The rise of female adventure tour guides

Did you know that at least 60% of the global tourism workforce is female, despite the fact that just 23% of board members in the industry are women? And there’s one corner of tourism where women are particularly underrepresented, especially when it comes to female tour guides: adventure travel.

According to adventure tour operator Untamed Borders, just 3% of accredited international mountain guides are women, and in countries where women’s educational opportunities and cultural expectations are limited, women are much more likely to take on lower-paid cleaning and clerical roles than guiding roles. These are the women that keep the world of travel turning – and are most likely to have been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. But change is in the air.

The three following women, hailing from rural regions of Afghanistan, India and Morocco, represent the green shoots of a cultural shift towards women taking adventure tour guiding roles in global regions where this is unheard of. It’s partly down to the diversification work of companies such as Intrepid Travel, Responsible Travel, GAdventures and Untamed Borders, which are all committed to employing and training more female adventure travel guides.

The solo female travel trend has been growing in popularity in recent years, with Google Trends reporting a 131% rise in interest in 2019. Female-only tours from operators like Intrepid and SmarTours are providing more opportunities for female tour guides than ever before, some in conservative destinations such as Iran, Morocco, Nepal and Jordan, as well as experiences exclusively for women, for their guests. This could mean kohl beauty treatments in Jordan or trying on traditional wedding clothes in Morocco: the world of women that’s not accessible to men in those countries.

“Representation is a fundamental component of achieving equality and access to opportunities,” says Jenna Howieson, Inclusion and Diversity Lead at Skyscanner. “That’s why it’s so important to empower and celebrate the incredible women working in the tourism and tour guide industry. Through training and working as tour guides, women have access to financial autonomy and a well-respected job that connects them to the rest of the world. I hope that tour operators and those working in the travel industry will continue to connect with, amplify and empower even more female tour guides in the future.”

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate some of the women breaking the mould in the world of adventure guiding.

The first female guide in Morocco’s Aït Bouguemez valley: Chama

Credit: Liz Seabrook
Credit: Liz Seabrook

In the High Atlas Mountains, the serene Aït Bouguemez valley is home to many striking things: the towering summit of Morocco’s third-highest mountain, the M’Goun Massif; the rose-coloured, sleepy city of Azilal; indigenous Berber tribes; and a plucky young tour guide making it her mission to break down barriers wherever she goes.

“People say that women can’t do this job,” says Chama Ouammi. “They say it’s too hard for women to hike 20 kilometres, to carry heavy bags, to walk under the sun for more than four or five hours. Women are only to stay in the house, raising children, cleaning and cooking. But I’m opposed to that because women can do everything that men can do, there’s no difference between us. This is why I took the opportunity to go out of my village: to be a good example for ladies in Morocco and to challenge the obstacles of my society.”

Some of those obstacles were very close to home. After studying computer management, Chama began working as a freelance tour guide in Marrakesh before being headhunted by Intrepid Travel to be one of their first female tour guides on their Moroccan women’s expeditions. The company had lobbied Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism to issue some 100 new tour guide licenses to women, on passing a two-part licensing exam, which Chama benefitted from in 2018. But on qualifying, her uncle made it clear that tour guiding was not a path he approved of for his niece.

“My uncle said you can’t do this job, it’s only for men,” she says. “He said, if I had this job I wouldn’t be able to marry in the future, and people would judge me for travelling with different drivers and men. But he was jealous that I am the first female and youngest guide from my region.”

Luckily, Chama’s parents supported her ambitions and respected her wish to opt out of arranged marriage. It’s this support that not only has given Chama the confidence to boldly follow her career path, but has infused that path with such joy and grace. She’s aware of her good fortune: in rural Morocco, over 70% of women are illiterate and arranged marriage, as young as 13 or 14 for girls, is common, typically leading to a life of child-rearing and housework.

“My parents are very smart and always encouraged me to follow my dreams,” she says. “There are ladies in the Berber villages who are very clever, but they can’t finish their studies because no one can support them. I’m happy because I have good, open-minded parents.”

Now working as a freelance tour guide for several tour operators all over Morocco, including Intrepid, Chama gets the most out of the women-only tours that she guides. Speaking five languages and with a warmth that would make any visitor feel welcome, she embodies a kind of joyful, cross-cultural exchange that sometimes, in more conservative societies, is often only accessible between women.

“I really like working with just women because I can talk about anything, and they can too,” she says. “We can stay without headscarves. We can dance together, we can laugh together, in a way that you can’t do when men are there.

“It’s a very real cultural experience, from beginning to end. Some things are only for women.”

The first indigenous female tour guide from northern India: Jangu

Jangu High res4.jpg

India’s West Bengal state encompasses a dizzying range of landscapes, stretching from the tropical mangroves of the Bay of Bengal right up to the foothills of the Himalayas, passing tea fields and plantations along the way. It’s in these foothills that one woman has made history – by becoming the first woman in her indigenous Lepcha tribe to work as a mountain tour guide.

“This path came naturally to me, because I’ve been trekking since childhood and I have knowledge of this area,” says Jangu Lepcha. “I’m blessed to be surrounded by the Himalayas, rivers, forests and birds. All of this motivates me. I’ve wanted to do something like this since my childhood.”

Jangu’s main profession is developing and promoting homestays to tourists visiting her home village of Pedong and the surrounding area. She works as an ad hoc guide for guests travelling to the northern regions of West Bengal, responding to a gap she spotted in the market for a female, English-speaking guide. Capitalising on her lifelong love of nature, she first developed an interest in eco-tourism – and her business concept – while working on a tourism project in Siliguri (three hours’ drive south of Pedong).

“I realised that I could promote and conserve my own rich Lepcha culture through eco-tourism,” she says. “My father always instructed us in our culture and tradition, so I grew up very close to my indigenous culture. We have a unique way of living. The way we dress, our food identity, living habits, architecture.”

But working as a female tour guide was such a novel concept in her community, that Jangu set herself up as a self-employed guide and homestay consultant without even telling her family about her ambitions.

“I don’t know if they would have supported me initially, because I did it completely alone,” she says. “They knew I was into tourism but they didn’t know the passion I had. When I finally told them, they had different expectations – but now they understand and are proud of me.”

The Lepcha tribe, reliant on agriculture, river fishing and foraging medicinal plants from the region’s forests, had different expectations for Jangu, too. But her work has already made an impact on the community’s mindset.

“When I started working in tourism, my people didn’t know what a homestay was and were reluctant to have visitors,” she says. “But since I’ve helped them, homestays and tourism here are becoming very popular.”

It’s just as well, because Jangu is about to launch the project of her dreams: Miknaon, a wellness-oriented homestay in Pedong, due to open in October 2021.

“Being a Lepcha in this region, we own land from our ancestors,” she says. “I want to invite guests from all over the world, be their guide, let them come here to eat good food, do activities, yoga, hiking and be healthy. This is my future goal.”

Afghanistan’s first female tour guide: Fatima

You never know when inspiration might strike. When Fatima was eight years old, she was working as a shepherd – just like many children in the Lal wa Sarjangal district of Ghor province. This mountainous area in Hazarajat, central Afghanistan, relies primarily on agriculture, with families working the same land that Genghis Khan’s Mongol army grazed its horses on, in the early 13th century.

Credit: Untamed Borders
Credit: Untamed Borders

“It may be a little strange to many readers, but running on those high hills after animals was when I was first introduced to guiding and leading a group,” says Fatima (whose surname is omitted for safety reasons). “It was a tough experience, but guiding so many sheep and cows to find their food and enjoy life was a pleasure, too.”

But a long journey lay ahead before Fatima would lead her first group of tourists in Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city, for adventure tourism operator Untamed Borders in 2020. Age 23 now, she was lucky to receive an education as a child. Designated the least-developed country in the world by the UN, Afghanistan is a challenging place to grow up female: women’s employment opportunities and literacy rates are low, with 2.7 million girls out of school in 2018.

“My family permitted me to participate at a school whose roof was the scorching sun, seats were hot sand, and that most girls were strictly forbidden to attend,” Fatima remembers. “Luckily, I learned basic reading and writing.” It was this foundation that allowed her to continue her education, including English classes from charitable organisations, until it led her to undertaking a journalism and communications degree from Herat university. She caught the attention of Untamed Borders via her posts about Afghan history on a Facebook travel diary group, and led her first tour in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic disrupting trips to Herat.

Fatima’s two sisters followed a more traditional path. They were both married by age 15 and never learned to read or write. And when Fatima first told her parents her plans to become a tour guide, they were firmly against the idea. “I’ll never forget the eyes that looked at me strangely, the people that said, ‘you’re a girl and can’t do it’, or ‘it’s too dangerous’. But no one can stop me from doing what I love,” she says. “What is more beautiful than giving insights into the history, culture, food and traditions of my country?”

But as the first Afghan woman to do the job, no one was more aware of the difficulties ahead than Fatima.

“Before I started my career as a female guide, I often read tourism sites that would discourage women to travel in Afghanistan,” she says. “I asked myself, ‘if it’s dangerous to visit Afghanistan as a tourist woman, how is it possible to be a woman tour guide?’ This was very upsetting to me.

“Then I realised that I am the one who has to create this safe space. Tourist women are role models of courage and change. Women tourists matter, and as a woman tour guide, I matter too.”

In the future, Fatima aims to use her qualifications to work as a professional journalist as well as a guide, while uplifting women along the way. “My next plan is to establish a tourism organisation for empowering female tour guides,” she says. “I am the first female tour guide, but I don’t want to be the last. Afghanistan needs new guiding leaders with new perspectives, who have open minds and open hearts. This need is more crucial for Afghan women. I will do my best to be an agent of change and inspiration for individuals facing similar challenges that I faced as a tour guide and woman journalist.”


Free wheeling: in Karachi, Pakistan, cycling becomes joyful feminist protest

It’s 6am on a Sunday morning in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, when a rare sight emerges through hazily sunlit alleyways. A group of 25 girls and women – mostly teenagers under the age of 16, others up to 45 years old – carefully weave, on matching red bicycles, between the potholes, motorbikes and rickshaws of the inner-city Lyari district. Headscarves tucked under helmets and in single file through narrow streets, the women are on their way to Custom House Karachi, a grand, Colonial-era landmark that’s a two-hour trundle from their home district, and the endpoint of their weekly bike ride. As the cyclists navigate the uneven roads, men gawp and make comments. But the girls have practised comebacks.

