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  • Writer's pictureEcumenical Women

A Woman's Right to Shoes

By Paola Salwan, Programme Assistant for Africa, Middle East and Europe at the World YWCA and co founder of the blog Café Thawra

Hello, my name is Paola, and I’m a shoe addict.

This being said, I know how vain and somehow laughable such a statement might sound to the sane citizen, but the clue’s in the name, and when you hear “addict” you don’t particularly think “reasonable”, “reflective”, “composed” or “together”. You think “mental”, and, well, you would probably be right.

I suppose this trait of mine has quickly been spotted by my supervisors at the World YWCA, as one of the first examples they gave me to illustrate our associations’ awareness raising campaigns against violence against women was the YWCA of Scotland’s shoe exhibition.

When I learned about it, something popped in my head and I thought, “This is IT. This job and I were MEANT TO BE”.

So my bright pink clad, elevated, feet couldn’t run fast enough to go and learn about this event that now regularly takes place in various YWCAs around the world.

In 2002, the YWCA of Scotland, shocked by the appalling number of women who die each year at the hands of their partners, decided to write to around 180 famous and not so famous Scottish women, asking them if they would be willing to donate their shoes for an anti-violence against women shoe exhibition. The women could take their shoes back after the exhibition, or donate them to the YWCA to be auctioned in order to fundraise and support the work undertaken with victims of domestic violence. 104 pairs of shoes were thus collected and exhibited with the picture of the woman whom it belonged to, with a message from her, and the event took place during the 16 days of activism for the elimination of violence against women.

104 pairs, for the 104 women that die following domestic violence each year in the United Kingdom.

Fair enough, I hear you say, but why shoes?

The shoes were standing alone in the otherwise bare exhibition hall, forming a silent path that looked as if composed of the dead women’s footsteps. As visitors walked around the exhibition, they could read the messages of all the women that had donated their shoes, women such as J.K Rowling, who donated the pair of Jimmy Choo’s she wore at the premiere of the first Harry Potter movie. The empty shoes were like the unfinished lives of the battered women, women who could, just like their sisters who gave the shoes, have been successful authors, respected lawyers, loved mothers, or whatever they would have liked to be.

If only their executioner had let them.

The experience proved to be so moving and cutting edge that it has been replicated in various YWCAs and at various events, including for example the YWCA Week Without Violence. The YWCA of Australia launched for example the Seventy7 pairs of Shoes exhibition, and the some branches of the YWCA of the USA have also followed suit.

Some might think that using shoes might be a bit frivolous, that, even if it got the organisation’s message across, shoes are not “serious”. To these people, I would answer two things. Firstly, a pair of shoes tells you a lot about a woman, about her lifestyle, her likes, her personality. It is the most essential accessory in a woman’s life, and thus is a very powerful tool to use to raise awareness about VAW.

Secondly, I’ll simply borrow French Author Jean Cocteau’s quote, who said: “Frivolity is the dignity of Despair”.

Please ladies, remember to never let anybody take you out of your shoes. And if they try, walk away.

In style.

YWCA Scotland would be happy to support and advise other YWCA’s thinking about launching their own exhibition. A more detailed description on how we done ours is over the page. For further information please contact

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