AWOMENfest: Radically Soft

ISABEL WEBB speaks to Raniyah Qureshi, the founder of AWOMENfest, a three day feminist art festival that launches this month.

Picture the scene: nestled in a DIY arts venue in Peckham, a group of rugby lads sit around a table to discuss the relationship between tears and feminism with The Colour of Madness Project. In the next room, more of these men – stereotypically masculine and disengaged – compare notes on the artwork of Damaris Athene and Fee Greening, whilst others, perched in the zine corner, soak up the atmosphere and contemplate the body positive life drawing session they just attended. This is AWOMENfest founder Raniyah Qureshi’s ideal for the new feminist festival. “The people you want to come the most are not the ones who are already engaged. In my dreamworld, the room would be full of rugby lads who don’t give a shit.”

This might seem like a strange statement for the founder of a feminist arts festival to make, but AWOMENfest is no conventional feminist space. The festival celebrates “radical softness”: the idea that feminism doesn’t have to be a fight or a militant struggle; it can be imbued with softness and emotional vulnerability. For Raniyah, “Feminism can be an avenue for possibility instead of this difficult battle that lies ahead of you, because that can be really exhausting.” Radical softness is about engaging people who previously felt alienated from feminism; it reframes the movement within a calm, comforting and healthy space where anyone and everyone is welcome.

Raniyah discovered the term through the artwork of Lora Mathis, so art seemed like a natural means through which to explore it. The universality of art, as “everyone loves beautiful things”, offers a unique chance to capture people’s imaginations and engage them with difficult and sometimes confronting topics in a gentler way. “The really nice thing about art,” says Raniyah, “is that you can completely expose yourself, but through a beautiful thing that doesn’t leave you as vulnerable or emotionally exhausted.”

AWOMENfest is about provoking a gentle revolution, starting with the people around you. “The way people think is so informed by their background. How do you unpick that at a micro level to affect the macro level? We’re engaging in this feminist dialogue because we believe that the people can improve; the oppressor has the capacity to get on our side.” Many of the issues AWOMENfest is trying to tackle are systematic, something which Raniyah and her co-curator Alina Khakoo have accounted for: “At some point you have to detach bad actions from the person themselves. Of course people can read and educate themselves, but some people need more help. Just one conversation can go such a long way, so if you can change the people around you a little bit then maybe they can change other people and, slowly, everyone will get nicer.”

Image courtesy of AWOMENfest and Indigo Theatre Productions.

Every element of the programme has been carefully curated to fit with their ethos of radical softness. “We’ve either seen or experienced every workshop or artist’s work before, so we know their vibe fits with ours.” The festival is split into four main topics: spirituality, vulnerability, solidarity and desirability. It kicks off with a party on the Friday night, where Drag Kings from The KOC Initiative will get the ball rolling before a series of female and non-binary musicians take to the stage. In the “comfort haven”, there will be tarot readings and a zine corner, offering a taste of the calm to come. Over the course of the weekend, this optional approach will reign, as events and workshops run simultaneously, offering festival-goers the chance to step outside or sit and reflect if they become overwhelmed.

The first topic they chose was spirituality. For Raniyah, this addressing faith prompted the realisation that feminists really aren’t all on the same wavelength: “I’ve always had quite a complicated relationship with feminism, just because I’m quite religious – not that religious, but enough that a lot of the strains of feminism I was exposed to when I was younger were alienating. That’s where my feminism has hit the biggest stumbling block.” Raniyah and Alina saw that feminism “affects you mentally, it affects you bodily and it affects your engagements with other people.” From there, desirability, vulnerability and solidarity seemed like natural choices.

Throughout the curation process, Raniyah and Alina championed intersectionality and accessibility. “When people think of feminist art, they often think of bodies. There are a lot of nude paintings, or bold red lettering on a white background. That’s great, and it definitely has its place in the feminist canon, but it doesn’t work for radical softness.” For film, this meant turning to animation and more experimental forms, all within an accessible framework. For performance, intersectionality meant staging productions from Transgress’ ‘Everything is Going to be KO’ to a female-led tisch (a Jewish song-prayer and transcendent ritual) and poetry readings by female and non-binary poets of colour from Octavia Collective. The people involved in AWOMENfest represent a whole host of voices, from myriad backgrounds, covering topics that others involved won’t ever have considered before.

There isn’t a set lesson they want people to learn here: it’s not about dictating a feminist dogma or indoctrinating people. The emphasis of AWOMENfest may be on learning, but its founders aren’t trying to narrow people’s views. “We don’t want it to feel like there’s a set view,” says Raniyah. “I want people to come away from the workshops wanting to go home and do more research, so they can form their own views. I’m very aware that I don’t have all the answers. Also, silent reflection is key: everyone’s best thinking is done in the shower.”

At the end of the day, radical softness is about balance. Balance between pushing an agenda and accounting for other people, between being bold and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, between unapologetic political feminism and self-forgiving self-care. It’s about a revolution at your own pace. Reflecting on her feminism before she discovered radical softness, Raniyah says: “I was terrified that if I became more of an activist then I would lose the soft parts of myself. But then I didn’t want to be overly palatable and water down my feminism.”

A big part of this is about promoting frank and open dialogue in respectful, safe space. “I know we’re called the snowflake generation,” she laughs, “but it takes five extra seconds to go through a programme and give people a trigger warning.” Fittingly, attendees can email their triggers in advance, so they can feel as comfortable as possible on the day and not be confronted by a difficult topic without warning. A little extra effort goes a long way in making people feel comfortable and safe; it’s just part of the radical softness package.

Raniyah and Alina aren’t naive about their goals; they know that a radically soft feminist revolution will take time. “There’s so much performative wokeness, and a lot of it is just creative aestheticisation. People talk about it being really cool and will happily list all the grime artists they like, but they don’t really engage with what that means. I know a festival isn’t going to solve that, but it’s a start.”

AWOMENfest is a pioneering feminist arts festival with a focus on intersectional activism and support. It will take place at DIY Space for London in Peckham from 23rd – 25th March. Tickets and further information are available here. The event is in support of My Body Back, which support women who have experienced sexual violence.

Featured image courtesy of AWOMENfest.