Their journey began at Lyari’s Girls Café, a community centre supported by Swiss NGO Terre des Hommes, which has funded girls’ boxing, football and computer classes there since 2017. Local photographer Zulekha Dawood, who volunteers as a social mobiliser at the café, decided to start a bicycle club there in February 2018 after watching groups of boys cycling in the area and remembering hypocrisies from her own upbringing. “When I was a child, my brother and I used to ride bicycles in the streets of Lyari,” she recalls. “But when I turned 16 my mother told me to concentrate on my studies, and cooking, stitching and other things that were better for a girl’s future.” Pakistan is a traditionalist country: following the country’s independence from colonial British rule in 1947, its internal policies became increasingly conservative, in a post-colonial political backlash that somewhat played out in the social control over women and their participation in public space.

Dawood had joined the Girls Café in 2017 to teach Lyari-based girls the skills to help them find employment, but she couldn’t resist the opportunity to empower them to cycle, too. In Karachi, mobility and transport is a particularly gendered issue. Counting 15 million citizens, it’s the seventh-largest city in the world and Pakistan’s economic hub – meaning that what was once a fishing village has evolved into a frenetic, polluted metropolis, where commuter bus routes offer limited services and cramped conditions that compromise the safety of women in public. Sexual harassment on public transport is common, and those who don’t get the bus are usually either forced to walk long distances, take expensive rickshaws or rely on male relatives to get to work or school. In low-income areas, like Lyari, many don’t have access to a car. All this has made some girls dream of their own means of transport – and a bike fits the bill. “Cycling is a healthy and environmentally friendly activity,” says Dawood. “Our purpose is to create a cycling trend.”

A trend is, in fact, emerging around the city – often seeing Karachi residents pick up bikes for the first time since childhood. Weekend mornings are gradually being populated by mixed-gender cyclist groups, such as GG Riders, the environmentally minded Critical Mass Karachi and via initiatives at the city’s NED University. There have even been a handful of women’s cycling groups in the city’s wealthier, leafy suburbs, although women on bikes are generally a rare sight. But conservative, religious attitudes and economic difficulties in Lyari conspire to make cycling riskier for Dawood and her crew.

“Lyari went through a lot of conflict over the last couple of decades,” says Nida Kirmani, Associate Professor of Sociology at Lahore University of Management Sciences. Much of her research has focused on Lyari, which until around 2014 was classified as a ‘no-go zone’ due to gang violence. “While social activities were greatly restricted during the years of conflict, the last few years have seen a gradual renewal of the vibrant cultural life that previously characterised Lyari, including the emergence of spaces catering to women and girls, particularly for sports.

“Lyari’s Girls Café is in an area where the Kutchi community live, who migrated from what is now Indian Gujarat. Even though Lyari is a multi-ethnic area that’s actually known for being fairly liberal, the Kutchi community is very conservative about women and girls’ mobility.”

Dawood held seven months’ worth of indoor bike lessons to her initial group of 7 to 9 girls, who learnt from girls whose brothers had taught them to ride, before they ventured into the streets (now, more than 70 girls are involved, although the numbers dropped during the Coronavirus pandemic). She’s since created a route from Lyari to Custom House that avoids major roads and the local religious madrassa school, and sets off early enough to avoid the crowds of men that have previously heckled or catcalled them.

“So many people frown at us, don’t support us or appreciate us,” says Najmunnisa Allahdad, a 16-year-old medical student who joined the cycling group with her sister and mother. “If our cycling group passes them, they say many bad words, they point at us and say cycling is for boys and girls should stay at home. First it intimidated me, but my parents support and motivate me. My mum cycles with us, because she says that if I’m alone, people will point their finger at me, but if she’s there, she can be the one to answer to them.”

In some instances, cycling can be actively dangerous for women. “When we started our bike club, people threw stones at us,” says Dawood. In January 2019, a cycle rally for transgender and women’s rights in Peshawar (northern Pakistan) had to be cancelled after threats from local religious groups. But generally, the risks for women are more related to social acceptance. Most of the girls that ride bikes with Lyari’s Girls Café have their less-conservative parents’ blessing, but some sneak out and cycle behind their relatives’ backs. And it’s not just local men who take issue with them cycling. “Many girls my age say cycling is wrong, and judge us,” says Allahdad.

So, what is it about a woman cycling in Pakistan that is so controversial?

“Generally, women’s mobility in Pakistan in quite restricted, especially when it comes to what’s seen as non-essential movement,” says Kirmani. “You see girls and women going to school, work, the hospital or the market, but girls going out to exercise or just have fun is not considered to be acceptable – getting on a bike is seen as frivolous. It’s linked to anxieties about sexuality and women’s bodies representing the honour of the family. If a girl is seen to be out of control, it’s seen as a shame or failure for the family.”

It’s also no coincidence that most of the girls cycling at Lyari’s Girls Café are young teenagers. “As girls get closer to the age of marriage, their parents start getting concerned about keeping them at home,” says Kirmani, echoing Dawood’s personal experience. “After marriage, female in-laws often take girls out of the public sphere, force them to leave their jobs and keep them busy with domestic tasks. There’s a lot more scrutiny on their movements.” This extends to other parts of women’s social lives: it’s often frowned-upon for girls to have social media accounts and mobile phones, too.

It’s this cultural mindset that limits women to domestic spaces, and that another group of activists in Karachi seeks to dismantle: Girls at Dhabas. Inspired by a famous book by Indian academics, Why Loiter?, the feminist collective went viral on social media for posting pictures of themselves at normally male-dominated dhaba tea stalls. Like with Dawood’s cycling club, the women behind Girls at Dhabas use everyday acts of transgression to not just claim public spaces as their own, but to have fun doing it. They ran a #FeministMapathon social media campaign last year, which encouraged women in Pakistan to lounge in the park, explore new neighbourhoods or sit at tea stands, all in the name of mixing protest with fun. In 2016, the group began a country-wide, annual bike ride called Girls on Bikes, in response to an incident in Lahore, where a woman was harassed and injured while riding her bicycle. The rally was supported by Full Throttle Pakistan, a bicycle shop in Karachi that rented out bikes and helmets.

“Having fun can be a feminist act,” says Kirmani. “And cycling has taken on symbolic significance in Pakistan. It seems to symbolise freedom, joy, excitement and adventure more than other kinds of physical activities. Older women reminisce about a time when you’d see women cycling a lot more, in the 50s and 60s. It seems to have a place in popular imagination.”

According to Dawood, it’s not yet possible for girls to ride unaccompanied as a means of transport. Most of the riders at Lyari’s Girls Café don’t have access to their own bicycles, and there’s safety in numbers if they cycle as a group. But it’s her dream to normalise the image of a woman on a bike, so that in the future it will become a tool for liberating women’s mobility.

“I hope in the future we will see all the girls of Karachi cycling in place of public transport,” Dawood says. “Even if other people here don’t accept cycling as a sport, they should at least accept it for exercising and for looking after the environment. We want to make it part of our culture.”

Perhaps she’s already made steps in that direction.

“The more you see women cycling, and just being outside for fun and enjoyment, the more normal it will become,” says Kirmani. “It will change perceptions of what public space should look like and disturb the idea of women only belonging in the private sphere. I’m sure Lyari’s Girls Café has already made changes in that way.”

For girls like Allahdad, it’s worth pushing the boundaries of social acceptability to experience the freedom and independence that riding a bike can bring.

“It makes me feel free, to have your own transport, passing the traffic and feeling so strong,” she says. “I hope in the future all parents support their daughters to cycle. It’s my wish that many, many girls will join us and go to university, college and school with their own bicycle.”

Modern Woman

How can we create a menopause-positive culture in the UK?

Almost any post-menopausal woman will tell you that hot flushes are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to symptoms of the menopause. What’s perhaps more surprising is the likelihood that she will have experienced workplace discrimination, and perhaps even stepped back from her career, as a result.

In August 2020, the British Medical Association (BMA) released the results of a study that gave pause for thought to women in the medical world, and beyond. Out of 2,000 female doctors surveyed, a huge 90 per cent reported that menopausal symptoms – insomnia, fatigue and anxiety, as well as hot flushes – had affected their working lives. A third wanted more flexible workplaces than they had and 47 per cent did not feel comfortable discussing the impact of the menopause on their work with their manager, despite wanting to do so.

The consequence?

“Women may be permanently stepping back from senior positions in medicine – a key cause of the gender pay gap,” Dr Helena McKeown, BMA representative body chair, told the Guardian. “And the health service may be losing highly experienced staff because of inflexibility and lack of support during a relatively short phase of life.”

Supporting senior women should be a priority within the NHS, whose workforce is 77 per cent female, although just 46 per cent of senior management roles are held by women. Currently, 60 per cent of junior doctors are women, who will one day progress to senior roles. And it comes at a time when female NHS staff are reporting record levels of stress and exhaustion at work throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the results of the BMA survey point to a far bigger picture of discrimination experienced by women in all corners of the workforce as they go through menopausal symptoms.

Menopause in the workplace

A survey by not-for-profit healthcare provider Nuffield Health reveals that 72 per cent of female workers experiencing menopausal symptoms feel unsupported at work, with one in 10 considering quitting their job. A staggering 90 per cent feel unable to talk to a manager or colleague about the impact of their symptoms on their ability to work, although one in five have had to take time off work. What’s behind this level of miscommunication?

“People don’t know the basics of menopause, the symptoms, or even when it can happen,” says Lauren Chiren, who experienced early menopause while working a senior role in financial services. She’s now the founder of Women of a Certain Stage, which runs personal coaching and corporate training around the menopause. “If you’re not on your A game in finance, you’re out. I’d have palpitations in meetings with directors, gripping the edge of my chair and zoning out. I ended up thinking I had early onset dementia, in my early 40s.”

For Chiren, as for all the other women interviewed for this piece, there’s a lack of education surrounding the menopause which means that even women in the midst of its symptoms might not be aware what they’re experiencing. In fact, the Nuffield Health study shows that 45 per cent of women fail to recognise they’re experiencing menopausal symptoms when they first develop.

