Ghent’s Equality Festival takes on a world of problems


The annual festival of progressive ideas in Ghent looks at themes as diverse as populism, the environment, sexism and bullying both globally and at home in Flanders

A bathtub filled with love

Last December, 5,000 people took to the streets of Brussels to protest Belgium’s signing of an international agreement aimed at protecting the human rights of migrants. Organised by far-right youth groups, the rally drew feverish coverage from the local press.

The plentiful news clips and stories drew a sigh from An Pauwels, co-ordinator of the Festival van de Gelijkheid (Equality Festival). A day before the Brussels rally, Pauwels, her colleagues and many volunteers had successfully wrapped up the sixth edition of the festival of progressive ideas in Ghent.

Over the space of three days, more than 16,000 people showed up to collectively think and talk about ways to build a better world. If those visitor figures show anything, it’s that a lot of locals are invested in thinking about equality, Pauwels says.

Pointing to the coverage of the protest, she says: “In a way you are concealing that 16,300 people showed up the previous day to talk about equality and to come up with solutions for the things that are going wrong in our society.”

‘Mecca for progressive souls’

Pauwels works for Curieus, an organisation that developed as a socialist cultural association in the late 1960s and has operated fully independently since the late 1990s. It first organised Festival van de Gelijkheid in 2013. This year’s edition kicks off on next Thursday.

Described as a “mecca for progressive souls in Flanders” – the festival has steadily built up a name and a following. For Pauwels, there can be no doubt about what has appealed to audiences and kept them coming back for more – the event’s overriding emphasis on positivity.

Even though the festival tackles rather dispiriting global challenges like rising populism, global warming and poverty as well as, say, bullying and sexual harassment, it does so with the aim of spurring people on to take action and to highlight ongoing efforts to right these wrongs.

What you want to do is create an atmosphere in which everyone feels safe articulating their views

- Festival co-ordinator An Pauwels

“There are a lot of injustices in society that can make you indignant, but that indignation can’t paralyse you,” she says. “That’s something that’s really important to us.” She compares the experience of attending the festival to being tumbled over into a “bathtub filled with love”.

This year’s edition will feature more than 200 speakers and is essentially a smorgasbord of events, many of them in English, and most of them at the Vooruit cultural centre. Like in previous years, there will be a lot of lectures and panel debates on various topics, like: Should we all become vegetarians? Are doctors too expensive? How can we eradicate homelessness?

But the programme also includes a podcast marathon, screenings of critically acclaimed films like The Florida Project and If Beale Street Could Talk, a laughing yoga session, real-life fact checks of statements made in the news and a workshop in which participants will learn to construct an air quality monitor.

There’s even something for kids: a town-hall style debate on themes like migration and special-needs education (parents can tag along if they don’t breathe a word).

Free is a good price

And in case you were still wondering whether everyone is welcome at “a mecca for progressive souls”, the answer is yes – as long as you listen and keep an open mind. “There are some basic principles that are not up for discussion,” Pauwels says, citing the current scientific consensus on global warming as an example.

“What you want to do is create an atmosphere – I hope we’ll succeed in doing this – in which everyone feels safe articulating their views. And if you don’t agree, you can also say so. This is also about the willingness to listen. Both for our audience and for our panel guests, it’s important that they dare adjust their position throughout the course of a panel debate.”

There are a handful of ticketed events, but most of the Festival van de Gelijkheid is free. For good reason, Pauwels explains.

“We very deliberately want to keep it free,” she says, pointing out that the bulk of the financing for the event comes from Curieus, which itself receives government subsidies to organise social-cultural activities. “We believe you can’t really talk about equality and equal opportunities if you put up a financial barrier.”

Flanders Today’s pick of festival events

Several of the talks and performances at Festival van de Gelijkheid are in English, including all of these.

Be Careful
Mallika Taneja’s performance piece “Be Careful” satirises and exposes victim-blaming culture in India and the idea that women are as responsible for sexual violence as the men who attack them.

In Conversation with Elif Shafak
Turkey’s number-one best-selling author will join this talk about breaking down boundaries and opposing expectations, which also features Dutch writer Mustafa Kör and local writer Rachida Lamrabet.

Is a different economy possible?
London School of Economics professor Paul De Grauwe and Wanda Wyporska, executive director of The Equality Trust, will envision whether a different economy is at all possible.

Festival van de Gelijkheid, 28-30 November, Vooruit and other venues in Ghent

Photo Mallika Taneja ©Tani Simberg