Can Music Festivals be a Safe Space for Women?
A symbol of summer, music festivals bring up memories of grassy picnics, hazy dancing, a cacophony of acoustic bass, vocals, and drums bouncing through packed crowds. They exist as places for reckless abandon, to dress up, chill out, and forget the burdens of everyday life while swaying in the sun with your best friends. Deeply embedded in New Zealand’s culture, we buy tickets based on an idea of unbridled fun and freedom, hoping that we leave those gates at the end of the weekend feeling recharged, fulfilled, and, at worst, a little hungover. And while most people who attend do leave feeling this way, there are many others whose experiences are vastly different.
Music festivals are notoriously dangerous environments for women. A 2018 study conducted in the United Kingdom found that 70% of female attendees at music festivals worried about the possibility of being harassed or assaulted. Out of all women surveyed following attendance at one or more festival, 30% were sexually harassed, and 10% were sexually assaulted. In New Zealand, the odds are terrifyingly similar. I have witnessed it, my friends have experienced it, and countless others have been harmed, physically and mentally, by it. At Rhythm and Vines, a New Year’s Eve Festival in Gisborne, in 2017, a man groped a woman in front of a hillside of people in broad daylight. Caught on camera, the video was swiftly shared to social media. The festival’s reaction? No comment; apparently, they weren’t aware despite the video's hundreds of thousands of views. The online reaction? That she deserved to be assaulted because she wasn’t wearing a top.
This story is one of many reported instances of sexual assault at New Zealand’s music festivals, and the number of unreported cases would bring the total far higher. Many contributing factors make festivals unsafe environments for women, other than the harassers and assaulters themselves. Festivals are almost always male-dominated spaces, male-organised, male-led, despite equal numbers of male and female attendees. Even though most of the world’s biggest musical acts are women, gender diversity within New Zealand’s line-ups continues to be subpar, with large festivals such as Bay Dreams featuring only six female acts out of 25 total performers in 2021. The exclusionary environment this creates for women is one that fosters a safe space for men, in which a feeling of dominance allows them to feel protected in their abuse.
Music festivals need to do more and do better to ensure the safety of their female attendees. One community organised festival began the conversation almost 35 years ago: The Mangawhai Women’s Festival. Organised and built by women, for women and their children, this festival featured a bold line-up of wahine-led groups and solo acts. It was intersectional, collaborating with local Māori tangata whenua, supportive, and, more importantly, safe. Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision have digitised an official recording of the festival, chronicled from its conceptual planning stages to the event itself in February of 1987. Although the organisers stated that they didn’t structure the festival to be political, it had become political anyway, creating space for women to share their views, connect with others, and feel represented and empowered. Over 1800 women and children gathered to enjoy the 3-day event, and a positive, supportive atmosphere radiates throughout the video. One festival attendee tells the camera: “I’ve just enjoyed being here with women and feeling completely safe to do whatever. It’s been really great.”
The need for women-only music events is still present 35 years later, as the same issues that underpinned the creation of the Mangawhai Women’s Festival have never gone away. In New Zealand, this festival appears to be the only one of its kind, and it only occurred once. Since then, the closest large-scale women’s event was Peachy Keen, a female-led music festival that took place in Wellington earlier this year. Featuring a line-up of New Zealand’s biggest female acts, including BENEE, Lady Hawke, and Ladi6, it was billed as a festival to celebrate women; however, tickets were not closed off to men. Sadly, many women came forward to report they had been sexually assaulted during the event. Around the world, the idea of female-led festivals is also growing in response to the #MeToo era. A women, non-binary, and transgender-only music festival in Sweden took place in 2018, and the festival organisers created the festival specifically to eradicate incidents of sexual harassment. Despite this, they were successfully sued for discrimination. The organisers' response: “It’s sad that what 5,000 women, non-binaries and transgender experienced as a life-changing festival made a few cis men lose it completely. The success of the Statement festival shows that is exactly what we need…Otherwise, we have no comments. We are busy changing the world.”
A successful LGBTQ+ women-only event in Derbyshire, United Kingdom, took place earlier this year: Femme Fest, thought to be one of the only festivals of its kind in the U.K. Organiser Fiona Grant decided to launch the event after building a community of friends on Facebook during the pandemic. In a video similar to the one created for the Mangawhai Women’s Festival, revellers share their feelings of inclusion and support. “Our community can be a very lonely place, so it’s great that women can come here, be totally themselves, and feel safe.” Another said, “As women, you always have to be quite aware of your surroundings, so I suppose it feels that maybe you wouldn’t have to do that at an all-female festival as much. I think if anybody doesn’t understand it, they just need to educate themselves as to why these women are attending these festivals.”
These festivals show that while it is possible for women to feel safe at music events, there is still a long way to go. The Mangawhai Women’s Festival was a blueprint for female safety and empowerment within a fun, creative environment; however, women do not want to be excluded from other major events, whether as attendees or performers. Organisers need to increase female visibility and representation while ensuring zero-tolerance policies for harassment and abuse. It is my hope that festivals like this continue, despite the threat of men taking legal action against them. The irony in this is louder than a main stage at midnight; if it weren’t for men assaulting us, we wouldn’t need these events in the first place.
You can click here to view the recording of the Mangawhai Women’s Festival on Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision’s website.
The Charlotte Museum has an extensive collection of women’s music available to browse in person, ranging from festival posters to vinyl.
Starr Ratapu is a student at the University of Auckland and is currently working at the Charlotte Museum as part of our internship programme through the Museum and Cultural Heritage course.