“I honestly thought I had Alzheimer’s, or cancer,” ex-journalist Siobhan Daniels tells me. “I went through this period of having a cotton wool head.” Daniels was working in the newsroom at BBC South East television at the time, where she felt unsupported by her colleagues when she eventually found out that she was menopausal.

“My boss was such a bully,” she remembers. “Being menopausal was seen as a weakness. When I tried to broach the subject in the workplace, it was like they thought it was disgusting, even though it had a detrimental impact on me. I nearly left my job early.”

Media specialist Louise Raven* did leave her job early, when the lack of support from her team and HR department meant that her symptoms of early menopause (at age 38) became unmanageable at work.

“It was October and I was sweating so profusely in the office,” she says. “I asked HR if I could sit by the window to manage my temperature, and was told in no uncertain terms, no. I’d been told I couldn’t have children and it was really upsetting, and then I couldn’t even have a doctors’ appointment without problems from HR, while the other ladies who had children would always have mornings off or four-day weeks. I was shocked at the lack of empathy. I ended up taking voluntary redundancy.”

It’s uncommon for workplaces to have support systems in place for women experiencing the menopause. According to research from diversity and inclusion consultancy Shine4Women, 90 per cent of women say their workplace didn’t offer any kind of support for this stage – despite the fact that flexibility is often more readily offered for other reasons, such as childcare and pregnancy, and small adjustments in the workplace (like sitting near a window, for starters) can make a big difference.

“It comes down to simple things,” says Diane Danzebrink, a psychotherapist, menopause expert and wellbeing consultant. “Getting the right medical support at the right time, being able to confidently approach your organisation knowing they will support you, access to flexible working. Simple adjustments in the workplace, like adequate support for your mental wellbeing, perhaps a quiet space you can use, appointing a menopause champion. Basically, creating a supportive culture.”

The problems getting support from the GP

Workplaces must bring in menopause-friendly policies to support their female employees. But in order for women to know when and how make use of them, they need to have received the right medical support from the GP. Often, the more severe menopausal symptoms that one in four women experience – anxiety, palpitations, depression – are misdiagnosed. One quarter of menopausal women who seek help from a GP aren’t told about the possibility of the symptoms being menopause.

“When I ended up in A&E with menopausal palpitations, the doctor asked if I’d done coke,” one woman tells me on Twitter. It echoes the experiences of menopause publicly shared by American TV personality Oprah, who was monitored by cardiologists as a result of her hormonal palpitations. “We looked for the most dire explanation – heart disease – instead of the most likely,” she wrote. For Danzebrink, who – unbelievably – wasn’t prescribed hormone replacement therapy after a total abdominal hysterectomy, things hit rock bottom: “I started to wonder if life like this was worth living.”

“So many of my friends were prescribed antidepressants instead of HRT,” says Daniels, who swears by EstroGel patches for dealing with aches, sweats and anxiety. “And many are being told by predominantly male doctors that they don’t need it.”

Even when women are identified as menopausal by their GP, they’re often not made aware of the full range of treatment available to them. While the NHS guidelines ‘do not suggest that all, or even most, women with menopausal symptoms should be prescribed HRT’, there’s growing evidence that it can significantly improve a woman’s quality of life – yet a third of women surveyed by Nuffield Health weren’t made aware of HRT by their GP. Of those that were, a third were told it was unsuitable for them.

“Increasingly the evidence shows appropriate HRT to be suitable for many women, with far less risks than previously thought,” says Dr Annie Evans, menopause specialist at Nuffield Health Bristol Hospital. “It is an absolute tragedy that large numbers of women are getting no help at all.” The widespread shortage of HRT patches last year illustrated a fact pointed out to me by senior speciality emergency doctor Dr Cathy Paget: “HRT is not considered a key medicine.”

The situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 lockdown, thanks to a number of factors identified by menopause coach and activist Kate Usher. “Stress is difficult to biologically manage during the menopause, and stress exacerbates many symptoms,” she tells me. “While most symptoms are easier to manage at home, the pressure to be present and effective due to concerns over job retention, increases stress levels. Isolation can be difficult at the best of times, however with anxiety, depression and panic attacks being extremely common menopause symptoms, it can be catastrophic. And access to healthcare during this period has been difficult and patchy.”

There’s also evidence that ethnicity and socioeconomic circumstances can play a part in worsening a menopausal experience. The US’s Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), which began in 1996, shows that Black and Latina women reach menopause two years earlier than white women, and are more likely to experience hot flushes and night sweats for longer. “My educated guess is that a lot of the differences have their basis in lifestyle, SES (socioeconomic status), and other stressors such as systemic racism and their long-term consequences,” said University of Colorado School of Medicine professor Dr Nanette Santoro to heath site EndocrineWeb.

What’s going wrong?

When 51 per cent of the population will experience menopause, why is it so routinely missed by GPs?

“In the UK, doctors only have mandatory training in menopause so a lot haven’t heard of it in 20 years,” says Shine4Women co-founder Anna Baréz-Brown. “A 65-year-old male GP doesn’t have menopause in mind.”

“We know from many recently qualified GPs that they had little or no menopause training at all,” adds Danzebrink. “It’s because until the 80s, there was very little pressure for women to be included in medical research. We’ve only ever had two women head up the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. And over the last 30 or 40 years we’ve since an exponential rise in women over 50 in the workplace, so menopause in the workplace is more common now – but society hasn’t caught up.

“Women are referred to cardiologists for heart palpitations, rheumatologists for joint pain, psychiatrists for mental health conditions which are actually to do with changing levels of hormones. The fact is we’re not teaching our medical professionals about this life stage. And our GPs are under horrible pressure. We need to make their job easier by giving them the right education, so when a woman who’s experiencing peri-menopause walks in, they can treat her how she deserves to be treated and it’ll probably save six or seven appointments in the diary.”

Which brings us back to the BMA’s study. Senior female doctors leaving their roles could do even more harm than widening the gender pay gap. There will be fewer woman GPs that have first-hand experience of the menopause and therefore, until GP training on the menopause improves, are able to easily diagnose it in patients.

“If even our medical professionals are struggling to get help, what hope does the public have?” asks Danzebrink. “When there are so few women in senior positions, you don’t get the value of their experience for younger colleagues. It also doesn’t make financial sense for any organisation to lose a team member they’ve spent all that time training and supporting.”

The good news is that over the last few years, women and organisations have begun speaking up about the menopause and its impact on women’s lives, including at work. “In the five years since I started speaking out about this publicly, we’ve seen more unions creating menopause policies, we’ve had menopause debated in the Houses of Parliament, we’ve seen a government report about menopause in the workplace,” says Danzebrink. She’s also played a part in getting menopause on the school curriculum in England, which begins this term. And despite the BMA study’s findings, some NHS staff report a gradual culture shift.

“When I first joined Southampton hospital, I remember saying breaks are for wimps,” laughs Dr Paget. “That’s changed completely. There’s been a big awareness in emergency medicine that it’s a really tough industry, and pressures are increasing. And I’ve been able to renegotiate my contract and work less antisocial hours to help with my menopausal symptoms.”

The expertise of someone like Dr Paget on the team is invaluable. “I say, always bring a menopausal women into a meeting for her amazing perspective,” concludes Baréz-Brown. “An older, wiser counsel. Losing a woman like that in a business is not great. And that’s why businesses should do more to support them.”


*name changed for anonymity

Modern Woman

Does regular sex spell career success?

We know that sex is good for us – physically, mentally and spiritually. But research is starting to show that a healthy sex life can positively influence our careers, too.

The small Swedish town of Övertorneå isn’t used to global headlines. That is, it wasn’t until February 2017 – when town councillor Per-Erik Muskos made a proposal that shocked the ageing, rural population, and the international media with it.

Muskos believes that Swedes should be given an hour-long, paid break from work each week, to dedicate to going home and having sex with their partners. For the politician, couples don’t have enough time together, and ‘there are studies that show sex is healthy’. He saw no reason why the other town officials wouldn’t go for it.

Muskos was wrong about that: the Övertorneå town council voted against his proposal. But he was right to mention the magnitude of studies that show the health benefits of an active sex life. It’s proven that sexual activity and orgasms improve fitness, strengthen immunity and release the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, which lowers anxiety and raises energy levels.

But studies also suggest that there’s another added bonus to an active sex life: workplace success. Research conducted at the University of Oregon, the University of Washington and Oregon State University found that couples having more sex at home experienced increased motivation and job satisfaction at work. Perhaps Muskos was onto something after all.

For the 2017 study, four researchers tracked the behaviour of 159 married employees for two weeks, asking them to fill in a daily diary charting sexual activity and rating workplace enjoyment. “We found that when employees engaged in sex at home, they reported increased positive affect at work the following day,” they report. “And daily work-to-family strain-based conflict significantly reduced the likelihood of engaging in sex at home that evening.”

According to the findings, then, a satisfying sex life works in full circle with a fulfilling work life. Getting it on one night means an improved performance at work the next day – yet having a crappy day at the office means you’ll likely be feeling less than horny by the time you’re back home with your partner.

Sexuality as part of the bigger picture

For American sexologist Logan Levkoff, PhD, this makes total sense.

“There is no question that happiness and fulfilment in your romantic and sexuality identity play a role in your physical and emotional productivity,” she says. “We tend to think of sexual health and fulfilment as not a necessity, but it’s an important, critical part of who we are holistically. It relates to our physical and spiritual wellbeing – our self-confidence or stress. And we bring all those things into the workplace with us.”

There are flaws in the study. You don’t have to be in a committed, monogamous marriage to have a healthy sex life – “people can be sexually and emotionally fulfilled and not interested in having a particular partner”, clarifies Levkoff – but it turns out the researchers purposefully limited their study to married couples because they, statistically speaking, have more sex than singletons.

Shocked? Don’t be. Despite the assumed prevalence of ‘hook-up culture’ brought upon us by dating apps like Grindr, BARE Dating or Tinder – which has an estimated 57 million users worldwide – millennials in the USA and Europe are having less sex than the previous GenX generation. “Americans born in the 80s and 90s [are] more likely to report having no sexual partners as adults compared to GenX’ers born in the 60s and 70s,” claims psychologist Jean Twenge in a 2016 study by San Diego State University.

