"I was stunned to see a housemaid sharing the stage with a high government official on an equal footing in a class-divided society like ours, and their conversations helped me understand how they equally contribute to society in their own ways."
This was one of the many observations from the audience that had been made at Women of the World's (WOW) Dhaka festival, where diversity and inclusivity stood in front and centre.
On 5 and 6 April 2019, the British Council, in partnership with WOW foundation, brought WOW's first national festival to Bangladesh – WOW Dhaka 2019. The festival was a part of the global WOW festival which takes place in 17 countries across five continents. The objective of the festival is to celebrate the achievements of women and girls, raise awareness about the obstacles that prevent them from reaching their true potential, highlight the importance of gender equality in society and still be a comprehensive platform for fun and festivity.
The national festival held in the capital was preceded by WOW divisional chapters implemented across five locations in Bangladesh: Chattogram, Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet and Rangpur. The WOW chapters were the first of its kind to be organised and focus on bringing elements of WOW to semi-urban, underrepresented communities while still being part of the global network.
The two-day national festival took place at the historically significant Bangla Academy, and comprised of eight elements: WOW Bites, Panel Discussion, Workshops, Speed Mentoring, Pop-up Performance, Under 10's Feminist Corner, Marketplace and Music Concert. The components used a variety of mediums to propagate the central theme and objective of promoting gender equality. This included providing a platform for women to share the stories of their achievements, their struggles in WOW bites, which hosted women from all age and walks of lives – including former sex workers, individuals from the transgender community, and acid survivors. Their stories inspired awe, tears, and propelled the audience to question orthodox societal ways regarding gender. On a similar note, the Panel Discussion segment incited discussions and sought to raise awareness around societal issues, such as masculinity, violence against women, gender norms etc.
The festival also included workshops and speed-mentoring sessions which enabled visitors to participate in discussions actively. The workshops were highly appreciated by the youth audience – particularly the ones on self-defence, music production, and career counselling. Speed mentoring, on the other hand, invited the audience to have short one-to-one sessions with mentors on four titled themes: Career in Sports, Career in Music and the Arts, Mental Health and Well-being, and Career in the Digital World.
WOW had something for the young ones as well. A corner was kept for children under age 10, titled the 'Under 10's Feminist Corner' which encompassed activities specifically designed for children – to educate them regarding gender equality through the means of several activities ranging from workshops to story-reading sessions, dance performance by Sisimpur (Bangladeshi version of the international children's television series Sesame Street) mascots etc. To bring about a proper fair-like festivity, WOW hosted a sprawling marketplace across the venue that promoted works of budding female entrepreneurs and included a variety of stalls selling food, handicrafts, jewellery, clothing and booths advocating social causes.
An eye-opening puppet-show and a staged theatrical play on gender-based violence performed by persons with disabilities was an excellent effort to highlight the vulnerability of people with substantial disadvantages. The art exhibitions, performances, and film screening pieces brought thousands together to culminate the whole essence of the festival.
WOW Dhaka 2019 concluded with a much-celebrated concert that combined music with theatrics and staged well-known faces, including Ameen Musa, Elita Karim, band F Minor, and a South Asian representation through Nepal's Kathmandu Killers. The music, tempo and festive beats of the concert marked WOW's first journey in Bangladesh a smashing success.