Speech at NUS Women’s Conference 2014

When I do workshops and events I’m not usually very nervous. I feel it a little bit but I’m confident in myself and what I’m doing to therefore not have such nerves. Everyone gets the pre-event nerves which is natural but en route to the NUS Women’s Conference I was feeling really anxious – something I’ve never felt to this degree before. So why was I so nervous this time? I was asked to be on a panel, this one: ‘Intersectionality- Black Women and the Student Movement’ and specifically talk about my experiences of being a Black queer woman of faith within the student movement. As you may have guessed from my blog being open about my life and journey isn’t something which I shy away from partly because openness is who I am and secondly, visibility yo! But, this time, it was to be in front of some 200/250 women from all over the country – like to their face, on a stage and not behind a screen…

A panel of only Black women talking about race, racism, white privilege, challenging whiteness in feminism and the student movement as a brief overview – it certainly was an intense but very overdue conversation. Being on stage, I was able to see the honest reactions from a largely white audience and it was very interesting. There was a lot of support from the audience in general particular when women became emotional retelling their experiences of racism which was heartwarming to see but there was also a lot of self-checking and angst – almost as if women were hearing what we have to say for the first time. While I found that somewhat surprising I also found it important that they listened and that most of the questions and comments from the audience were from Black women.

What moved me more was that throughout the remainder of the conference and even while dancing away into the night, I had women coming up to me and thanking me for my contribution and generally being supporting. It really was heartwarming firstly knowing that white women listened to what we had to say and secondly, really hearing that they took things away from the panel and that it challenged them. I remember one woman saying in response to what a woman on the panel had said that ‘she was right – I can’t wait to go back to my campus and find the Black women there rather than assuming they’re not interesting. It’s my job to find them and tell them about what we’re doing (the SU) rather than expecting them to come to us’. At this moment, I literally couldn’t have been prouder of our panel.

Before I share, I just wanna big up Kelley Temple (current NUS Women’s Officer) and Imogen Martin (Black rep. on the NUS Women’s Committee) for giving me the honour and privilege of speaking at the NUS Women’s Conference again. It really is very humbling knowing that people really do see what you do and want to extend their platform to you.

Okay, so I can go on and on about this and no doubt I will be editing this even after I’ve posted this because I’ll be thinking of stuff to add but here is my speech:

‘•Issue a trigger warning for talk of depression and suicide•

Before I can tell you about my experiences as a Black queer woman of faith within the student movement, I need to rewind and tell you a little about my journey. For a long time I’d struggled with the intersections of my faith, culture and sexuality to the extent in which they were at such odds with one another that I fell into depression. My journey of reconciling my faith, sexuality and culture at the best of times has been beautiful in its diversity and at the worst, well, considering suicide. For a long time I found myself waking up with one thought and going to sleep with the same thought: ’How on earth am I going to make my sexuality work with my religion and culture?’

For a long time I thought that I was Muslim [here] and a lesbian [here] – this was the lowest part of my life where I felt I couldn’t be me. It was finally when I realised that I am Muslim and queer here [point at self]. It took me a long time to get to this point but once I had I had finally accepted myself in all my diversity and more than that – I love who I am and I love that I am visible both personally and professionally and especially within my activism. Visibility saves lives which is why I focus so heavily on religion, culture, sexual orientation and gender identity in my activism.

So how’d I get here? I owe a massive debt to the NUS Liberation Campaigns, particularly the NUS Black Student’s Campaign. The people whom I’ve met and the friends I have made have been instrumental in making me the person whom I am today and also, quite honestly, saving my life. When I was involved in student politics and particularly the Liberation Campaigns, even with the political differences it felt like I was coming home. I remember my first Black Student’s Conference and I unconsciously did the ever anxiety inducing thing of scoping out the room and making a judgement call of whether it was safe for me to be out or not but I soon felt like I was home. I finally found a physical space where I could be myself in all my diversity without fear and without judgement. That love and acceptance is so comforting and the bottom line is, is that it saves lives.

Within the BSC and other the Liberation Campaigns I came to know so many inspiring people whom I’m humbled to call my friends and allies. The Campaign was an important milestone in my life in developing me into the person whom I am – someone who is strong her convictions and grounded with the political knowledge, skills and expertise to drive campaigns and events around intersectionality and liberation. But most importantly, BSC challenged my internalised racism and Islamophobia. I was forced to confront and tackle it head on and I’m so glad that it was within an environment and people whom I felt comfortable with.

My activism is fundamentally rooted in intersectionality – so whether I’m running a workshop or organising events the thread of it is always intersectionality. Intersectionality is an idea that has been around since……. As the word though, it was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw (a Black American academic) in 1989. It looks at how biological, social and cultural categories interact with other axes of identities and how these can contribute to systematic injustice and social inequality.

So why am I talking about intersectionality? As someone who identifies into all of the Liberation Campaigns, I am more aware of different types of oppressions and discriminations because multiple apply to me – kind of how you’re only properly aware of something if it affects you type thing.

There is extensive talk about intersectionality and sometimes I can’t help but feel that some people don’t quite get it. Sometimes there’s little onus paid to undertaking intersectionality in people’s lives and consequently their activism which is something I did find within the student movement.

Intersectionality is a word which is common within the realms of activism and rightly so because it’s important but all too often I saw and still see this not being applied genuinely:

When we’re talking about VAW, how often do we talk about women of colour? It’s not even a case of talking about, or for, but rather allowing us to have their voices to be heard. When we’re talking, listen to our experiences – don’t presume to know our experiences better than us who are living it and this of course goes for all identities.

When we’re talking about lad culture how often do we consider the impact and manifest ions of patriarchy within religions and cultures? Yes, we’re all women in this room but our experiences so therefore our needs are so vastly different – how is this being addressed?

When we’re talking about the No More Page 3 why is there never any discussion of the fact that every single one of the women involved since the 30 odd years has been a white woman bar one? Can we not see that Page 3 is mainstream institutionalised racism and sexism all coupled into one?

Why is this happening? I think it’s because we don’t know about one another enough. Allah said that he created us nations and tribes so that we could better get to know one another and this is a good way to identify a better way forward – we need to get to know one another more, so much so that when we come across Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, ableism or homophobia to name just a few we are well-versed enough to be an ally and stand up for people for because know our shit as we’ve studied the facts from the people whom we’re an ally to.

There cannot be a hierarchy of oppressions in that one oppression is considered worse than another. In order for us to continue to strive for equality and liberation we must make sure that we are striving for the liberation of all our sisters – it’s really as simple as that.

‘My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.’ ‘

Here are the questions/statements which were asked to the panel after our speeches. I must say, they are some really great questions some were really moving too:

  • When is shadeism gonna be addressed?
  • What would you like to see the rest of the movement to be doing?
  • Smear campaigns – what to do?
  • Sick of being told I’m playing the race card…
  • Why do we never say white women? It’s always ‘Black women’?
  • Intersectionality – how do we not erase ourselves when talking about our own oppression?
  • When are we gonna set up a national scrutiny watchdog monitoring racism in educational institutions?
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