Could this decline in sexual activity negatively impact millennials’ success at work? One study, published earlier this month, seems to suggest so.

“Men with lower income and with part-time or no employment [are] more likely to be sexually inactive,” claim researchers from Indiana University, who looked at the sex lives of 18-44-year-olds in the USA from 2000-2018. “Approximately one in three men aged 18 to 24 years reported no sexual activity in the past year.”

Which came first – sexual inactivity or unemployment? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer, and perhaps irrelevant to ask. But if the Indiana University study proves anything, it’s that Levkoff’s reading of the situation is accurate: sexual confidence goes hand-in-hand with career confidence. “Our voice, our self-confidence or stress… all those things are impacted by our sexual lives and lack thereof,” she says.

The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made social contact harder and left so many in unstable financial circumstances, is likely to mean even less sex for Western millennials – as well as fewer economic opportunities.

The impact of tech

The worldwide lockdown has also increased use of dating apps among single people, with Tinder recording its highest-ever number of swipes on 29 March (3 billion). While some daters are enjoying more meaningful exchanges on apps and a lower stigma associated with using them, the pandemic has made online dating more central to 21st-century dating than ever – and it’s here to stay. Research by American platform has found that while its users are keen to get back to dating, 60 per cent of those questioned will be cautiously easing back into in-person dating in the wake of the experience.

Levkoff believes that dating apps have a lot to answer for when it comes to the declining sex lives of millennials – which in turn can have a knock-on effect in the workplace.

“We have created a culture around sex and technology and intimacy, where being vulnerable is a really scary thing,” she explains. “And when we have outlets for sexual pleasure that aren’t fraught with vulnerability, we don’t necessarily seek it out with another person. But that inability to speak candidly, being awkward and owning it? Those are really important skills. And when we’re unsure of our voice, think about how that affects us in business.”

Exploring your kinks

Dating apps have their downsides, but the prevalence of the internet in our daily lives has dramatically opened the door to an industry that was once the preserve of phone boxes and public bathroom walls: the sex industry. And within that world, there’s a service that’s traditionally been seen to cater to high-flying businessmen, looking for an antidote to their pressured workdays. If there’s a correlation between sexual fulfilment and workplace success, then can visiting a dominatrix be seen as a career investment?

“There’s a stereotype that men who see dominatrixes are of a certain age group, businessmen and lawyers, but that’s a misconception,” says Mistress Adreena Angela, a dominatrix and sex workers’ activist in London. “That was probably true in the past, but now there’s such a huge variety. But there is definitely a correlation between people who have power in the outside world, and submission.”

Mistress Adreena confirms that clients can experience greater workplace success following their sessions with her – “I have a guy who comes on his lunchbreak, then returns to work with more of a spring in his step”, she laughs – but credits it to the personal satisfaction that can be gained from exploring your sexuality head on.

“I have one client in regular chastity,” she reveals. “He does a month at a time where he can’t have sex or masturbate, and it retrains his mind. He’s so much more focused on work when he’s in chastity – he says there’s a noticeable improvement.”

Wait. Can taking sex completely out of the equation help performance at work, too?

“It’s not exactly that,” decides Mistress Adreena. “He’s still dealing with his sexuality, just not through orgasms. If you’re addressing your sexuality, you’re in a much healthier headspace – rather than being sexually frustrated or feeling shame. Psychologically, you’ll be in a better place to work.”

There’s no doubt that the relationship between sex and the rest of your life is complex and intertwined. A sudden uptick in career success can leave you too tired to dedicate sufficient time to your partner and to sex; while pregnancy, childbirth, parenthood and menopause can all greatly impact your sex and work life. “Before I had a child I was shagging like mad and working on my career,” one mum tells us. “Now I’ve not had sex for six years and I’m unemployed, rather than being in a full-time, permanent job.”

From the bedroom to the boardroom

Owning your sexuality seems to be beneficial, both in your personal and work life. And if sex is fundamental to our overall wellbeing – as argued by Levkoff, plus countless doctors and psychologists producing research on the subject – it only follows that hang-ups in the bedroom could trickle into the boardroom.

“No matter where we live, and regardless of religious or ethnic culture, we all get messages about what is ‘acceptable’ sexually. About how we’re supposed to act and feel fulfilled. When we don’t have that, it trickles down,” says Levkoff. “If you don’t feel worthy of love, respect, attention and having your voice heard, it’s impossible not to carry that into your work. That will definitely impact your business.”

Love, respect and attention? They’re three things that everybody deserves. We don’t need any more convincing.

N by Norwegian

Moving mountains: the power of women-only tours in Morocco

Fatima sits down at a wooden loom at the mouth of the cave and gestures for me to kneel beside her. Handing me a ball of wool, dyed yellow with saffron, she nods in encouragement as I attempt the fiddly process of weaving the next layer of the rug she’s working on, pushing it down with a metal comb.

A nomadic Berber, Fatima lives in caves across the sparse, rocky plains of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains with her family, herd of goats, chickens and mule. Making a small living through weaving and selling goat meat, she pursues a lifestyle that hasn’t changed for thousands of years – except that, two years ago, she began to supplement her family’s income by hosting tourists for a taste of nomad life.

“She says she weaves for just one hour each day, because it’s such intense work,” says my guide, Chama Ouammi, pouring steaming cups of mint tea. Ouammi acts as translator between visitors and the nomads, who only speak a regional Berber dialect. “I am Berber, too, so I understand this life,” she says.

We’re here for a taster of a Women’s Expedition in Morocco – the first female-only trek from tour operator Intrepid Travel. It takes groups of up to 12 women on an eight-day immersive journey through the country, staying at homestays in the Atlas Mountains. These trips are also organised and guided by women, and men are noticeably absent from our travels. If they were here, we wouldn’t be baking bread, trying our hand at weaving and sipping tea with Fatima and her children.

“With men present you wouldn’t be able to enter women’s homes and break that cultural barrier,” Zina Bencheikh, Intrepid Group’s regional director for Europe, Middle East and North Africa, explained to me prior to this trip. “A lot of customers want to do challenging stuff like a trek, without being judged by men or seen all sweaty, but the main thing they want is to enter the women’s world.”

Women-only travel is one of the fastest growing sectors in the global travel industry – and demand for trips like these has been growing. The number of solo female travellers soared from 59 million to 138 million between 2014 and 2017, according to the World Tourism Organization, and 84% of all solo trips are now made by women.

Intrepid isn’t the only group responding to these figures. American operator smarTours launched women-only itineraries in Egypt, Morocco and Colombia last year, while Condé Nast Traveler invited its online community, Women Who Travel, on group trips to Colombia, Mexico and Cuba. But what makes these journeys into the Atlas Mountains special is that they’re actively encouraging women’s employment in Morocco.

“Intrepid is very committed to gender equality. But in 2017 we had less than 20% of female tour guides globally and in Morocco, we had none,” explains Bencheikh. “It’s a conservative country. Women seen leading groups of men and women in different cities, spending nights out of the house, was problematic.”

When her company instructed its global outposts to double their number of female tour guides by 2020, Bencheikh – who grew up in Canada, France and the UK before returning to Marrakech in her twenties – decided she had to unpick the cultural barriers stopping women from applying. She lobbied Morocco’s Ministry of Tourism to issue 1,000 new tour-guide licences, and campaigned to raise awareness among local women, encouraging them to apply. “It’s prestigious and really well paid,” she says. “Why wouldn’t women want to do it?”

At the same time, she launched a campaign in the M’Goun valley, a popular trekking region of the High Atlas, for an itinerary run by women, for women. “We didn’t want to shock the culture – and this way, the men accepted it,” she says. “In fact, they loved it. Their wives and sisters bring in more income.”

Now around 100 Moroccan women have tour guide licences, and the Intrepid team has built a network of women-led suppliers and homestays that had been cut off from the benefits of tourism. We visit one of these on our first night in the M’Goun valley, after a six-hour winding drive from Marrakech, over the barren, snow-dusted Tichka summit and past the mud-built kasbah of Aït Benhaddou, where scenes in Gladiator and Game of Thrones have been filmed.

We pull up in Agouti, a hamlet of low-rise stone houses surrounded by almond and fig trees, and receive an open-armed welcome from a family of six women, dressed in full-length velvet dresses in purples, blues and greens. I spend the evening cross-legged on the concrete kitchen floor with our hostess Ajo Bendaoud, peeling vegetables for a tagine and making couscous from scratch, rolling flour with water and oil, and steaming it slowly. We eat together, scooping up the delicious, spiced mixture with our hands.

Bendaoud picks up a drum and the women break into song, encouraging me to clap and sing along, making up lyrics as I try to imitate their Berber dialect. Ouammi, who speaks six languages, is our smiley go-between, but for the most part we connect through hand gestures, smiles and hugs. There’s something comforting about being ushered around the house by mothers and grandmothers, finding your place by lending a hand in domestic tasks that don’t much vary between cultures. In a female space, it’s easier to feel like an added-on family member, trusted to have a toddler plonked on your lap or to laugh your way through new dance moves without fear of looking silly.

The next morning, I embark on an early morning trek to visit the nomadic community with another local woman, Mama Bie. We stroll through lush orchards until we reach a craggy gorge, leap over rivers on stepping stones and pause to eat fresh tangerines while she tells me her story via Ouammi.

In rural Morocco, more than 80% of women are illiterate, and arranged marriage is common – at as young as 13 for girls – typically leading to a life of child-rearing and housework. Mama Bie, now in her late fifties, is one such woman. She divorced aged 17 and became a single mother to her young son – her legal right, but a socially precarious decision. “After my divorce I couldn’t trust anybody,” she says. “Society thinks you are a bad woman.”

Luckily, her brother supported her, and she’s worked at his hostel ever since. It was already in the Intrepid network but it wasn’t until the Women’s Expedition came along that Bie took on an active role with guests, leading treks and teaching them to make bread, with a female guide as mediator. “When I’m doing the expeditions, I’m not just thinking about housework,” she smiles.

