Women singing out

IssueApril - May 2016
Comment by Penny Stone

It was a South African musician, whose name I can’t remember, years ago, said that ‘a group of people cannot all speak at once, but they can sing together’. And I’ve always kept a strong hold of this. It is important to remember.

When we have activist meetings, I always try to encourage folks to sing at the beginning and end of them so we can start from this place of everyone’s voice being heard, encouraging those who don’t want to sing to drum along on their knees or on the table so that their ‘voice’ is still part of the collective sound. It flattens the hierarchy. Just for a few seconds. But even those few seconds can make a difference to how included everyone feels, so more relaxed and able to put the issues first rather than getting bogged down in the interpersonal problems that so often slow down our work for radical change.

Sing together. Listen together. Be part of a bigger purpose together.

8 March. International Women’s Day. I see my sisters celebrate this day with vigour every year, and always a few weary voices reminding us that one day out of 365 isn’t a great percentage. And every year I am part of some kind of women-singing-together event, and I hear of my friends and colleagues singing and encouraging women to sing together.

We nearly always get big numbers on IWD. Women care. Women want to celebrate together. We want to be together and to make a big noise together. We want to reassert our right to space in this still unequal world. And we want our voice to be part of a bigger sound. We want to hear each other’s voices in the throng.

This year, a group of people gathered at the Scottish parliament to celebrate 40 years of Scottish Women’s Aid. And to celebrate this we sang. A 60-strong choir of women’s voices sang women’s stories.

We sang Mary Brooksbank’s ‘Jute Mill Song’ telling the collective experience of Dundee mill workers. She tells us ‘the warld’s ill divided, them that work the hardest are aye the least provided’.

On the outside of the Scottish parliament building, there are carved excerpts from Scottish poets and songs. Only one of these 26 inscriptions is written by a woman and Mary Brooksbank is that woman.

We sang Karine Polwart’s optimistic ‘I’m Gonna Do It All’ in honour of the next generation of girls and women, and the work still to be done. And we sang a women’s liberation version of ‘Bella Ciao’, in honour of the women who have worked to get us this far towards equality and safety. And we sang with strength.

One of the strongest feeling elements of this gathering was the diversity of women who came together to sing for this event.

Women from across the breadth of Violence against Women work and campaigning in Scotland; women who had been around in the early days of what became Scottish Women’s Aid; women who saw the need for safe spaces and set up the first women’s refuges and rape crisis centres.

We had healthcare workers, community workers, MSPs and parliamentary workers. And threaded throughout all these roles, known and unknown, are women who are suvivors of sexual and domestic violence. Survivors are everywhere. Still.

It is so often that we are singing outside the parliament buildings, outside the council offices, on the pickets outside higher education buildings and other places of power. But this time we were singing inside the Scottish parliament building. We even had the ear of the first minister who came to celebrate and sing with us.

Part of what this marks is how far the women’s movement has come; that the places of refuge set up by women’s collectives 40 years ago have become (comparatively) well-funded services providing advice, support, empowerment and escape for women who need it.

The campaigning wing has come so far that they have direct input into policy changes, helping to build a more just legal and structural framework to challenge men’s violence. And we can celebrate this distance travelled while acknowledging the work still to be done.

Our roots are deep and strong, and every day new voices and perspectives are joining this women’s movement for positive change. We cannot all speak at once, but we can sing together.

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