The wow factor

A group of women in hijabs sat on the front row of a talk I was giving in Amman on the cultural identity of a nation. They were the Jordanian Women's Music Association. Their presence gave me cause to reflect on how tough, and at times dangerous, it is to stand up for female equality in societies programmed to accept women as second-class. While millions of us dream along with the people of Egypt and Libya for respect, dignity and liberty in those countries, there is a far more fragmented and often hostile response to those who confront the inequality surrounding women's rights across the world.

The UK is still battling with many aspects of inequality, and if we are complacent about that in our democracy then the message sent to regimes that dismiss and abuse women is that it's not that important. Women who have influence must support women who don't - both here and abroad. Men must support women to succeed - and stay successful.

The Jordanian group asked me if women in the arts in the UK formed a large part of our sense of cultural identity and I had to say no - not yet, and this lack of women's voices directly affects the way we see the world and what role we are seen to play in it. It's the same in other areas too; from law to politics, and health and business - there are too few women in leadership roles and too few programmes of research that concentrate on women's advancement. Don't tell me it's better than it was and that progress will "trickle down" naturally. It hasn't worked for economic fairness and it won't work for women's rights either.

As one of the few senior women in the arts, I decided to launch the festival WOW - Women of the World - as a celebration of all that women are achieving. It's also in response to young women telling me they need more support to deal with distressing obstacles to their progress and to give a platform to the vexed question of why feminism became the new F-word. WOW will have contributions from women such as Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Bianca Jagger and Juliet Stevenson. It's three powerful days of women's voices - young and old, and it's going to be exciting, provocative and fun.

Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre. WOW runs from 11-13 March

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle