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16 Days uncloaking violence against women

Violence against women stops us all being free and living the lives we choose. We began 16 days of activism celebrating the lives and stories of women and marking Elimination of Violence against Women day by revealing Ophelia’s ‘Cloak of Power’, at the Library of Birmingham.

The thirteen metre Cloak represents the stories and lives of women, made by women from all over Birmingham and Solihull who have taken part in ‘Hear Here Her Story’ over the past year.

Paper origami flowers were handed out – each paper flower could be unwrapped to reveal a unique collage art and messages from our participants, inviting them to Hear Here Her Story. We formed an improvised choir as we moved from ground level to the Book rotunda on Level 2, drawn in by Natalie Mason’s Viola performance of music made specially for us. Joanne Tremarco, Lead Artist, introduced the event – poetry from participants was read, including Savhanha Nguyen’s poem (see below), followed by Zoë McWhinney, a visual vernacular performer and a poet in British Sign Language (BSL).

As the performance ended, music heralded the unveiling of Ophelia’s ‘Cloak of Power’. Participants who made the cloak were inspired by the story of Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as well as their own stories and stories of inspiring women they knew or had found in Birmingham Archives.

Our ‘Ophelia’ was dressed in the cloak and nine participants help process the cloak acecending to Birmingham Archives where it was ceremonially handed to Nicola Gauld, Archivist, researcher and project manager for ‘Everything to Everybody’ project. The cloak, along with al the stories represented in artwork, written word, film and mixed media, will be accessible digitally and deposited to view as part of the ‘Shakespear Memorial Library Collection’.

Over the next sixteen days to 10th December (Human Rights Day) we will continue to highlight stories of women to highlight Violence Against Women and the people who respond to it as a public health, gender equality and human rights issue.

Do you doubt that?

We meet with a question –
a response to a brother
a man who cares
as he prepares for voyage
affronting the reassurance he seeks
with uncertainty

Let’s steer the mast of this conversation
reversing his need for comfort
with a moment of self-reflection.

No more but so?

As they question a relationship
still asserting control
when brotherly love
is disturbed by the paternal
a father who demands subservience
more concerned with possession
than care.

So what happens when the audience becomes the Act?
When centuries have passed but the dynamics have not?

As we’ve gathered
being here to hear Her stories
of the Ophelia’s in our lifetime
of oppression, of success
the voiceless discovering their voice
we remember that a flower will not flourish in the dark
a bird cannot fly with broken wings
but we have proven we are stronger than the adversity we face

we can find the cracks in this ceiling
to feel the sun and bloom
we will learn to stand and rise
to find our feet before we soar
and once again feel the wind lift us by our wings

And no longer shall we obey, my lord
since we are the leads in this play.
This is her story, this was never his.

We are the fruits of our own labour
the jewels that sparkle in the pomegranate
the leaves that emerge like gems in the spring.

As we leave Ophelia’s world,
her body finally at peace amongst the willow and the water,
her spirit flowing into the fortunes of those who brought her to her demise,
we feel her power in us, too
as the women who rose from the stream
to stand tall, to walk proud
to raise our voices
and finally be heard.

We are the creators
we are the contributors
to this cloak of power,
of unity,
of benevolence,
on a day that fights
for the elimination of violence against women
so the girls of today, the women of tomorrow
will never have to shudder in fear at a hand, a look, a word,
or hide in the shadow, under the scrutiny of a man
to know they have options to leave, to escape, to thrive
But let’s not forget the boys –
the boys who will grow into men
who will know only a mutual love and respect
standing shoulder to shoulder
with the women that grace their life.

This is a marker of a legacy
of a story rewritten
of stories being told
experience becoming fact
recorded so they can be heard
in the archives of this City.

So, hear, hear!
from me, to you, to us!
As we take centre stage
we can be proud of the women we’ve become
but this is no final act
there’s only more to come
this is just an intermission –
a way of thanks for the women who have made this happen
and an ovation for those before us
who fought for our rights to vote, to work, for the life we know today.

To here, to here.
This is Her story.
Our story.

Savhanha Nguyen, 25th November 2023

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