Forged by Fire - WITW 2019 Day 1

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This year I was a little more prepared for the flashy, corporate feeling of the New York City Women In The World (WITW) Summit.  The red carpet, the security, the Toyota swag, the free Pepsi—none of it phased me this year. It was the 10th anniversary of this Summit and my second year. Now we knew where to get our pictures taken and how to snag the best seats. Before we made it out of the lobby, our handler (the unstoppable Chief Managing Feminist for VERVE, Erin Whiteley) wrangled us all into a picture. A woman asked us to wait and take a video as well saying “We can save the world” in unison. The lobby quieted as our voices rang out, our collective sound powerful enough to make the room attend to us. Louder as one voice would be the theme of the Summit for me.

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The opening was poet, Amanda Gorman accompanied by five dancers. I loved the way they allowed themselves to take up space with their art. On this stage, in front of thousands of women they were free to expand in a way we are rarely able to do. Society is constantly trying to shrink women—to make us smaller and less visible, quieter and less heard, softer and less strong. These women opened our summit with the message that we are entitled to take up space by modelling that for us with unapologetic confidence. Tina Brown, the founder and host of WITW opened by acknowledging that women leaders are everyday women, not a select few well-known names. It was a reminder to me that despite my criticisms of the capitalistic and corporate nature of this event, there would be important messages spread this week. I was grateful to be present.

As the first panel started addressing environmental issues my mind started to wander to the free disposable water bottles, cans, and individual bags of snacks that this event was providing. I was thinking about how many people flew for this event—both presenters and participants. I was wondering what WITW was doing to offset the carbon footprint their summit was creating. The panelists showed a video by a teenage Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg who refused to come to the summit because she doesn’t want to hurt the planet by flying. Her conviction puts the rest of us to shame. I overheard women in my group talking about an organization you can donate to in order to offset your carbon footprint, particularly when you fly through Cool Effect. One of the five presenters, Christina Figueres then gave us 5 things to do to help minimize the damage to the environment:

  • Eat less red meat

  • Decrease your commute (carpool, bike, take public transportation, work from home)

  • Insulate your home

  • Be mindful of where your money is going (who do you buy from, where do you bank, where do you invest)

  • Vote for politicians with a good record and good policies on environmental regulation

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The next presentation began with a plea from the sister of Loujain Al-Hathloul, a Suadi Arabian woman who is in a Saudi jail for the crime of focusing her activism against male guardianship laws. Five years ago she was arrested for driving while female in Saudi Arabia. A year later she was studying in Dubai Saudi Arabian operatives kidnapped her and took her back to jail in Saudi Arabia. In jail the men beat her, electrocute her, waterboard her, threaten her with rape, and threaten her with murder. She has been labelled a traitor for her women’s rights activism. A year ago, women in Saudi Arabia won the right to drive—a representation of freedom for which they continue to fight. The panelists explained that this victory was only a first step. Men still hold guardianship over women and women cannot do anything without their permission, including travel. One of the women joked that when women earn the legal right to travel, Saudi Arabia will become a country of men because the women will all flee. The other women ended the panel by reminding us that men leave Saudi Arabia to join ISIS, to die. Women leave Saudi Arabia to live.

#FreeLoujain

The final panel of the opening day was about information warfare and the way that social media has been weaponized. Barkha Dutt (check), journalist for the Washington Post clarified that this is often the “weaponization of social media against women” and that the “nature of abuse against women is highly sexualized. Every woman on the panel, including the moderator, smart and funny Kara Swisher told about the numerous sexualized threats and abuses including threats of rape. To this, Dutt said she wanted to stay vibrantly angry about this because “all the time we’re building a thick skin we are normalizing this behavior.”

The evening wrapped up with a keynote address by Oprah and I was reminded why the jokes about her running for president were so appealing. She’s inspiring without being aggressive. She’s eloquent without sounding scripted. She’s comforting without pandering. Her presentation was a reminder of her decades of experience. She reminded us that our strength is “forged in fire.”

Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist

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