Iranian feminist, filmmaker and activist; Saba Vasefi hosts the 2nd International Women’s Poetry and Art Festival
By Page Sinclair
The Woman Scream International Poetry and Arts Festival is an idea that was born in the Dominican Republic in 2011 and Woman Scream events are now held in a number of countries across the world in the month of March. This festival was part of UNESCO’s 2015 International Year of Light. The festival also focuses on the prevalence of violence against women and aims to unite and empower women across the world. This year is the second time WS Festival has been held in Sydney. The evening took place at the Sydney Town Hall, sponsored by Irene Doutney, City of Sydney Councilor. The proceeds were donated to the Bridge for Asylum Seekers Foundation. Some special guests were temporarily released from detention to allow them to present their work.
We were entranced by the harp music of the talented Joanne Baee from the Sydney Youth Orchestra before the program of speakers was begun powerfully with a welcome to country presented by ‘Auntie’ Jenny Munro. She went on to tell the tragic story of the Gadigal people; the traditional owners of much of the land upon which the modern city of Sydney now stands. ‘Be gentle with the spirits who walk here,’ she cautioned, ‘and they will be gentle with you.’
Our second speaker Dr Mehreen Faruqi a Greens Party MP, emigrated a number of years ago with her young family from Pakistan- rated the 2nd worst country in the world to be a woman. She likened the ‘deafening silence’ of the voices of aboriginal women to the experience of migrant women. She also, adroitly, pointed out that the very idea that politicians talk about what Muslim women should and should not wear perpetuates a bigotry that allows violence against marginalised women to continue unchecked.
Festival Director, Saba Vasefi, presented her own powerful poems along with her equally powerful presence. As always Saba is a voice (a strong and undeniable voice) for those deprived of theirs, as she herself was once silenced. She strongly advocates the humanetreatment of refugees and asylum seekers and the empowerment of marginalised women. Her work was accompanied by her daughter Minerva on cello. Herself a refugee, Minerva attends Tara Anglican School for Girls in Sydney’s west on a full academic and musical scholarship.
Dr Anne Summers also maintained that women must be encouraged to share their experiences citing the power of language as a tool as yet underused in the fight against domestic violence. Dr Summers gave a list of factors influencing the ability of women to escape violent circumstances the first being financial independence closely followed by education and access to safe and affordable contraception.
Poet, Melinda Smith, read her works ‘Gora’, ‘Wall-to-Wall’ and finished with one of the most powerful pieces of the evening. Her ‘not-poem’ consisting of a minute’s silence observed for a particular victim of domestic violence. It served as a potent reminder that the statistics show that about 1 in 3 Australian women will have some contact with domestic or sexual violence in their lives whether that be through the experiences of a friend or loved one or personally. We are all touched by it.
Candy Royalle’s explosive performance poetry took the audience across the world from an Indonesian market place to a house in Belize all tempered with fire of her insight and voice- ‘to heal the world of all its ills; this would be humanity’.
Sara Mansour highlighted the reality of the world in which young Muslim women are targeted for their attire. Who indeed is the terrorist she asks- the one who is the victim of ignorance or those causing the innocent to fear their daily safety and dignity?
Andrea Ulbrick from the ABC noted the importance of behavioral therapy for perpetrators of domestic violence as a way to redress the harm caused. She also gave examples of the power of documentary film-making to ‘go to the heart of the issue’.
Tricia Dearborn’s work provided a lighter touch with her witty humor and deft approach to the more visceral experiences of womanhood. Mariam Shalaam’s poem also dealt in corporeal terminology but in this case her tragic depiction of the victims she encountered as a doctor had a very different effect.
This was followed by Hip-Hop Artist Kween G Kibone who rapped about the soul of identity. Her music featured influences drawn from her African musical heritage and her experiences as a young woman growing up in Australia. Lou Steer’s work also took a theatrical turn with well-chosen costume pieces adding a sinister edge to her poems of childhood abuse, activism and escape.
The next poet was the youngest performer of the evening. Hani Aden is a refugee whose simple and rhythmic poems captured all of us. She came from her ‘home that turned into fire’ to demonstrate how empowering women and girls will light the world. Her final words, earnestly and openly offered are the most compelling argument I have heard to date on why the treatment of refugees in Australia needs to be revolutionised; ‘I was a child of Africa’ she says proudly ‘but now I am a woman of Australia.’ And we are blessed to have her, though we little deserve such a courageous, unbroken spirit, given the reception most asylum seekers receive here.
Professor Martine Antle took us back to the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and spoke on a broader scale about the movements within global feminism that arose from that time. Two young female poets Nova Longhurst and Mahdia Rahman spoke of words ‘as a healer’ and a woman’s strength as the ‘most potent’ revenge.
The next presentation was of a trailer for an as-yet unproduced documentary film by Jane Castle. Using her extensive experience and artistic eye she aims to bring the story of her mother (a pioneering female film maker in the 1950’s) to the screen. Her mother, trapped for 15 years in an abusive household suffered dementia triggered by her dependence on alcohol as a coping mechanism. Jane is hoping to crowd-fund the production costs of the film.
Finally, it was my turn as a poet to articulate the experiences of my mother in ‘Tragedy’ and read ‘A Reply’, inspired by and dedicated to festival director Saba Vasefi. My final piece ‘Daring’ closed the night with these words: ‘Stop running. Dare you fear to stay. And face you.’ It sums up the courage it takes for women to speak of their raw and often confronting experiences.
Artfully MC’ed by Jenny Leong, the evening brought together a variety of experiences and insight from a diverse group of artists, the backgrounds of whom included French, Iranian, Pakistani, Aboriginal, Bangladeshi, Somalian, South African, Lebanese and Australian. There was a unity of utterance that flowed through all of the participants. Every performance was a sincere expression of contemporary womanhood and an important way for women to encourage each other to ‘translate tragedy’; to create- loudly and passionately and humanely- and to raise voices for oneself and for those who are unable to scream with us.