Ouammi was raised in the next valley along. “There are ladies in Berber villages who are very smart, but can’t finish their studies because no one can support them,” she says. “I was lucky to have open-minded parents who encouraged me to follow my dreams.”

She studied computer management and went on to be a freelance tour guide in Marrakech, before Intrepid headhunted her for the Women’s Expedition. But being the youngest and first female tour guide from the M’Goun valley hasn’t come without obstacles. “My uncle is a tour guide and he said: ‘This job is too hard for you. You can’t carry heavy bags or trek up mountains, you’ll never marry in the future.’” But she didn’t listen to him. “Women can do everything men can, and more.”

After tea in the caves, we trek to the Gîte Tamaloute in Boutaghrar village, the hostel run by Bie and her brother Hussain. We reunite with some women from the night before, who greet us with all the excitement and affection of lifelong friends, before I’m whisked away and dressed up in regional celebration wear: a full-length toga-like dress, an elaborate headdress of pompoms and a back-combed fringe.

We parade outside and I’m thrown into a folkloric dance demonstration, learning the steps as my new friends spin me around to an increasingly frenzied drumbeat. Attempts to sit down are vetoed: we dance and laugh together for hours, unable to exchange words but finding a close bond nonetheless.

In rural Morocco, women lead private, domestic lives. Without the link set up by Bencheikh, and cultivated by guides like Ouammi, it would be near-impossible for women like Bie and Fatima to participate in the tourism industry – and for non-Moroccan women to communicate with them.

A business model like this gives an economic boost to women at every level of the supply chain, whether they are visible or not: from utilising the country’s only female-owned transport company to kick-starting careers for smart, ambitious would-be leaders, like Ouammi. Most striking of all, it leaves misconceptions by the wayside, opening the door to travel that creates real cross-cultural connections.

“With women, I can talk about anything, and they can, too,” says Ouammi. “We can share and learn from each other. My dream is to travel outside of Morocco and show the women who live in the mountains in Morocco, and the world, that Berber women can do anything.”

N by Norwegian

Feminist Renaissance: the Florentine restorers rescuing art by women

As the wooden shutters fold back, the dark restoration studio is flooded with Tuscan sunlight, illuminating an enormous canvas. Seven metres by two, it’s a 16th-century rendering of the Last Supper, a favoured theme for painters of the Renaissance. Versions of the scene are found in monasteries all over Florence – but this one has some unusual traits.

“There’s a wonderful attention to how the table is set,” says Rosella Lari, an art restorer who’s just completed four years on this work – etching away years of dirt and damage, and applying earth-tone paint and protective varnish. “It’s the only Last Supper I’m aware of that has an ironed tablecloth.”

As well as the cloth, with its perfectly pressed folds, the table is replete with chunky bread rolls, fava beans, roasted meat and salad; wine glasses are filled to the brim. It makes a down-to-earth contrast with other Last Suppers, which mostly display empty plates and glasses, and a distinct lack of actual eating. There’s a good reason for this, according to Lari. It was painted by a woman.

While many of us will be familiar with the big male names of Renaissance art who worked in Florence in the 1500s – da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio – few will have heard of their female counterparts. Like self-taught artist and nun Plautilla Nelli, whose newly restored Last Supper is the largest known canvas by an early-modern female artist.

The painting’s crowdfunded restoration is the latest and most ambitious project from Advancing Women Artists (AWA) – a Florence-based non-profit organisation that searches for forgotten works by women artists, restores them, and supports galleries and museums in exhibiting them to the public. Since its launch in 2009 by the late American philanthropist Jane Fortune, AWA’s four-women-strong team has restored 65 works. There are now 124 by female artists on display in the city, but still a further 1,600 in storage – most of which are in dire need of restoration.

“When people come here, they want to see Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci,” says Linda Falcone, a former journalist and close friend of Fortune who now runs AWA and believes there’s just as much to gain from artworks by women. “They’re valuable from both an artistic and social point of view,” she says. “In some cases they’re the only social documents that testify to their lives.”

The organisation was born after Fortune came across a woodworm-infested oil painting by Nelli, Lamentation with Saints, in the San Marco Museum – and vowed to pay for its restoration herself. That led to a city-wide quest for the nun’s forgotten works, eventually found in Florence’s museum deposits, particularly the San Salvi monastery (now a museum).

It’s no coincidence that women’s art is often found in religious buildings, as much of it was produced in convents, which were unexpected centres of female creativity in 16th-century Italy. “To enter a convent like Nelli’s, families had to pay a dowry, and women of talent, who could paint or sing, could pay less because they were considered a resource,” explains Falcone. “People wanted to buy devotional art from nuns to feel closer to God.”

But while their talents were recognised – and some were commercially successful – a life of quiet chastity left little opportunity for nuns to study the human form, leaving them mainly with drawings from prominent male artists to work from. “They were painting things they had access to when they weren’t allowed to go to academies or paint nude models – so women’s portraits, and what they were preparing for dinner.”

It’s not known how many women artists were working in this period, but Giorgio Vasari, their contemporary and the world’s first art historian, mentions just four in his Lives of the Artists. There are complex obstacles to uncovering their works. “When we first approached galleries, they had no gender-based records of what they had,” reveals Falcone. She has personally sifted through countless museum archives to find art by women – a frustrating task, as the records are often handwritten, inconsistent and gender ambiguous, listing artists by initials rather than their full names.

This is, however, good news for today’s visitor who’s interested in knowing more, as they don’t have to do any digging. There’s now a Women Artists’ Trail, put together by the AWA, which is printed at the back of Invisible Women, Fortune’s book charting her hunt for forgotten women’s art. Following it, book in hand, is an easy way to see art by women while also taking in some of the city’s finest institutions.

One of the stops is San Salvi, which Falcone says has become known as “Nelli’s home… There are five of her works there now, four of which we restored and asked them to exhibit. Before, they were covered in pigeon droppings, they’d been gnawed by rats, someone had gone at the warping with a hammer.”

The revived paintings have a raw, emotional power that sets them apart from their more idealised counterparts by male artists. Nelli’s Lamentation puts the feminine experience in focus, her female characters’ eyes red-raw from crying as they cradle Christ’s lifeless body.

One of the trail’s other must-visit spots is the Palazzo Pitti – a vast Renaissance palace linked to the Uffizi by the arched Ponte Vecchio bridge, where the Pitti and Medici families (the world’s first modern bankers and the primary patrons of Renaissance art) lived between the 15th and 18th centuries. The setting alone is a visual overload, thanks to its deep-red walls, gilded cornices and chandeliers.

AWA runs an Invisible Women tour through the Palazzo Pitti with guiding company Freya’s Florence, that even goes into locked-off areas to view a set of 21 still lives by Giovanni Garzona – the most represented female artist in the gallery, although her work is not on public display. It’s also home to an unusual Baroque masterpiece: David and Bathsheba by Artemisia Gentileschi – the “poster child” of early modern female painting, according to Falcone. She and Fortune campaigned to have the work restored in 2008 after 363 years in storage.

A 10-minute walk north is another hidden work by Gentileschi at Casa Buonarroti – a mansion once owned by the artist Michelangelo. On a wood-panelled ceiling alongside 41 works by men, it’s a self-portrait under the guise of an Allegory of Inclination. Invoicing records show that she was paid three times more than her male counterparts for the work.

“Artemisia was a smart businesswoman and very successful,” says Falcone. “Because of the institutions’ focus on the male masters, people aren’t aware of that. We’re restoring more than paintings – we’re restoring these women’s identities.”

Nowhere is this more important than at the world-famous Uffizi, which houses the most works produced by women before the 19th century. In 2017, the gallery held its first Nelli exhibition, with free entry to women on International Women’s Day and a pledge to run an annual series on women’s art.

“We spent 10 years restoring 13 works by Nelli, which laid the groundwork for the Uffizi show,” Falcone explains. “Our attitude is collaborative and kudos to those who get the message, but there’s still a lot of art that’s not accessible to the public.”

There are still plenty of frustrations, too. “There are directors who ask why you’d want to restore art by women, and the general public wants to stay on the beaten track, which doesn’t yet include work by female artists. It’s about educating on the value of these works and understanding who your public is.”

It’s slow progress but early women’s art is becoming increasingly visible around the world. Visitors this month to the Prado, in Madrid, can see an exhibition on Renaissance artists Sofonisba Anguissola, a painter in the court of King Phillip II, and Lavinia Fontana, thought to be the first professional female artist. In London, the National Portrait Gallery’s Pre-Raphaelite Sisters reveals the hidden stories of those on both sides of the easel (until 26 January). Next year will also see the UK’s first Gentileschi show, at the National Gallery.

Eike Schmidt, the Uffizi’s director, has seen an exponential rise of interest in Gentileschi’s work, which appears on social media second only to Botticelli’s.

“She’s a kind of Quentin Tarantino of the past, which has become fashionable,” he says, referring to her violent portrayal of Judith Slaying Holofernes – which shows the artist herself taking a sword to the throat of her antagonist (and, as some like to think, the patriarchy).

The drama surrounding Gentileschi has somewhat overshadowed Nelli’s more contemplative work, but her Last Supper, which went on permanent display last month at the Santa Maria Novella Museum, should up her profile considerably. Nelli was clearly proud of the work, as she has, unusually, signed the art, in the top corner, followed by the words: “Pray for the paintress.”

“Artists didn’t sign their work at that time,” says Lari. “She’s saying, ‘Plautilla made this.’ She knows she’s worth something.”

This is even more poignant when you consider that Nelli sold small devotional paintings in order to fund the huge painting, with the sole intention of hanging it in the refectory, just as the men did in monasteries. “Women’s history is just not told,” says Falcone. “But restoring a painting is restoring a moment in history. Plautilla’s signature makes an appeal to the future – and we’re answering it.”

N by Norwegian

A wellness guide to witch city: Salem, Massachusetts

A makeshift altar stands on the cobbled waterfront of Salem’s misty harbour. Fashioned from a wooden cabinet, it’s draped with animal skins and topped with candles that flicker in the cool East Coast breeze. Holding hands, 10 women and two men encircle it, sporting long, flowing robes, wolf-tooth earrings and flowers in their hair. One by one they place offerings: a rosebud, a sunflower, a rabbit’s paw.

