Picture the scene. 250 people on their feet, shouting ‘F**k the Labels’ at the tops of their voices and rejoicing in the sheer power and freedom of it.
For me, that moment was the highlight of the TEDxCoventGardenWomen* event on 7th December when 12 speakers took to the stage to share with us their approach to the theme #UnLabelled.
TEDx Covent Garden Women #UnLabelled
The aim of TEDxCoventGardenWomen was to ‘shed light on women’s work and lives, present and future’. The theme #UnLabelled was a challenge to the social, cultural and politically constructed labels that affect everyone, and prevent women, in particular, from realising their full potential.
UnLabelled. What does that word mean to you? Defying all stereotypes? Breaking free from limiting self-imposed labels? Being given a second chance?
For performance artist Martha Mosse UnLabelled was about sexism. In her talk The Slut, The Spinster and The Perfect Woman she looked at the pressure on women to be perfect and how easily women are pigeon-holed.
The stories told by Laura Bates about the responses to her Everyday Sexism Project were both frightening and funny, each one a powerful reminder that sexism is rampant in our so-called ‘equal’ society. Her project proves that women are tired of putting up with and shutting up about sexism, and are finding their voices and learning to fight back.
The Rights of Women and Other Taboos
Political issues were explored too, like the rights of women asylum seekers and the plight of women and children in immigration detention centres in the UK highlighted by writer and campaigner Natasha Walter and Meltem Avcil.
I was particularly stuck by the message of how labels stick in Baillie Aaron’s talk ‘Once a Thief, Always a Thief’ in which she spoke about how people who’ve been in prison are so-often denied a second chance once they are labelled ‘ex-offenders’.
Nicolette Kay, Artistic Director of New Shoes Theatre, spoke about using the powerful medium of theatre to expose the taboo surrounding domestic violence, especially amongst middle class women.
Campaigner Leyla Hussein brought the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM) vividly to life when she shared the story of her own ‘cutting’ as a young girl in Somalia. She now works to raise awareness about FGM in the UK and protect girls and young women who are at risk from FGM.
Philanthropy and Women
Two of the speakers were men. Yann Borgstedt, a Swiss entrepreneur and philanthropist spoke about the enormous economic advantages that occur when men invest in women’s education, training and development. And the youngest speaker of the day was Gerardo Porteny Backal, a 19 year old philanthropist and university student from Mexico City who founded Pink Life Against Breast Cancer and Pink Life Racing.
There were inspiring stories by Mary Ann Mhina of what older women have to teach the younger generation and Dr Laura Nelson sharing how she went from being an unhappy scientist to a fulfilled coach and public speaker.
I had goose bumps listening to the results of Leah Thorn’s amazing ‘poetry for empowerment’ workshops for women in prison where women write about the emotional distress that underlies their self-harming.
Feminism in the 21st Century
There were times during the day when I wondered why in the 21st Century it was still so hard to be a woman. We have come so far, especially in the West, yet we are still restricted by gender stereotypes in education, in the workplace, in the home.
It would be easy to feel despondent at times, but listening to the speakers at TEDxCoventGardenWomen reminded me that the world is full of dynamic women, and men, working tirelessly to correct injustice, raise awareness and make the world a better, more equal place for women. And now that younger women are taking up the mantle of Feminism and it is no longer seen as a dirty word, there is hope for change.
Small Acts of Rebellion
The day ended on a high with my partner, Yang-May Ooi’s talk Rebel Heart: How Small Acts of Rebellion Can Create Powerful Change. She told the story of how she went from being an unhappy lawyer in the 80s, complete with big hair, acne and a stammer to the dynamic, creative woman she is today. Along the way it involved a sexual identity crisis, an act of bravery in first kissing another woman, and finally deciding to take that big step forward into the unknown.
I love the term ‘small acts of rebellion’. It implies that there are little things we can do every day to defy stereotypes, defy convention, step out of the box and into the light of who we truly are. To me being #UnLabelled means being your true, authentic self. Who you really are when you are listening to your own heart, following your purpose, bringing out the best in yourself and others and not being restricted by society.
In many ways all of the speakers on the day had ‘Rebel Hearts’. They had all defied convention in some way, tackled an issue close to their heart, found their purpose. Found their voice.
You could have heard a pin drop in the room at the point in Yang-May’s story when she decided, ‘F**k the labels’. She didn’t care if she was called a dyke, queer or lezzie, she was going to be who she was. A cheer went up in the room as the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
At the end of her talk the audience were on their feet, shouting, ‘F**k the Labels’ as one.
It was the perfect response to a day spent defying labels. We had all become #UnLabelled.
* TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and the purpose of the events is to bring people from these three worlds together to share their passion for innovation and change. The slogan of TED is ‘Ideas worth spreading’.
TEDx events are organised independently at local level but still follow the rules and structure set by TED.