Interview with writer and performer Sabrina Mahfouz

Sabrina Mahfouz

Sabrina Mahfouz

Dry Ice got great reviews in Edinburgh, tell us about the piece.
Dry Ice is my first piece of work which combines a rapid-fire poetry style with my love of theatre. It follows Nina, who is a stripper, through an evening of getting ready at home; telling dinner party stories and finally, going to work.

Is it political?
Yes. I think everything is political. Women choosing to take their clothes off for money; the increasing sexualisation of society and the exponential increase in strip clubs since the first ‘official’ UK one opened in 1995, is no exception.

Where did the inspiration come from?
I worked as a waitress in stripclubs for 5 years and I wrote lots of poems about that time, which eventually formed the beginnings of the show. I wanted to question the statement ‘it’s a free choice’ and explore the roles women are given in our society. As well as just make a fun show that put accessible poetry at the heart of it.

What are the myths about the sex industry?
That stripping isn’t part of it. That stripclubs somehow belong to the genre of ‘nightlife’ rather than ‘sex industry’. Even legally, it is still at a council’s discretion as to whether they are classed as ‘sex entertainment venues’ or just as a regular bar or cafe.

Where are you on the Pussycat Dolls?
I mention then in the play! As a reference to the protaganist, Nina not being able to tell her mum she’s a stripper because of what the neighbours might say – even though the neighbours love the Pussycat Dolls.

I’m not keen on their image at all (and I think it’s hopefully had it’s day now), but the generic, bland music coming out of the US which is given forced airplay  is what offends me more!

Other than performing, what are you most looking forward to at WOW?
Oh everything! I’m looking forward to Shabnam Shabazi telling me a tale in a car; to Equals Live and to all the many discussions that sound amazing, with some of my favourite women of the world.

Sabrina Mahfouz performs Dry Ice on Saturday 10 March

Interview with Layla El-Wafi a founder member of Women4Libya

Layla El-Wafi is a founder member of Women4Libya, a campaign that aims to promote women in the new government and civil society in Libya. Layla is taking part in Reporting back form the Arab spring event (Saturday, 10 March)

Layla El-Wafi

Layla El-Wafi

Why was Women 4 Libya set up?

W4L is a campaign started by the Libyan Civil Society Organisation (LCSO), a non-profit started by a group of Libyans living abroad last year but now includes Libyans in country too.  W4L has several aims but mainly to lobby for the meaningful inclusion of women in the transition process within the political, social and economic life of the ‘new Libya’.

Why did you get involved?

This project found me as I was concerned that women were not represented in the interim governmental body, the National Transitional Council (NTC) nor visible in the high level delegations and meetings in Europe and USA at the start of the Revolution.  I knew for a fact that Libyan women were extremely active and played a huge role in overthrowing the regime. Libyan women are highly qualified and can bring a lot to the table. So we started writing letters to politicians, speaking up in the media and drafted an online-petition calling on the NTC to include more women which to date has over 1500 e-signatures. That is how W4L was born.

You’re of dual Libyan/ Egyptian heritage, the last 12 months must have been pretty intense for you?

In a word: YES!

Many sleepless nights, expensive international calls and countless hours on emails and social media sites like Facebook to check that my family and friends are OK and then to try to do what I could from abroad to help.

The past year has also revived my ‘inner activist’ and pride in my roots. ‘My people’ showed their true colors and paid a high price to fight for freedom and dignity. These revolutions were not imported nor imposed.  It’s amazing.

When were you last in Libya or Egypt?

I’ve visited Libya, Egypt and Tunisia in the past few months. Although in some ways it felt ‘normal’ there were noticeable differences. Namely the public expressions and street art and signs (replacing the images of Qaddafi, Mubarak and Ben Ali), the many new TV, print and online stations and countless conferences and meetings about the transition to democracy.

How do you feel about what’s happening there now?

Mixed. Cautiously optimistic. I’ve buckled my seat belt for a bumpy ride. My relatives and friends complain about lack of security, uncertainties about the economy and what new governments and constitutions will bring. Some are still nostalgic about the past and it reminds me of how people get in abusive relationships.