Justice the Wizard, an oracle who’s leading this evening’s ritual, rolls up the sleeves of his cloak and tears a sprig of mint leaves into a stone font of water fragranced with rose petals and lemon juice. I rinse my hands before taking the silver chalice of grape juice he’s holding out. “May you never thirst,” he says, smiling.

Welcome to Salem, Massachusetts – or Witch City, as this former fishing port is nicknamed. It’s best known for its leading role in the witch trials of 1692, which saw the execution of 20 people and imprisonment of more than 200 others, most of them women. Over the past 50 years, it’s developed a thriving tourism industry around its gruesome history. Less well known, though, is that Salem is now home to a community of real-life witches – as many as 1,600 out of a 40,000 population – who’ve been reclaiming the town as their own. Rather than black capes and pointy hats, these enchanters and enchantresses are identified by their liberal politics: performing protective charms for vulnerable groups, engaging in cleansing rituals, and sharing spells on the #witchesofinstagram hashtag.

Salem is now, somewhat ironically, considered one of the most inclusive communities on America’s East Coast for Wicca, witchcraft and paganism. And, although tourist tat shops still peddle a cartoon version of witchery with black-cat coasters and broomstick key rings, the town is now welcoming a growing number of guests for alternative wellness holidays – ones that swap spas for tarot cards and saunas for Moon circles.

“A lot of people come to Salem to experience modern witchcraft,” says Now Age Travel guide Melissa Nierman, who runs walking tours of the city that aim to tell a non-sensationalist version of the events of 1692 and to unpick Salem’s complex relationship with witchcraft. “People think Salem’s always had witches,” she says, “but we didn’t have any witch shops here before the ’70s. That’s because in the past, the term ‘witch’ was very disempowered and led to the murder of innocent people.”

While on the surface Salem has come to terms with its witchy history, she points out that most of the witchcraft imagery around town still tends to focus either on the tragic deaths of the trial victims, or on a kitsch, cartoonish archetype. The latter is typified by the cutesy statue of sorceress Samantha Stephens (from the 1960s sitcom Bewitched), which sits on the site where “the hanging judge”, John Hathorne, lived. Its installation in 2005 prompted protests by real practitioners of witchcraft, who take issue with the patriarchy-friendly image that’s often seen on screen.

Her tours shows how this trivialisation of a violently misogynistic period of history points to a wider tendency in Western culture to neutralise the threat that witches traditionally represent. “I ask how this ties in with cycles of persecution that are happening today,” she says.

While this sub-text certainly doesn’t deter the many thousands of visitors who come here (as many as 250,000 just for its Halloween Happenings each October), Nierman has found an increasing number are eager to learn about how magical beliefs manifest today – and how “modern feminist witchcraft offers an alternative to the status quo”. Those who don’t move in Wiccan circles might be surprised by this level of interest, but as membership of traditional religions has fallen among younger generations, nature-based spirituality is booming. Surveys show that 40% of Americans now believe in psychics and 30% in astrology. The country’s psychic services industry – which includes astrology, tarot-card reading and palmistry – is worth US$2 billion.

One major highlight for these pilgrims is HausWitch Home + Healing. Opened in 2015 by self-identifying witch Erica Feldmann, its airy, minimalist interior wouldn’t look amiss in Copenhagen. On the whitepainted shelves are origami-encased spell kits, velvet-bound spell books and herbal cosmetics. “We only stock things we truly believe are medicine and magic, from makers that are women, queer, people of colour,” says Feldmann. “We focus on self-care as witchcraft. You can effortlessly bring magic into your everyday life, to empower you to create the life you want.”

This idea of witchcraft as wellness isn’t so different from the philosophies seen in popular self-help manuals like The Secret and The Law of Attraction, where practitioners hope to harness natural forces to manifest positive futures. Books like last year’s The Witch’s Book of Self-Care, Spellwork for Self-Care and the forthcoming Magical Self-Care for Everyday Life, are part of a new phenomenon that seems particularly tailored to millennials, who are driving the $4.2 trillion global wellness market with their love of yoga, meditation and, now, love spells and moonstones.

In Salem today you’ll find every possible wellness trope given a uniquely witchy bent, with spiritual treatments for a litany of life ills. There are Full Moon, Half Moon or Dark Moon rituals, lessons on the guiding power of crystals, tarot card readings and candlelit seances. You can visit a high priestess at Omen (a “Psychic Parlour and Witchcraft Emporium”) and learn to “manifest your life” on a “Ritual Transformation” that involves discarding symbols of unwanted habits into a “dark cauldron”. Or – for those who are particularly worried about Mercury entering retrograde this month – work out which herbs will protect you at a “folk herbalism” workshop.

Across town, Artemisia Botanicals, home to the “Green Witch School of Herbalism”, is the place to find out more about how plants can aid well-being. Stepping inside, there’s a rich scent of dried petals and incense sticks. The walls are stacked, floor-to-ceiling, with essential oils, handcrafted goat-milk soaps, gleaming crystals and dried herbs. The owner, herbalist and coven-sister Teri Kalgren, points out that historically wellness has always been plant-based. Before we had medicine in the scientific sense, humans put their faith in wise women to cure ills, whether they claimed to have magical powers or not.

She describes casting spells – quite simply – as a therapeutic form of meditation. “If you’re going through a rough time, you might naturally want to have a bath, make a cup of tea, light a candle. When you light it, you’ll meditate on it and visualise yourself getting better. Positive affirmations are so good for the spirit.”

I’m a bit wary of trying some of the more occult-sounding stuff, but in the interests of research I find myself at The Cauldron Black, a Mediterranean folk-magic shop opened on the harbour in 2017. Tarot reader Nick Dickinson leads me behind a velvet curtain at the back of the shop and hands me a deck of cards to shuffle. To soothing sitar playing over the speakers, he leans forward and smiles. “Things have been a bit up in the air lately,” he says softly. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”

As my tarot reading progresses into an impromptu counselling session, I start to understand the appeal of these treatments. For witchcraft to work as self-care, you have to be receptive to its influence. Like talking therapies, meditation and arguably prayer, these practices are simply tools for making sense of and coping with daily life.

It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Americans are turning to these natural touchstones during an era of political upheaval. As Feldman told me: “People are feeling a bit powerless right now, and women and other oppressed people feel a connection to witchcraft as a language. People practised Earth worship for millions of years. It’s only in the past couple of hundred years that it’s been looked at as a wacky idea, but it’s in all of our ancestry.” To seek harmony with the natural cycles of the Earth, when global insecurity weighs heavy, is an act of well-being in itself.

I meditate on this as I end my stay at Justice the Wizard’s sunset ritual, holding a rose to my heart, then placing it on the makeshift altar by the sea. As I sip from the chalice and pass it back to Justice, to my slight surprise I’m full of calm and feel present on a more fundamental level than a spa weekend could have wrought. I smile back at him. “May you never thirst.”

Conde Nast Traveler

Meet the woman recreating the journeys of history’s forgotten female explorers

By the time she was 16,400-feet high in the Himalayas, Elise Wortley had learned to deal with altitude sickness and blistered feet. She’d even gotten used to her uncomfortable leather boots slipping on the rocks as she picked her way between sheets of ice and tufts of coarse grass. But as the sun went down near Kangchenjunga basecamp—the third highest peak in the world—it was the extreme, bone-chilling temperature that nearly broke her.

“I’ll never forget that night,” says the 29-year-old Londoner. “It was -15 degrees Celsius and I had ice in my hair and all over my blanket. The ground was too wet to make a fire. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’”

Nowadays, trekkers in Thangu Valley are equipped with snow-proof tents and buttoned up in state-of-the-art clothing to protect them from the harsh conditions that characterize that strip of northern India. Not so for Wortley. In 2017, she embarked on a journey that she’d been dreaming of since age 16, when she read a book that changed her life: My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Néel. Published in 1927, the autobiography charts the French female explorer’s 14-year expedition to Tibet, between 1911 and 1925. She traveled overland across Europe before finally reaching the town of Lachen in Sikkim, a northern region of India that juts out between Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan. Making the region her home for four years, it was from there that she first caught a glimpse of Tibet and vowed to enter it, eventually making it over the border by disguising herself as a beggar. Entry was forbidden for foreigners at the time, and it was unthinkable for a solo European woman to embark on such a journey alone.

“Women just didn’t do things like that,” Wortley says. “When I was a teenager I was shy and I dealt with extreme anxiety for years. The fact that she’d done this epic voyage fascinated me. I always had this inkling that maybe I could follow in her footsteps, but at the time, I was so anxious, I struggled to get on the bus.”

Part self-funded and part-funded by travel company Exodus, for whom she was working at the time, Wortley set off for Sikkim in 2017. An avid traveler, both personally and professionally, it wasn’t her first trip to India (she had already traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, Senegal and South Africa), but it was certainly her most adventurous. Joined by camerawoman Emily Almond Barr and local female mountain guide Jangu, Wortley recreated a portion of David-Néel’s journey from regional capital Gangtok to Kangchenjunga on the Tibetan border, covering some 435 miles by foot in a month-long trek. Keen to recreate David-Néel’s experience to the full, she made a mad-cap pledge to only take with her the equipment available to the French explorer in the 1920s. She traded in all modern-day comforts (minus emergency medical supplies) for a yak wool coat, rubber-soled boots, and a wooden backpack that she’d fashioned from an old chair, some rope, and an Indian wicker basket that she bought from a market in Gangtok.

“I went the whole hog. I had 1920s underwear—a cotton bra and high-waisted pants, and a woolen undergarment that was so itchy,” Wortley says. “The ropes on my backpack rubbed a lot, I had scabs on my shoulders. But I had to know how it felt to do it that way. The journeys of female explorers were way more hardcore than for their male counterparts. It was much more dangerous [for them] and they had to deal with the physical elements but also their periods, and even having to hide the fact they were women.”

Despite the decades separating their adventures, it wasn’t just the old-school underwear that aligned Wortley’s experience with David-Néel’s. “The scenery that she describes so beautifully in the book hasn’t changed. Mountains don’t change, not in 100 years anyway,” she says. “And she writes about how any house she passed welcomed her in, as they do now. You have a Tibetan tea with salt and butter, you have a chat even though no one knows what anyone’s saying.”

