Durham University Empower Her Voice – taking on the world one patriarchal dilemma at a time

By Imogen Marchant

Feeling underrepresented? Meet the team behind the newly SU-ratified Durham faction of Empower Her Voice.

Feminism is not new. It is not a novel concept that women are actually fully cognisant beings with voices and stories that not only need to be heard but that add to the conversation. However, despite the work of First, Second and Third Wave Feminists since the 1800s, there are obvious gender gaps in the market; globally, women around the world spend twice as many hours doing unpaid work than their male counterparts, 36 countries limit what wives can inherit from their husbands, 17 countries limit when and how women can travel outside their home, and here in the North East, women are paid £100 less per week than men doing the same work.

Women around the world spend twice as many hours doing unpaid work than their male counterparts

Features met with Jayna Viswalingam and Mimi Bruce, co-presidents of Empower Her Voice, the organisation seeking to uplift and empower women through offering a platform for them to simply speak. Empower Her Voice, originally developed at Oxford University, is making its impact, like so many movements, through universities across the country. The difference here is that there’s no exclusion, no editing, no redaction of what anyone has to say – no clear-cut, singular motive to which everyone has to adhere. The emphasis is on the collective; women are encouraged to apply to speak through an anonymous Google Form in which they only have to outline the topic they’re passionate about. They are then selected by the team to give a talk with the promise of an inclusive, supportive audience to discuss their ideas.

There’s no exclusion, no editing, no redaction of what anyone has to say

Aren’t they worried about political inflammation from the speakers, or a lack of regulation leading to strife? No is the short answer. The absolute emphasis is that “[they] trust the women of Durham”. They’ve been entirely successful; the emphasis on free choice of subject and approach is arguably the reason for EHV’s success; they’ve had talks on an array of subjects from dark matter, GDP, OCD and the unexpected (to cover only the last two events), and the array of experiences have, according to Mimi, “reduced [her] to tears multiple times.”

The emphasis on free choice of subject and approach is arguably the reason for EHV’s success

The appeal? The diverse quantity of women who feel empowered to speak. EHV are hoping to extend their speakers to women outside of the Durham University community – to build on the growing chorus of female voices, who “speaker by speaker” are gaining the confidence that comes “two-fold” with getting involved at these events – the confidence that their experiences are inherently valid, and the confidence instilled from sharing them. ’s passion for Physics was explosive, but delivered with a seemingly juxtaposing calm that assured the audience that she is at home in the masculine-dominated world of the science lab. In the words of Jayna, you could “almost feel something humming in the room.” It is from here that EHV really springs into life; here are women that, from taking that first step, can only fly – each event becomes a microcosmic toolkit of skills to take into potentially more hostile settings.

You could almost feel something humming in the room

There was, at the last event, a moment where this hostility suddenly entered the safe bubble EHV tries to promote. Two men, in the middle of Elsa Kent’s talk about the inspiration behind Durfest, attempted to barge in and use the gaming machine. Their argument? “We didn’t plan our night around you being in here.” The seeming inability to accommodate others in the space, so at odds with the ethos behind Empower Her Voice, could have easily overpowered the atmosphere that Mimi and Jayna had worked so hard to create. Instead, they became the embodiment of the confidence they advocate. Rather than offer what Deborah Frances-White has called “the typical female apology” that comes with any attempt to take up space, Jayna spoke of the resolution she had in dealing with the situation. Her success in defusing the incident seems almost symbolic; here are women refusing to filter themselves to make themselves seem more amenable – they exist away what Mimi has called “the self-imposed figures of patriarchy.”

Here are women refusing to filter themselves to make themselves seem more amenable

It’s important to stress the inclusivity EHV place on their events. As soon as we met, the first thing expressed was “we’re not trying to push any agenda.” Interesting, given the highly politicised (and often, they argue, largely misunderstood) term “feminist agenda” that has been floating about in the press. The only “concrete” aim is the philanthropist aspect, something that both Jayna and Mimi would like to grow over this year; with every event comes fundraising for girls’ education in Pakistan.

This is not change that undermines anyone, or steps on toes

What we have here, then, is something that feels remarkably like change for the better; not change that undermines anyone, or steps on toes, but women being women, moving towards the confidence that they deserve to take up the space that isn’t always offered to them. Get involved.

The next EHV event is on 24th of November at 3pm in the Kingsgate Cafe.

Image by Durham University Empower Her Voice

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