Women in the World kicked off last night by showcasing its greatest strength: compelling stories told by captivating women.
Melanne Verveer, U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues, took delegates back to Beijing in September 1995, when Hillary Clinton famously reminded the world that "women's rights are human rights." Activists from Afghanistan and Pakistan debated the perils and opportunities for women in those countries going into the 21st century. And Meryl Streep and others delivered a performance of the arresting Vital Voices documentary play SEVEN to an audience that hailed from all over the world.
Tina Brown cited a growing consensus that empowering women is the “the way to peace, prosperity, and progress.”
The stories lent voice to what Daily Beast Editor in Chief Tina Brown described in her opening remarks as a sense all over the world that "something is happening" in the women’s movement—a growing consensus that empowering women is the "the way to peace, prosperity, and progress," and that "women’s rights are to the 21st century what civil rights were to the 20th century." Despite this, Brown said there have been times when "gender-related issues" have not been top of her list of priorities: "quality, affordable health care" is another phrase, she admitted, "that makes me tune out." Tuning in, however, is what this weekend is all about. But it's not just cerebral—the conference offers concrete chances to make change as well, with pledging stations for all of the charities involved, all over the theater.
The opening panel assembled a formidable group of women, all of them from or working in Aghanistan and Pakistan: Andeisha Farid, a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program, has built humane orphanages all over her country; Suraya Pakzad, executive director of Voice of Women in Afghanistan, offers shelter and comfort to abused Afghan women; Ching Eikenberry, strategic communication coordinator for USAID/Afghanistan, often accompanies her husband, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, to war zones ("30 years ago, I said, 'I do' ... and I am still doing it," she said); Fatima Bhutto, Pakistani journalist and activist; and Gayle Lemmon, author and Daily Beast correspondent. While the stories were vivid and at times deeply disturbing (Lemmon’s exposé of extreme physical violence was especially difficult), one practical solution that united the speakers was the need for safe houses for women. At the moment in Afghanistan, only eight or nine provinces out of 34 offer centers that can protect the victims of domestic violence, arranged marriage, child marriage, or rape.
It was only the very beginning of a non-stop conference that will run throughout this weekend. (One could see it as typical feminine pragmatism to cut dinner to one course so more panels could be fit into the program.) Even though the delegates popped up there only briefly, sponsor HP deluged the eighth floor of the Millennium Broadway Hotel with a riot of Vivienne Tam-inspired butterflies. And after dinner, there was no woman too serious to enjoy a take-away carton of cakes and cookies.
Following dessert, the Hudson Theatre was stuffed to the rafters for a sold-out, electrifying performance of SEVEN. Director Julie Taymor assembled an astonishing cast, led by an irrepressible Meryl Streep. At this point, the number of men present increased vastly as the security detail fanned out in advance of the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell said she was thrilled to be at the conference and "excited to see Hillary because I’ve never seen her speak in the flesh before." To judge by the long and rapturous standing ovation Clinton received, Bushnell was not alone.
Clinton, always a crowd pleaser, got one of the biggest laughs of the night when, after the footage or her Beijing speech she deadpanned, "Fifteen years and many hairstyles ago, we have seen a lot of progress. And on behalf of women as well." She also took the play’s final line and applied it to herself: "When people ask how I can get up every day after 25 years and still do this, I say that it is what I do... because there are still so many voices that are not being heard." Her personal connection to the play was clear—several of its characters are people who she has had direct contact with. She recalled meeting Anabella de Leon in Guatemala, who at the time was taking on corruption and "naming names" to the extent that she needed government protection. She was asked by the U.S. ambassador to have their picture taken together as he believed this sign of American concern would make her murder less likely. Last night, poignantly, Mu Sochua, the Cambodian politician played by Julyana Soelistyo, asked Clinton to once again to lend her influence, and the two were photographed together on stage.
The performance of SEVEN was electrifying. When the cast members were joined on stage by their real-life inspirations, it was a spine-tingling moment. In her native Belfast, civil-rights leader Inez McCormack has become a celebrity since news broke that she is being portrayed on stage by Meryl Streep. "Last week I sent out a press release on a housing program," she recounted. "There were two lines in the papers. Since news that I am to be played by Meryl Streep came out, I've had 15 requests for interviews ... and I got my housing program discussed in 12 of them." Streep portrayed McCormack in her twenties, when she started working as what were mockingly referred to as "well-fairies" at a time when welfare was looked down upon. As a Protestant from Derry married to a Catholic, she experienced violence firsthand. The play uses monologues but also snippets of dialogue to bring the stories to life. "It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t have been there," was the chilling line uttered by her family about a civil-rights march, and given by Taymor to Marcia Gay Harden. "She is much better at being me than I am," joked McCormack of Streep.
The delegates are almost entirely female, yet "inspiring men" were often credited too. After SEVEN, Hafsat Abiola, daughter of the murdered Nigerian president, recalled her husband’s words ("just go") when violence recently exploded in the country—notwithstanding the fact that this meant he would have to combine his work as diplomat in Brussels with caring for their 3-year-old and a 20-month-old. In SEVEN, Stephanie Okereke portrayed Abiola’s terrible discovery of the death of her parents while a student in America. Abiola moved the audience with her powerful, quiet eloquence when she spoke of her reaction to the current violence in her country as not a just "crisis," but an opportunity whose energy could be harnessed.
For all the security, there was a distinct lack of protocol and an incredible atmosphere (and no pretending to be cool) as Clinton and Streep remained on stage after the performance. They were mobbed, photographed, and glad-handed by everyone from adult activists to the next generation of awestruck schoolgirls who had travelled all the way from Houston to attend.
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.