On Saturday 8th April I did what I find myself increasingly doing these days, I left the sanctuary of my South East London garden, (the first really sunny Saturday of the year) and got on a tube to central London to sit in an underground room with a bunch of strangers. In the last two years I’ve become an activist and like many others, I’ve joined the world of politics  because not to do so doesn’t feel like an option any more. And every time I do it, I wonder why I didn’t do this before….
This time was a total joy. I signed up for a workshop followed by a flashmob performance of MILCK’s I Can’t Keep Quiet organized by HOLLER4 pop up choir as part of a day of action. About 40 women of all ages from children to women 70+ were there, feminists, singers, activists, wearers and makers of Pussy Hats, women who wanted to follow up on the energy, the fury, the impulse to keep registering our dissatisfaction and to maintain the pressure on a failing and unjust system, following the Women’s March London in January 2017.
We assembled, sang and claimed space in the public realm of London on Piccadilly, at Eros, at Euston, on the tube, the escalator and under the departures board at King’s Cross. You can hear and see us here. We took small pockets of Londoners and tourists unawares, reminding them both of the extraordinary freedom & creativity life in London can offer but also how fragile those freedoms are. Our presence asserted our optimism and our determination to defend and extend those freedoms. Elsewhere in London an iconic red bus took the song through the city following the path of the river. These weren’t just random acts of optimism- they were part of a collective action, an energy that will keep growing and regenerating like yeast.
At teabreak, our choir leader Denise took a moment to bring us back from the celebratory and potentially self-congratulatory cheeriness to call our attention to the women who don’t keep quiet around the world, and who have a lot more to sacrifice than a sunny Saturday at home. I thank her for reminding me of the extraordinary experience of hearing Jineth Bidoya Lima who we both, by coincidence, heard speak through a translator at the Women of the World Festival in March 2017.
Jineth Bidoya Lima is a journalist who reports on law enforcement, paramilitary groups, and abductions within Colombia. She herself has been kidnapped and raped twice. She now works with the protection of a Government bodyguard. She was in London to accept the Anna Politkovskaya Award – named for the Russian journalist who lost her life opposing corruption in Russia. The human rights and literature organisation PEN lists Jineth’s status as AT RISK. At risk for calling out the corruption and opposing abductions. Listening to her dignified empassioned Spanish then replayed in the deadpan of English translation intensified the power of her message as we were given time to absorb her words in the space between translations.
“Anna Politkovskaya”, “Jineth Bedoya Lima” we intoned a month later in St James’ Church undercroft – say their names, hear their voices, as Denise asked us to. These are women who didn’t, can’t and won’t keep quiet and whose bodies have paid the price.
Hearing Jineth share her story with dignity and not a little pain is a provocation to the Saturday campaigner. And I don’t know what stories were present in that choir that day. Statistically it is likely that several of us there will or have experienced some form of gender-based violence. Almost every time I go canvassing for the Women’s Equality Party, I meet a woman who tells me of her experience. And yet… how can the little we do as activists possibly be enough in the face of this overwhelming and systemic violence, structural inequality and corruption where a woman who speaks out can be punished in the most distressing and intimate ways imaginable?
Despite/because of the size of the problem, I believe the Saturday campaigners are valuable: keeping yourself actively connected with strangers, united by an injustice is a way for communities to grow and gain confidence. The physical reality of a crowd of people generates an energy that a social media frenzy can’t replicate. Guardian columnist and broadcaster Zoe Williams is right to warn us against complacency. Singing a song on its own is not enough, wearing a hat (even if you did make it yourself as I did) of course it’s not enough. But it’s what the power of the song or the action of standing in public in a hat which symbolizes defence of the female body – it’s what that emboldens you to do NEXT that matters. It’s happened to me and I’ve seen it happening in actions large and small in the activists around me and on larger national platforms.
At the Southbank at WOW, Jineth Bidoya Lima was asked how she finds strength to keep telling the story, to keep risking her safety and continue her work. The answer was simple – I wrote it down: “I keep speaking so that another woman just like me can realise her life.”
She can’t keep quiet and neither can we.