International Women's Day

Although I wish I had had the time, I didn’t go to any events today, on International Women’s Day. I didn’t see any special film screenings, I didn’t attend any talks, and I didn’t even make it to an exhibition or workshop. I went to work as usual and came home as usual. But what was different was the amount I learnt, in one single day. And because of that, it was the most enjoyable day I have had in a long time.

My Twitter feed was full to bursting with articles about women. I learnt about hundreds of women in history who I’d never even heard of before. I read hundreds of stories where teams of women are leading the quest to improve society, or their surroundings, or education, or sanitation, or safety in their countries. And I watched hundreds of trailers for films and documentaries made by exceptionally talented female directors and journalists. The support that was out there for women and the acknowledgement of women's achievements was incredible - and something I wish I could see every single day.

Here are five new projects and people I learnt about today which I never would have discovered otherwise - because for once, women, women’s issues and women’s achievements got a (rare) turn in the limelight.

1. Wangechi Mutu is a New York based artist, who was born in Nairobi in 1972. “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male. Anything that is desired or despised is always placed on the female body,” she said. Wangechi combines magazine imagery with painted surfaces and other media and uses her collages to explore her cultural identity, including colonial history and contemporary African Politics. The artist is considered to be one of the most important African artists of her generation and she has exhibited worldwide, including at the Tate Modern, Centre Georges Pompidou and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2010, she was won the title of Deutsche Bank’s first ‘Artist of the Year’ and her show, My Dirty Little Heaven, won a solo exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin.

2. Syria’s Rebellious Women is a series of short documentaries that follow individuals in rebel-held parts of Syria trying to make a difference as they watch their country slowly destroyed by war in front of their very eyes. The documentaries were made by Zaina Erhaim, an award winning journalist based in Aleppo, who is also the Syria coordinator for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR). The shorts were made over 18 months and each tell stories of individual women who are battling conservative traditions to fulfill roles as doctors and journalists and relief workers – all while facing constant bombing from Assad’s air force. Zaina’s films have been screened in London and the US.

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3. The Feminist Library is a collection of Women’s Liberation Movement literature,and celebrated it’s 40th birthday last year. The volunteer-run library and bookshop contains one of the most important collections of feminist material in the UK, and also supports research and community projects. Located in Southwark, south London, it was set up by a group of women in 1975 at the height of the Second Wave, as a means of preserving the writings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The library’s goal is to provide a space for women to organise and share ideas in a feminist space. Sadly, the much-loved library is facing eviction from its premises as Southwark council is raising the rent from £12,000 to £30,000 a year. The volunteers running the library are currently fighting to negotiate a gradual implementation of the rent increase – and the petition to keep the library open as a community space can be signed here.

4. Wangari Muta Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. Born in Kenya in 1940, she was an environmental and political activist who founded the Green Belt Movement – an environmental NGO focused on conservation and women’s rights. During her career she came to realise that the many of Kenya’s problems lay in environmental degradation. She planted tree nurseries and founded the Green Belt Movement, an NGO that focuses on environmental conservation and community development, while advocating the empowerment and involvement of women. The movement faced a lot of backlash from the undemocratic government, and Wangari was both arrested and even placed on an assassination list during her lifetime. In 2002 she ran in the parliamentary elections as a candidate of the National Rainbow Coalition and in her constituency she won an incredible 98% of the vote. Sadly, she died in 2011 from complications arising from ovarian cancer, but the projects she started and nurtured throughout her life continue to this day.

5. SheFighter is Jordan’s first self-defence academy for women. The centre has trained about 12,000 women in martial arts, fitness and empowerment, despite some resistance from men in the community. Based in Ammam, SheFighter was created in 2012 by Lina Khalifeh, who says she was still quite young when she realised just how unaccepted the concept of women practising martial arts was. As a teen, she was forced to move studios many times because of the harassment she received at the hands of her male coaches. Now, she has represented Jordan in international competitions and is an expert in kickboxing, kung fu and boxing. Farah, a trainer at the academy, said to Middle East Eye, “Martial arts teaches discipline. It allows you to grow into your own person. It helps to develop your personality and widens your perspectives.”

Words by Imogen Robinson