In the early 1990s, a series of workshops were held with the aim of empowering women in all aspects of playing in bands. As part of this, musician Sammy Hurden was asked to start a choir for women in Salisbury, called Brilliant Birthdays. A few people would drive up with Sammy from Dorset to take part in the choir, including Kate Garrett, Abbie Lathe, and Polly Harvey.
It was at this time also that Kate, Abbie, and Sammy started singing as Trio Hysteria. Sammy also began hosting workshops and gigs and become involved with a Women’s Music Festival that had started up in Chard, Somerset. Sammy took Brilliant Birthdays and Trio Hysteria to Somerset and at one point was asked to do a series of workshops with young women at the festival. Sammy was unavailable so she suggested Kate Garrett take on the workshops.
As the nineties passed, Kate held a few workshops for young women at Bridport Arts Centre in Dorset and they were a resounding success. After the millennium, she began working at the Ark T studio in Oxford, where the Young Women’s Band Project (YWBP) was formed.
At the YWBP sessions, the young women would write and record music together and meet female leaders in the music industry, such as session musicians, sound engineers, and touring musicians. One of the attendees, Zahra Haji Fath Ali Tehrani, began to work with Kate as a trainee, and together they ran workshops and worked towards releasing Spark, a compilation of music by the young women and other female musicians across Oxfordshire.
The success of YWBP continued to grow as the group released more compilations, named Spark 2 and Spark 3. The CDs were released with events coordinated at the institutions Modern Art Oxford and the O2 Academy Oxford. As well as increasing visibility of women in the Oxford music scene itself, Zahra and Kate also ran workshops that allowed women to question the unequal position of women in the music industry. One activity was analysis of popular music magazines, whereby the young women would count how many pages you read until you saw a woman, see how she was represented, and the implications of this. Kate and Zahra continued their aim to challenge the status quo of the music industry, and in 2006, through the Arts Council, YWBP filmed and produced a documentary with Film Oxford called Young Women Rock.
In the late 2000s, Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer but continued to write, perform and work with young women over the two years she was battling the disease. Before her death, Kate and Zahra discussed the future of the project and how it should continue the work that Kate had started. Kate died in 2009, leaving Zahra the project and a legacy that gave girls the support, time and resources to discover and develop their musical talents.
Zahra returned to Ark T to continue running the workshops with the view to include more genres of music in the project. Zahra had been working with increasing numbers of rappers and singers, and had noticed a lack of representation of this music and diversity in the Oxford music scene. She changed the name of the project to the Young Women’s Music Project (YWMP).
As Zahra became an independent practitioner she moved her work around various studios in Oxford, including Safehouse Studio, Studio Blanco and various others. The workshops increased in frequency to twice monthly and were hosted on occasion by prominent female musicians from all different genres of music, such as Yarah Bravo, Viv Albertine, NoLay, and Sabrina Chap. Recording, fundraising performances at festivals, visits to studios and discussions about feminism are some of many activities undertaken by YWMP that provide the young women with knowledge, skills and confidence to enter the music industry. YWMP has also performed outreach work to hospitals and schools across Oxford to provide services to women whose voices have been lacking in the music industry and wider society.
After Operation Bullfinch made visible the systematic and large-scale sexual abuse of young people in Oxfordshire, Zahra helped to organize WO-MAN-ITY festival as a means to support and guide young women in a society where violence against women is repressed and female voices ignored. The event provided self-defence classes and discussion surrounding sexual violence as well as performances and workshops.
This was the beginning of YWMP hosting a number of events in order to encourage women and hip hop artists to be heard in Oxfordshire and beyond. Events were held at Central Saint Martins and the Ashmolean Museum, allowing young people to take control of a place that was seen as inaccessible or hostile to them.
YWMP continues to expand on previous work by involving all members of the community, encouraging people to talk about their feelings, address gender imbalance and reclaim space. The second WO-MAN-ITY festival was held at Modern Art Oxford this year, with talks about repressive language, consent, education, and inequality preceding performances by attendees and established musicians.
In 2015, the Young Women’s Music Project became a registered charity, growing in scope and ambition while also continuing what it set out to do from the outset: provide an inclusive and supportive space for young women to make music together, helping them to learn new skills, express themselves, and grow in confidence. It is testament to the work of the project that YWMP has inspired generations of women with the ability to make music and also the belief that society can be changed for the better.