“Any one of you can become leaders, and can lead the change needed to bring about a feminist Ireland”

– Siobhan McSweeney

 

The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) hosted their fifth annual FemFest Saturday, November 30th in Dublin’s City Centre. Women between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five were invited to freely participate and unite in various workshops, panel discussions and listen to guest speakers. The event succeeded in empowering the future voices of our society, to continue pushing to implement change across all fields of adversity.

Following Director of NWCI Orla O’Connor, the day kicked off with a terrific key-note address from Derry Girls’ very own Siobhan McSweeney. Her opening address acknowledged the different types of women in attendance or simply existing, highlighting the theme of leadership, solidarity and inclusivity. 

The panels were diverse and the topics ranged from ableism in activism, to experiences of direct provision, back to the fundamental meaning of what feminism means to you. Owodunni Ola Mustapha (Ballyhaunis Inclusion Project) spoke of her current experience in direct provision with her children and the lack of independence, privacy and personal development that comes with it. Ola delivered her speech proudly and emotionally, thankful for the support she has received in Ireland but also determined to continue speaking out and unite other suffering asylum seekers. Renowned Irish author Louise O’Neill (Asking for It, Only Ever Yours) discussed her personal struggle with body image and eating disorders, amplified by social roles placed upon her in the media. Journalist Roe McDermott added to the mental health discussion, expressing distaste for the problematic efforts to have vulnerable people reach out to a society that has not been equipped with the tools to adequately reach back. Similar to workshops later in the day, the panel also explored the lack of sufficient sex education in Irish schools, a problem all too real even in 2019. Their varied and multi-cultural perspectives delved headfirst into current issues women face today, prompting discussion among attendees throughout the day.

I attended the workshops on Healthy and Unhealthy Relationships and Breaking Period Stigma.  During the first session, Facilitator Dr Hayley Mulligan explored our ideas of healthy practice in romantic relationships, how they first tend to manifest in friendships, and how to acknowledge that red flags aren’t warning signs, but the problem themselves. During the second workshop, Charlotte Amrouche, the founder of the Míosta project, explored period stigma within ourselves and others. We looked at reusable eco-friendly period products and came up with proactive solutions to menstrual challenges. Both workshops were under time constraints, which left them cut slightly short, but were invaluable all the same. Facilitators also acknowledged the importance of reaching beyond our feminist circles for education and engagement with these issues within the wider community.  

Following lunch at the Radisson Blu Hotel, drag artist Avoca Reaction performed female power anthems, evoking a positive reaction within us all. The second panel of the day included Keeva Lilith Carroll, who works as the national community development officer with the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland, and Eleanor Walsh, member of disabled women Ireland. Eleanor spoke about her experience as an autistic woman, who just by being a woman, doesn’t fit the perceived identity of a person with autism, labelled and categorised in society in more ways than one. Criticising the criticism of “armchair activism” (signing petitions online, sharing articles, donating to an NGO), she highlighted the ableist superiority complex of those who believe protest and arrests are the only adequate methods of resistance. To close she left the room with a thought-provoking statement regarding accessibility, inclusivity and equality that resonates with all hopeful change-makers: 

“Next time you’re at a meeting, or an event, look around the room to see who’s there, and see who isn’t.”

 

 Photo by Niamh Elliott-Sheridan

 

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