Work In Fashion Presents…Action Aid: The ‘Survivors’ Runway’ by Yasmin Jones-Henry
70 million girls worldwide are estimated to have been married before the age of 18, many of them against their will. 43,600 were killed in 2012 – by family members. 150 million girls are sexually assaulted every year. 1 in 3 women will experience violence during their lifetime (ActionAid, 2017). It would not be hyperbole to say that the world in the 21st century is still a dangerous place for a female. Her crime? Not being born a male.
Gender inequality is one of the oldest and most stubborn blemishes on mankind’s history. As a young woman, born in the West, fortunate enough to have attended some of the best schools, this fact was presented to us at almost every turn. My secondary school, St. Margaret’s School Bushey, is one of England’s oldest girls’ schools, so we were reminded that we should never take our education or our freedom for granted. So when I received the invitation to attend a fashion show put on by Action Aid, to bring more awareness to this cause, how could I say no? This particular show was in honour of fgm, rape and acid attack survivors.
Everyone – at least anyone connected to the internet and social media will be well informed of the sudden unveiling of deep seated corruption, exploitation and rape – within the media. Most (although not all) of the victims are women. Silenced by an army of well equipped lawyers, hemmed in by the fear of jeopardising their futures, a woman’s voice still in 2017 is not welcome in some spaces, her presence is still not cherished in others. There is a misconception that this violence inflicted upon the female form only occurs in third world countries. It is happening everywhere – this disease of misogyny that has infected our society does not discriminate against class or race. It is a tragic state of affairs to see that a woman’s body is still treated as a battle ground, a bargaining chip and a commodity to be traded between powerful and abusive men.
In London, 2017 has seen a surge in acid attacks on our high streets. Some have been completely random, others are the calculated weapon of choice and result of gang violence. Previously used as a tactic to silence female victims or witnesses from going forward to the police – the act of using acid – as opposed to say a gun, or a knife speaks volumes. The acid is not designed to kill, it is designed to produce and prolong the most amount of pain and suffering imaginable. Meanwhile, the victim is left scarred for life. The severity of the injury cannot be measured by the outward scars. The psychological trauma cannot be quantified. Ladies and gentleman, we are contending with a level of wickedness that has sunken to new found depths. So as a young woman I ask you, what can be done?
‘Charity’ and ‘philanthropy’ have long been buzzwords for the wealthy and the elite to congratulate themselves for their own benevolence. But there is much more to ‘giving’ than simply donating money. As I entered the Old Truman Brewery, I was greeted with a series of installations. Each displayed the photograph and a brief biography of a survivor. The word ‘survivor’ is a key adjective in this narrative. There was a clear sense of defiance in the air. I soon realised that the ‘Survivors’ Runway’ show was an event to celebrate the victors, not the victim. Each story noted the hardship, the suffering and cruelty that each individual had faced, but it also illustrated how these brave women were able to hold on to hope, write a new narrative, and create a new life for themselves and for their families. I observed, as I made my way through each case study, that there was a pattern emerging. Each survivor, having endured their horrors, sought to effect change. They did not allow their experiences to rob them of life or of the gift that is giving. What do they seek to give? Hope.
Resistance and Revolution
We all took to our seats, the lights dimmed, the music faded and a voice emerged…
“This will be a very different evening, I promise you. We are here to celebrate the inner beauty, the strength and courage of acid attack survivors. Life does not come to an end because of this attack – that is our message for other acid attack survivors. You don’t need to become invisible. These acid attack survivors have risen from the ashes.”
As Farah Kibir opened the show with this declaration, the guests perched on either side of the catwalk, immediately sat up and paid attention. This was no ordinary fashion show. We the audience, had been invited to bring awareness to an evil that is infecting the world through misogyny and violence. As I watched the models walk triumphantly down the runway, there was a sense of resilience, a willfulness, that humbled all who witnessed the spectacle. These models didn’t want or need our sympathy. They were too busy capitalising on their new found freedom and platform to share their inspirational stories. This was not about what we could do for them, but what they came to share with us.
So often on runways, the models are reduced to mere mannequins. But in the careful hands of the designer Bibi Russell, this show delivered the message of ‘beauty redefined’ perfectly. Adorned in floral crowns, draped in silk, these men and women looked like kings and queens. Shoulders back, with their heads held high– they each had their own swagger. They stared into the cameras at the end of the runway unflinching, fearless.
As the show progressed, the models began to dance. It was a dance of defiance. The tempo, the beat, the sheer joy in their steps compelled those of us in the audience to rise to our feet and join them. Lost in the crowd and caught up in the rhythm, for a moment, for a brief moment, we were all free. These women, in spite of their hardship, had come all the way from Bangladesh to remind us of what hope looked like. What hope felt like. Shaking off formality, throwing off the shackles of fear, and wrapped up in the aesthetic of beautiful materials, garlands and infectious beats, the finale of the show demonstrated that life is too beautiful to abandon hope.
It is true, these are dark times. Darkness brings with it fear and a sense of danger in the unknown and the unseen. But as the models walked with a light in their hands down the runway, I was reminded that we each have a light of our own. Light drives away the darkness. If each one of us, endeavours to shine that light, through acts of kindness – even in the face of evil, then we can change the tide. Wherever light is shone, darkness dissipates. So it is with good and evil. I cannot pledge any grand fiscal donations, as that is currently beyond my means. What I can do, what I will do is use my platform to speak on these matters. I will keep casting my light wherever it is needed.
The truth liberates, it also illuminates. Using fashion – the aesthetic, to shed light on the sins of gender inequality is an effective strategy. Ethical fashion, ethical living, ethics – should not be the preserve of the enlightened few. It is no secret that Bangladesh is the manufacturing capital for many high street labels in the West. Major consumer brands such as Primark, H&M, Marks & Spencer and Next have all profited from the highly skilled but poorly paid Bengali population. The workers are often female, mothers, daughters, all breadwinners.
In my article ‘Fast Fashion’ I implored the reader to consider the lives, the hands and the hearts of the people connected to the clothes. Better working conditions create better living conditions, which in turn facilitates a better quality of life and greater hope of independence for these women. We the consumer, have a responsibility to ensure that such reforms are made – to help bring about these changes. “The credit card never lies” – or so the saying goes. Why not use our purchasing power for good? We should insist that conglomerates invest in local infrastructure and training for the local population in exchange for access to their labour force.
Fashion at its core – is a people business. It is made by the people – for the people. The ‘Survivors’ Runway’ show put on by ActionAid, followed the fashion week month of September. It provided a stark contrast: in the face of rampant consumerism and excess, here the viewer will find a more fulfilling and useful function for the aesthetic. Whenever art, passion and endeavour collide, something beautiful and powerful occurs. It is time for fashion to return to this ideal. People first, profit later.
Until Next Time…
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