Wortley and her small team had to stop short of Lhasa due to similar difficulties in entering Tibet today, but the experience inspired her to celebrate other female explorers of the past. She pledged to continue to undertake expeditions to other extreme terrains explored and catalogued by intrepid women, under the name Woman With Altitude, in 2017.

“There are so many women like this and they’re not household names, but they should be,” Wortley says. “Annie Smith Peck was the first person to climb the north peak of the Huascarán in Peru. Ursula Graham Bower left England for India and ended up marrying the chief of the Naga tribe. And no one knows about her! The only problem is that it’s hard to find much written about explorers that aren’t white and European. But I’ve found some warrior queens and Tibetan nuns that I’m looking into.”

While Wortley’s main aim is to celebrate the achievements of historical female explorers, there’s a charitable element to her expeditions, too. “Because the project is woman-based, I wanted to help women in the areas I’m going to in some way,” she says. As part of the Himalayan project, she raised £2,500 ($3,000) for the charity Freedom Kit Bags, which provides girls in rural Nepal with reusable bags of sanitary products.

When we spoke, Wortley was preparing for her second trip (which she has since completed), following in the footsteps of Scottish explorer Nan Shepherd, who scaled the six highest peaks in the Cairngorm Mountains and catalogued it in her book The Living Mountain. Written in the 1940s but not published until 1977, it’s now considered a masterpiece of poetic non-fiction.

“It was written when people were racing to be the first people to scale peaks,” Wortley says. “She was into Taoism and saw it in the water, rocks, the sky, and the air. She wrote this about seeing the mountain as a whole.” Mostly alone, Wortley wandered between the peaks and lochs of the Cairngorm National Park for three weeks, equipped with a wartime gas cooker, a canvas tent, and old-school food supplies—mostly potatoes, cheese, and eggs. Part-sponsored by Wilderness Scotland, she was raising money for Scottish Women’s Aid and hopes to use these two projects to pitch a television series to fund forthcoming expeditions.

Wortley’s adventures are all the more impressive when you consider how alien the concept felt to her at the beginning. “Five years ago, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even get on a bus,” she says. “But I could read Alexandra David-Néel and think, if she managed to leave Europe on her own and do this, I’m sure I can get on the Tube. I just want to make people more aware of these women, so they can inspire others.”

Conde Nast Traveler

Meet the world’s longboarding women

When Valeria Kechichian started longboarding in Madrid in 2008, there were just three other women in her crew. It represented freedom; an escape from a soul-crushing job as a secretary in a law firm and a self-destructive spiral of partying. ‘It was this very pure kind of joy,’ she says. ‘It completed me somehow.’ Still, when she first stood on a board in the Spanish capital, people would ‘turn their heads and look at me as if I was doing something weird’.

It’s fair to say that Argentinian-born Kechichian’s gang has grown a bit. Longboard Girls Crew (LGC), which she co-founded in 2010, now claims to be the world’s biggest action-sports community, with 233,400 Facebook followers and counting, and representatives in 70 countries. With some of its videos being viewed as many as 3.6 million times on YouTube, the group has ignited an international scene built on female empowerment and dreamy images of cruising golden-hour open roads. Kechichian has become the global face of it all, launching and partnering with NGOs, giving TEDx Talks and motivating Nike ambassadors and Facebook employees with the free-wheeling gospel.

The sport was invented in Hawaii in the 1950s, when surfers started customising skateboards with bigger wheels and looser trucks to make them more like surfboards. These Hawaiian pioneers would drive up volcanoes and glide down, carving S-shaped turns as if on a peeling wave. Over the years, longboarders developed tricks and started speeding down hills at more than 90mph – but the primary appeal has always been a certain languorous elegance; a free-spirited surfer vibe, more at home in nature than gritty skateboarding. There’s a scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, of Ben Stiller whizzing alone through the mossy Icelandic landscape, grinning at the wild freedom of it all.

That spirit is central to the movement, which includes all kinds of women across the world. In Nice, Marina Corrêa spins along the old boardwalk, flicking her dreadlocks to a reggaeton soundtrack. Seoul freestyle longboarder Ko Hyojoo (pictured below) is the queen of a flourishing Korean community, dancing on her board in cute knee-high socks to the tune of 568,000 Instagram followers and partnerships with Chanel and Gucci. Chinese boarder Mu Qing skates through Chengdu in a hoodie and Vans, filmed by a friend on a smartphone for her 500,000 followers on the Douyin video app. In Malaysia, Fatin Amalina whooshes between Kuala Lumpur’sshiny skyscrapers in a hijab.

The riding styles are as diverse as the women. On the Venice Beach Boardwalk, Natalie Pluto (pictured below) is part of a small band of balletic freestylers, doing kick-flips and shove-its as she weaves among the tourists. Based in Virginia, Emily Pross, who styles herself ‘the Prossecutor’, wears a shiny black speed suit and aerodynamic helmet to beat the men in downhill races – her speed record is 83.88mph. All of them are celebrated on the LGC social feeds, from the cruisers to the leather-clad competitors posting under the #girlscanride hashtag.

The group had its Endless Summer moment in 2011, with a film of seven women road-tripping across Spain and the Balearics in a red VW camper van, riding their boards through white-stone villages and down sun-flared roads overlooking limestone cliffs. Endless Roads, the result of this 2,670-mile journey, became a clarion call for a certain type of female-powered adventure, with 1.4 million views on YouTube. ‘It was more rare for something to go viral back then,’ says Kechichian. ‘But our video was suddenly everywhere. It resonated with women who thought, “Hey, we can do this.” It started a global movement.’

One of the people who watched Endless Roads on repeat was a teenage Valeriya Gogunskaya (pictured above), who lived in the forested Finnish city of Kuopio. ‘It just looked super-cool,’ she says. ‘I used to roller-skate, and I gave my skates to a friend in exchange for his longboard. I downloaded some YouTube tutorials and started cruising.’ A year later, Gogunskaya moved to Santa Cruz, a beach town north of Lisbon, with hopes of finding other skaters: ‘There was just one guy there at the time. I was always whining to my boyfriend that there was no one to skate with. He said, “Why don’t you start something?”’ Inspired by LGC, Gogunskaya organised a meet-up in 2017 at Praia de Santa Cruz’s white-stone-balustered platform, which looks out over the hazy, rocky coastline. To her surprise, around 30 people showed up – almost all of them female. She launched a skate camp, Longboarding Days and Nights, and single-handedly sparked a scene in Santa Cruz, where many are now women in their 30s and 40s.

Gogunskaya practises most evenings, carving wide turns and hanging 10 like the old-school surfers. Just as Kechichian used longboarding as a form of therapy, Gogunskaya applied her passion to face down her own challenges. ‘I began when I was struggling with bulimia,’ she says. ‘It helped me relax, nurture self-love and respect my body again. I just want to share that chance with other people, especially women.’

But while Gogunskaya and Kechichian have both used longboarding as a way to process their issues, behind it all is still that simple, joyous feeling of gliding along a road: ‘When I’m skating, that’s all that matters,’ says Kechichian. ‘Me, my board and the road. It creates some sort of magic, a bubble where nothing else matters… You feel like you rule the world.’


Elitist or Empowering? Inside the Women-Only Private Members’ Clubs

A room of one’s own

One street back from the hubbub of Oxford Street is a Georgian townhouse with a Virginia Woolf quote in its window. Step over the threshold and the geometric patterned, pastel-furnished interior is an Instagrammer’s dream come true. Experimental canvases by female artists adorn muted-blue walls, marble fireplaces meet matte-wooden floorboards and a hot-desking space is filled almost entirely by women. Tapping on laptops or gathered in brainstorm circles, they are nearly all in their 30s, impeccably dressed and blow-dried and manicured to perfection from the in-house salon.

Welcome to The AllBright: a private members’ club created for and by women.

Elitism to empowerment

While The AllBright may feel startlingly modern, women’s private members clubs actually date back to the 19th century. The University Women’s Club, which still exists today, was opened in 1886 by some of the first women holding university degrees, in defiance of exclusive gentlemen’s club culture, which was (and still is) big business among London’s aristocratic and political elite.

Decisions with country-wide ramifications have long been made over Old Fashioneds between the wood-panelled walls of White’s and The Garrick Club, despite a wave of female-welcoming members’ clubs, such as The Groucho, opening from the 1980s onwards. Fast forward a decade or two and corduroys and cigars are replaced by slick interior design and MacBooks, at hip social clubs like Soho House and the Hospital Club. 

Their female-centric offshoots serve a different need, having sprung up in the midst of an unprecedented conversation about gendered injustice in the workplace. The AllBright was conceived by its founders, Debbie Wosskow (founder of LoveHomeSwap) and Anna Jones (former CEO of Hearst), in the wake of #MeToo and the Presidents Club Scandal, which saw female hostesses sexually harassed at a men-only gala event. Their mission was two-fold: to create a space for fed-up women that mean business and turn boys’ club culture on its head. 

Having opened on International Women’s Day in 2018, The AllBright already has a valuation of £100 million. As well as providing a positive working environment for women in business and the arts, they regularly host events at their Fitzrovia and Mayfair branches – typically with empowerment or educational themes.

Their success has coincided and intersected with the rise of cowork spaces spearheaded by WeWork, a 400,000 member-strong group that came to London in 2014. But while the free craft beer perks and millennial-friendly décor made WeWork’s fortune, it didn’t serve to disrupt the male-dominated culture of entrepreneurship in the capital – a culture observed by Lu Li, who in 2015 founded female-focused cowork and networking space Blooming Founders, in Shoreditch.

“I moved to London in 2012 and went to a ton of startup events, but they were full of guys,” Li remembers. “I’m from the corporate world and can deal with male-dominated environments, but is that really it?” She began her own meetup group for women entrepreneurs, which reached 1,000 members in less than a year. Li now runs events that are open to all but focus on facilitating business connections between female founders and investors. They take place surrounded by peace lilies and pastel-painted walls, in the serene, Nespresso-fuelled workspace at Blooming Founders.

“We wanted a real social club, where people make friends for life”

It’s safe to say there’s a market for this.

