty continued to flow as the women in the circle spoke in turn.
“I am a single mother and many people commended me for doing it on my own, but I didn’t feel that. I thought it was the worst thing to have possibly happened and I felt fear and failure”, Fatou Gassama, the leader of the Overcoming Negative Beliefs workshop, admitted to the group of attendees.
“But you have to turn your self doubt into affirmation and repeat them to yourself everyday – I can do it. I can achieve.”
This meeting and workshop event was just one of the events running across Hackney on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day. The Bones and Pearl Gallery in Stamford Hill hosted a three-day exhibition of female artists’ work entitled T’ART, and the Hackney Picturehouse put on a special screening of the documentary film Century: 10 Women x 10 Decades. In De Beauvoir, a mysterious gang of yarn-bombers had struck in the night. The focus was on making women’s voices heard, with this year’s International Women’s Day adopting the motto ‘Be bold for change’.
Back at the Women’s Forum, we were asked to write down our own fears and doubts, and the affirmations that we want to feel, before sharing them with the group. I felt a pang of unease at the thought of opening up about something so personal with people I had just met, but I participated all the same.
The pressures on women in modern life
Sarah, a young woman from Hackney, described how every woman is expected to follow a series of steps through life.
“As a woman you have double pressures on you. You need to have the perfect job in the city, find the perfect partner and have children by a certain age. But I feel that I have been successful and still can achieve what I want to later in life,” she said.
With International Women’s Day coinciding with Philip Hammond’s spring budget, this celebration of women certainly seemed to take on a political overtone. The organiser of the event, Marika Mason, spoke to the 30 attendees about how cuts to public services are likely to hit women and children the hardest.
“The reality is women and children rely overwhelmingly on public services,” she said. “It’s the cuts to public services which are disproportionately having a negative impact on our standard of living and our quality of life.”
“I always say to people that I’m very proud I am the product of the welfare state. I grew up in a society where I understood that the people in the community cared about me as a child, in terms of services and activities that my mum could access.
“All of those provisions that were there are not there for my grandson now; two and a half generations later it is a completely different story.”
— Hackney Council (@hackneycouncil) March 8, 2017
The mothers and grandmothers in the room received this information with a knowing look: the issues faced by mothers and caregivers trying to provide the best possible care for their children in this difficult economic climate.
Rounding off the event, Dr Nazima Osman, Chair of the Hackney Women’s Forum, took to the floor to hammer home the day’s core message: the fundamental importance of equality between the sexes. “In the past women were treated as property for men, but thank God some women got together in Western countries like America and in Britain and fought against this inequality.
“We have to treat our sons equal to our daughters. In some countries in Southern Asia, women are not given equal education and are sometimes not even given good food.
“Women are still not paid equal to men in higher positions, so we still have to fight against that. If we stick together as women, as sisters, I hope we can all get this message across and the world will change.”