Whenever I get really frustrated or stressed out I reality check myself and think we didn’t even dream of having these conversations and concerns a year ago. It will take time.

What are the most common myths about women in the Arab region/Arab revolutions?

That we are passive and oppressed.  I’ve met the most articulate, passionate and educated Arab women from across the region who represent the range of the political and religious spectrum.  It reassures me that Arab women will not be silenced or sidelined!.

Other than your event, what are you most looking forward to at WOW?

The Equals Live 2012 concert and other artistic/music events. It will be a welcomed respite from the countless political debates and discussions I’ve been part of in the past months.

Interview with Ghanaian writer, activist and designer Nana Sekyiamah

Ghanaian writer, activist and designer Nana Sekyiamah has recorded a very special podcast of her blog Adventures from the bedrooms of African women, to be played at WOW.  (Adventures from the bedrooms of African women, Saturday 10 March, 12pm)

Nana Sekyiamah

Nana Sekyiamah - Photo: Yinka Ajakaiye

Why  did you set up Adventures from the bedrooms of African women blog?
I set up Adventures in January 2009 with my BFFFL Malaka Gyekye (Best Friend for Freakin Life). I had been on one of the best holidays of my life with 3 other women and we had spent most of that time having the most frank open conversations about sex. I came home thinking ‘Wow. I want to keep having these conversations with African women’.

I love the blog title, can you explain to us please?
Malaka and I decided we needed to document our own stories. We laughed about the stereotypes that existed about African women and sex, and how shocked people would be to learn what really went on in the bedrooms of African women.

What are the main myths around the sexuality of black women?
That’s the weird thing about the myths around the sexuality of black women. It’s extreme, contradictory and often irrational. On one hand we’re portrayed as hyper sexualized (by the majority of commercially successful hip hop artists for e.g.), we’re objects of sexual curiosity and exotic to the white western male world (from as far back as Sarah Bartmann) and to others (I would put African men in this bracket) we’re boring, unadventurous, and sexually unimaginative. None of these stereotypes in my opinion are true.

Why is the sexuality of black women an issue?
Because to me its one of the major issues that we haven’t yet dealt with. The right to bodily integrity, the right to freedom of choice, the right to pleasure, the right to safer sex…

What have you learned from the blog? How to have better sex. Seriously. You can’t be ‘preaching’ to others about the importance of pleasurable sex and not be taking your own pleasure seriously. I have also learned how diverse African women are in our sexualities, experiences and desires and that it’s crucial to respect the sexual choices that women have.

When you’re not doing Adventures, what else are you doing?
I am  Communications Officer for the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), I own a fashion label with my sister, MAKSI Clothing, I write for magazines including DUST magazine and Dream Weddings in Ghana, and occasionally I do some consultancy work on communications and PR. Oh and I own a small farm which produces oil palm.

How are you spending IWD in Ghana?
I’m organising an event for AWDF with our partner Alliance Francaise (Accra). We’re holding a series of events including an arts exhibition, launching a specially commissioned song by Lady Jay Wah called ‘African Woman’ and a concert with Sia Tolno, RFI Discovery Award Winner of 2011.

Getting ready to be inspired

Justine Roberts of Mumsnet

Justine Roberts Mumsnet founder is talking about campaigning at WOW

Eve Ensler (credit Bridget Lacombe)

Eve Ensler is a keynote at WOW

It’s been a real pleasure helping to curate the talks and debates at this year’s WOW. The list of speakers reads like a who’s who of politics, popular culture and activism.  We’ve got Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts talking about campaigning, Baroness Scotland reporting on the truth about domestic violence and Mary Portas on power and change, the list goes on.  It really is impossible to pick just one highlight, but I am really looking forward to hearing Eve Ensler‘s keynote, and Egyptian blogger and activist Salma Said reporting back from Tahir square, they are both such inspiring women.  Oh, and the Vajazzle debate, obviously.

Follow me on Twitter:  @hannahpool