The odds are stacked against female entrepreneurs: 70% of them are solo founders, yet for every £1 of venture capital invested in the UK, only 1p goes to female founders. Research consistently points to unconscious gender bias on investor panels holding businesswomen back and the importance of female mentors in shifting the balance.

Enter Sister Snog, a women-only members’ club that, rather than having a bricks-and-mortar base, holds regular lunches and breakfast meetings to facilitate business connections between members. 

“Women and men network in a different way,” claims co-founder Annie Brooks. “In the past, it was old boys’ clubs and networking with a warm glass of chardonnay and a canapé. But get the right kind of women together in a room and they create relationships, uplift each other and work well together.”

Talking to the members, dressed to the nines at Sister Snog’s classy monthly meetup at ME hotel on the Strand, it’s clear they agree – and are directly benefitting from it. “There’s less ego involved among women,” says property developer Claire Norwood. “Everyone within Sister Snog provided the services I needed to launch my business – head shots, website, marketing.”

One members’ club caters to millennial women that are equally interested in swapping stories of backpacking in South America as in building a career. “We’re not a physical club – we hold fashion events, trips abroad, meditation,” explains 28-year-old founder Jae Ruax, who worked on the committee for the Hospital Club before launching Fiena in 2016. “We wanted a real social club, where people make friends for life.”

According to Ruax, this does lead to business endeavours, but as a consequence of the club’s social element. “Men have always had these networks, they go play golf and leave with new clients,” she says. “Women have to fight for projects and clients. So we’re turning that on its head.” Fiena offers members discounts at partner venues for a few months at a time, such as Fulham beach bar Neverland and cowork space Uncommon. It’s a modern, less-committal approach to membership.

No boys allowed?

With success comes criticism.

Female-focused clubs have come under fire for excluding men, despite the fact that The AllBright welcomes male guests, Blooming Founders is mixed gender and The Wing (a booming US club due to hit London this summer) is open to all (following a gender discrimination lawsuit filed by a man last year). “This isn’t an anti-men move,” Wosskow told the Independent in 2017. “Sometimes women need to be separate to turbocharge their progress.”

It’s been argued, too, that there’s a certain elitism at work. Certainly the fees involved can be eye-watering. Sister Snog’s annual membership starts at £999, Fiena and The AllBright at £750. University Women’s Club fees start at £262, but applicants require a university degree or ‘similar’ and recommendations from two existing members to be considered. Sister Snog and Fiena are selective.

“We have a stringent application process and turn down about 40% of applicants,” says Ruax. As with Sister Snog, being accepted comes down to possessing values deemed in line with the club – but without vigorous criteria, it’s difficult to prove that bias doesn’t tinge the applications process.

Even if membership fees are the only barrier, it has been said that the women in greatest need of business help are financially excluded by default. “There should be something out there for everyone,” agrees Brooks. “And there are lots of free networking events. But to some people, club membership is expensive, while for others, it’s cost effective.”

Plus, within the greater landscape of coworking spaces in London, these clubs are relatively cheap – hot-desking at WeWork costs upwards of £200 per month, whereas desk space at Blooming Founders starts at £30. For Li, the power of women’s members’ clubs comes down to their business sense in addressing a clear gap in the market.

“The AllBright and The Wing aren’t helping all women, but neither am I,” she points out. “You have to pick the customer you are serving and create the best product for them. But we’re so nascent in this process [of addressing inequality]. There are so many things to come.”


Ring leaders: the female wrestlers at London’s most kickass night out

Eighteen minutes into a 20-minute match, and Nightshade is seething.

Eyes blazing and teeth bared, she turns from her hobbling opponent and starts to growl at the crowd, who are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in this dark, sweaty room. Each clutching cans of lager, they begin a taunting chant – “Lampshade, lampshade!” – stamping their feet at an increasingly frenzied pace. Nightshade’s growl crescendos into a roar and then a bone-chilling scream as she jumps on to the ropes and catapults herself at her opponent. She grabs them and flings them over her head, pinning them to the floor as the referee slams his hand down three times.

We’re at Eve, a punk-feminist wrestling event in east London, and guest wrestler Nightshade’s stage presence is on par with any act you’d see at Glastonbury. But just two hours previously, we’d met her as 22-year-old Lucy Gibbs – all sweet smiles and soft, curly hair. Her transformation into supervillain has been dramatic to say the least. “It’s so liberating,” she beams. “You don’t have to be yourself in the ring, and it’s just so much fun.”

Eve is a female wrestling promoter at the forefront of an unprecedented global interest in women’s wrestling, which has recently powerslammed into popular consciousness. The Netflix series Glow painted a fluorescent, Lycra-clad picture of mid-1980s wrestling, highlighting the era’s sexism and sisterhood via a diverse cast. Next came the hit film Fighting with My Family. A comedy based on the life of ex-World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) fighter Paige, it charts her rise through the ranks of professional wrestling to become the first NXT Women’s Champion in 2013.

While ladies have featured in wrestling since the early days, women wrestlers have only worked the main events since 2005, when an all-female group called Shimmer made its debut (it’s still going strong). Since then, the WWE launched a new Women’s Championship in 2016 and staged its first all-female main event at WrestleMania 35 this year. Smash Wrestling will host an international women’s wrestling event in Toronto this August, while Eve, which launched in 2010, held the biggest women’s wrestling show in European history in June. And it’s not just female wrestlers that are getting a look in. Wrestling is becoming more popular among female spectators, too, thanks to its emergence into the mainstream media.

No promoter believes in this more than Eve, whose outspoken feminist approach seeks to change the sexualised way women wrestlers have previously been portrayed. “Women were decoration,” says Eve co-founder Emily Read, who now MCs the shows. “I trained in Portsmouth and the levels of sexism I found were horrendous. It was crushing. When I met [co-founder and husband] Dann he was already running women’s wrestling events and I saw that if I got involved in that side we could make big changes.”

“Wrestling used to be a big boys’ club,” agrees Dann. “Women weren’t being held to the same standards, and the majority would leave really quickly because they’d get bullied out. We wanted to create an even platform and open it up to everyone. For me, women’s wrestling is just wrestling that happens to be by women. Everyone deserves a space to do their art form.”

One of the first wrestlers to fight for Eve was Erin Angel, who met Dann 10 years ago when he booked her for a show. Eve’s equal-opportunities attitude was radically different to anything she’d experienced in wrestling before.

“When I started it was the Diva era, when the women were dressed in skimpy outfits and their matches weren’t very serious,” she says. “They’d do pillow fights and things. And I remember being told by promoters, you’re not wearing enough make-up, you don’t look pretty enough, you don’t have enough skin on show. No one would dream of saying that now.”

According to the wrestler – who takes joy in combining ultra-feminine sparkly outfits with jaw-dropping dropkicks – that culture change owes a lot to Eve. “Eve made everyone else step up,” she claims. “Other promoters are now taking their female wrestlers more seriously.”

It’s something that each wrestler competing there agrees with. “Expectations for women wrestlers were so low when I started wrestling in 2006, that I did a leapfrog and they were like, ‘Wow, that’s the first time a girl’s ever done that around here!’” laughs Nicole Matthews, who hails from Vancouver and is now a head trainer at a wrestling school there. “Because of that, they rushed me through training. I started at 18 and did my first professional match at 19.” That match was against Becky Lynch – who won the headline fight at WWE’s first-ever all-female main event at WrestleMania 35.

Matthews’ fast-track to fame had everything to do with talent – she competed in the WWE’s prestigious 2018 Mae Young Classic women’s tournament – but the Eve trainers agree that, for female wrestlers, being held to lower standards has made it harder for them to advance. “We want to get female wrestlers to the standard of the main event,” says Emily, noting that women wrestlers were traditionally allocated the “toilet break” slot before the higher-stakes men’s matches. “They’d never been given the chance before, and it wasn’t because of a lack of talent – it’s just that if you haven’t got any work experience you’re not going to be ready for the top job.”

But thanks to Eve, some of its alumni are starting to nab those top spots. The show we attend includes a farewell match between Scottish duo Kay Lee Ray and Viper, who signed with WWE to train at their new UK centre (the first outside of the USA). And their commitment is plain to see: nights here are not for the faint-hearted. The fighters slam each other’s backs into concrete floors dotted with drawing pins, and drag each other by the hair out of the ring to trade punches by the bar, cheered on by the sort of language that would make Tony Soprano blush. And despite the fact that each match has a pre-determined outcome, the risks involved are very real.

“You’re putting your body in someone else’s hands,” says Rhia O’Reilly, who debuted as a professional wrestler at Eve’s first ever show and once performed a whole match on a broken ankle. “Yes, it’s entertainment – it’s a live stunt show with a storyline – but a bad fall can paralyse you.”

It’s all the more remarkable when you understand how much further women have had to climb to get into this position.

“Women aren’t encouraged to rough-house or be loud,” says Emily. “A lot of male trainers are not aware that they have to help women to literally find a voice. But being loud and bold, and taking up space? Those things trickle into the rest of your life. Go get that promotion, speak up in a meeting. Some of our wrestlers start off shy, but after a year you see them walk in and they’re standing differently, with their heads up.”

For now, women’s wrestling remains a niche interest. There’s only one other all-female promoter in the UK – Fierce Females in Glasgow – and aside from Shimmer and some gender-segregated schools in Japan, wrestling promoters only host women’s training alongside the men’s.

But Eve isn’t about converting everybody into diehard fans.

“Eve takes the stereotype of being a woman and beats it up,” smiles Darcy Stone, a former dancer who incorporates ballet steps into her entrance routine, dressed in a kimono and tutu. “It’s not about wrestling anymore – it’s a movement. You can be a girly girl, and still hit hard.”

This is echoed by Emily, who celebrates Eve’s wide appeal. “The majority of people at our shows just want a good night out,” she says. “They don’t go to other wrestling shows but they like ours. We do family shows and we see these little girls there, and their faces are just lit up. It’s like seeing real-life superheroes.”

This clearly resonates with Rhia, who, post-match, changes from her gold Lycra costume into Batman leggings. “All we want is to make wrestling more accessible to everybody,” she says. “I want Eve to make people think that they can do anything and be whoever they want to be.”