I was delighted to speak at #breakthebias recently, an event held on International Women’s Day at Reading University. I left inspired, educated, devastated and enthralled – a complex cocktail of emotions stirred by the many remarkable speakers that day.
Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Parveen opened my eyes to gender bias from a personal and cultural viewpoint, and the difficulties of being subjected to limitations when coming from society and within the home. Professor Rosa Freedman delivered a talk on the realities of trafficking and sexual exploitation during the conflict in Ukraine, and how we are not powerless to stop it. With so much contemplation needed on these powerful presentations, the women’s choir and cheerleading squad provided exuberance and a hugely positive performance, celebrating all that it is to be a woman.
So, where does poetry fit in? Right in the midst of it all! The arts in general are continually devalued in society, with a perceived view of the them taking up a small space somewhere near the peak of Maslow’s famous ‘pyramid of needs’. But, amidst the devastation and chaos we are witnessing at any one time in the world, self-expression, the ability to speak and the benefit of being part of a collective, are all things that are paramount in keeping ignited the spark that makes us human.
A friend recently drew my attention to an extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The below paragraph spotlights the need for the things some might consider superficial, but to others are a lifeline, are a reminder of who we are and what we are fighting for:
“It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.” (Source: Imperial War Museum)
I have seen the impact first-hand that creativity can have upon a person. The solace and motivation that writing can bring to a life. During my course, I have heard of women who have risked their lives to be able to express themselves poetically – because it’s all they have to say who they are in a world that doesn’t care, that exploits them.
#breakthebias affirmed my pride in being a woman and a poet, in the importance of education, and community. I thank the organisers for an unforgettable event, one which galvanised my personal ambitions to make poetry accessible to all.
Read more about Reading University’s International Women’s Day in student Hamnah Hayaz’ blog here.